How to Build a Fire!
Guaranteed to light with one match

 

Title Fire

My father taught me a lot of things growing up.  Things like always turn your outside water off before the first freeze.  When you’re cutting something, let the saw do the work.  And  always eat *around* the hair on a ham hock.  I must admit, some things I use in my every day life more than others.

But one of the most useful things my father taught me was how to build a fire.  My father was an arsonist.  No he wasn’t.  He did eat hairy ham hocks though.  And many other disgusting things.

We had a wood burning fireplace installed in our home when I was about 9 or 10 and that fireplace had a profound effect on me.  I became an arsonist.  No I didn’t.  I did however, develop an obsession with wood burning fireplaces.  If someone were to do a study comparing the effects of 3 months on Prozac to one night in front of a wood burning fireplace, the drug companies would go out of business.

Many years ago when I was looking for a house the only thing it required was a wood burning fireplace.  Not a kitchen, not a bathroom … a fireplace.  I’d pee in a bucket before I went without a fire.  Hell, sometimes I pee in a bucket just for fun.

So when a reader sent me an email asking me if I knew how to build a fire I responded with a great big YES and told her I’d do a post on it immediately.  That was a year ago.   Good thing she wasn’t asking me what to do in case of a gas leak.

 

Fire 2

 

You need just a few things to build a fire, but they are very important.  You need newspaper (or cardboard carrying trays from Tim Hortons work GREAT), kindling and smallish pieces of wood.
Fire 3

Roll your newspaper up medium tight.  If it’s too loose it’ll burn too quickly and go out before the kindling can catch on fire.  If you roll it too tight there won’t be enough oxygen inside it to keep it burning and it’ll go out before the kindling can catch on fire. 1 full sheet of regular sized newspaper per roll.  Double up if you’re using smaller newspaper like that from a flyer.  The paper rolling is the most important part of the whole process.  If you get it wrong, you’re doomed.  It might take a few tries to get the feel of how the paper should be rolled.

Fire 4

Lay a row of 4 or 5 piecees of long kindling across the paper.  Keep the pieces of kindling close enough to each other that when they start to burn the flames will touch the adjacent piece of kindling.  Don’t put the kindling so close that it’s touching the other piece of kindling.  Again, the wood needs oxygen around it to burn and if it doesn’t have that it won’t ignite.

Fire 5

Lay another row of shorter kindling across the longer kindling.  The only reason some kindling is longer and some is shorter is because fireplaces are normally much wider than they are deep.

Fire 6

Lay two long pieces of wood (not HUGE pieces) across the kindling.

Fire 7

Lay 2 or 3 shorter pieces of wood on top.

Fire 8

Top your fire with 1 or 2 larger pieces of wood.

Fire 9

Light a roll of paper …

Fire 10

And quickly shove it under the grate.  The lit roll will ignite the other paper rolls.

Fire 11

30 seconds later …

Fire 14

3 minutes later …

Firefinal

And no … I don’t normally leave the fireplace roaring without a screen in front of it.  I was just doing so for artistic and instructional purposes.  Normally the big ole screen is shoved in front of the fire.

fire final2

A couple other tips about fireplaces I have for you are …

1.  Make sure you get your chimney swept once a year.  Creosote and buildup can lead to chimney fires which can lead to house fires which can lead to homelessness which can lead to peeing in a bucket.

2.  Use a small hatchet to chop your own kindling from your bigger pieces of wood.  Cut a large piece of wood in half with a regular axe and then use the hatchet to cut your kindling.

3.  When you clean out your fire place don’t clean out all of the ashes.   Leave a pile of ashes under your grate.  It’s helps make lighting your next fire easier, because the ashes act as a bed for the coals that fall down, keeping them up higher, and closer to the fire.

4.  Wood is sold in cords, but there are different types of cords.  The two most popular terms are bush cords and face cords.  A bush cord is a stacked pile of wood that measures 4′ high, by 4′ deep by 8′ long.  What that amounts to is 3 rows of wood that are 4′ high by 8′ long.  Each piece of wood should be 16″ long.  Each single row, is called a Face cord.  Most places I’ve encountered, sell by the face cord.  We bought 6 face cords this year for our winter fires, which is the equivalent of 2 bush cords.  In technical terms, that’s a crap load of wood.

