Open the Door (if there is one) 10-20 minutes before lighting the fire
If you have a wood burning stove with a door, or a fireplace with a glass front, open it several minutes before you try to light the fire. This will allow the inside of the fireplace to get to room temperature and will help with getting the air from the fireplace to go up the chimney after the fire is lit.
I know what when you first arrive at a cabin in the winter, it can be really cold inside. There’s a big temptation to get that fire list fast. But I suggest you go inside, open the door, open the flue or damper, and then go bring some stuff in and get some things settled it’ll be worth it.
That brings me to my next tip.
Open the Flue or Damper
Right after you open the door to the fireplace, also open the damper or flue. I have accidentally left the flue closed when starting a fire and my house quickly filled with smoke. The smoke detectors went off and the alarm company called. It was kind of a fiasco. Open the damper.
This also helps to get airflow going up and out the chimney.
Setup your fire off the bottom surface
In a minute, we’re going to start building our fire, but this is an important note. If you have a grate in your fireplace, you don’t need to worry about this. Your logs will lay off the ground a bit, allowing airflow to come in from underneath. Otherwise, I recommend that you set two logs in the fireplace with a small gap between them. Then lay another log on top running between them. We’ll build our fire on top of the two logs. They’ll act as a base allowing air to come in under the fire.
Use really dry wood
Obviously dry wood is easier to catch on fire than wet wood. But this goes beyond whether the wood is dry or wet to the tough. The longer your wood has been drying, the less moisture content it has.
The moisture in the wood does two things.
- It makes it harder to burn, so it takes a lot more work to start your fire.
- It causes a lot of smoke
When you’re lighting a fire for indoors, you want as little smoke as possible. Wood that has been cut from a tree that was living only a couple months ago is probably not dry enough. If you want to make this easy on yourself and prevent your cabin from filling with smoke, use really dry wood.
One more note about wet wood. Evaporating water actually takes a lot of heat. So if you do use a wet log for your fire and manage to get it lit, most of the heat from the fire will go toward boiling the water in the log. Basically, that fire won’t do much to heat your cabin until the water has evaporated off.
Start with one or two logs log and small kindling
When I build a fire, I actually like to have one larger stick or a log that I can lean the small kindling up against. For kindling, I like to use a knife or small hatchet to cut small pieces of wood off a dry log. This wood lights easier than sticks do and burns a lot cleaner (less smoke). Just use a knife to shave pieces off of your split fire logs.
Now, setup that one log across a base of a couple logs, or lay a log or two on the fire grate. You need one log high enough above the other log that you can lean small kindling up against it. A few inches or more will do just fine. Shave small pieces of kindling for this part, but then cut off larger and larger pieces and have them on hand. We’ll add them to this lean-to as soon as we’ve lit the small pieces.
Check the Draft Before Lighting
Now, grab a lighter of a match and strike it. But don’t light the fire yet. Hold it up inside the fireplace and see which direction the flame goes. Is it going up the chimney? If so you’re good to go. If not, it means the draft is coming down the chimney. Since the air outside is usually colder than the air inside when we’re lighting fires, this is a pretty common occurrence.
Light the Fire
Whether the draft is coming down or going up, go ahead and use your matches or lighter to light the smallest kindling that’s leaning up against a log. I do this without newspaper because the paper burns too fast. Small wood kindling burns hotter and longer so I have more success starting fires this way.
Once the smallest kindling takes, add the next side of kindling to the mix. Just lean it up against the log just above where the small kindling is burning. Once that size lights, add the next size up. It doesn’t take long before you have a nice flame.
If you’re using dry wood, there won’t be much smoke, so if the air is coming down the chimney, it’s alright. Lighting this small, clean fire will help heat the chimney. Once it’s good and heated, the air will want to flow upward. If you have a door on the fireplace, leave it open at this point, even if it’s just a little. This will keep your fire from smothering itself. If you’re not getting good airflow up and out the chimney, closing the door will actually put out your fire.
Open a Window
If you’re still struggling to get the air to flow up the chimney after the fire has been going for 5 minutes or so, try opening a window in the room just a bit. This will allow air to flow into the house from outside, which can get the air in the room moving up the chimney.
Add wood as needed
Once your fire is good and going, it doesn’t take much to keep it burning. If this is your primary source of heat, you may keep it going all night. This is safest and most effective with a wood burning stove. They have doors on the front that close and seal shut so there’s really no chance that a hot ember will jump out and start a fire. Having a door or metal cover on the front of a fireplace is a great added protection and I highly recommend it if this is your primary source of heat. But I digress.
Now that it’s going strong, you don’t need to worry so much about the structure of your fire. You can pretty much just set another log on the fire as needed to keep it going as long as you want.
Spread the fire at least 20-30 minutes before you want it out
When the time comes that you do want to put the fire out, open up the fireplace and use a poker to spread out all the remaining wood and embers. If you still have a large log on the fire, you’re going to have to wait for it to burn down a bit. You can open the vent on a wood burning stove to give it more oxygen which will make it burn hotter, but faster.
By spreading out the remaining pieces of wood, the fire will start to die down. But this process takes time. Give it a full half hour to die down before you start shoveling out the ash.
Clean it out before you leave
Lastly, make sure you shovel and sweep our your fireplace or wood burning stove before you leave the cabin for home. Leaving a mess behind will only add more work next time you go to the cabin and want to start a fire.
When you put out the fire to leave, make sure you close the damper or flue to the chimney. Leave the fireplace nice and clean so that next time, you can start your fire without dealing with a mess of ashes in the fireplace.