How to Start a Cozy Fireplace Fire

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 23, 2010 · 17 comments

in Just For Fun, Manly Skills

This post is brought to you by Goodyear. Click here to learn more about Winter Reactive Technology from Goodyear. What’s this?

One of my favorite things about winter is spending time next to a warm and cozy fireplace fire. What’s more romantic than snuggling up to your gal in front of a glowing fire? And what’s more relaxing than coming home from a long day of work, sitting in your man chair, and unwinding next to a glowing hearth?

If you’ve never started a fire in a fireplace (and no, those automatic electric fireplace don’t count), then this guide is for you.

1. Make sure your chimney is clean and free of blockages. It’s always a good idea to get your chimney swept before you start lighting fires in it. Even if you haven’t used it, animal nests and old leaves can cause blockages that will result in a smoke-filled house. Call a chimney sweep to come check out your chimney. Of course, you should have done this already when you winterized your house.

2. Open the damper. I made the mistake of not opening the damper the first time I made a fire in a fireplace. The heater had gone out in our house, and we were in the middle of an ice storm. I tried being the big hero by starting up a cozy fire in the fireplace. I got the fire going, but it filled the entire house with smoke. Don’t be like me. Make sure to open the damper all the way if you want to avoid keeling over from smoke inhalation.

3. Prime the flue. If your chimney is built on the outside of your house, the chimney flue is probably cold. When you open the damper, the cold air in the flue will sink and come into your warm house. If you try to light a fire during this air sink, you’re going to end up with smoke coming into the house instead of up the chimney. To counteract the air sink, you need to prime the flue by warming it up. This is done by lighting a roll of newspaper and holding it up the damper opening for a few minutes. When you feel the draft reverse, you know the flue is primed, and you’re ready to start your fire. If you have a fireplace that has a gas pipe to supplement your wood burning, turn on the gas and light the pilot light without any wood in the fireplace. Your flue will warm up in a matter of minutes.

4. Develop an ash bed. Having a 1- 2 inch ash bed in your fireplace hearth will help insulate the fireplace and create hotter fires. If you’ve never built a fire in your fireplace before, this can be a problem. One quick fix is to take the ashes from your outdoor grill and place them in your fireplace to build the ash bed. While a small ash bed is good, too much ash is a bad thing. Make sure to clean the ashes out of your fireplace from time to time.

5. Build an “upside down” fire. Several fire-building methods exist, and all of them have their merits. If there’s a particular way you like to build a fire, by all means do it. But if you’re looking to build a clean burning fire that lasts for hours, try using the “upside down” fire lay.

Unlike traditional fire lays that require you to put tinder and smaller kindling at the bottom and larger fuel logs on the top, the upside down fire lay reverses the sequence. Start off by stacking your large fuel logs on the bottom of the fire grate. Stack smaller logs on top. Add a kindling layer (small twigs about the size of your pinky) on top of the stack. Top off the stack with bunched up newspaper balls and other tinder. Light the fire from the top. Because smoke won’t have to pass through the cold logs, the fire will burn cleaner. What’s nice about this arrangement, too, is that you don’t have to do much to keep it going.

With your cozy fireplace lit, it’s time to pick out a good book, make some hot chocolate, sink down into your leather man chair, and bask in the glow of the blazing hearth.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greg November 23, 2010 at 10:05 am

I have used the inverted fire technique on a number of occasions and it is fantastic.

2 Brandon Pierce November 23, 2010 at 10:26 am

While I got a laugh out of it, I was confused about where the “winterize your home” link in point #1 lead me. Was that intentional, or perhaps just a copy and paste error?

3 Edge of David November 23, 2010 at 11:00 am

hmmm never heard of the upside down firestack. Maybe I will just get a pelet stove and avoid all this!

4 Chris November 23, 2010 at 6:20 pm

I think I’ll try that tonight!

5 Brett November 24, 2010 at 2:37 am

Hot chocolate?!? I like a sweet chocolatey drink as much as the next guy, but a manly- beside-the-fire kind of drink would be scotch neat or on the rocks.

Or bourbon perhaps.

6 Don November 24, 2010 at 7:52 am

@Brett
Not when alcohol is not a part of your family. That was a choice I made long before I grew into manhood, and one that still benefits this family. It lets me stay present in the fullness of the moment (to refer to a recent posting). I just put it in a real manly-looking mug.