5.  When buying wood, look for hardwood.  It burns longer, hotter and cleaner.

6.  And finally, always eat around the hair on a ham hock.

75 Comments

  1. Julene says:

    Hey Karen… thanks! I just built my first indoor fire using your instructions… PERFECT! Our firebox is very small so the wood isn’t placed exactly like yours, but almost! I was out of newspaper so I had to improvise with a paper grocery bag and tissue paper, but it worked perfectly!

    • Karen says:

      Good job! It’s beautiful. I have to say I first saw your picture when it was tiny and it looked like your entire house was on fire. I was terrified for you, lol! ~ karen

      • Julene says:

        Haha, yeah I don’t know why the picture loaded in sideways, that makes it look even worse! I assure you, all is well. 😉 I’ve even built another since, and showed my kids and hubby how! Thanks again!

  2. Stevie says:

    Great resource… thank you! We recently moved into a new-to-us house with a great fireplace (that we had cleaned and inspected) and our recent cold-snap has me excited for many, many fires!

  3. Carolyn Geddes says:

    Hi Karen! I realize this post is old but I hope this comment finds you nonetheless. I have lived in my home two years and have never lit a fire in either of my excellent fireplaces because I’m scared of what’s up my chimney. (Insert crude joke here.) You seem to know everything about everything so I wanted to know what you do to you maintain yours? (Chimney that is.)

    • Karen says:

      HI Carolyn! You need to get a chimney sweep in to inspect your chimney. If yo use a reputable company that cleans chimneys for a living they’ll be able to clean your chimney, inspect the interior of your firebox and check that everything is good to go. If you do have fires you have to HAVE to have your chimney swept at least once a year. Some people require it to be swept twice a year if they have a lot of fires. That’s all there is to it! Leave it to someone who knows what they’re doing. Having your chimney swept and inspected costs around $150. ~ karen!

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi Karen,

    I’ve been at my wood burning stove/fireplace for nearly two hours, going back and forth from “Yes! Finally it’s alive!” to “WHY AREN’T YOU STAYING LIT?!” The result? Me burrowing myself under layers of blankets and cranking the baseboards (which, for the record, are not doing a very good job of warming this place up.)

    I want to give your method a try, however I’m not sure it will be the same with a wood burning stove? Mostly because there is no grate therefore no airflow from underneath. Any suggestions?

    Thanks!

  5. Bre says:

    I think you’re smart. Why do I think you’re smart? Because you have ideas that I should have thought of but didn’t. Like cooking hotdogs in the fireplace!!! I usually use the firelog thingys (not good for cooking over) but recently got some wood and it did not cross my mind to have a weiner roast. With marshmallows for dessert! How fun would that be on a snow day when we’re all housebound?!

  6. janice says:

    Love your humor,my kind of chick.love your anything and everything that make life easier. I too love a good fire warms my bones. Thank you

  7. Meg says:

    Thanks for the lesson 🙂 It is interesting to see how different people do things. My grandfather was a true homesteader. He only allowed us 1 piece of newspaper and 3 sticks of kindling. Two matches if he was feeling generous. To this day, I can’t use more without feeling like he’s chuckling over my shoulder and telling me that I’ll have to go split more kindling to make up for that!

  8. Lynn says:

    Karen…thank you soooo much for answering my question!!!!! When we first moved in, we thought a gas insert would be the first thing we did, but we LOVE the fireplace and will look for one in future homes. Your grate is GORGEOUS!!! Is it antique?

    • Karen says:

      Lynn – LOL! You’re welcome! Yeah … so … I finally answered your question. 🙂 I don’t know if I’d call it antique, but it’s definitely old. The problem is, I burn my fires so hot (to keep down on creosote build up in the chimney) that we go through a grate a year. So … this is this year’s grate. I got it at a flea market for around $45. It’s pretty solid so if I’m lucky it might last 2 or 3 years. ~ karen!

