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I'll know that I've made it when I have a fireplace in my bedroom. But as I currently live in a one bedroom rental apartment in Brooklyn, that time is not now. Over Food52's winter break, however, I visited my parents in my childhood home of Stockbridge, Massachusetts—and even in this unseasonably warm season it was cold enough in the Berkshires to make a fire in their fireplace almost every night.
Starting a fireplace fire can be intimidating, but by keeping in mind the three essential components of a strong one (fuel, fire, and air) and adjusting your process to foster those, your fire starting skills will become fail-proof.
Step One: Gather the Necessary 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 know-how. Without the right tools, 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 never light). If you keep your wood outside, be sure it’s protected from the snow and rain, and if you buy your wood, store it somewhere dry.
- Kindling. Kindling is really any small scraps of dry wood that will combust easily. Foraged twigs and sticks from the yard will work (once you've dried them out), or you can DIY your own kindling by splitting logs into many small pieces.
- Clean fireplace. If you make a ton of fires, your fireplace might be full of ash. But while this looks super impressive 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 outside and away from any structure, 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.
- Paper. Newspaper without color or gloss is the best! Magazine pages are no good for this.
Step Two: Prepping the Fireplace
Now that you've cleared any ash out of your fireplace—right?—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.
Step Three: Layer & Light the Kindling
Now, you’re going to stack up your kindling on top of the grill (or on top of the paper if you don’t have a grill). My technique is to lay them in a criss cross arrangement, which allows for air to move between them. If you're using brush, twigs, or bark pieces peeled off your logs, you can just bunch them up in an airy mound.
Once your kindling is in place, ready your logs and another stack of newspaper beside you and get those matches out! Light the paper that's under the grate in a few places (I usually do both ends and the middle), 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. Once that has happened you’re cooking with gas! On to the next step: logs.
Step Four: Add Logs
Now that you’re 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 (some people even swear by the upside-down stack, in which the logs go on the bottom with kindling and newsprint layered on top), and you'll have to light many fires to see which system suits you best. 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!
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 some wine, and enjoy. If you’ve followed these steps you should have a blazing, popping, sputtering fire.
Step Six: Troubleshoot
Common fire-starting problems and how to deal with them.
My kindling won't catch for long enough to light the logs.
There are a few reasons you’re kindling might not be catching and a few solutions! If your kindling isn’t dry, it’s going to have a hard time catching—ideally you’re using chopped up dry wood or dry brush from outside. The other reason it might not be catching is you’re not using enough newspaper balls or are trying to use something with gloss to it like a magazine page. Swap out your kindling for something drier and try again. (Another tip is to blow air or fan the embers to create a light breeze, since fire needs air to catch.)
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 A.S.A.P.). 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.
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 just burn off leaving you back at square one.
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!