Since I lurve whiskey, make a mean stew, and heat my whole house with wood, I suppose I'm well-equipped to handle the long, hash Upstate New York winters. Heating with wood is a very sustainable practice with several benefits, and as much as I love it, I sometimes don't love hauling wood into the house on especially cold and blustery days. But nothing - and I mean nothing - heats like wood. The warmth goes right down to the bone.
For many, having a wood fire is a luxury often reserved for wintertime getaways and perhaps an outdoor bonfire. Should you find yourself in a situation where you can let loose your inner lumberjack and set some logs ablaze, here's a how-to to surely make the fire-starting process easy (this method works for woodstoves, fireplaces, firepits, and chimneas).
What You Need:
-Seasoned, dry firewood
-Work gloves (unless you have grizzly lumberjack hands or don't mind getting splinters)
-A decent set of fireplace tools (most important: a shovel and a poker)
IMPORTANT!! If you haven't used your stove/fireplace in a while, have your chimney cleaned by a professional sweep to prevent a chimney fire. Regular use of your fireplace or woodstove actually helps to keep the chimney clean and free of debris.
Open the damper. The damper is a little metal flap the regulates how much air is exposed to the fire (more air, more fire). The damper is usually a little lever that sticks out from the stove pipe (on a woodstove, it's that big pipe off the top or back of a stove that leads to the chimney), at the bottom of the woodstove, or above the opening of the fire place. Outdoor fireplaces and chimneas typically do not have a damper. You will know if your damper is "closed" if you start your fire and smoke fills up your room... simply turn or pull/push your damper lever in the opposite direction to open it (the smoke will go up the chimney). You want your fire to have lots of air at first to help it ignite.
Start out clean. Unless you have hot coals in your stove (etc.) from the previous fire (which will help ignite your next fire), remove any ash that might have built up using the shovel. A layer of ash will just choke out any air that is trying to get to your fire. Place ashes in an ash pail and move outside or out of your way (nothing is harder to clean than accidentally dumped ashes). If your woodstove has an ash pan in the bottom, remove the ash from there, as well.
Add newspaper and kindling. Newspaper and kindling are essential to building a good fire because they are dry, ignite easily, and have lots of surface area for sparks and flames to take hold of. You want to alternately layer your kindling, essentially building a "Jenga" tower, with newspaper in between. Start with two to four pieces of kindling in the bottom of the stove/fireplace that are parallel to each other, and place lightly twisted newspaper between the pieces (to "lightly twist" the newspaper, grab one sheet of paper in the middle, then pull the sides down and twist once so it looks like a "log" or "stick"). Then, take a few more pieces of kindling and stack them on top of the first layer in the alternate direction in the same manner as the first layer (with newspaper). Do this four or five times in total (when I build a fire, I typically use eight-ten pieces of kindling and about eight-ten pieces of newspaper).
Light it up. Take your matches and set them to the newspaper. Keep the doors on your stove/fireplace slightly ajar (if you have them). If you kindling doesn't seem to catch on fire, add a few more pieces of newspaper.
Add firewood. Once the kindling is starting to burn, add a few logs to the fire (start with one of two, depending on size). It is important to make sure the wood has lots of room for air to circulate around it (and draw flames up around it). Once those logs have caught fire, you can add more wood. Close the doors on the stove (and on your fireplace, if you wish). Adjust the damper and close it about halfway to maintain a good flame and to keep the heat in the house and from going up the chimney.
Maintain your fire. Each time you add more wood, be sure to open the damper, then close it halfway after a minute or two. Add wood as you deem necessary - the more frequently you add wood, the "hotter" your fire will burn. If your fire isn't burning fast enough, open the damper. If it burns too fast, close the damper. This is the best way to regulate how much heat you produce from your fire.
Extinguish your fire. The best way to extinguish a fire is to let it die out naturally. There really isn't a way to abruptly put out a fire in a stove or fireplace. Just use your poker to move the logs away from each other, close the door and open the damper - the fire will take care of itself. Be sure to keep anything flammable away from your fire. I actually leave my woodstove running when I leave the house because I know that if the door is shut, there isn't anything that can catch fire outside of it. I also make sure any furniture is several feet away from the stove so that the heat of the stove won't spark a fire on anything flammable. DO NOT throw water on your fire - you could burn yourself with steam and create a tremendous mess.
There you have it! While it might sound like a lot of steps, starting and maintaining a fire is quite simple and has great benefits. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to leave them in the comments or share them on Facebook or Twitter! Enjoy the rest of winter and keep warm!!
Top image via Pinterest. Other images my own.