Author – Todd Woofenden
Building a fireplace fire
Here we will discuss building a fire in a fireplace. For wood stoves, the procedure is pretty much the same, except you need to know how to operate the stove once the fire is lit.
After a quick tour of the things you need, I will describe the most common fire building technique (which is not to say it’s the only way to do it.)
Things you need to build a fireplace fire
- Seasoned firewood
- Small splits of firewood
- Kindling or fire starters
- Crumpled newspaper
A good fireplace fire requires not only a functional appliance, but good fuel. For best results, use seasoned firewood – wood that has been stored covered for the better part of a year. Season your wood under cover, but with good air flow.
Unseasoned or green wood has too high a moisture content, and doesn’t burn well. Hard woods, like oak and maple, tend to be better than soft woods like pine, since hardwoods have a higher BTU content, and will give a longer burn time and better performance.
A BTU is a “British Thermal Unit,” the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit.
While lower-quality wood will often burn acceptably in an open fireplace, most wood stoves call for more care in fuel selection.
Believe it or not, super-dry wood – like that pile that’s been out in the shed since you bought the place in 1972 – isn’t very good fire wood, either. It might work okay in an open fireplace (assuming it isn’t rotten), but it will burn fast and furious, and might throw a lot of sparks.
And all three – green wood, soft woods, and super-dry wood – create bigger problems when burned in wood stoves.
The optimal moisture content for firewood is about 20% to 25%, while fresh-cut wood usually has a moisture content of 35% to 70%. The reason wet/green wood doesn’t burn well is that water has a high specific heat. (“Specific heat” is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one gram of a substance one degree Celsius.) It takes a lot of heat to boil the water away, so there is less heat to keep the combustion process going.
Lumber, Trash, & Other Things
You probably already know that you are not supposed to burn anything other than seasoned firewood. Building a fireplace fire with treated lumber, painted wood, trash, and such, releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere (including your home!), and could cause other damage, as well. For example, a catalytic combustor in a wood stove can be destroyed by certain chemical agents found in these items.
Fireplaces and stoves aren’t incinerators, and it is neither safe nor environmentally sound to use them as incinerators. So recycle your pizza boxes and plastic wrap. Stick with seasoned firewood for your hearth, and do yourself, your home, and our environment a favor.
If you don’t want to deal with lugging and stacking firewood, or if you are out of wood and want to have a fire in your fireplace, you might try an artificial log. But be aware of the limitations. They are intended for use in open fireplaces, not in wood stoves; and they are designed to be used one at a time. If you have a factory-built fireplace, check the manufacturer’s instructions and see if they recommend the use of artificial logs.
There are many types of fire starters you can buy for building a fireplace fire in open fireplaces, including impregnated chunks of composition material, wax-and-wood- shavings blocks, and oil-soaked ceramic starters. These usually take the place of the newspaper and small kindling, but you will probably still need some small splits of wood.
Read the instructions on the package, and be especially careful if you use an oil- type starter. Never use charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, or anything else that’s not specifically designed as a fire starter for fireplaces. For wood stove users: check your owner’s manual before you burn anything with chemicals in or on it.
Newspapers are great for starting fires, but they aren’t a replacement for fire wood. Use enough to start the fire, and recycle the rest of the stack. And don’t use the sections with color print, especially the color glossy sections, which contain chemicals that are unsafe to burn. Use the plain, black-and-white parts.
Setting the Fire
Put down a layer of crumpled newspapers, snug, but not crammed tightly together. You want space for air to get in, or you’ll have a smoldering pile of papers and an unimpressive result. In a fireplace, put the paper under the grate.
Next, put down a couple of handfuls of small, dry kindling: twigs and very small branches are fine, or very small splits of wood. Criss-cross them in a few layers, to allow air circulation. Don’t be stingy with the kindling. It is the key to a one-start fire. Then add a few larger splits, and top it off with a couple of small logs. That’s it. Your fire is set and ready.
It is extremely important that you check the following before lighting it up:
- Is the damper open?
- Do you need to prime the flue?
If you’re not sure, see the article “Smoky Startups” for important advice. Once you are sure you are ready, light ‘er up. Wait a few minutes, until the larger splits and the small logs are well lit, and add another log on top. Then sit back and enjoy.
~ Todd Woofenden