We’ve all been there—either as individuals trying to start a fire, or worse, watching someone else trying to start a fire and not succeeding. There is the fussing, the prodding and poking, the elaborately shaped structures, and blowing and huffing and puffing. I could go on and on, but that’s the point of this blog post, isn’t it? Why go on and on when you can just get it done? That’s the spirit! I will now share my secret of building a fire fast, furious, and without fuss. The secret is two words: Critical Mass.
In essence, there needs to be enough stuff to get a fire burning and keep it burning. Starting gradually may work in extreme circumstances, but if you’ve got what you need, then get it going right away. Here is my recipe:
1. Newspaper. You need about 4 pages. One page to crumple up lightly and point up into the flue to make sure the flue is open and to get the draft going (you’ll light that piece first, after everything else is set up). Lightly crumple up the other three pieces and put them on the bottom.
2. Kindling. Next, use twigs and sticks from around your yard (if you have one). A handful or two will do the trick. If you don’t have kindling, use cardboard pieces or other more-substantial-than-newspaper things. I keep a basket on my back porch, and we gather fallen branches all year long. They come in handy for campfires, grills, or winter fireplace fires. Just make sure they are dry and dead. Green wood won’t burn.
3. Fatwood sticks. Some might think this cheating, but they work. My sister gave me a case a few years ago for Christmas, and I still have a lot left. I use three to add into the kindling, and between logs, to provide that extra Critical Mass to get the fire going. Fatwood sticks are basically wood coated in some sort of natural fat (you can get them at L.L. Bean). They catch quickly and burn well.
4. Logs. Three is just enough, four is better, and one is impossible! Again, think Critical Mass. You have to have enough to keep the fire burning, and I have found four is perfect. As the logs start to burn, add more to always keep about four going at a time. They don’t need to be stacked in any fancy fashion. But in general, remember that they like to have a bit of air between them. Again, make sure they are dry before you use them.
5. Matches (duh!). After you have all the pieces in place, light the paper that’s sticking up into the chimney first (again, to make sure the flue is open, and to get a draft going in the right direction). If that goes well, light the newspaper at the bottom and sit back, get comfortable, and enjoy the fire.
See?! No poking, prodding, huffing, puffing, fussing, or agony of defeat. Just a warm fire that will keep on burning as long as you throw another log on it every once in a while.
I love this! One secret weapon in fast fire starting is the lint from your drier. It’s an excellent accelerant & if you are going camping has the advantage of being super lightweight.
It may be convenient, but dryer lint is a really bad idea because it’s full of chemicals from your laundry products and even your clothes, not just the fibers but the chemicals most are treated with to be flame-retardant. You don’t want to burn that stuff and send it into the atmosphere (or your room) and you don’t want it helping to gunk up your chimney, either.
By far the biggest difference in starting a fire and keeping it going is whether your firewood is truly “seasoned” or not. Logs take years to dry out enough to burn well and safely. Split logs dry faster, but even so need at least a year out in full sun and wind to burn well (and not put the creosote that causes chimney fires into your chimney).
Also, fatwood isn’t coated in fat, it’s a naturally high-resin pine.
Lastly, this advice is fine for campfires or a very occasional fireplace fire, but folks should be aware that running a woodstove requires a different procedure.
I’ve been having problems with llBean’s fatwood lately. It won’t catch. Any one else having a problem?
I never heard the tip about putting paper on top to get the draft going up the flu. That’s a great idea.
This is truly sad. But, I guess the same way Runners’ World has turned from a true runner’s magazine back in the ’70s to a fluffy cheesecake advertisement,….if it is Rodalesque,….then it’s out of touch. This is maybe how Martha Stewart would light a fire,…or maybe how she would have someone she payed start a fire. This is a joke. I have heated my houses in Canada and Vermont with wood for decades, and I don’t have time, money or inclination to dink around with inefficiencies of material, effort or time. This described procedure is a joke. Maybe for yuppie fireplaces in the Berkshires?? It is like Jane says – it’s 80% about dryness and size of kindling. Add paper. Add match. Then IT IS about huffing & puffing – air intake IS simple major factor on starting and maintaining a fire. Then get on with life. L.L. Bean fatwood only succeeds in weight loss,…by lightening your wallet. That stuff is like an I.Q. test. Anyone who pays to have kindling shipped to them should just use dollar bills to light their stove. It would be cheaper and smarter.
