Fifty-seven percent of all homeowners in America have some type of fireplace in their home. That is a lot of firewood being harvested and burned. So where do I start?

Start At The Beginning: Your Fireplace Needs Dry Wood

If you cut your own firewood logs, you get warm twice. Most firewood haulers drive pickups, but you must be careful not to load too many logs in your pickup. Your pickup is rated for the amount you can carry in the bed (cargo weight) as well as the weight of the vehicle including the pickup’s passengers and cargo. You never want to add too much weight primarily because it affects the ability of your pickup to respond to your brake. 

Smaller pickups are generally rated for about 1,500 pounds of cargo. Pickups like the Dodge Ram, Chevrolet Silverado, and Ford F150 can comfortably carry 2,000 – 3,000 pounds.

Stack the smaller logs nearest the cab and the heaviest firewood at the back of the flatbed farthest away from the cab because most objects in the bed or trailer move toward the driver rather than away from the driver. Think about whether it is best to stack logs perpendicular or parallel to the pickup bed depending on the curvature of the road disrupting the logs.

Tip:

  • When transporting firewood, naturalists and foresters advise not moving wood long distances from where it naturally grows. One of the reasons is the risk of bringing invasive tree pests into an uninfested area.

    The USDA APHIS, DNR, and University Extension Services provide helpful material explaining this ecological challenge.
  1. https://www.dontmovefirewood.org/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbxsJj68Ezc

How Long Should The Logs Be?

Smaller logs are easier to handle than heavier logs. Cut your firewood in the lengths that best suit the location of the fire in a fireplace as well as the person doing the hauling. A 42-inch fireplace is well-suited for 20-26 inch length logs. When cutting or purchasing the firewood, think maneuverability, ease of transportation from your storage area to the fireplace, and ventilation.

What Type Of Firewood Should I Use To Build A Fire?

Determining the type of firewood has much to do with availability and the heat you want it to produce. The British Thermal Unit (BTU) is the standard to measure energy. One BTU measures the energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit at sea level. In the metric system, calories are the standard to measure the energy required to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.

A sampling of the BTUs per cord (2,000 – 3,000 lbs.) for various wood may be helpful. A list of those more desirable logs for the fireplace include:

  • Ash – 22.3 (enjoyable gentle scent)
  • Beech – 24
  • Birch – 21.7
  • Cherry – 20.4 (soothing aroma)
  • Cottonwood – 13.5
  • Elm – 19.5
  • Hickory – 27.7 (strong and one of the best)
  • Maple – 21.6 (prolonged-lasting coals)
  • Oak – 24 (above average availability, little smoke, unhurried, dependable)
  • Black Walnut – 21.5

What Type of Firewood Should I resist Using To Build a Fire?

The logs suggested for burning in the fire only with a fuller awareness of its qualities include:

Black Locust – 27.9 (excellent firewood but tough to split)

Chestnut – 12.9 (much popping and sparks)

Elm – 19.5 (burns very well, but tricky to split)

Pine – 22 (ignites quickly and more smoke rather than less smoke)

What Type of Firewood Should I Never Use to Build A Fire?

Never burn railroad ties, treated or painted wood, or leftovers from construction sites. Why? Their unnatural chemicals will introduce toxins into the room. Christmas trees should not be burned in a fireplace. Why? The likelihood of sparks popping into the room is significant.

Tips:

  • Split logs pop more than round logs, and generally the round logs last longer than the split logs.
  • Regardless of the wood selected, make sure it is dry (no more than 25% moisture content).
  • How can I tell if the logs are dry? One method to determine the wood’s dryness is to hit two logs together and if you hear a dull thud, it is probably green rather than seasoned. Seasoned logs are light, or at least lighter than green logs.

How Should I Store Firewood?

You may have heard of someone being taken to the woodshed for a spanking. Well, the woodshed is an excellent place to store your firewood. A well-built woodshed is fully ventilated. It would include a covered top and no sides or loose sides to allow air to pass through the stacked wood. The air passage dries the wood more quickly thereby advancing its seasoning.

Tips:

  • In a perfect world, firewood is cut and hauled in year one and not burned until years two and following. Why? Greenwood does not burn as easily as seasoned wood. Allowing firewood the advantage of seasoning for a year or two reduces the labor required to start the fire and control its continual burning.
  • Be aware that if wood seasons too long (over three or four years depending upon moisture) it will lose much of its energy (BTUs).
  • Cutting firewood in the early autumn as the sap begins to go down allows the outer surface of the firewood to dry and catch quickly in the winter even as the inner firewood remains sappy and hard. This allows the firewood to burn slowly and steadily requiring less attention to the fire.
  • Effective seasoning of firewood requires thought and vision. Insects, spiders, palmetto bugs, snakes, wasps, and various varmints as well as critters like homesteading in and under seasoning wood. Place firewood at a reasonable distance from the home and yet convenient for transporting the wood to the fireplace. The more sunshine the better.

Elevate wood off the soil. Using cribs, racks, or some form of raised housing will advance its seasoning. Diversification in the size of the wood within the rack will allow the hauler to have various sizes of firewood available during the burning season without having to move the firewood multiple times. 

