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How to Start a Fireplace Fire (& Keep It Going All Night)

Staying toasty this season is as easy as breathing life into your fireplace.

February 20, 2021
Photo by Hannah Wilken

It’s fireplace season, everyone, and you’re lucky, because I’ve got a ton of experience with building strong, steady flames to warm even the coldest ski-trip nights. Even though I currently live in a one-bedroom rental apartment in Brooklyn, I tend to visit my parents in my childhood home of Stockbridge, Massachusetts each winter (not this year, of course!)—and on a cold Berkshires night, there's nothing quite as comforting as making a fire in their fireplace. And by a night, I obviously mean every night.

Starting a fireplace fire can be intimidating, but by keeping in mind the three foundational elements of a strong one (fuel, fire, and air) and adjusting your process to nurture those three, your fire-starting skills will become fail-proof.


Step One: Gather the Tools

It's much more romantic to say that to build the perfect fire, you need to have a certain je ne sais quoi—but the truth is you just have to have the right ingredients and the know-how. Without the right building blocks, you’re going to be struggling to keep your fire alive all night long. Here's what you need:

  • Dry Wood: This might sound obvious, but it's important that your wood is as dry as possible (otherwise it will just smoke up your home, and you'll send everyone running out into the cold just to escape it). If you keep your wood outside, be sure it’s protected from the snow and rain..
  • Kindling: Kindling is really any small scraps of dry wood that will be great fire starters. Foraged twigs and sticks from the yard will work (again, once you've dried them out), or you can DIY your own kindling by splitting logs into many small pieces. Paper. Newspaper without color or gloss is the best, i.e., magazine pages are no good for this.
  • Matches
  • Screen

Step Two: Prepping the Fireplace

If you make a ton of fires, your fireplace is probably full of ash. And while this looks super impressive for you, it doesn't help you get a fire started. Before building your fire, shovel out the ashes into a metal bucket.* It is imperative that you keep ash in a metal container, and outside and away from anything that can burn easily, because even if a fire has stopped burning for weeks, the ash might still be flammable and can catch back on fire if given any fuel.

Now it's time to prime the flue so that you don't end up with a house full of smoke. Priming the flue really just means replacing the heavy cold air in your chimney with lighter warm air before starting a fire—which is too suddenly hot to ease the cold air out—and is especially important if your chimney is built on the outside of the house. To do so, roll up a piece of newspaper into a stick shape, light one end of it with a match, and hold it way up towards the open damper. Repeat this until you feel the flow of air reversing, as the warm air starts getting sucked up the chimney. (And if that doesn't work, leave the damper open for about a half hour, letting some of the warm air in the room do the trick for you.)

Now for the fun! If you have a grate, set it in the fireplace. Grab that bucket of cleared away ash and sprinkle a little in a neat layer under the grate, to act as fuel and insulation for your fire. Next, loosely ball up pieces of newspaper—you still want some air to be able to move through them, so not too tight—and push them under the grate on top of the ash. (If you don't have a grate, just layer your ash and newspaper balls in the center of the fireplace.) It depends on how big you want your fire, but I usually do this to 15 or so pieces of paper.

Loosely balled newspaper gets poked under the grate. Photo by Hannah Wilken

Step Three: Layer & Light the Kindling

Now, you’re going to stack up your kindling on top of the grill. My technique is to lay them in a criss-cross arrangement, which allows for air to move between them. Once your kindling is in place, light the paper that's under the grate in a few places, making sure that all the paper catches. It’s going to look impressive, and will appear that a fire has started, but it has not! All that paper will burn in about a minute and then you’re left with a pile of ashes and some sad, cold kindling. After lighting the balls of newspaper, keep pushing new balls of paper in from the sides of the grate, to keep the flames going long enough to catch the kindling on fire.

Light the newspaper (left), then push new balls of it in behind the lit ones using a poker (right). Photo by Hannah Wilken

Step Four: Add Logs

Now that your kindling has caught fire it’s time to add the dry logs. You can either lean them together, upright on top of the kindling like a tepee, or in another criss cross (like a tic-tac-toe board) stack as you did the kindling. Both arrangements have their merits, so you'll probably just have to light many fires to see which system suits you best. Some people even swear by the upside-down fire, in which the logs go on the bottom with kindling and newsprint layered on top. This method, they say, produces and projects much more heat than a standard teepee fire. Whatever the arrangement, the key is to keep enough space between the logs so that air can get through. If your fire is dying at this stage, I can almost guarantee it’s because no air can get between the logs!

Newspaper turned to cinders, kindling caught on fire, and logs added in a tepee arrangement.

Step Five: Nurse

If you've followed these steps and your logs are sufficiently dry, your now-blazing fire should stay strong. If the logs don't catch before the kindling starts dying down, try folding over a few pieces of newsprint to make a small fan and waving it—in tiny flicks, very carefully and gently—to get the embers glowing. Once the logs catch, it's just a matter of adding new ones on top when the others start sputtering out. You can also poke around the wood to keep the air flowing.

Once your tepee of logs has caught, put a screen up, pour yourself some wine (or whisky), and enjoy. If you’ve followed these steps you should have a blazing, popping, sputtering fire in no time.

Once the first set of logs have burned to embers, the second set will get even more roaring.

