Monday, December 30, 2019

Five Tips for the Best Fire in the Fireplace (Including How to Make Homemade Fire Starters)

We have had a chilly, rainy winter in Phoenix. Last year I had, at most, a dozen fires in my fireplace. This year, we have had fires on a regular basis. We have also yet to turn our heat on, which I take as a win considering that it is the tail end of December. So aside from the nice ambiance of a fire in the fireplace, fires also have given us warmth to get through the chilly parts of the day.

I never seem to have a problem starting a campfire. In fact, about 18 years ago I built an epic campfire that still lives in family lore, through which I am certain I conjured the Bolrog. And yet I often seemed to struggle with getting a fire going inside a fireplace. This became evident when my wife and I bought our first house with a fireplace. Fires would smolder and fizzle, but seldom would blaze.

At some point, when time travel becomes possible and I can send myself information, my past self will be grateful to learn some tricks and tips to build a perfect fire. But for now my present self will be content to sit and read, blog, or watch a movie in front of a blazing fire in the fireplace.

So here are my tips on getting that perfect fire in the fireplace (or fire pit), based on hundreds of failed fire attempts.

1. Homemade Fire Starters - These are simple to make, every person has access to the materials, and they work without fail.
Fire starters ready to go

You will need:

Toilet paper tubes
Dryer lint
Old candles (preferably in a jar), or broken crayons

Start with a toilet paper tube (I keep mine on top of the dryer so they're ready for the next step). Stuff the tube with dryer lint. Once the tube is filled, pour melted wax onto each end (I use a candle warmer to melt used candles. I also wait until I have several lint-filled tubes before doing this because one candle can make multiple fire starters). The melted wax will absorb and harden in the dryer lint. If using broken crayons, you can either melt them down, or just stuff them into the dryer lint.

One of these bad boys will get a fire going in no time. This eliminates the need for newspaper, which also reduces the amount of ash produced.

As a side note, I've used so many of these that my family's lint production has not kept up with my homemade fire starter demands. So I called my mom, and here is the actual question that I actually asked her. "Do you have any dryer lint that I can have? I don't have enough." And like the excellent mom that she is, she gave me a whole bag of dryer lint, and I couldn't have been happier.
Wood scraps make great kindling

2. Wood scraps for kindling - I have buckets of wood scraps from various woodworking projects over the years. I never quite knew what I should use them for. And then I realized that they make phenomenal kindling for fires, especially the hardwoods (oak, walnut, maple). Now, every time I trim a board, cut an end piece, or scoop up leftovers, I keep them in a bucket to help my fires along. IMPORTANT: Do not use treated lumber or plywood/chipboard. These have chemicals on them that are not good. Use woods with no chemicals, paint, asbestos, lead, or nuclear waste. 

3. Dry wood - Over the past few years, I've really been enjoying splitting firewood, so I have developed a decent stack at the side of the house. The splitting helps the wood dry out more quickly, and the Arizona summer acts as a super-kiln, making sure that our fire is ready to burn after just one summer. In wetter climates, a tarp will help keep the wood dry.

To see if your wood is dry, you can check the ends to see if it is splitting and dark in color. Or, you can knock two pieces together, which should make a hollow sound when dry. Finally, if the wood is dry the bark will typically fall off more easily. If there is any indication that the wood is still wet, you may want to give it some more time to dry out.

4. Air flow - Make sure that your fire has plenty of space in it. Think back to your high school science class where you learned about fire needing to breathe (if you never had a science class like that, think back to the first time you watched the movie Backdraft. If you never watched Backdraft then you just have to take my word for it). A good fire rack that will hold the burning coals and keep the logs elevated while letting the ash fall through works best. Also be sure to stack the wood in a way to leave air pockets.

Even the puppy's enjoying the warmth
5. Cleanliness is next to Godliness - Be sure to regularly clean the ashes from your fireplace. If you live somewhere with acidic soil, consider adding the ash to your compost. If you have Dalmatians that need to sneak out of town, be sure to keep a big pile of ash for them to roll in. Also, be sure to have your chimney swept and inspected regularly, depending on how often you use your fireplace (read about what can happen if you don't here).

So here are the steps:

First, make sure there is no ash in the fireplace, or, at a minimum, that the ash is pushed to the side.

Next, take some of the kindling and criss-cross it on the grate. It should look like the start of a game of Pick Up Sticks, with the pieces being haphazard. take a fire starter, and put it in the middle of the kindling pieces.

Finally, take two or three logs and stack them over the fire starter (think of it like a roof with the fire starter being under the peak of the roof).

When you light the fire starter, it will burn and start the logs, but will also drip burning wax on the kindling. In just a few minutes your fire will be blazing.

So while I used to struggle with getting fires going in the past, by following these five simple steps, my fires start blazing almost right away. So get that fire going, enjoy a nice cup of tea or glass of wine, and warm yourself while you read a great book or watch a movie with the family.

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