  9. jennifer says:

    ooops, didn’t link you up! There are quite a few tutorials. This one seemed as good any. Don’t worry about saturating too much with wax. I sure didn’t.
    http://lusaorganics.typepad.com/clean/2010/01/homemade-fire-starter-tutorial.html

  10. jennifer says:

    Well these aren’t very pretty but they sure work well! I read about making them in one of those homesteading magazines. And you can even put that dryer lint to good use with these! So you fill each little hole with either dryer lint, sawdust or wood shavings. I used chainsaw shavings. Then melt some wax from old candles or get some from the dollar store! Pour the melted wax over the shavings/lint. Let cool. And then seperate them. Thats all there is to it! They’ll light up really quick with just one match, stay lit for 5-10 minutes and get seriously hot. You just need one to start a fire in a woodstove but you might like to use 2 for your fireplace. I trolled around a diner and was able to score a few of those 30 egg flats for free. Oh and make sure they are the paper cartons not the styro ones. (sorry, i know you’re not that dumb) I see that people even sell them on Etsy. I hope you’ll try them!

  11. jennifer says:

    hey karen! i just made a bunch of those egg carton-sawdust-wax firestarters! they are fabulous! have you heard of those?

    • Karen says:

      What?! No. Uh, uh. No! I’ve heard of the pinecone/wax firestarters which are really pretty but not the egg carton sawdust wax firestarters, LOL. Mind you … now that I have chickens I absolutely never have egg cartons! Link up to it if you can. Thx.! ~ karen

  12. Ana Silva says:

    I needed this post and didn’t even know it. BTW you are funny!!

  13. Sebrah says:

    I want a fireplace! that’s all I’m saying. I. WANT. A. FIREPLACE.

  14. Alissa says:

    Excellent! How would you modify these instructions for a campfire, where you don’t have a nice grate like yours for suspending the papers up where they can get some oxygen?

  15. hmmm….I love woodburning fireplaces too! We had one in our old house and I miss it here, however, we do have numerous fires in the yard (country). A little tip for you I learned this year is…those Tim Horton cupholder squares….can be lit and blown out to slow burn on a stick in the ground outside and it becomes a mosquito repellant…apparently it only works with Tim Horton’s squares…not Donut Diner or A&W or Wendy’s….only Tim Hortons! Got this tip from someone who was camping in Northern Ontario during the height of mosquito season and swears by it! xo

  16. cheri says:

    Ok Karen, you are almost (almost) being out shined by your fans-loved Janelle’s comment about throwing “wood & testosterone” on the fire and My honest answer’s ability to heave a log onto the fire from the couch. Made me choke on my ham hair….

  17. Did I ever tell you I was a cub mistress? Chil the Kite – or as one little boy said, Chil the Kike, I didn’t disabuse him.

    So I LOVE lighting fires and you have raised my game a notch: now please let us know how you trained the cat.

  18. Carole says:

    Karen
    I love the look of a shhepskin rug on a chair. Where did you purchase yours and do they shed.
    Thank you.

    Carole

    • Karen says:

      Carole – I got my Mongolian lamb from Homesense a couple of years ago. (on sale) It’s actually a blanket/throw. Nope. It doesn’t shed. The odd hair, but not the way you’d think it might. ~ karen

  19. Nancy says:

    The house that we rented before we bought this one had a wood stove in the living room..so I do now how to build fires..I also remember how the cats loved that heat..the oldest one..who has since passed away..would lay so close to it and get so hot..I kept telling her she was going to spontaneously combust!!!

