If it wasn’t for fire, your family would still be plucking lunch from the bush, holding arranged marriages in huts, and eating the wild boar that attacked your uncle last week.
Fire was once the very seed of civilization. Even now, if you live near a coal or natural gas plant, fire fuels your computer, your phone, your nose trimmer. If this feeds your penchant for getting back in touch with your ancestors without having to track a gazelle halfway across the Serengeti, consider the following methods to building a good old-fashioned fire in your fireplace. (see videos and instructions below)
Regardless of the type of fire you’re building, position the wood with ample space in between. This ensures that
1) there’s room for gases from the wood to emanate, and
2) there’s room for airflow so those gases can ignite.
This, in turn, drives more volatile gases from the wood, a process known as known as off-gassing, and becomes a perpetual cycle of heat, gas emission and ignition. As for the space between logs, just know this:
- less spacing = more stability, longer burn
- more spacing means = easier and faster start, hotter flame
Hopefully, you already know that placing a small match on the wood won’t get it burning. You need to heat the whole log so that it starts off-gassing.
Once released, the surrounding air is saturated with that flammable gas and eventually ignites. This is why flammable liquids like gasoline are great to use for fires if you enjoy creating fireballs that send you and your loved ones to the emergency room.
But seriously, please DO NOT use flammable liquids or starter fluids in your home.
Remember, it’s the volatile gases that burn – not the liquid fuel – and liquid off-gasses much faster than wood.
Log Cabin Fire
This is the standard type you’re likely most familiar with. To stack, take two pieces of wood and run them parallel to each other. Then stack two more parallel pieces with some kindling perpendicular to the layer below. You should be able to stack in such a way that you won’t have to tend to it for about 30 minutes.
A drawback to this method is that a log can crumble, cause a whole layer to drop and allow a burning log to roll out of the fireplace if you’re not paying attention. You can minimize this from happening by using split pieces of wood rather than round logs. But much like a good woman, a bit of love and attention will pay off handsomely with the advantages of extra warmth and stability for a long time.
Here’s a video that shows how to build the log cabin style fire. You’ll also learn some fun tricks about which fireplace grate to use and how to preheat the flue.
Top Down/Upside Down Fire
You may not have caught it from the name, but this fire is built in a way that’s almost the exact opposite of the traditional campfire method. So hold on to your logs.
As the kindling on top lights the smaller wood, hot embers fall to the bottom, lighting the larger logs. The advantage here is that there is very minimal smoke and ash, it creates a long-lasting burn and works equally well in all types of fireplaces, including wood stoves and masonry heaters.
Place the largest logs parallel on the bottom layer. If you are stacking wood in an enclosed space like a wood burner or closed fireplace, stick the logs straight in so that the air coming in from the opening can go right between them.
Add more layers until the stack is about halfway up the fireplace. As you’re stacking, you want the logs to be smaller and smaller until you finish with kindling and tinder on top. Light the kindling and watch it burn until the cows come home.
This is called Tipi because the logs are arranged in a similar fashion as the well-known style of Native American shelter.
Lean the logs upright against the back wall of the fireplace and then lean the top ends of the wood towards each other, leaving space between the wall and the wood. Stuff the kindling between them.
In essence, it’s more of a half tipi, but it’s good for shallow fireplaces and can get a hot fire going fairly quickly. There is better oxygen flow, and since the air is running vertically, there’s more burning, allowing it to be quite warm and long lasting. But because it’s vertical, it’s less stable, so as the wood burns, cracks and crumbles they can roll out of the fireplace into your room. That’s why we suggest leaning them up against the back wall of your fireplace. If you try to replicate a perfectly balanced tipi with no wall to support, you may have to enjoy the heat from outside, and call the fire department, and deal with the insurance and mortgage for another house.
Fires require patience, practice, and skill. The techniques can be nuanced, but the satisfaction of successfully building a fire often invokes pride, like that of the hunt. Follow these simple techniques, and you’re one step closer to escaping the modern distractions of smartphones, heated bathroom floors, pillowtop beds, refrigeration, high speed transportation, and the great indoors. You know, back to the joy of nature.