How Do I Start a Wood Fire?

Many options for starting a good wood fire

Without question, veteran woodstove and fireplace users will argue as to the best way to light a wood fire, and with good reason – different stoves or fireplaces, different wood types, and different atmospheric conditions (temperature, outside wind, humidity, etc.) can all affect the way that a fire will start, and these conditions may change the "best" way of starting.

In the end there are a few basic principles involved in starting a good wood fire. The first is that for starting a fire dryer wood is always better. The second is that smaller pieces are generally better. The reason for these is twofold: dry, "seasoned" wood that has sat outside from spring through to winter should have no more than approximately 20% moisture content, while "green" wood that has been cut more recently can have over 35% moisture content. In order for the wood to burn, this water needs to be vaporized, which robs some of the energy from the fire, causing a smoky, crackling fire. Thus, when starting a fire, a lot of extra energy is required just to boil off the extra moisture. If there is no moisture present, the wood can simply burn, and the fire grows more quickly.

The reason for smaller wood being better has to do with the size of the wood's surface relative to what is contained inside of it. Since there is very little wood inside of the bark, the temperature rises more quickly in a flame to the point where the stick itself will light on fire and continue to burn on its own.

To actually start the fire, begin with a large base of newsprint or other paper. Place small sticks and kindling over the paper, preferably leaning them against the wall of the firebox or arranging the sticks in a tent shape – this way when the paper burns away, the kindling remains standing, allowing plenty of airflow to feed the fire before they begin to fall over. Once the sticks are burning nicely, you can begin very gradually adding larger pieces of wood to the fire in a grid pattern across the previously added kindling to continue allowing airflow to fan the flames. Of course, this does not mean "throw in the largest log you can find and walk away" – you need to gradually increase the size of the wood that you are adding, ensuring that each piece is burning well before adding any more. Once the fire is sufficiently large, you will be able to more or less toss in wood randomly and it will burn – however, for an optimal burn at peak efficiency it is always important to pay attention to airflow, ensuring that you are adding wood in a rough grid pattern and that your dampers are opened sufficiently as to keep smoke and resulting creosote to an absolute minimum.

From start to finish, this process should take 15-20 minutes – potentially as little as 10 minutes when you get used to it. Happy fire starting!

Advertiser Links for fire starter