Placing light wood and kindling as well as more seasoned wood amidst the larger firewood will save time and energy. It also provides more ventilation for the wood to continue the seasoning process. Separate the denser wood from less dense so the denser wood will be burned in the colder months because it produces more heat than the lighter wood.

Covering firewood with waterproof tarps will provide shelter from the rain, snow, ice, and other elements as well as offer an aesthetic interest for your guests. Consider spraying herbicide under and around the firewood to retard the growth of grass, briers, and undesirable vegetation. Applying an insecticide in warmer climes will reduce unwanted winged and multi-legged visitors.  

Selecting the right size and type of wagon or wheelbarrow to move the wood from storage to the residence will certainly make the task more enjoyable. A durable tote bag is a necessity. The best totes depend on the length of the haul, the obstacles between the storage and the actual fireplace, the size of the wood, and the strength of the hauler. Totes with only an opening on the top may be best for smaller wood while the more collapsible tote accommodates larger longer wood.

Before Starting A Fire In The Fire Place

Fire screens are important. The type of fire screen will have much to do with the style of the fireplace and other appointments in the fire room. Some choose to have the hearth at floor level and others have a raised hearth. When making the decision, remember that the raised hearth can enable crackling popping wood to travel farther. Nonetheless, the raised hearth is probably safer if you have small children in the home and it may be easier for older people to tend due to not having to stoop so far to pick up and place firewood. 

Tips:

  • Fire screens should be wide enough to cover the entire facia of the fireplace.
  • Some prefer screens with curved mesh on the top to circumvent wood popping out the top of the fireplace. Others do not want any more structure in front of the fire or logs than necessary.

Firewood racks or cradles located near the fireplace is a labor-saving accessory. The style and size will be suitable for the owner’s personal taste. Avoid keeping a large volume of firewood in the fire room due to hosting critters and inviting undesirables to take up lodging. Their adverse possession will assure many adversities.

Andirons, a grate, or a cradle inside the fireplace are worth investigating.

Tips:

  • Many even use andirons on the sides and a grate or cradle in the middle to support their firewood and improve ventilation.
  • Think through whether you are going to set the logs perpendicular or parallel to the fireplace opening.

Fire pokers come in small and large sizes. Consider a small poker for the more delicate work and one with more torque for moving logs.

Tending fireplace fire should be pleasurable and require continuous movement of the wood to assure the passage of air thereby allowing the fire to breathe. Air passing between the fire and ashes supplies the oxygen vital for a pleasing fire. Do not encourage too much air because the smoke could increase.  

Hardwood flooring near the fireplace, and particularly heart pine, justify selecting one of many varieties of fireproof rugs. Select the right size for the fireplace, the room, and consider placing it in the most vulnerable location.  

The shape of the fire room is a vital element in determining comfort. Lighting to assure its coziness. The placement of furniture can enhance the ambiance. Beware of placing the furniture too close to the fireplace – at least 36 inches away from the hearth.

Tips:

  • If the furniture fabric is light-colored, the intensity of the fire should be bridled. Why? Fierce fires can harm fabric.
  • Move furniture from time to time or turn the furniture in different ways when there is a fire in the fireplace.

The fire room optic is worthy of thought. Accent the fire room so all eyes are directed toward the fireplace. Consider decorating the fireplace and its accessories to accentuate the season or time of year. Colorful complements for the mantel may come from books on the source of lumber and the reminiscences of a fire, the flora and fauna in the area, as well as vegetables or flowers from the garden. A significant treatment above the mantel will be enjoyed, just make sure it is not a television. 

Why no television above the mantel?

Electronic devices maintain their efficiency at lower rather than higher temperatures. Beware of mounting an unprotected television above the fireplace or housing other electronic devices on the mantel – they do not like smoke or heat.

Precautions

Before you come to how to start a fire in a fireplace, check every year to make sure the top of the chimney has no tree branches obstructing the airflow and draft, and no leaves are near the chimney. Chimney caps can keep debris, insects, wasps, bats, and other uninvited guests away, but make sure the cap is not inhibiting airflow.

Open the damper or flue all the way – make sure it is fully opened. If the position of the damper is difficult to observe, use a flashlight to increase visibility. Start small using a little newspaper, or other kindling. With the first fire of the season, you do not want it too hot and to make sure no obstructions have developed in the chimney since last year’s fire. If there is any question, hiring a chimney sweep may be the wisest choice.

Firelogs are a kindling option when starting a fire. They are susceptible to quick deterioration when logs are on top of the kindling, so consider placing the fire log in the cradle underneath the firewood you place upon the andirons. Logs on top are generally unfavorable. More strategic placing of the kindling and logs allow the fire log to burn longer and increase ventilation.

Another kindling tinder-option for trying to start a fire is fatwood, a/k/a fat lighter, and fat lightwood. This kindling-starter is the byproduct of aged longleaf timber. It is readily available and a little of it goes a long way.

Remember:

Fire needs air (a constant theme!).

Tips:

  • Assure sufficient space between the kindling and the wood. Once you start the fire, anticipate moving wood around over the bed of coals.
  • The more often wood is adjusted, the more robust the fire.
  • Intersperse round logs and split wood to complement one another by capturing the airflow.
  • An inch or so of ash also assists in ventilation.

