Fire in the hole!

After last post we’re sitting on a pile of wood, ready to set a bonfire (or a pyre if you’d like). Or just warm the house. But how do you do that?

The classical way

If you ask 10 people to start a fire, 9 of them will tell you the following method:

  • Pick up some news paper, small twigs or thin wood and arrange it in a small pile.
  • Arrange some bigger wooden blocks (not too big though!) around and above that pile, but be careful not to crush it.
  • Light up the small pile, using a fire accelerator of some kind if you want.
  • After a little while the bigger blocks should catch fire too.
  • Now add logs whenever possible/needed, to build up the fire

While there is nothing essentially wrong with that approach, there are some drawbacks to it:

  • First of all, you risk smothering your fire. If the bigger blocks tumble down onto your small pile while you just lit it up, it gets smothered. If you throw in blocks too early, it gets smothered. With time and experience you’ll be able to minimize the risk, but you’ll never be able to completely exclude it.
  • Starting a fire this way requires your constant attention as long as it’s still in that starting stage. You’ll need to monitor it constantly, feeding it as soon as possible to prevent it from either the smothering from above or dying from a lack of wood, until it is burning nicely.

Don’t get me wrong, the method works. But maybe there’s a better alternative. What if I told you there’s a way to start a fire that, if executed well, will guarantee a clean fire you’ll only have to watch grow? Let me show you…

The upside-down burn

The very first time we could fire up our stove, the seller of it came by with some advice and to make sure there were no problems getting a fire started. With a soapstone stove you have to gradually build up your fire duration, so that very first fire only lasted maybe 15 minutes. I did notice he put in a pile of small wood and started it from above, up until then a trick I had never seen before. So I did my research, followed by an extensive period of trial and error.

It all starts with the preparation. This method does require a little more work upfront, for which you’ll get a nice fire without much additional work required (that is, until you’ll just need to add wood to keep it going). You need to properly craft a pile of wood, starting with regular logs across the width of your fireplace. Then add a layer perpendicular, with smaller pieces of wood, and another layer perpendicular again to the last one, with split and smaller wooden pieces (you can add an extra layer or two if you want to, just remember to use smaller pieces of wood every new layer and switch directions). The smaller wood will catch fire more easily while the change in directionality will spread the fire faster.

Now this might sound like magic, but to show you that it works I made this short video (putting my money where my mouth is).

I am using some lath as a top layer (we’ve got plenty from the roof and a lot of ceiling demolition) and an accelerator from Fero (which we got at the first firing up as a free gift). At the time of writing the Fero ones are all gone and I’m using regular Zip blocks. Just forget about the news paper: it produces a lot of ash (and of the flying kind, not the one that will fall through the grill), while the ink in it produces some toxic fumes… Just get yourself some firelighters. With a little research you can find them for less than 10 cent a piece and just stock up on them.

Soapstone stove specifics

Each type of fireplace has its different requirements for operating it, and soapstone stoves are no exception (as you might have noticed in the video).

Before you start the fire you need to open up the stove: open the air inlet, the grill and the chimney vent. This will allow for a maximum suction draft from the chimney, sucking in as much air as possible (far more than needed for the amount of wood). The excess oxygen will make sure the wood burns completely, while the draft will suck the fire to not-yet-burning pieces of wood.

Once the fire is past the initial stage, you should close the grill, and by doing so make the air flow along the stone walls, sucking the flames to the stone. Then you can gradually close the inlet and exhaust, to contain the fire: the flames shouldn’t go much higher than what you can see through the door (10 to 20 cm max). Usually I have to close them both around 1/3 (so 2/3 open still).

As you can see in the video there are metal bars present at the sides and back of the fireplace, called “teeth”. When the flames are about the height of the back teeth I know it’s time to throw some more wood in the fire. It is not recommended to fill it higher that the back teeth, so usually I throw in two to three blocks. In general this means I need to feed the fire every ten to fifteen minutes, and it takes roughly two hours (to two and a half) to get the stove all warmed up. Which is something I unfortunately cannot properly explain in words, as it’s a feeling. I feel up the second row from the top and the second row from the bottom. If I can barely touch the former and touch the latter for less than a couple of seconds I know it has reached its capacity. Then you can let the fire die out, rattle the grill (and let it open again) for any ash to fall into the bin below, and once the fire has completely died out close up the inlet and exhaust completely.

Bonus tip applicable for any fireplace with a door: when you need to add wood, open up the door in two steps. First open it up only a couple of cm, which will allow the chimney to suck out any gases and suck in some air through the gap, then open the door completely. You’ll minimize the chances of getting smoke in your living room!

End notes

Starting a fire is not an exact science. It is first and foremost a matter of experience and trial ‘n error. I’ve been fumbling with it for the last couple of months now, and learned quite a bit. I hope I succeeded in spreading a bit of that wisdom. Now, who’s into fire? What’s your experience in starting it? Any other tips or tricks? Spread the wisdom in the comments!