7 Rick November 24, 2010 at 10:28 am

+1 on priming the flue! I learned that lesson the hard way. I’ve also learned that less is more when using a gas starter pipe. The gas consumes a lot of the oxygen flowing into the fireplace, leaving less for the wood. As soon as the kindling lights turn off the gas and watch it go.

8 Matt November 24, 2010 at 2:47 pm

@Brett
Just to pile on (in good humor, I assure you), aren’t you wimping out a bit putting your top premium liquor on the rocks? The cold dulls the subtleties of the liquor, making the drink very one-dimensional. If you don’t like the burn of the alcohol in a “neat” drink, I recommend cutting it with a bit of cool, not cold, water, which allows you to get past the alcohol and taste the nuanced layers in a good Bourbon or Scotch. Adding ice is kind of like shaking a martini, if you ask me…

Just make the hot chocolate yourself (i.e. no Swiss Miss), and a good hot chocolate can be as manly as any liquor.

9 W November 25, 2010 at 2:47 am

Seems very inefficient

10 Gary V November 25, 2010 at 4:37 am

I love the Silver Fox’s videos on You Tube. I think wilderness survival / self reliance is very much a “manly” thing.

11 P.M.Lawrence November 26, 2010 at 9:44 am

This comment didn’t work the other day:-

Brett, you might want to try rum and cocoa, an analogue of Irish coffee as used by the Royal Navy, e.g. in the Arctic convoys. Apparently shipwreck survivors did better against exposure if they had recently had some. Here are a couple of sites describing one of its variants: http://www.foodnetwork.ca/recipes/Beverage/Chocolate/recipe.html?dishid=7980 and http://www.lifestylefood.com.au/recipes/2440/hot-cocoa-with-rum.

I believe the Navy recipe used high quality cooking chocolate grated into a little simmering water, maybe with a little Oxford marmalade or similar in the water to give it an edge, then stirring in condensed milk while still simmering and white or dark rum as preferred once it was off the boil; all quantities according to taste (apocryphal, i.e. I heard it somewhere and don’t remember when or where).

I find I get a good hot chocolate by blending a third of a mug of full cream milk powder and four teaspoons of Nestlé’s Alpine Blend drinking chocolate, then thoroughly stirring in boiling water (first half way, then stirring to get rid of lumps, then filling all the way and rubbing the teaspoon against the inside of the mug between stirs to dissolve the last of it). I haven’t tried that with added alcohol, though.

12 Miles November 26, 2010 at 11:06 am

is there any greater contribution to a home? this season is granting ample opportunity to enjoy a fireside dogpile for families here in CA… mornings and evenings aren’t the same with the illuminating glow of this elemental gift from ye gods! great piece!

13 Carter December 13, 2010 at 2:52 pm

This post proves again that you can always learn something new even if you think you know a lot about the topic being discussed.

I have never seen the ‘upside down’ fire technique and can’t wait to try it.

Thanks, fire starting is definitely one of the top man skills to master.

14 Knucklehead December 13, 2010 at 4:14 pm

This an old post and it is unlikely anyone will ever see this belated comment. Nonetheless, here goes… I am a devotee of the “reverse stack” for wood fires. I spent years fighting with that “tinder on the bottom” nonsense. But I’ve developed an additional refinement that allows me to spend even more time sitting back and enjoying the fire. I keep a cookie tin (or coffee can) of charcoal briquettes soaked lightly with citronella oil. Put one, or two if you prefer, near the top of your stack right under the kindling. Put a match to the briquette and then sit back and enjoy your fire. No need for any further work such as more bundled paper, more lighting, pumping the bellows or your lungs… just sit back and enjoy.

15 James Stride November 4, 2012 at 7:40 am

Dude! Being in November in the North of India in the Himalayas having no idea on how to start a fire BUT having an indian Netstick 3G + Macbook pro + This article = ass smoothly saved, technology meets nature, awesome.

16 Jack December 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Looks improbable until you try it. Then it’s the only way you will want to do it. Amazing!

17 Kathryn Kerrigan January 26, 2014 at 11:19 am

The first fire I ever made and it was a success!!! Thanks for the help!!

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