Thoughts On Starting A Fire

As we move into wood heating season again I’m once again reminded on the fact that I really need to spend some time working on my fire making skills. I use a propane torch to get the fire going in my wood stove in the morning and I’m surprised some mornings at how much I have to hit my pile of wood to get the fire to take. Some mornings it is a few seconds and other mornings it is an embarrassingly long time. This of course mildly concerns me because if I ever really needed a fire and had something less than a propane torch, I could be in trouble. As I try to diagnose what I’m doing wrong I think I need to look at the following areas.

Dry Wood
While the wood you burn should always be well seasoned (dry), you can get away with wood not as dry as it could be after the fire is already going. When you have a bed of coals a two or three inches deep you can throw just about any piece of wood on the fire and it will first cook off the water as steam and then it will burn. But when you are first trying to start a fire you need really dry wood. I still cannot tell if a piece of wood is well seasoned or not, I know if it is green but I have trouble judging if it is seasoned or just almost seasoned.

You can’t just dump out a pile of wood and expect to do well. For some reason in my mind I have the “tepee” as the way to build a fire. However that really doesn’t work that well in my wood stove because the firebox isn’t really that high. The “log Cabin” method is working better.

Tinder & Kindling
I believe this is where my biggest problem is, I trying to build a fire with material that is too big. I would use my hatchet and shave off a few bits of wood, but I don’t think it was anywhere near enough. Also I need some pencil sized kindling as the next step in the fire catching and I was more in the 1″ to 1-1/2″ size that I was trying to use as kindling. I haven’t found a good way to split wood up fine enough to be kindling, I’m too afraid I’ll take off part of my finger or thumb. I’ll have to work on that or just go out into the woods behind my house and get some dry sticks. It would be good to have a bucket of this available.

Left Over Charcoal
If you can dig around in the ashes and find some charcoal that will really help in getting your fire going. Part of the burning process requires all of the volatiles to be driven out of the wood. While these burn it does take some heat to get this started. However the charcoal is almost pure carbon and will start burning quite easily. Not from just a match but they will start adding to the heat of your fire fairly soon after you get it started.

Draft is the air moving into your firebox and up your chimney which keeps the smoke out of your house. A good draft will work wonders for your fire and it will increase the oxygen your fire gets. I have close to 40′ of chimney going up through the center of my house so I usually have a great draft. However sometimes I get the smoke rolling our of the wood stove when I first start the fire. Currently I am perplexed as to why this happens. If you house is very airtight (as mine is) would will need a combustion air supply for your fire. Some people will have this air supply come right into the firebox. In my situation I have the wood stove in the basement and about 15′ away is a combustion air supply for my hot water heater. This is basically a flexible 4″ hose to the outside that ends close to the floor near the hot water heater. This “make-up air” supply is especially important if you have a bathroom vent fan running as it is possible to get your chimney going backwards due to exhaust fans which fills your house with smoke.

Banking The Fire
Of course if I would learn better fire management so there are still some hot coals in the morning that I can stir up from the ashes that will make fire starting much easier. We like the house cooler for sleeping so I need to learn the art of banking the fire so the core stays hot for the next morning.

Fire making is a skill that we all should have and I would venture a guess that we can all improve on. It is one of my goals this winter to do so and a personal challenge to be able to do it with one match and then then no matches. Next year I’ll work on primitive fire making skills outside.

Author: Jerry Ward

Working on creating a 10 acre urban homestead in S.E. Michigan. To pay the bills I work as a product manager/business analyst in the IT field. Now the admin of Save Our Skills