Ashes?

The species of wood being burned and its density determine the quantity of ash produced. A one-inch layer of ash on the floor of the firebox assists in lighting the next fire due to enhanced air circulation. The ashes also house unextinguished embers that keep the firebox warm longer.

Removing ashes from the firebox initially depends upon the presence of an ash-dump in the floor of the firebox. When the coals are extinguished, the ashes can be swept into the compartment below the firebox. If there is not an ash-dump, the ashes should be removed via gloved-hands, a shovel, and a protective bucket.

Caution:

  • Do not remove the ashes until they are cold, and a site is prepared for the housing, burial, or watering of the ashes.
  • Cold ashes can be placed on top of flower beds as added nutrients.

Ashes do draw moisture. When ash-moisture collects on anything metal, rusting will occur. There are varying levels of acidic composites in ash and their nearness to the bricks or masonry in the firebox is unprofitable.

Safety

Assure that the fire is contained to the fireplace and has no opportunity to invade its surroundings.

What can happen?

Sparks and cinders may pop out of the fireplace unless the fire screen is flush with the fireplace opening. Resin accumulations in the fireplace and chimney can be dangerous. Smoke is not a benefit to anyone’s lungs, but it can serve as an alert regarding structural problems in the fireplace or chimney.

Make sure smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are functioning properly. Sometimes the smoke will be more prevalent on the second story of a home than the first. Vigilance is wisdom – Never trust a fire.

Resin is a highly flammable substance formed by the secretion of trees. The logs burned in fireplaces secrete resin and creosote that naturally attach to the interior of chimneys. These can damage chimneys because natural humidity combines with these substances to form acids that are harmful to the infrastructure of the fireplace and chimney. Structural specialists can assure the integrity of the fireplace, firebox, and chimney. The Chimney Safety Institute of America (https://www.csia.org/) can provide worthy insights.

Family Involvement In How To Build Fire

Encourage children to help adults to light the fire as well as add logs on top of the fire. Teach them how to handle kindling, haul in one or two logs, light the fire, and use the poker to increase ventilation. Explain to them the benefits and dangers of fires so they can go to school on one they trust and love. Make sure they understand the dangers while never becoming fearful. Pass on to the coming generations the comfort of cozy fires.

Brief notices:

  • Check the nonflammable rug often to assure that sparks have not damaged its integrity.
  • Before placing one or two logs on the burning fire, wait for flames to die down.
  • Hands should never touch burning wood, so keep fireplace tools handy.
  • Coals will last a long time particularly when ashes are not removed.

Remember:

Remove the ashes when they are cold and never use a home or shop vacuum. Ash vacuums are designed for removing ashes.

Are We Ready To Start The Fire?

Two sets of gloves are a must for many “firemen.” A light set for cutting, stacking, and hauling wood and a reliable set of fireproof gloves for working around the burning fire.

There is friendly disagreement regarding placing the kindling on top of the wood or on the bottom. If you choose to put the light starter pieces on the bottom, place them where they can breathe comfortably. The kindling needs sufficient room to burn briskly and simultaneously apply heat to the larger wood. Intersperse light wood amidst the larger wood early in the fire’s development to improve ventilation and heat.

Remember:

Ventilation! Ventilation! Ventilation! Stacking wood in the firebox adversely affects ventilation. Do not wait until the fire is started to make adjustments. Take a baby step before you leap. Search the area thoroughly to assure that the fuel (such as paper) is in just the right place. Think through the placement to enhance airflow.

Tips:

  • When mixing hardwood and softwood, placing the densest wood on the bottom is most effective.
  • Reserve the light wood for more effective placements.
  • Resist placing more wood than will cover half the height of the firebox because you want a controlled burning.

Lighting the Fire

If using matches rather than a lighter, select the matches with the long stems to protect hands from the fire. Newspaper, fat lighter, and pine cones are effective starters.

Caution:

  • Never use gas, diesel, propane, charcoal lighter fluid, or any other flammable substance so the burning is controlled, and no odors are released into the room.
  • Do not keep kindling near the fireplace because the heat from the fire or popping embers can cause much damage.
  • Move the burning wood often to improve ventilation.
  • Never leave the fire unattended.
  • Caution pets and children concerning their dangers without causing alarm.

Troubleshooting Smoke

Nearly 80 percent of the heat from a fireplace goes up the chimney rather than warming a room. Debris in the chimney, the lack of chimney and firebox integrity, a partially opened damper, creosote, and resin buildup should be inspected every two or three years depending upon the amount of wood being burned.

Tightly built homes affect the updraft. Partially open a window or door to improve the opportunities for the smoke to escape through the chimney. 

The more seasoned the wood, the less will be the creosote buildup that may be causing the smoke.

Summary        

  • Moisture can increase smoke
  • Chimney cap or screen
  • Debris: creosote, soot, resin build-up
  • Structural integrity
    • Damper
    • Green unseasoned wood high in moisture
    • Pine high in resin
    • Wood ill-placed in the firebox
    • Ventilation