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  • Ron Smith

How to Build a Great Fire

To build a fire. As the first frost of Fall crisps the air, a primeval yearning is re-awakened within my soul; to feel the warm glow of the flames, to watch them leaping and dancing, to hear the crackle and snap; all become a clarion call to action. I cut and gather wood, split kindling, and stock the porch. I happily set about, for the first time this season, to build a fire.

As Jack London’s hapless protagonist learned in To Build a Fire, things don’t always go as planned. If you don’t feel ready to step up and confidently build your own fire, I offer these tips to surefire, fire building, success.

Of course, I’m referring to building a wood fire in a fireplace. If you have already opted, for perfectly valid reasons, to go with a wood stove or a gas fireplace, there will be something for you here another time.


Every indoor fireplace has one. The surest way to fill the house up with smoke is to get the fire going while forgetting to open the damper. There are several different types of dampers. Get familiar with yours and learn how it operates before striking a match.


All fireplaces today will have an outside air intake. A fire breathes air and it will suffocate if it doesn’t get enough. In a tight, well built, and well insulated house, the fire can’t draw sufficient combustion air through leaky windows and doors, so it needs a little help.

A masonry fireplace will have a little sliding door covering a pipe leading to an outside vent. A factory built fireplace will have a small lever to open and close the outside air intake. Check the operating instructions if you have a problem finding it. In an especially tight house, it might even be necessary to “crack a window”, as crazy as that sounds, to get enough combustion air to build a roaring fire.


This is not always necessary, but on a cold day, particularly if you have a chimney that is primarily exterior, it can help get the draft going. Since I still read print newspapers, I have plenty of handy material for this. I simply crumple up a piece of newspaper, place it in the fireplace near the flue, and light it.


Kindling is small, dry, easily combustible, pieces of wood. If you live near a wooded area, you have a ready supply of this material, and gathering the sticks and twigs can be a pleasant part of the process. You can often just break the sticks by hand, but carrying a small pruning saw can save wear and tear on your hands, and allows you to control the length of the kindling, which makes for a neater and more orderly stack on the porch or in a kindling bucket.

Being a builder, I often have access to wood scraps from 2x4’s, cedar shingles, or oak flooring that make great kindling. I also enjoy cutting up fallen cedar trees (actually, Juniperus virginian or Eastern redcedar), and splitting them to one inch square sticks. They’re fun to split, and their bright red color and familiar aroma add to the aesthetics of fire building; plus, they add some snap, crackle, and pop to a lively fire.

The best kindling is fatwood. Fatwood is the heavily resin-impregnated heart wood of pine trees, usually gathered from trees that have died and fallen. The pine sap is concentrated in certain areas, such as the stump, and the knots formed by branches, and over time, it hardens. The sap contains a volatile hydrocarbon, terpene, which when lit by a single match, will burn like a torch.

In the old days, folks would gather the pine knots from dead trees laying out in the woods, and use them to start their fires. They also called them “lightwood”, or “pine knots”. These are rot and bug resistant, and you’ll see them still hanging on as the rest of the tree rots away. Pick one up and smell it, and you’ll recognize the pungent aroma of turpentine.

Although, you could gather your own, it’s a whole lot simpler, easier, and neater to buy it by the box. I get mine at the Plow & Hearth (, a local Charlottesville store. You can also find fatwood on line from L.L. Bean, Amazon, and others.

Fatwood is valuable when it comes to fire starting, but way too expensive to use as your sole kindling. Just one to four sticks is enough to get the dry kindling you have collected burning briskly.


That tree that fell on your house during the last hurricane may look like great firewood, but it is likely still way too “green” to burn effectively. Well seasoned means dry from the inside out. Well seasoned wood burns happily. Unseasoned wood struggles to stay lit.

It’s best to split and stack newly cut wood and give it at least six months to fully dry before burning it. You shouldn’t cover your wood while it is being seasoned. It’s better to let the sun and the wind get to it. Once seasoned, go ahead and cover it to keep it dry in that nor’easter that’s heading your way.

There are a lot of different types of wood, and they have different burning characteristics. I burn all types. Dry is the key word. To produce heat and burn slowly, oak, hickory, cherry and maple are the woods I use most often, supplementing them with cedar, pine and poplar if I want a faster, livelier fire.

If you choose to buy your firewood instead of gathering it yourself, try to buy it well before you want to burn it, as vendors sell what they have, and it may not always be as well seasoned as you would like.


I assume you have a grate in your fireplace, on which to set your logs. If not, go get one. That fire needs air, and it can’t get enough sitting on the floor of the fireplace.


I start with a piece of newspaper on or under the grate. I then place a couple of sticks of fatwood on the grate, followed by a small pile of the other kindling, stacked loosely in graduated order of size; small first, then larger pieces on top.

My wife likes to light the fire at this point, and nurse the growing fire, adding ever larger pieces, until it’s time to throw on (gently) a couple of logs.

It’s fine to do it that way. I like to set the entire fire at once, all stacked in ever increasing size, fatwood to kindling to log, somewhat askew, so that licking flames can find their way between the logs. Then I go ahead and light it. I can walk away for a few minutes and return to a fire, fully formed and blazing away.


One of my dogs, a mixed breed with an old soul, named Pearl, often stretches out facing the fire, resting her chin on her front paws, and watches the glowing embers and flickering flames.

I watch as well, and wonder if she conjures some archaic sense; a time when a man and a dog, not long from her wolf ancestors, gazed into a wood fire’s dancing flames, wisps of smoke and embers curling skyward into the speckled darkness, and wondered at it, each glad to have the fire and the companion.

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