Step Six: Troubleshoot

Why not just add tons of wood all at once, instead of tending to the fire constantly?

Only add more wood when the fire has started to burn down. Adding heavy wood to an already burning fire will cut off its air supply, possibly smothering those flames you've worked so hard to get going. Once the fire has settled in and isn’t blazing anymore, carefully add fresh logs to the top of the fire and move them around until they have enough air to catch. At this point, I’ll also add a few more balls of newspaper in the crevices to help them catch.

Why not splash a little gasoline on the logs to get this thing really going?

DANGER! Never use gas on an indoor fire! True, it will get the flames going super fast, but it will burn so fast and so big you might lose control—something you do not want to toy with indoors. Secondly, it won’t create a lasting fire, since the gas will just burn off, leaving you back at square one.

Why is it so smoky in here?

Is your flue open? If not, that’s your answer and you should open it immediately (and any windows in the room to get the smoke out ASAP). Jump back up to step two and prime it before starting afresh. If the flue is open, then the smoke means you’re using wet firewood, which will not only hold up a fire from blazing but will also fill your house with smoke. Another possible problem is that your fireplace needs to be cleaned, in which case you'll want to call a professional.

What Do I Do If My House Smells Smoky?

Well, we’re glad you asked. There are a few sure-fire (ha!( ways to get smoke smell out of clothes, furniture, and more. The first method, that might not be doable for larger items or in the winter, is to leave your garments or fabric-covered items out in the sun for 2-3 days. The combination of UV rays and fresh air will do the fabric wonders.

Another plan of attack is to employ one of the most potent deodorizers of all: baking soda. You can either soak items in a plastic garbage bag with 1/2 cup of baking soda—tying it shut, shaking it up, and letting it sit overnight, or you can simply put a few tablespoons of baking soda into your washing machine’s fabric softener tray to remove odors from laundry. However, this method shouldn’t be used on wool or silk.

For things that can’t be thrown in the wash or into a plastic bag, fear not! If odor is lingering on your furniture, just turn to the bar cart. Yup, wiping things down with vodka can help get odors out. Just pour a little onto a washcloth, then wipe it over the affected area. Alternatively, you can put the alcohol into a spray bottle and spritz it over your furniture. Another natural odor-remover? Vinegar, of course. Similar to the vodka, a thorough vinegar wipe-down will reduce pesky stink.

Do you lean logs upright, in a criss-cross stack, or upside-down with the kindling on top? Share your fire-starting tips in the comments!

This article originally appeared on January 25, 2016. We're re-running it because it's fireplace weather.

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  • toweringinferno
    toweringinferno
  • Louis Chatey
    Louis Chatey
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  • Liz
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    Cathryn Zega
Writer and lover of all things sweet.

7 Comments

toweringinferno January 29, 2016
Like another commenter, I have a wood-burning stove in my house - which is made of cob, so the walls can suck up a lot of heat, but those little stoves are amazingly efficient! It's a bit of a different technique from an open hearth, but some of the same tips might come in handy:

- to prime the flue, light a tea candle and place it under the draw for about half an hour (this isn't always necessary since the stove is in the middle of the house, only if it's really cold)
- dryer lint makes FANTASTIC tinder (the very first, super-combustible stuff)
- so do dry pinecones - gather and store them in those plastic netting bags you can buy onions in
- stoves are meant to have some ash in the bottom but are mostly self-cleaning in that way. If you have a lot of ash buildup on the stove floor or the door glass, your fires aren't hot enough/going for long enough
- add logs perpendicular to the door to get them to light faster, and parallel to the door to burn slower and last longer (probably won't work in an open hearth since you can't control the direction of air intake)

Hope someone finds these helpful!
 
Louis C. January 29, 2016
This article shows a suitable technique for an outdoor campfire but should not be practiced indoors as it presents a high risk of a chimney fire. Here is a link published in the Farmers Almanac in 1975 explaining the proper way. I've been using this technique since 75 and do a good deal of open hearth cooking. http://people.eku.edu/falkenbergs/buildfire.htm
 
Malthe B. January 29, 2016
Forget what you have learned! Don't start the fire from the bottom. The "top-down method" is the way to do it. Less smoke (=less polution) and very easy to start with a bit of preparation.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zG_urpcjp7M - here's a video
http://www.firewood-for-life.com/images/skitched-20140105-200855.jpg - and a picture
 
Liz January 29, 2016
I'm a reader in sub-tropical Queensland, Australia. I understand that the East coast of America is having its issues with a wee bit of a cold snap atm (I hate Winter and I really do sympathize) but reading about how to get a good blaze going after experiencing a day of 38*C and a relative humidity of just above 86% just about made me scream!!! Heading off for a quick plunge in our spa and then running back to the air con. That's the way to do it.
 
Amanda S. January 29, 2016
Spa plunge! I am jealous.
 
Cathryn Z. January 25, 2016
or as a chimney sweet suggested to us years ago....buy a trivet at the fireplace store which has a absorbing stone. Place 1/2-1 cup of kerosene in the trivet, place logs on top and light. Even wet or green wood will ignite with this. Never use it on a hot fire or fire with embers left from the night before but for a fresh start to a cool fireplace....it is unbeatable. About 40$ for the trivet which we have had for 20+ years.
 
Cathryn Z. January 25, 2016
didn't edit or proofread the above comment. sweep, an