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The Right Way to Build a Fire

Sadly, it's not as simple as tossing a match on a few logs. You've got to spend some time setting it up just right.

Snow falls noiselessly outside while you and your sweetheart sit in the warm, wine-soaked afterglow of a delicious meal. Nightcaps are poured, lights are low. All you need now is a crackling fire. Oh man, the fireplace is too small for your patented teepee construction that works so well outside. Smoke is wafting into the room, the logs aren’t catching, and--oh, no. Is that a smartphone in your hand? You’re Googling it? Seriously?

As you can imagine, this is not the situation you want for yourself.

So, how do you build a fire inside like some kind of Davy Crockett reincarnation? There are three main parts of a good fire: Draft, construction, and maintenance.

Note: you should have your chimney swept once a year to get rid of creosote build up (the stuff that causes the chimney fires on those terrifying “Chimney Sweeping Logs” commercials).


Draft

Open the damper. The damper is the trap door that seals off the flue (the inside of the chimney) from the rest of your house. It keeps the warm air in your house from escaping up your chimney. There should be a lever inside the fireplace. Shine a flashlight up the chimney and watch as you pull the lever, so you make sure the damper is open.

Open your fireplace doors half an hour before you start the fire. The whole trick of having a fire indoors is making sure the smoke gets sucked up the chimney. If you open those doors, the inside of the fireplace warms up, which gives you a better chance.

Check your airflow before starting the fire. Again, this is the hardest part. Light a match in the fireplace and watch to see if air is blowing down the chimney, or through the room up the chimney. If it’s going up, you’re good. If it’s down, there are a couple things you can try.

  • Light something on fire in the fireplace that won’t smoke too much and will warm the fireplace, like a starter log.

  • Crack open a window in your house to let some cold air in that can get sucked into the fireplace and (hopefully) up the chimney. A window opposite the fireplace will work best.


Construction

The basics of the fire are the same indoors and outdoors: Tinder, kindling, and fuel. Normally, tinder is newspaper rolled into thin sticks -- lay 'em at the bottom so they can quickly catch and then light everything else.

  • Tip: If you, like everyone else, get your news online and don’t have a recycling bin full of newspapers, use dryer lint. It actually works even better.*

Lay kindling in a grid pattern over the tinder. Kindling can be twig or shingle-sized pieces of wood, or even pinecones. If you’re using sticks, cross them two layers deep, in a grid that allows airflow between the pieces. Air, even more than wood, will fuel this fire.

Lay the smallest logs you have on top of the kindling. Use dry logs, preferably from a hardwood tree. Pine burns really quickly and chestnut wood snaps and can throw embers out of the fireplace. Wood from fruit trees like pear or cherry can add a nice fragrance to the fire.


Maintenance

Once the you have red-hot embers, move on to bigger logs. Larger logs, the size of your leg, will burn slower and more consistently so you don’t have to keep shuffling things around.

About half an hour before you want the fire out, use a poker to spread the embers around. Getting rid of pockets of embers will help everything go out sooner.

After the fire is out, don’t sweep out all the ash. A bit of an ash base helps a fire, but too much smothers airflow. If you sweep out any ashes, wait a couple hours after your last fire, and never just throw them a garbage can or you’ll burn your house down.


Hopefully you’re reading this a couple hours before your date gets to your place, so you've got time to prep before bowling him or her over with your rustic skills. Now all you need is a bearskin rug and you’ll be good to go.

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