Starting & Tending a Wood Fire

How to Master the Element of Fire


Seems like a simple thing...just put some wood in the fire, light a match and there she goes—NOT ! Anyone who regularly fires up their stove or fireplace knows there is much more to it than meets the eye.

I'm not the world's best tennis player.. I can't ski over those big bumps (moguls) and I've never run a marathon—but I do consider myself one of the world's foremost experts on starting a fire. I was always a pyromaniac...loved those model rockets, fireworks and anything else that would blow up. I never thought any good would come out of my fascination with fire. Thus, I will pass this hard-earned knowledge down to the next generation. We'll cover starting fires in closed stoves and open fireplaces. The basics are the same, however the technique can vary especially after the fire is established.

Ok, lets break this down to a simple series of steps. Each one must be done or the fire will be a bust.

1. Make certain the chimney is drafting upwards. Many chimneys will reverse (cold air falls) when not in use. Open the damper of your fireplace and/or the door of your stove..if you feel a cold draft coming down then your chimney has reversed itself. Keep this in mind and follow step #4 below in order to reverse your chimney.

2. Set the Kindling. Yes, everyone does this differently. Here's the best way. Place firestarters, fatwood or crumpled newspaper (3 or 4 sheets balled up fairly tightly) on the floor or grate of your stove. Place small kindling over the paper or starter...TIP—the more dry, small kindling you have—the easier and better your fire will start. Crisscross the kindling so there is plenty of air space in between each piece. Wood that is packed too tight will not burn properly.

3. Set more Wood. Set larger wood on top of the kindling, and continue to set larger and larger pieces on top until the stove is over 2/3 full. If it's an open fireplace, set one or two layers of crisscrossed or spaced wood on top of the kindling.

4. Countdown - If you determined in step #1 that your chimney was drafting upwards, go ahead an light the newspaper or starter. If you think your chimney has reversed, do the following: If it's an open fireplace, place a piece of balled up newspaper up through the should stay in place by itself. Light this piece of paper, and watch it—it should warm up the chimney and get sucked upwards. If it does, immediately light the starter or newspaper under your fire..the heat will then warm the chimney quickly so it will not reverse again. If you have a stove, place the piece of balled newspaper as high up in the stove toward the chimney (usually above the baffle plate) as you can get it. Then light it—it should get sucked upwards and reverse the chimney with it's warmth.

5. Ignition - Assuming that you've lit the starter, stand back for a moment and watch the fire do it's thing. If you have a stove, keep the draft control and damper fully open at first, in fact it may help to keep the stove door slightly open for the first few moments until the fire is caught.

6. Blastoff - The fire should quickly catch and spread through your load of wood. Don't make the mistake of closing your air control or damper soon after you start the fire. it may look good, but until you've warmed the stove up, warmed the chimney and established a good bed of coals (red embers), your fire is not really at critical mass.

7. Mission Accomplished - Keep the fire going..the subject of tending a fire in stoves and fireplaces will be addressed later in other documents, but keep these simple points in mind.

A. Always keep a "flame" on your fire - a smoking or smoldering fire is a cold and inefficient fire..and also produces pollutants and creosote (tar in the chimney)

B. Add more wood before the fire gets too low...this will assure the continuation of your hard-earned fire.

C. Use Dry, Seasoned wood - if your wood sizzles and refuses to light or burn it's probably not ready for prime time—- store your wood in a dry place and cut and split it at least 8 months prior to burning.


Now that your fire is started, you'll have to learn to keep it going. Here are some general tips before we get into the meat of the matter:

Good Wood ! - First of all. don't even start unless you have good seasoned firewood of mixed sizes and types. Unseasoned wood or wet wood will only cause frustration. Also, keep a good supply of fire starters and kindling handy…it can be very aggravating attempting to start a fire without small, dry kindling.

Fire needs a "critical mass" in order to burn well. Just one log sitting in a stove will not ignite or burn. You must first establish a good draft in the chimney and a good bed of red-hot embers to achieve a good burn.

A good Flame means a good Fire - Much of the heat from wood is in the form of the gases we know as "smoke". If you burn your stove improperly, lots of unburnt smoke will escape up the chimney and cause excess creosote (tar) formation on your chimney and also pollute the great outdoors. A proper fire BURNS this smoke. In general you should always see a flame on your fire. This is a simple gauge of whether you are burning properly. A smokey fire is a dirty and inefficient one !

Leave some space between the wood - Musicians say "it's not the notes we play that make great music, it's the spaces between the notes"...same with a fire. Cris-Crossing your wood or placing odd-shaped pieces in the fire help the airflow through your stove or fireplace.

Less is More - Generally, it is better to burn Less wood with MORE air to get the most out of your stove or fireplace. A smaller, hotter fire will cause less smoke and creosote than a cold, smoldering one.

Good Draft - If you have a poor chimney suction, or an improper installation, your efforts will be in vain.

Three Types (L to R) Rumford (w/Tepee fire) - Jotul - Regency

Different types of stoves and fireplaces require different techniques to keep them burning properly. Let's divide these appliances into three types - this will make it easier for you to learn about YOUR fire.

