February 27, 2021

Keeper of The Fire, by PJGT

This article is not about cutting wood, nor is it about the best chainsaw or other tools. It is about keeping the fire. About the life and warmth of a fire. If you are thinking about transitioning to wood fire heat, I’m hoping to help avoid some of the frustrations and shorten the learning curve of learning to keep a fire.

I’ve lived in many different parts of the world, and there are different types of forests and wood available. Use what you have. Make it work. That’s my best advice. Getting things together and making it work is what this article is really about.

How did I learn about how to keep the fire? I grew up in a sixty-foot-long house that was only heated by wood on one end located in a deep blue state in the Northeast. We had to combat damp as well as cold. I’ve also lived on the Arctic Circle in a wood-heated log cabin where the temperature dropped to 72 degrees below zero. Only four degrees from the record. Three weeks of 50 degrees below zero turns propane to jelly. So happy to have wood heat. My most recent wood-burning lessons were learned in the American Redoubt high in the Rocky Mountains. I expect there are many ways to make and keep a fire; all tips are welcome in the comments.

Fire starters are essential to daily fire-starting. There are some really good ones for sale or, if you’re like me, you want them for free. Pine cones, especially dipped in wax, work well; however, my go-to is a toilet paper roll stuffed with dryer lint. When I don’t have enough dryer lint of my own, I have friends and family save it for me. I love using what I have especially if it would be thrown away.

How about getting the fire ignited? We are fortunate to have a free daily newspaper, so we use newspaper. We also use torn brown cardboard. Before COVID, I used to go to the recycling center to get boxes. Now that we’re ordering so much online, we have plenty of cardboard. We also have the paper used for packing, but I tend to iron that and use it as wrapping paper. A note of caution here: do not use colored boxes because of the toxins that could be emitted. Inks have improved, but I like to play it safe anyway. Breathing in toxic air just cannot be good for anyone. I store the cardboard and newspaper in a basket near the fireplace. But not too close.

Let me share a really great comment (1/16/2021) about how to start a fire that was written by St. Funogas:

“A few other people have mentioned this lately so I’ll share my frugalistic “one match and walk away” method.

It’s all about the kindling and how you make the base for the fire. Kindling should be very dry and narrow, mine are typically split from boards or regular pieces of firewood. You want ¾” across or smaller. The more rough edges the better.

I get all the free newspapers I want by asking at the newspaper office. Use only pages which are not the shiny kind like they use for Walmart inserts. They don’t burn well. To start a fire, I lay two small pieces of firewood (5-6″ in diameter x 16″) up against each side of the stove inside so that it forms a “valley” between the two pieces. I then crinkle up newspapers and fill the valley with as many as I can stuff in there. Next, I lay three evenly-spaced pieces of short kindling perpendicular to the side logs so they are fully supported and won’t fall through into the valley. I then add three longer pieces perpendicular to those, followed by another layer of short pieces parallel to the first layer. Then a large piece of firewood to top everything off.

You have to have the damper open and the flue open to get a good draft so the fire can really take off. Open the damper, open the flue, light one match to the newspaper and walk away. If you have a metal chimney pipe above the stove, I can’t recommend highly enough getting a chimney thermometer. It lets you know when you’re above the safe limit and should shut the flue and/or damper.

By using this log cabin type construction, the kindling won’t fall onto the newspaper and snuff it out. And if you didn’t start with enough newspapers, then you will still have that space under the kindling to stuff in more newspapers and try again.”

Kindling is dear to my heart. Some mornings, I’m tempted to get myself some of the really good kindling for sale out there. Instead, I spend hours gathering the refuse from splitting wood and romp around in the woods gathering twigs from the ground. As a result, I also help the area around our cabin in the woods to be less vulnerable to fires. We cut the lower limbs of the trees around our cabin as well. In addition to using bark as kindling, I separate out pieces of bark and use those for getting my fire hotter when I need it to be hotter.

Storing the kindling was a bit problematic because I need it to be dry. Eventually, I found that the large bags that our dog food comes in work well. I let the dogs clean them out, and they do a very good job! Kindling is happy in the shed no matter the temperature. I just bring in enough for two days at a time to ensure it is dry and ready.

Storing firewood is something to consider. I’ve seen the photos of different neighboring houses after a huge fire. The house with the wood stacked near the house was burnt to the ground. The house with the cleared barrier and no wood stacks near the house was still standing. So, we have moved our stacks of wood away from our cabin. Woodsheds are a smart way to keep the wood from the weather and a quick glance will let you know how much wood you have. Keep in mind that more wood will be used if you are home and if wood heat becomes your primary source of heat. There is also thievery. It has never been a problem anywhere I have lived, but I have heard of such actions. Firewood may become more valuable, act accordingly.

In many parts of the country, bugs are an issue with firewood. Therefore, be aware and on the lookout the signs: holes, sawdust, and dying trees. I like to burn the buggiest wood early in the season when I don’t need a long hot fire. I never store this type of wood inside the house. I don’t mind most insects and rodents, but I do not feel that I need to live with them!

