How-To: Properly Light & Maintain a Fire
How-To: Properly Light & Maintain a Fire
The soft glow and comforting warmth of a fireplace can’t be beat on a cold winter’s night, and, even in Texas, it is sure to get cold this winter. A well-lit, well-tended fire makes all the difference. You may even find yourself spending more time with your family as you all jockey for position near the hearth. It really can be a central part of “together time” with family, so, for your family’s sake, I’ve detailed the best way to light a fire and keep it burning cleaner, longer.
At some point in time, all of us fortunate enough to have a fireplace had to start our very first fire. Each of us, to some extent at least, struggled with the best practices early on, and only through trial and error and experience did we find the best system for us. Everyone is a little different in their preferences, but if you follow this trusty guide I’m confident you’ll be the master of your hearth in no time.
The very first thing we need to do is make sure the chimney is clean and free of any type of blockage that may have occurred during the warmer months. I’ve always been a believer in “safety first” when it comes to my family, so I call a professional chimney sweep service to come check things over for me. McSweepy’s Chimney Service is the only service I trust with the well-being of my home and family.
The very next thing we need to do is make sure, and I mean MAKE SURE, that the damper is open. I can’t stress this point enough. Opening up the damper is the only way to enjoy the fire you start without choking on the smoke the fire produces. So, all in all, I think we should double-check that the damper is all the way open.
Now, we have a clean chimney and an open damper, but we aren’t quite ready to start burning things just yet. The next item on our checklist is priming the flue. The fact that you are ready to start a fire tells us that it’s cold outside, and, since most chimneys are built outside of the house, the flue will have gotten cold as well. Basically, the chimney is full of cold air that is heavier than warm air, so if we open the flue when we light our fire that cold air will drop down pushing the smoke into the house. This is a great way to spoil an evening, so priming the flue, introducing heat to the air slowly, is the best way to avoid any possible smoke-outs. Take a piece of rolled-up newspaper, light it on fire, and hold it up the open damper for a few moments, or if your fireplace has a gas line that supplements the wood-burning, simply turn it on and let it run for a bit. This heat will warm the air until you feel the draft reverse, and then we are cleared for takeoff.
This is a good place to talk about “ash beds”. What is an ash bed? I’m glad you asked. An ash bed is a great insulator for your hearth, and will help you make fires that burn much hotter. Ash beds are exactly what their name implies. They are a 1-2 inch bed of ashes from previous fires that, as mentioned before, insulate the hearth itself from the heat of the burning fuel. This redirection allows more heat to enter the home from the fire. If your fireplace is new, or has recently been cleaned, you can substitute the ashes from a charcoal grill to make your ash bed, but only create a 1 inch layer so that you don’t overdo it with foreign debris.
Lastly, and that seems a little strange as this whole discussion is about fire, we need to build up our fuel for our fire. There are a million different ways to do this, and I’m sure they all have their individual merits, but I’m a fan of the “upside-down” fire lay. The most common introduction to fire-building can be easily summed up as follows: big on top and small on bottom. So, in this fashion we put all of our kindling on the bottom then stack the fuel logs on top.
Sounds familiar? Sure it does. That’s the Boy Scout Merit Badge talking, and we aren’t Boy Scouts. We’re going to reverse the whole layout. Place your largest fuel logs on the very bottom atop your ash bed then layer smaller logs. The tinder and newspaper balls go, like the cherry on a sundae, on the very top. This arrangement will burn cleaner since the smoke from the tinder doesn’t have to pass through a stack of cold logs.
Using the upside-down layout has another benefit as well; self-sustainability. Because the largest fuel logs are on the bottom, the fire will keep going for far longer than the traditional layout. The fire burns from the top down, and from smaller fuel to largest. This means that the fire taps the best fuel as it burns, and reduces the need for constant minding and tending.
Well, now that you have all the tips and tricks, and jargon you need to look and feel like a pro go start a fire in that beautiful fireplace. It’s time to start truly enjoying your home’s amenities to their fullest, and there’s no better place to start than the hearth. So, follow the guidelines we’ve talked about, and have a family game night as the snowflakes fall!