How to make a log fire
In these days of central heating where you push a button or the heating comes on automatically by timer – heating your house with a log burning or dual fuel stove can be a challenge, and for many is a skill that they have never learned. As children many of us were warned away from fire, and discouraged from playing with matches. Our houses were warmed by gas, electricity, or oil.
So you have opened up a fireplace or installed a stove, and are struggling to light that fire or get a good blaze going. Ray Mears can produce a fire from a spark in the wilderness but you have gone through several matches and firelighters and still there is a pitiful flicker that produces no heat.
What are the tips to lighting a fire?
The things you need to consider are:
Air flow or draw of the fire
Your chimney is the lungs of the house and you need air flow to feed the flames and build up heat. When we had an open fire this included opening the door in the room, or putting up a sheet of newspaper against the chimney opening to create a rush of air. In a stove this is easier by opening the vents and door slightly. Sometimes there are issues about not having enough of a draw – if this is the case seek professional help – a cowl (see link) might be required and on occasion I have heard of a electric fan assisted cowl to artificially generate a flow of air. If you have an open fire then beware of back-draft when it is windy – sometimes it is just not worth setting a fire (you can get a cowl to help this see link above). Or you may have to much of a draw that creates a draft when the pass door is open -(we experienced this which is why personally we prefer stoves). We have not had a problem with back-draft since we installed the stoves and when the fires are not lit – we don’t have the cold air coming down the chimney. One last point on an open fire – they are less efficient than stoves because you lose a lot of heat up the chimney. Stoves retain heat simply from their structure and they enable you to control the rate of burn thereby maximising efficiency.
Type of wood you are using to light the fire
See my other blog on what types of wood burn best. Most types of wood when unseasoned or green, are too full of sap and water to burn effectively (Ash is the exception). Also some wood just does not burn very well. The heavier and therefore denser the wood, the higher its calorific value and therefore the longer it will burn. Hardwoods tend to be denser than softwoods such as pine and spruce and some of the densest are oak and beech. However, some of the very dense hardwoods like oak and elm can be very difficult to burn, so it is usually best to burn them with another type of wood as well. Softwoods tend to be easy to light and to burn quickly (making them very good kindling). Some of the best woods to burn are ash, beech, hornbeam, hawthorn, crab apple and wild cherry.
Your wood needs to be seasoned (dried over a period of time or in a kiln). If buying from a log merchant, check that your load will be well seasoned and ready to throw on the fire. If you are still unsure, or storing it yourself, use a moisture meter to detect when the timber’s content is below 25%. Until then, store in a pile with plenty of air circulating around it.
Moisture content of wood for the fire
This can affect how well wood will burn. Wet wood is also less efficient because the rising steam takes away heat from the room. It will also coat your chimney with resin and soot which is a major cause of chimney fires. More information on this issue can be found here.
Size of wood in the fire
You need to light a small piece of wood and newspaper or firelighter that then lights a bigger piece (called kindling) that then lights a log. Heat needs to build up and you need a bed of embers burning before logs will burn freely. Check out this You Tube link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6aIeIZfTkg&feature=related
Log fires need a lot of attention
They burn quickly and can go out if not attended or fed with other logs. Coal is a less green option but gives a greater long lasting heat. However it produces a lot more ash or spoil that is considered toxic and cannot be used in your hen shed or compost. We put our wood ash under the roosting perches to balance out the acidity of the hen poop. The chicken manure and wood ash react, driving off the nitrogen and drying out the manure. The result is an easily handled, easy-to-store, organic fertilizer that is rich in potassium and phosphorus. We also add wood ash to the hens dust bath. Wood ash is a good source of potash check out this link for more info. For the reasons given we do not mix wood (apart from initial lighting with kindling) with coal, we have one type of fire or the other.
Health and safety
Open fires can be more dangerous than wood burning stoves because of the sparks they produce – amongst other dangers. Never leave an open fire unattended, however stoves can become dangerously hot and touching them or proximity of materials close to stoves can melt, or smoulder. Fire guards, proximity, and health & safety are things that must always be taken into consideration.
do not burn things in your fire that can cause fumes or are dangerous.
Maintenance of chimney
make sure your chimney is cleaned or swept regularly – it is recommended that this is done at least once a year. Otherwise that roaring fire might turn into something far more dangerous……. When coal soot deposits or wood tar deposits build up to a sufficient level there is the risk of chimney fire. The heat from the fire warms the deposits releasing the combustible volatiles until they ignite. The fire then migrates up the chimney as the burning deposits heat the chimney above. Chimney fires can damage structures, destroy homes and injure or kill people. Here are some useful links http://www.chimney-cleaners.co.uk/chimney-fires.php, http://www.stovesonline.co.uk/chimney-fires.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3drlKFx8P7Y.
We fitted chinese hats to the tops of our chimneys to stop rain getting in, birds getting in, and reduces downdraft. Check out this link for examples of caps or hats for your chimney.
Making a fire
When your wood is ready, make a wigwam of dry kindling (gathered twigs, chopped up logs, or pallets cut into batons) over scrunched up sheets of newspaper. Once the paper is lit in several places, this is the foundation of your fire. Other items that give it extra spark include fir cones, loose or dry bark, or cardboard such as empty toilet rolls. When the kindling is roaring (if using a stove, open up the vent fully or for an open hearth, use bellows to fan the flames), start by adding one log and then more once the fire is established (in a stove leave the vent partially open to keep it steady). Continue to stir/poke the fire to stimulate combustion and feed with fuel when necessary.
A log stove can go out quickly if left without fuel, if you wish to stoke up a fire then you need to reduce the air flow and make sure there is plenty of fuel so that it can be left overnight, for example, to burn slowly or smoulder and produce a low heat over a long time. Hardwoods such as oak are best suited to this as they are dense and slow-burning.
With coal it is possible to pack it down, reduce the air flow, (some people even pour a little moisture over the top to create a crust), and restart the fire again in the morning. This is less likely to happen with wood as it will burn quicker.
Unlike coal ash that should be disposed as rubbish, wood ash has many beneficial uses and should be treasured. Wood ash contains 10-25% calcium, 1-4% magnesium, 5-15% potassium and 1-3% phosphorus. And amongst other things is good for your compost, garden, and chicken dust bath. Read more