The Right Way to Light a Fireplace
Build a crackling fire that gives off satisfying, comfort-giving heat while requiring very little in the way of poking and prodding.
At first, it may seem like a foolproof undertaking: You put some wood in the fireplace, light a match, then sit back and watch it burn. Right? Well, yes and no. With seasoned firewood, a box of matches, and a handful of kindling, you can go a long way on trial-and-error alone. But if you build fires often and have grown tired of returning to constantly poke at the logs—or if you care about how much heat the fire actually gives off—then it’s a tremendous help to master a tried-and-true method of starting a fire in the fireplace.
We’ll explain two such methods here, but first:
- Be sure your chimney has been inspected and cleaned by a professional. Over time, creosote builds up in the flue, making it vulnerable to chimney fires.
- Before bringing a flame into the equation, remember to open the fireplace damper so that smoke doesn’t overcome your living room.
- If your fireplace does not have a grate, add one for safety and to encourage the airflow needed to sustain combustion.
Once you’ve prepared the hearth and chimney, proceed with one of these two methods for how to start a fire in a fireplace. With the proper execution of either strategy, you should end up with a fire that not only generates a comforting degree of heat but also burns well on its own without needing near-constant attention and care.
How to Light a Fireplace: The “Log Cabin” Method
- Place two thin logs with no bark parallel to the back of the fireplace, about six inches apart from one another.
- Heap kindling—whether newspapers, twigs, or both—between the two logs from the previous step.
- Position two additional logs perpendicular to the first two. You should end up with a primitive log cabin-type structure that is two logs tall.
- If you choose, add one more layer, with the logs running in the same direction as the first pair. The stack should take up up no more than half the height of your fireplace.
- Finally, light the kindling in the fireplace.
Note: In 1978, Mother Earth News reported on a variation of the above, tweaked for maximum heat production. Start by laying kindling in the middle. Next, run two pieces of wood parallel to the sides of the firebox. The far tips of both logs should actually touch the rear of the firebox. Now, as in the normal log cabin method, lay two additional logs perpendicular to the existing two. Importantly, the rear perpendicular log should be touching the back of the fireplace. The other perpendicular log should be very close (not six inches away, as in the first log cabin version). Finally, light the kindling and enjoy a better blast of warmth from your winter blaze.
How to Light a Fireplace: The “Top-Down” Method
- Group the wood by relative size: large, medium, and small.
- Line up your largest logs across the fireplace grate.
- Lay a row of smaller logs across the logs that you arranged in the previous step. (These should be set perpendicular to the layer beneath.)
- Add one more layer comprising smaller logs than the last, again running the opposite direction of the layer directly below.
- Use your kindling to form the final, top layer. Make sure the stack takes up no more than half the height of your fireplace.
- Light the fire from the top, and enjoy fuss-free flames all night.
As the smaller wood on top starts to burn, hot embers will drop down, gradually igniting the larger logs below. The top-down method is typically thought to be superior to the log cabin approach. For starters, the pyramidal arrangement creates a stronger draft, which feeds oxygen to the fire and allows it to burn strong for a longer period of time. Plus, the consensus seems to be that the top-down method produces more heat than the log cabin approach. The Chimney Safety Institute of America also recommends the top-down method because it prepares the largest pieces of wood (at the bottom of the pile) for burning, ultimately creating a cleaner burn and less smoke than a log cabin-style fire that’s lit from the bottom.
Why not try both and decide for yourself which you like better?