  20. Valerie says:

    We heat with 2 wood stoves – our only source of heat. To Karen’s excellent suggestions I would add:
    * for real warmth use fir or birch.
    * if you are ordering wood from a supplier measure the opening of your stove or fireplace so that it can accommodate your cut wood easily; suppliers need to be told how long your wood is to be cut.
    * If you order truck loads of logs and end up having to “chop” your wood use a splitting maul not an axe. Spitting mauls are purposely dull as compared to axes or hatchets which should be very sharp to cut up the smaller kindling
    * wood splitters (while expensive) in the long run will save muscles – they are truly magical.
    * you can clean your own chimney. You will be sold about 4-5 telescoping metal pieces with the last piece you add having a circular brush on the end. You clean from top down not bottom up which requires a ladder and nerves. Place a green garbage bag at the bottom to catch the soot. Tie yourself up on the roof somewhere so if you slip you won’t come all the way down.
    * do not start your fires with left over coloured paper from presents, foodstuffs etc. Only use newspaper
    * never throw sawdust on a burning fire as it explodes
    * carry your ashes out of the house in a metal pail. You may think the ashes are all out but they may not be. Set the pail outside – if they are still smouldering think carbon monoxide.
    * clean the glass on your stove or fireplace if you have this type of screening with some of ash that you can pick up with a piece of damp paper towel- much better than glass cleaner
    * burn your fire with the damper wide open for 8-10 minutes to really heat up the chimney, then close half way or less
    * you can purchase a convection fan if you have a wood burning stove. You place it on the top and it will blow the heat widely. They are expensive but they operate completely from the heat beneath…we have one on the top of each stove.
    * purchase a fire extinguisher. You will probably never need it but it is an important addition if you are burning wood.

  21. lindyb says:

    I have what may be a stupid question – how does all the wood you pile on top of the newspaper not flatten and crush your pretty, perfectly rolled, oxygen friendly newspaper?

    • Karen says:

      lindyb – Yup. The newspaper squashes a bit. That’s O.K. If you roll it right it’ll be dense enough to not squash entirely. ~ karen!

  22. Lori says:

    Your cat looks like a perfectly toasted marshmallow. 🙂

  23. AmieM says:

    Great tutorial! My Grampa is always going on about how “Kids these days don’t know how to start fires!”

    We have a fireplace in our apartment, and it has a flume, grate and vent, but we aren’t sure it’s a working fireplace, how do we check? We’ve done the burn newspaper with the vent open to see if smoke goes up, other than that, how do we know if it’s safe to use? Thanks!

    • Karen says:

      HI AmieM – You won’t be able to judge if the fireplace is safe for yourself. Your best bet is to hire a chimney sweep or other fireplace expert to assess your firebox, flue, chimney, etc. It’ll cost between $100 to $150 to have the fireplace checked and the chimney swept. ~ karen!

  24. Melody Madden says:

    Perfect! We have a wood burning fireplace which I totally love but I suck at starting. The idea of wrapping newspaper around the kindling was brilliant. Most of the time I’m just throwing newspaper in the box cause, truth be told, I simply don’t know what I’m doing. If the weather ever gets cold again here in Ontario I’ll be sure to give it a shot.

  25. Natalie says:

    This winter we’ve been using our woodstove as a supplemental heater – we keep our thermostat at 58 and I make a fire each morning, or if I’m going to be out for the day, in the evening. So this technique is pretty much exactly what I do in the woodstove, but everything is maybe 2/3 the size.
    I was always kind of horrified that my boyfriend had a woodstove installed in the fireplace (before we met!), but it still is quite pretty when the door is open, and the heating aspect is great.

  26. FlagirlinTN says:

    Love the cat’s “playkitten” pose in front of the fire.

  27. Susan says:

    I have to admit fire and me don’t get along too well! I have set my hair and eyebrows on fire from the barbeque, New Year’s Eve decorations …from a candle, and then of course the piece de resistance …mystore because of lighting on the Christmas tree! I, however, love my fireplace! I flick a switch and voila! Instant fire! No smoke smell however. Up side is my hair is still here not to mention my eyebrows and I will never have another real Christmas tree needle to clean up again! Enjoyed your instructions though and shall pass them on to my camping family. Oh, I don’t camp either and have never peed in a bucket!:-)

  28. magali says:

    Your father makes me think of my mother. She also taught me how to make a fire (exactly how you do it) and to always let the saw do the work. She never talked about the hair on a ham hock though so thank you for that…

  29. erin hall {i can craft that} says:

    see now I was all fine that i didn’t have a fireplace until 3 minutes ago. NOw I want one. I grew up with a 2 wood burning fire places in out house and I miss it now.

  30. Monica says:

    Oops, finger slipped to the send button.

    My almost 14 year old son condescendingly tries to help me whenever I try to light a fire. Now, I’m going to show him!

  31. Laura says:

    Lovely! Fond memories of rolling newspaper for firestarters with my Nana. Not so fond memories of hauling armloads of wood into our house. But, it built my character-right? Like the two 5 gallon buckets of water I carried to the barn for the chickens in morning.