Type 1 - Open Fireplace, pre-fab or masonry, or campfires, etc.

Type 2 - Older Stove or newer model that is rectangular and uses a front-to-back burning method.

Type 3 - Newer stove utilizing a "base-burning technique, including catalytics and non-catalytics.

We'll assume you can recognize if you have a Type 1, so lets be more specific about Types 2 and 3.

Many of the older stoves, and some newer ones, use a front-to-back burning method. These stoves are designed to burn wood like a cigar - from one end to the other. To determine if you have a Type 2 stove, simply look at the location of the air inlet of the stove. If the air inlet lets air into the stove at the "end" of the logs (the cut ends), chances are you have a front to back burning stove. A perfect example of such a stove is the Jotul #118 stove shown below. The diagram next to this stove details the airflow through this model.

So, to summarize, if the air inlet is at the end of the logs, and if the firebox is rectangular, you have a type 2 stove.

Burning a TYPE 1 Fire - Open Fireplace or Campfire

As with any fire, a critical mass of red embers must be established before everything will work properly. If you do not have a grate to hold the wood off the ground, use two or three medium size pieces of wood to hold the fire off the ground or hearth. If you have a fireplace, get yourself a good quality grate. The best grates are made of cast-iron and have smaller holes in them. This serves to hold the bed of embers longer since they will not fall through to the hearth until they turn to ash.

Once the fire is burning, you can use either the TEPEE method or the Cris-cross method when you add wood. The TEPEE method is just like it sounds - stack the wood with one end against the ground and the other end all meeting in the center above the fire. The Cris-Cross method (my favorite) is achieved by placing two split one way and two splits the other way. This allows plenty of air flow around the wood and will result in a good fire. Remember the fire occurs from the interaction of adjacent surfaces of wood. A fire is a social event - a single piece in the fire will get lonely and cold very quickly !

Burning a TYPE 2 Stove - Front to Back burners


Front to Back Example

It is important to be equipped with a good stove hoe or poker to move the embers back toward the air inlet.

The key to burning this model is keeping the front-to-back burning in mind. These stoves burn in a cycle.

#1 - After starting the stove and burning through the first load of kindling and wood, rake the embers and coals back toward the air inlet.

#2 - Reload the new wood as shown in the figure below.

#3 - Close the door, open the air inlet to get the wood burning well. Adjust the air inlet (less air) when you are comfortable with the heat output. More air=more heat and a shorter burn time. Less air=less heat and a longer burn time.

Repeat as needed

For overnight burn - Always time you are loading so there will only be embers left when you are ready to retire. This will assure that you can get the maximum amount of new fuel into the stove..and therefore a better and longer burn. Rake the embers as before and add new wood. Pick your wood so it fills the firebox completely, both in length and height. Open the air control fully to catch the wood and drive the moisture off of the load. This should take 5-15 minutes. Then shut the draft control down to a low position. The exact setting will vary with the stove, wood, weather and chimney, and may take some experimentation.

Burning a TYPE 3 Stove - Modern Catalytics and Non-Cats Base Burners

I use the term "Base Burners" to refer to stoves that hold a bed of embers spread evenly around the base of the stove. Most modern stoves use this method.

Starting the stove - Check out "How to start a wood fire", but remember these main points.

Burn hot and fast through the first load to warm up the chimney and establish a good draft.

Do not let the stove burn down too low before reloading

Air flow and air Inlet - Most newer stoves take in their combustion air from a slot located just inside the stove at the top edge of the window glass. This allows the air to drop down and form a barrier behind the glass. This system, called "air wash" helps the glass stay clean. Since the air entering the stove is relatively cool, it falls quickly and is sucked into the hot combustion zone at the base of the fire. When reloading this type of stove, be careful about placing very large logs in the very front of the firebox. Such a log could close off the airflow to the fire.

Hints for catalytic stoves

What it does - The catalytic converter "burns the smoke", much in the same way that a car's catalytic converter burns your fuels' pollutants. This burning creates intense heat, which is then transferred to the stove and room.

All catalytic stoves employ a bypass damper, which is opened when starting or reloading the fire. When this damper is opened, the smoke can escape directly up the chimney. When closed, the smoke is routed through the catalytic converter. A decent fire MUST be built previous to closing the bypass damper. Catalytic converters require temperatures of 500 degree in order to start doing their thing. Once the catalytic is "lit off", it should stay hot and continue to burn the pollutants and create heat. Take care not to let the fire burn down too low. If you do let the fire get low (stove surface temperature below 400 degree), make sure to freshen the fire (see below) before re-engaging the catalytic converter.

Restoking a fire when it is low (Freshen the Fire)

Always keep a good supply of small sticks (kindling) available. You can use these to freshen up your fire. If your fire is just a bit low, you can simply add a small stick or stick before placing a larger log on top. If the fire is almost out, you may have to add some newspaper or fire starter. Since the chimney is probably still warm, it should be fairly easy to freshen up a fire.

It's important to be patient. Fires do not react to you getting mad at them. If you use common sense and develop a method that suits you AND your Stove/Fireplace/Chimney combination, you will be well on your way to FIREMASTER status.


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