“I had not been seated many minutes by the comfortable heath … before I found myself as much at home as if I had been one of the family.” Old Christmas, Washington Irving 1819-20
For me, one the most enduring enticements of the year, stretching all the way back to my childhood, is the enjoyment of a fire on a crisp evening in the fall or winter. When Caroline and I lived in Louisiana, I really missed having fires. A string of nights in the upper 50s constitutes a serious cold snap on the Bayou. By contrast, October and November here in the Shenandoah Valley bring back brisk breezes and a rimy resplendence that call for warm, warbling fires and the heady undertones of wood-smoke.
When I was a kid, my brother, dad, and I would take an afternoon in the fall to collect firewood. The source varied. Once upon a time, local orchards would let folks cut up and haul away the older apple trees that had been felled. On other occasions, we’d go out into the National Forest and fill dad’s 1963 International pick-up with oak and ash, inevitably cold and sore but fulfilled by our effort. To this day, the sweetness of freshly cut hardwood and the bite of two-cycle engine oil is a bouquet as appealing to me as the subtle notes of a fine wine are to those of a higher tax bracket.
The right to firewood is very old, perhaps primeval. The saying, “by hook or by crook” goes back to the Middle Ages when commoners where allow to take branches and sticks that could be gathered with a billhook (wide, curved knife for cutting shrubs or brush) or shepherd’s crook. In other words, if you weren’t a landowner you couldn’t chop down trees at will, but you could take the branches within reach of these tools. The current meaning of the idiom, “by any means necessary”, reflects how dire the need for wood as a fuel source once was.
Wood-burning Fireplaces Today:
It must be acknowledged that wood-burning fireplaces are a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong, wood is a viable heat source and a good wood stove can heat a whole house, but when builders and engineers think of heat sources today, their minds turn to electricity, natural gas, and propane. Most traditional wood-burning fireplaces are somewhere between 15% to 40% efficient. The majority of the heat potential goes up in smoke. Literally. It goes right up the chimney. But for some of us, the crackle and pop of well-seasoned wood and the gentle lap of firelight have no less appeal in an age of instant gratification than they did for our forbearers for whom fire was a defiant act of forbearance against the elements. Though the process of making a fire is foreign for many today, the gene in which the appeal of warm winter fires flickers has not yet been purged from our world of plastic.
As I discussed in my blog post on chimneys, many fireplaces these days are primarily ornamental, getting little or no use. The fact of the matter is that you can’t expect anything that hasn’t been used regularly to perform at peak or even acceptable levels. If you haven’t been to the gym in a while and then try to dive back into an exercise routine from years before, you’re very aware of this dynamic. If you aren’t familiar with how to have a fire or it has been a while, these are the steps to take in order to do so safely.
How to Build a Fire:
- Resist the Urge to Have a Fire. What? Yeah. If you haven’t had a fire in a given fireplace in some time or ever, don’t throw an armful of wood in and start throwing matches at it. Make sure your fireplace and chimney/flue are clean and in good working order. Even if the firebox is clean enough to eat from (the fireplaces at my grandmother’s house were kept at a level of sterility normally reserved for operating rooms), this doesn’t necessarily mean that the flue and chimney are sound. I highly recommend having a qualified chimney technician/sweep clean and inspect the whole assembly. Don’t be cheap, get a Level II inspection. This involves sending a camera down the flue to make sure it isn’t cracked. The purpose of the chimney and flue liner are to safely usher dangerous combustion gases out of the house. Cracks in either can allow smoke and carbon monoxide into the house.
A chimney tech is also going to make sure your damper and weather cap are in good working order. If you have a historic home (pre-World War II), don’t be surprised if your fireplace and chimney need an overhaul. Instead of a thick clay liner, earlier chimneys had a layer of parging or no lining at all!
- Go to the Hardware Store. Stick with it, this will be worth the effort. Make sure you have working smoke/carbon monoxide detectors, an ash can, and a charged fire extinguisher. If you have an older house in which the smoke detectors aren’t hardwired, I have good news. New smoke/carbon monoxide detectors are now combined in the same unit and have lithium batteries that last exactly 10 years. When the battery dies you get a whole new unit, and you don’t have play the where-is-the-nine-volt-battery-and-which-detector-is-beeping game. A guide for smoke/carbon monoxide detector placement can be found here.
If you don’t have a fire extinguisher in the same room as the fireplace, I’d have one no more than a room away. Should something go awry, you want to be able to grab the extinguisher in seconds. And don’t forget that fire extinguishers expire. I see lots of units that pre-date the internet. This is not good.
We’ll come back to the ash can.
- Check the weather. If it isn’t cold enough you’re going to turn your house into a smoker and risk having your fire-making license revoked by your loved ones. You really need the outside temperature to be no more than 45 degrees and falling. Many in number are they who have made a fire on a sunny Christmas Day in the upper 50s only to have their guests flee the living room in search of fresh air and cooler temperatures.
- Find Firewood. We’re getting to the fun part. I love the ritual of making a fire, and for me this starts with the cutting, hauling, and loading of firewood. However, if you find yourself chainsawless or disinclined to lug large logs, you can just search online for firewood in your zip code or pick up a bag of Hot Sticks at 7-11.
