Best Way to Start a Woodstove Fire

Learn some techniques to easily start a fire in your woodstove.

October/November 2017
By Cam Mather

After 15 years of living with a woodstove, I’ve lit many, many fires, and I believe I’ve nailed down the optimal way to start one. I’ve often cringed while watching others try to light their woodstoves, so I know this is a skill that doesn’t come easily to many people. I’m sure lots of other strategies would work; I just know mine works well.

newspaper in woodstove

Photo by Cam Mather

Step 1. The first step is to gather lots of newspaper — not the little advertising flyers that come in your mailbox, not magazines or catalogs, not your old high school history notes or old mutual fund statements. Use newspaper. If you don’t get a daily paper, ask your neighbors for theirs, or start raiding recycling bins on recycling night. If you do this year-round, you’ll have a good stockpile when winter rolls around.

Put a thick layer of scrunched-up newspaper across the bottom of your woodstove. Consider crumpling it up the day prior if someone in your house likes to sleep in, because the sound of crinkling paper can be deafening.

kindling in woodstove

Photo by Cam Mather

Step 2. On top of the thick layer of newspaper, make a couple of rows of good kindling. You can use broken branches and limbs, trimmings from your woodworking projects, or just take some of your firewood and carefully whack off small chunks with a manageable hatchet or a small axe. Good, dry kindling is key to starting a fire.

I make a row with five or six pieces of kindling pointing front to back on top of the papers, and then I make another row with the kindling pointing side to side. Some people build more of a tipi-like structure with their kindling, but I prefer the log cabin approach. You want lots of exposed surface area on the kindling so it ignites once the paper is going.

firewood in stove

Photo by Cam Mather

Step 3. Now, put a few small pieces of firewood on top of the layers of kindling. Whenever you split wood, you’ll inevitably end up with some smaller pieces. These are great. Make lots of them because you’ll need them all winter. Use split logs instead of round logs for this step because split logs catch fire more easily. Save your round ones for after the fire gets going.

lit newspaper

Photo by Cam Mather

Step 4. Make sure your stove is set to allow the maximum amount of air in, and light the newspapers all along the front. Don’t close the door too quickly. You’ll want lots of fresh, oxygen-rich air to get the fire going. Leave the door open for 3 to 5 minutes (or longer if needed). If you close the door and the fire starts to die, open the door again until it gets roaring. Never leave an open woodstove unattended. The kindling can send out sparks and start a house fire.

woodstove fire

Photo by Cam Mather

Step 5. After the fire seems to be burning well, close the woodstove door. Let it go for a while longer until the fire is really well-established and the chimney temperature is high. I use a thermometer on the stovepipe about 6 inches up from the stove and let the flue temperature get to at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit before I throttle back the air intake.

Whether you buy firewood or cut your own, smoke implies wasted heat and therefore wasted time and money, so keep your fire burning properly. There will be some smoke from your chimney as the fire gets started, but, if the stove is operating efficiently, the smoke should mostly be water vapor. Don’t try to keep a smoldering fire going all day. If it’s not that cold outside, crank the heat up in the morning to warm up your house, and then let the fire die and wait until your house cools off before you start it up again. Smoldering fires will create more creosote, smell bad, and waste your hard-earned firewood.

How to Dispose of Ashes

Ashes can be quite dangerous, so treat them with respect. Even if the ashes seem cold and safe, glowing embers will often remain hidden in them 24 hours or more after a fire has died. Because of this, you should assume that the ashes contain live, hot embers ready to spark back to life.

Put the ashes in a metal bucket, and be sure not to place the ash-filled bucket on your hardwood floors or any other flammable surface because it can get really hot, really fast. Moving aside any items and small pets in your path before you start, very carefully carry the bucket outside and put the ashes into a large, metal garbage can or 55-gallon drum that’s dedicated to ashes and free of flammables.

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