Where to store wood?

  1. Stacked and covered or in a woodshed away from the house or other outbuildings
  2. However, that is really inconvenient in deep winter, so we keep a couple day’s wood near the house when the snow is high and the potential for fire is very low
  3. The day’s wood is kept in a small holder by the fireplace – good clean wood, of course

Warm, dry wood burns best; however, sometimes you’ll end up using wood that is wet, frozen or covered with snow. It is best to see if you can get a nice hot fire going with the driest wood around and use that fire to dry out the wet or cold wood after removing as much snow as possible. I like to put the wet wood across the top of the fire to keep good airflow and allow the wet wood to dry out. Sometimes the best usable wood is at the bottom of the stack. That’s always fun, unstacking stacked wood.

Fireplace tools are important. You’ll need some long-handled ones to work the fire and a nice shovel to remove the ash. These are sold in sets which are strong and beautiful, or you can do what I did and buy a set for five dollars secondhand. They work well without being too decorative. I’m good with that.

Gloves are essential. We looked at different types of fireplace gloves and ended up buying welding gloves for fourteen dollars. These work well. I have smaller gloves for myself as I often manhandle the logs. Bad habit from years ago.

Get a good fireproof rug. There is just too much at stake for a stray spark or coal to cause a fire. Wool rugs are very good. Not much else to say but do the right thing. Spend the money.

You’ll also need an ash bucket and shovel to get the ash out of the stove or fireplace. Fires need air to burn well. Having ash in your ash bucket allows for banking your wood stove at night. Just remember to bank with slow-burning wood. The goal is to keep a slow fire going all night so that there are coals in the morning. Find your slowest burning wood and seal up all of the air leaks in your woodstove with ash. You will probably want to experiment with different kinds of wood to see what works best in your area. Or ask someone. In a fireplace, there are no options for banking. On cold nights, I will often put a large piece of wood on a dying fire and allow it to burn part way through. In the morning, I remove the charred wood to use on the newly built fire. Helps get the morning fire moving along on a cold morning.

We have a kindling bucket that we fill and bring in each night, so the kindling is warm and dry. I must also admit that it saves me from going outside in the cold every morning. An added bonus.

For the fireplace and some wood stoves, I use a small plastic brush and dustpan to clean up. I bought it at the dollar store years ago and it has proven very useful. I not only like things clean, but I also am eliminating any problems with fire fodder for a small spark.

Fans are very useful. There are fans that fit in the stovepipe that recover much of the heat that would be lost. There are fans that sit on the top of the woodstove and move that heat into the room. Corner fans also can be put up and move the warm air down a hallway or into a different room.

Wood heat is drying and having a pan of water on the stove returns some moisture to the air. I really do like the painted cast iron lidded ones as they do not rust or always look dirty. I’ve just used an old pan as well. Some people will even cook on their woodstoves or keep a kettle of hot water going.

Matches and lighters should be long-handled. I would rather use a long-handled match. But each to their own. When I make the fire, I ensure that there is sufficient paper to light without too much effort. Keep the stored matches, kindling and paper away from the fire. You’ll be amazed how sneaky sparks can be.

Chimney Care is essential. Minimally it should be cleaned once a year. I also take care not to burn green wood. And, I occasionally build a really, really hot fire. If it’s a wood stove, I bang on the stove pipe. Hire a professional to make sure you do not have a chimney fire. Finally, make sure your wood stove and chimney are properly installed. They can get hot, so make sure your walls are sufficiently protected. This is a reminder to not place furniture or anything flammable near the stove or fire. Fires are truly destructive, and preventive measures are important. It’s not just about your things burning up, but often lives can be destroyed or at least changed forever.

You’ll want to clean out the woodstove or fireplace annually and look for cracks, leaking seals, or other problems. Wood stoves will also need to be blackened with high-temperature stove paint each year. After blackening your stove, light a fire early enough in the season so that you can open windows to let the smell out.

Have a fire extinguisher near your wood stove or fireplace. I also suggest some sort of barrier if you have very young children. And, again, keep flammable items away from the heat and flying sparks.

How much wood will you use? That question will answer itself over the course of a few years, but if you’re new to burning wood I suggest you overestimate how much wood you think you’ll use. Better to have too much, rather than too little and run out. And remember that what you use for an average winter will be significantly increased with colder or wetter temperatures. If you are not home during the day, plan to store more in case you will be in trying times. Buying wood at the peak of the heating season is expensive.

Finally, there is a case to be made for the different types of wood stoves. I grew up with a Franklin stove and it served us very well. I currently have a Vermont Castings stove and love it. Having an ash pan that is easy to use is a godsend some days. I’ve also used a tiny wood stove for a single room cabin that is relatively inexpensive and did the job well. We just had to remember to cut the wood small enough and split it extra slim. Fortunately, there are many different stoves for different tastes and uses. Secondhand stoves need to be checked out carefully before purchasing and using.

I always find a fire brings a house alive. It provides more than warmth. I often sit and think about those who came before me who tended the home fires faithfully. I come from a long line of keepers of the fire.

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