There were many different ways to light a fire. Is there a “right” way? I’d say whatever works best for you is good enough. I like the top down fire. It protects your knuckles from getting singed in the cook-stove, when the paper flares up. The firebox on my Pioneer Maid is fed from a hole in the top of the stove, so this works the best.
Here’s the basics for a top down fire — the kind you’d use for a wood cook-stove:
Make sure the damper is open on the back of the chimney and the stove is set on full air flow
You’ll leave the damper open until the fire is roaring — at least 15 minutes and then close the damper, and adjust the air flow to keep the fire burning at the temperature that you want. Don’t close down the air flow before the bottom logs have caught fire.
Start with seasoned, dry wood
Although you can burn green wood if you have to, its 100% better to plan ahead so that you have seasoned, dry wood to get you through the winter. See the previous articles about the importance of dry wood.
Split your firewood. Round wood with the bark on takes longer to catch. You can use it once the fire is going but you don’t want to start your fire with it.
You want to have at least 4 logs in the fire box — two logs on the bottom with the cut side up and another two logs laid on top of those, at right angles, with the cut side up. The logs should be touching each other.
The Boy Scout Motto for Fire Building:
One log won’t burn.
Two logs might burn.
Three logs will burn.
Four logs make a good fire.
Use a quick-start dry kindling, like cedar or pine
You will want kindling in 3 different sizes from 2 inches wide to 1 inch wide. You’ll want about a dozen pieces of the 1 inch wide kindling and a few 2 inch wide kindling and then some larger pieces laid on top of the logs. The larger pieces will burn for a while to catch the bigger logs.
Lay the kindling on top of the logs — bigger pieces on the bottom, then the 2 inch pieces laid at right angles to those and the smallest kindling at right angles to those.
Crumble a wad or four of paper to get the cedar going
Use paper — 3 or 4 pieces of news paper, the waste envelopes from your junk mail or cardboard boxes. Make sure they are dry.
You can add a fire starter on top of the newspaper if you want. See below for directions to make DIY fire starters.
Sometimes, on a particularly humid day, when we are having difficulty getting the draw just right through the stove, I will put a scoop of tallow on top of the kindling to get the whole thing burning, and put the paper on top of that.
Although you use paper or cardboard to get the fire going, you don’t want to use your wood stove as a garbage burner. The resulting prolonged high heat will damage the inside of your fire box and your flue.
DIY Fire Starters:
Pine cones and Bees Wax, left over candles, crayons or beef tallow, Ground cinnamon or nutmeg (optional)
— Gather pine or fur cones. Melt left over candles, crayons, bees wax or tallow in a can in a pot of water. The pot might get coated in wax so use a pot reserved for this purpose, not your best cookware. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Tie a string of seine twine around each pine cone in the middle. Dip the pine cone into the wax. Allow it to harden on the parchment paper and redip at least 4 times. Leave a one inch piece of string for a wick. You can scent the wax by adding some powdered cinnamon or nutmeg to the wax, if you like. These make nice Christmas gifts, too.
Observing a few cautions
will give you years of safe enjoyment out of your wood heaters and your wood cook-stove:
Fires burn. Clothing can catch fire. Don’t have flowing clothing around an open flame. Especially watch those flannel nightgowns with the flowing sleeves, when you are adding wood to the fire. Don’t let children add wood to the stove unsupervised — they aren’t as cautious as adults.
Watch long hair when you are adding wood to a wood cook-stove. Flowing hair can catch fire. The smell is terrible. I know. Keep your hair tied back if you’ll be leaning over the wood-stove with the fire box cover open.
What to do in the case of a chimney fire
If you hear an unusual roar in your chimney, shut down the stove damper and the airflow immediately. You may have a fire in your chimney. If there is a fire and you react immediately, you may snuff the chimney fire out.
When we’ve had a chimney fire the firemen recommended wadding up wet newspaper and throwing it in the fire box. A hot fire will create steam from the wet newspaper. Lot’s of steam is effective in putting out a fire. But don’t throw water into the fire box. The sudden change in temperature could warp your fire box and damage your stove. Wet newspaper generates enough steam to get the job done. You may need a few big wads of very wet newspaper to do the trick.
If you notice any flames inside the chimney pipe, at the back of your woodstove the gap is letting in air. Block the air getting to the chimney from your woodstove with soaked newspaper. Fire needs air to fuel the flame.
If you see flames coming out of the top of your chimney, even after you’ve cut off the airflow, dial 911, and evacuate your house. The chimney may be damaged and air may be feeding the fire through a crack in the masonry.
Always err on the side of caution. Fire is good when it’s controlled and very damaging and dangerous when it is out of control.
Preventing a chimney fire
- Chimney fires can be prevented by regular chimney maintenance.
- Cleaning the chimney and the fire box.
- In a wood cookstove clean around the oven and beneath the stove pipe, too.
- Burning only seasoned wood.
If you suspect that you’ve had a chimney fire, don’t use the wood stove again until you check out the damage. A cracked masonry chimney can set your house on fire. Repair it immediately and have it professionally inspected before you use it again.
I speak from experience. Mark this, it could save your life.
Cleaning out the ashes
When you empty the ash-pit — put the coals and ashes directly into a metal can and leave it open and exposed to air to extinguish any flame and cool completely. Only after they are cold, put ashes into a metal garbage can with a lid for storage. Never put wood ashes into a wooden or plastic compost bin. They can flame up, unexpectedly, even after you think they are cold.
Yes, I’ve done this. Learn from my mistake.
Wood-stove ashes make good garden amendments, can be used for dust baths for your backyard chickens, or used as an akalinity adjunct for natural dyeing.
Never, ever, vacuum the ashes out of your wood stove. Ashes can look dead due to being smothered. But dead ashes could fan to flame when they are infused with oxygen inside your vacuum cleaner with cataclysmic results. We’ve done this, twice. It ruined the vacuum cleaner. But if we’d had a built in vacuum it would have burned our house down. Scary.
Here’s an article in Mother Earth News on “How to Build a Better Fire” for further reading.
Don’t have matches. Use a fire steel to get that spark. It will work even in high humidity.
What’s your favourite way to start a fire in a wood stove? Do you have any secrets that will help our readers keep the home fires burning? Leave a comment.