The ideal log length depends on your fireplace. I recommended leaving pieces at least 8” to 12” shorter than the width of the firebox, so when placed in the center, air can circulate around the fire. You want a variety of sizes and split anything with more than a 5” diameter. If you buy firewood that has already been chopped, you can skip this step; however, chopping firewood is great exercise and you can give purpose to that $80 flannel shirt you bought on a whim.
You also want to give some thought to the type of wood you are burning. Never burn soft woods inside: pines, furs, etc. These have a high sap content and will quickly leave the walls of your chimney covered in highly flammable creosote. The most commonly available hardwoods in our area are red and white oak. These are stalwarts, but not your only option. As I mentioned in the introduction, fruit woods, while often gnarled and difficult to cut, burn hot and have a savory smoke. So far this fall, I’ve been burning a lot of ash. The Emerald Ash-bore Beetle has taken a toll on the native ash trees in this area, so many are available. The Ash has a very straight grain and is easy to split and burn, but it doesn’t have the sweet smell of other hardwoods. Like sipping a flight of craft beer or gnawing on coffee beans at upscale supermarkets, you’ll find your preference when it comes to firewood.
- Open a Window. Open a window – even if it is really cold. When you are starting a fire you want to establish good air-flow. This spearhead of cold, dense air will help the fire get going and keep it from smoking up the room. Once there is an even bed of hot coals under the grate (metal chair on which the logs sit), you can close the window or leave just a crack. If the room in which your fireplace is located is smaller, I recommend leaving a window slightly ajar so the fire can breathe.
- Prepare the Fireplace: Clean the ashes from any previous fires to make way for the tightly wound rolls of newspaper that will fan the flames. The newspaper rolls should line up neatly between the legs of the grate and shouldn’t stick out more than an inch or so. On top of the grate begin with kindling. You can buy packs of kindling at most hardware stores or you can use small sticks, generally ½” to 1” in diameter. Smaller pieces are easier to light, so begin small and then slowly build up. Remember, a fire needs air to breath. Leave 1” to 2” between pieces of kindling. On top of your kindling place several small pieces of firewood. I like to start with thin, shallow pieces.
- Warm the Flue: When you start the fire the chimney is cold; cold air sinks. You need to reverse this so the hot smoke from the fire goes up the chimney and not out into the room. I make an extra roll of newspaper, light one end, and hold it up in the flue for as long as I can safely. Be aware that detached chimneys (not part of the outside wall) take longer to warm up than attached chimneys (part of the outside wall).
- Light the fire: After double checking that the damper is open or removed, light the newspaper. You’re going to need to monitor the fire for a bit so grab a drink ahead of time: hot cocoa, coffee, cold beer, etc. During the early going you’ll want to slowly add firewood of greater size. Besides adding wood periodically, a good fire will get to a point where it is self-sustaining and doesn’t smoke, but this is often half an hour to an hour after you start it… Yes. Intellectually, I understand the appeal of gas fireplaces.
- Enjoy the Fire: Once you see a bed of hot coals under the grate you can turn your attention to dinner, a good book, or a football game. You’ll need to add wood every now and then, but once the fire has reached a certain temperature and the chimney has warmed, there will be a strong draw of air from the house towards the fireplace and up the chimney. There’s no need to overdo it. After you start the fire, the flames should be no more than a few inches high. If the flames continue to leap up the chimney, back off on the wood.
- Let it Go: Let’s not lose sight of what is going on here. You are lighting a fire in your house. [Full stop. Reread.] Once your fire is up and running, you can turn your attention to other things, but always be mindful of it. You don’t have to stay in the same room as the fireplace, but keep it within your line of sight. Don’t start a project in the basement or go to the store. You need to be able to act if need be. Likewise, wood fires don’t get shut off, they die down. Stop adding wood to your fire 2 to 3 hours before you go to bed or need to leave. I often find hot coals in the fireplace the morning after a fire. Don’t leave the fire unattended until you are absolutely sure that it is completely out.
- Clean up: Remember that ash can I mentioned earlier? This is a small metal trash can with a latching lid that safely holds any lingering sparks or embers. Once the fire has gone out, live embers can be frequently be found in the ash hours later. Never put ashes into a trash can with contents that can catch on fire. Finally, close the damper to keep cold air from rushing down the flue.
Yes. This a lot of work. And while I cherish the ritual of fire making as others do the steps to prepare their favorite dish, there is no loss of intestinal fortitude if you’re a gas fireplace person. They are neat, clean, and convenient. And even though wood has been supplanted by other fuels as a primary source of heat in many parts of the world, it will never go away completely. It isn’t trite to remember that fire is the original all-in-one. Fire was the first universal source of security, utility, comfort, and entertainment for folks the world over. To this day, talk of any tenor takes on a tamer tone around the fireplace. Speech is slower and lower. This promethean wonder still beckons us to gather and spend time with friends and family. And this is the true magic of the fireplace.
 Solar and wind energy sources, for the most part, are transformed into heat after becoming electrical current.
 I would love to have someone in marketing explain to me how calling firewood Hot Sticks makes them more profitable.