  32. Melissa says:

    a) what a pretty fireplace surround. I’m sure it adds to your Sunday sitting-around ambiance : ) b) I thought I was doing just fine in the fire-starting arena, but I think I am going to try that paper rolling strategy. c) Nicely written entry! I was laughing at several points, but especially the part about it being a good thing your reader didn’t need help with a gas leak 😀 LOL

  33. Monica says:

    I can’t wait to try this. My almost

  34. marilyn says:

    we too enjoy our woodburning fireplace so much.people are always telling us we should get gas (horrors) or install an insert because our fireplace is not very cost effective or pracical but we just smile and say no we don’t think so, we like it this way. there is absolutely nothing to compare to having a beauty fire going on a cold winters day. we all love to lay in front of its warmth and our cat STELLA! (think marlon brando) loves it too.we use the firestarters that we buy by the case at crappy tire for about 10$. they are about 6 inches long and we just light one and once its going we throw the logs on, it is a piece of cake and eliminates all the rolling up crap and cutting kindling.although i know you love that laura ingalls thing so you probably will keep using your method.we also go to great lenghts to get free wood..my sister had some trees felled at her property near peterborough this year so we took my brothers truck and went and got it.my bro in law has a splitter so we spent one sat splitting and stacking wood for this winter, saved us a bundle on wood and she is planning on losing another two or three so its looking good for next winter too!only problem is now we have one of those firebowls for our patio and we have started having little fires throughout the year outside so now we are using more wood.oh well its all worth it and as you say cuts down on the drug bills lol.

    • Karen says:

      Marilyn – I also use firestarters a lot. I just thought everyone needed to know the *real* way to start a fire. You can actually buy them at Dollarama and they work great. I asked our chimney sweep about them and he said they were fine. They come long blocks that you break pieces off of. In the candle aisle I believe, LOL. Our wood cost $700 this year so feel free to let me know if you see a downed treee anywhere! ~ karen!

  35. Barbie says:

    See? I TOLD my husband we needed at least ONE wood burning fireplaces in our house! He now regrets that both our fireplaces are gas….even talks about replacing one and making it woodburning. My very cautious hubs who knows how dangerous I can be was worried I just might burn our house down when he wasn’t looking! LOL

  36. Fred says:

    My father was a Boy Scout leader. I learned from him to build a good kindling base like yours then, “One log won’t burn, two logs might burn, three logs will burn.”

    Seeing your fire reminds me of the cords and cords of wood that I cut to keep my house warm in New England many years ago. Fire certainly warms the soul. Stay warm this winter.

    Fred, doing stuff at PanamaShippingContainerHouse.com.

    • Karen says:

      Fred – Seeing my fire reminds me we’ve already gone through 5 face cords of wood this winter and it’s been a very mild winter with no snow at all yet! Might have to order and stack more. ~ karen!

  37. pve says:

    What a Dad. My husband and father to our 3 has taught them many things along with making a fire. I am still amazed that more people do not know how to start a fire. I am off to start one of my own on this chilly morning.
    pve

    • Meg says:

      Well, trying to not take too much offense here, but some of us didn’t grow up in a house with a fireplace. Or with families that particularly liked camping. In their/defense, I feel I must say this post of Karen’s is quite useful.

  38. Jen says:

    Oh Karen…we are kindred spirits. This post really spoke to me. I also learned my paper rolling techniques from my father. A little different though…he started on the diagnal…rolled down, then tied in a loose knot….always works! I am going to try your stacking technique. When we built our house….we insisted on a wood burning fireplace in our living room…..even though we knew they are a mess/energy suck, etc. It makes our whole home. We had a mason build us a beautiful stone fireplace, that is open to the living room on one side, and the dining room on the other. Wanna see a pic?

  39. I really enjoyed reading your article. It was funny as well as useful.. and serious at the same time. I like seeing the pictures so, I can always have a visual in my mind to make that perfect fire. Thank-you. Granny Gee

  40. Do you really use a fire screen all the time Karen? I only put mine up when I go to bed, otherwise it takes too much heat away (and I have to keep moving it to add another log. I’m lazy and I have learnt to throw them quite accurately from a good distance away on the couch). I’d be really pleased if I did something slightly more dangerous and edgier than you. That big fish catching picture intimidates me.