I’m mostly with you, Gary, but because I do heat my home with an undersized woodstove, I rarely have enough hot coals to start a fire in the morning. Newspaper and kindling gets really tedious as a daily exercise after a few weeks, so I do use a good firestarter (Super Cedars). Fatwood is just inadequate for serious wood burners.
I have no problem with giving advice to people who only use wood for occasional amusement, but it really should be explained as such and be better advice than this.
This is for lighting the occasional fireplace fire or campfire, nothing more. My house is mainly heated with solar hot water. As I said…no huffing and puffing required but you can If you must. Enough said.
Hi Gary and Jane,
I just moved to a larger home a few weeks ago in a cold area and our primary heat source is a good, large woodburning stove (airtight) – it is bigger than the ones I’ve used in smaller places and I need to keep it going overnight as much as I can – when it goes out the places gets cold in about 4-6 hours and takes another 4-6 to get going again. As long as I’m tending it and adding wood about every hour or so all is well – but I do have this pesky job stuff to do (I’ve moved my desk closer to the stove) – so I would appreciate any advice. We are using oak from downed trees from our local dump.
Thanks in advance for any advice.
Robin, this is a somewhat complicated subject, depends very much on the model of stove you have, etc., and not really the right discussion for this site. I’d urge you to go to a site called Hearth.com and start looking into the forums there. The place is loaded with experienced wood burners whose advice got me through my first year of using a woodstove.
I will say that you shouldn’t add wood every hour or so but learn how the burn cycle works on your particular stove– load ‘er up, then once it’s going good, gradually turn down the primary air lever on the stove, and burn until you’re down to coals before adding more wood. With a big stove, you should have no problem keeping heat coming for longer than it seems you have achieved so far. If you’re not managing the air intake, most of your heat is going up the chimney and the wood is burning much faster than it should.
Please do come over to Hearth.com, browse the forums, look up your stove model through the search box, and then ask your questions after you’ve gotten familiar with the basics.
Gary, The method that Maria described is not half as disgusting as you implied. I have started fires like that for years, even when an insert in a fireplace was our only heat source. It is very satisfying and creative to build a fire this way and takes no time at all. A heavy piece of cardboard is enough to fan the sparks into flames in no time.
I’ll bet you stand in front of the microwave oven and tell it to hurry.
I am definitely not a yuppy, just a country girl, grown up.
Of course, it requires the right materials, just like you need the right pans and bowls for microwave cooking.
And, what are you going to do, if your materials are limited? Freeze?
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My mother lives near me in west central Minnesota and has heated her home for the last 35 years with only a large wood stove. This sounds about the way she gets her fires going (minus the flat wood sticks), but she says she prefers to use cardboard whenever she can. She claims that buring it prevents creosote build-up. Would love to hear opinions on that.
No, cardboard won’t prevent creosote build-up. Creosote build-up is prevented or slowed down by burning dry, well-seasoned wood and having a well-insulated chimney.
It is generally a good practice, though, to run your first fire of the morning hot and with the primary air full open for half an hour or so. That does help to burn off whatever creosote has accumulated during the lower stages of the overnight burn. You can do that by starting with cardboard, newspaper, dry twigs or the firestarter of your choice.
What causes serious creosote build-up is burning unseasoned wood and/or smoldering, smoky fires. The off-gassing of the sap or resins in the unseasoned wood then goes up into the cold chimney and congeals on the walls of the chimney as creosote.
Of course, even if you’re burning well-seasoned wood, the chimney needs to be cleaned at least once a year because there will still be some creosote no matter what and it’s important not to let it build up from year to year.
I strongly recommend anybody who has questions about woodstoves or pellet stoves to stop by the web site Hearth.com, read the informational pieces and and browse the forums.