Building a fire is a primordial task to some but there are some folks who just haven’t had the time (or the inclination) to build it right. This is the time of year (December) to hone those pyrotechnical skills to insure a quick and efficient fire to warm those frozen hands and toes when you return from doing chores. We’re not saying we know all about fire making, anyone can start one, but over the years we think we’ve refined the basics enough to be confident that the pile of wood we put together in the fireplace (and anywhere else) will start and burn at a consistent rate for as long as we feed it. What follows is our technique for building a fire and some suggestions that will make your task a bit more successful and enjoyable.
The first thing is to get some wood. Just about any piece of land is going to net some sort of timber, dead wood, etc., but in lieu of working-up a sweat you can always purchase pre-split firewood delivered to your doorstep. We’ve done both but find buying firewood hard to justify when we have a couple acres of good timber around us. Still, its nice to have a rick or two of hickory laying around when you really want to make the outside surroundings smell like a smoke shed. It’s also quite useful in the BBQ. Just about any wood can be burned in a fireplace, with the exception of treated lumber and plywood. A neighbor gave us a pile of old oak hard flooring that was stored outdoors for years but makes great kindling (burns hot and fast). We’ve also used cut-up pallet wood made of pine and fir, complete with nails, which also gets a fire going well. But mostly we use the fallen tree branches (and occasionally a tree blown down from a storm) for the bulk of our firewood. Little twigs and bits strewn about the yard are usually collected by Gay when she’s outside chasing the guineas away from the road. She then throws them into a kindling pile just outside the back door. And it does add up. We throw similar sized scraps of wood together into separate piles for reasons we’ll describe later.
Make sure you cover your wood pile to protect it from rain and snow. Sheet plastic and inexpensive tarps work well. It’s a lot easier to start firewood when its dry and won’t rot nearly as fast. All wood begins to deteriorate when cut or broken and moisture accelerates the breakdown, especially when lying on the ground. We store the firewood for immediate use on our covered back porch, and the bulk of the wood near the barn. Remember that a nice piece of firewood is a buffet to termites and we don’t want to invite them to the dinner table. Also remember that you’ll need adequate room for storing your firewood. A rick of wood measures 8’ x 4’ x 16”. A cord of wood measures 8’ x 4’ x 4’. That’s 128 square feet of space needed that a riding lawn mower or even a decent sized tractor can easily occupy. But wherever you stack it make it easy to get to, especially when the area gets snowed-in.
By the way, at one time we were rather careless in our disposal of trash. We would frequently toss paper, cartons, bags, etc., whatever burnable that was no longer needed in the way of trash got tossed into the fireplace for disposal. Since then we’ve become aware of creosote build-up and the dangers of carbon monoxide and chimney fires so that practice has duly stopped.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
We consider these fireplace tools as essential. They can be bought almost anywhere and vary greatly in price but I’d have to say spend what you can on them as they will be put to hard use. Bypass fireplace tools that are lightweight and chintzy – you don’t need tongs to come apart when you’re moving around a large burning log. We bought a standard set from a home improvement center plus a couple of additional items.
Poker, shovel and broom. Pretty standard tools in any fireplace set mainly because they are used before, during and after your fire. The shovel and broom is used to cleanup ash in your fireplace before you begin and after the fire is out. They are also used to brush in the ash and embers that fall out when rearranging burning logs. The poker is useful for stirring kindling and shoving logs about but we find tongs to be more practical.
Large & Small Tongs. Large tongs are a two-handed tool. Small tongs are used single handedly. A good pair of large and small (not shown) iron tongs may be the most useful tools in the fire starter’s arsenal. These allow you to lift and move any size burning log in the fireplace with complete confidence and are the buffaloes of fire wood adjusters. Need to lift the top log to insert more medium logs or pieces of 2 x 4’s to lengthen the fire? Grab the large tongs. Want to jamb some smaller branches into the kindling or shove around the pile to steady it over the grate? Grab the small tongs.
Bellows. Another useful tool (and it looks neat around the fireplace). Use the bellows whenever you want to add some spark to a dwindling fire. The forced air will often resurrect smoldering wood and kindling into a blazing fire again.
Fireplace Screen. Essential equipment. There are custom glass screens, wire mesh curtains and fixed screens in any finish you can think of. We bought a sectional screen that folds easily aside when cleaning or filling the fireplace and making adjustments to the fire.
Ignition. We use a disposable fire lighter (Scripto) which you can find anywhere for a buck or so. Their cost compared to wooden and paper matches are negligible and their long reach offers a safety advantage. Fatwood (stripped wood from old downed pine trees that contain concentrated resins) make excellent fire starters, but that good ‘old standby, the newspaper, reigns supreme. Starting fires is about the only thing a newspaper is good for most of the time (and lining bird cages), and the inserts burn well, too.
Fireplace gloves. Not included as essential items because we’ve lived without them for years without a burn and find that owning the other tools mentioned above negate their purchase. But if you have a physical impairment or are concerned about dealing directly with fire, a pair of fireproof gloves might just be the ticket.
This is what we use to load our fireplace, from small to large pieces. The quantity will vary according to your size of fireplace. We generally use about seven sizes of wood to build our fire which range from small twigs to an 8-10 inch log. A fire is always built from the smallest pieces (bottom) to the largest (top).
The first few sizes are the foundation of the fire—a bed of kindling in which to support the main fuel for the fire.
The next pieces fuel the fire—medium sized logs, split wood, 4 x 4’s…whatever you have of good size. The bigger the better (depending of the size of your fireplace) and the longer your fire will last without a lot of interaction on your part.
But, before you load-up your fireplace this is what you need to do:
This is what you want to start with - a nice clean fireplace. Put that shovel and broom to work. You don’t need to be meticulous with your clean-up, but do dispose your ashes into a metal container in case there are hot embers lurking about that you didn’t notice. This is also a good time to make sure your flue is open, too (close the flue when the fire is out to keep the chimney from sucking out the warm air in your home).
(This is one of our cats, Sylvester, watching all this going on in his usual repose.)
Okay, we’re ready to load it up! Start with your smallest twigs or whatever you’re using for light kindling and lay it along the inside of your grate as shown. This is the first wood touched by your starter fire so it needs good exposure to the bottom of your fireplace.
Lay the second layer of kindling crosswise on the first layer. We’re starting to build the support bed for the main fuel so lay these out evenly.
Add some cross pieces on top of the second layer, followed by cross pieces of larger wood. This crisscrossing of kindling and logs establish a firm and safe burning fire.
Now place some logs on top, crosswise on the kindling layer. This wood should be larger than any of your kindling, typically around 2-3 inches in diameter.
Set a good-sized chunk of split wood or a large log crosswise on the last layer. This is your main fuel. When this burns down the largest piece you brought into the house will be placed on top of it (lying next to the fireplace). An assemblage such as this provides plenty of air in-between the layers assuring a quick and even ignition.
LET ‘ER BURN!
We find that twisting the newspaper allows it to be more easily placed under the grate and seems to give a longer burn time.
This is how it should look when packed. We often prepare a fire like this in the morning but don’t light it until we both get home from work.
When we’re ready we just open the flue, snap the Scripto, light the paper and close the fire screen.
We’ve recently checked into fireplace heaters…modified grates that use convection heat and your fire to warm an entire room but have yet to find anyone using one, or could afford one. Maybe next year…