    • Karen says:

      Oh good god. You have to use a fire screen. Please tell me you’re joking? Unless you live in a house made of boulders that is. Then you’re O.K. The screen goes up all the time because of sparks from the wood. I’ve seen sparks shoot straight across the room from the fireplace! It really could burn your whole house down. Eep. ~ karen

  41. Robyn says:

    This is a great post and I too also love open fireplaces. If only we were allowed to use the 2 open fireplaces in this rental 🙁

  42. BGrigg says:

    That fire should be used for the TV Christmas Fireplace channel!

    • Karen says:

      BGrigg – LOL. I’ve often thought about taping that fire and putting it up on the site so people could watch it. ~ karen

  43. Marti says:

    I never found it that relaxing. Of course, I didn’t get the firescreen up fast enough and caught some pillows near the fireplace on fire once.. and the carpet on fire another time.

    See! This is why I read your blog, Karen! Because I have a LOT to learn. From you.

    • Karen says:

      Marti – My sister set her gel fingernails on fire at Christmas dinner from the candles once. She didn’t find that fire particularly relaxing either. ~ karen

      • Marti says:

        That’s probably a good reason for me not to wear them. I’m sure I could do that, too.

        I wasn’t quite clear about the “roll the newspaper” portion. We’re rolling newspaper into newspaper with nothing but newspaper at the center. Is that it? Because you’ve done such a tidy job of it that it looks like there might be a tiny slice of kindling inside each of those rolls. Yes/no?

        I’m only asking because I’ve never been able to adequately like a fire unless there were household furnishings standing by to supplement the flames. Eek!

  44. Janelle says:

    This is spectacular. My fires have thus far sucked. They suck all day and my husband comes home and throws some wood and testosterone on the thing and it’s a blazing inferno in seconds, much to the delight of our three small and frozen children. I hate it, Karen. But now, thanks to you….revenge is mine. Okay, maybe not revenge, but warmth….warmth like victory, wrapped in smugness under a blanket of ppbbbttttth. Thanks, Karen.

    • Karen says:

      You are very welcome. It may take you a few tries of figuring out the paper and how close to put the kindling, but I have faith in you and your fires. ~ karen

  45. Becky says:

    I just heard some advice last week to use your hair-dryer for a few minutes blowing warm air up your chimney before lighting your fire… the air in your chimney is cold, and when the hot air rushes past it, the cold air drops, which can send smoke and ash back into the house… by warming the air first, you eliminate this chance, there-by, keeping the smell of smoke out of the house.

    • Karen says:

      Becky – That only happens on very rare occassions. So rare, it’s only happened in my fireplace once in the 13 or so years I’ve had it. Depending on the length of the chimney and the wind and the downdraft, it may never happen at all. However, if you do have trouble with a downdraft, all you have to do is light a piece of tightly rolled newspaper and hold it in the chimney. No need to drag out the hair appliances. 🙂 ~ karen

  46. itchbay says:

    What a beautiful fireplace! We haven’t used ours in our no-longer-new-to-us house yet, even though we’ve been here 2+ years. But I’m starting to gently nag the man to get it cleaned so we can actually sit around it this winter.

    • Karen says:

      itchbay – Um. You have to put a stop to that. You HAVE to use your fireplace. (first get the chimney etc. checked) There is NOTHING nicer than sitting inside on a Sunday afternoon with the fire roaring and a storm outside. NOTHING. Plus .. you can use it for cooking hotdogs. When I first got my house I didn’t own a single thing including a stove. For the first several weeks, all I worked on the house and all I ate were hotdogs which I cooked on the fireplace. It was one of the happiest times of my life. 🙂 ~ karen

    • Laura M says:

      Loved the firestarter how-to. I’m going to use the basics of this lesson on the fire pit at the cottage. Thanks for the definition of cords.
      Also, Itchbay – call the chimney sweep yourself! If I left stuff like that up to my guy we’d still be living in a cave and shivering! LOL

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