General Fire Wisdom
Now that your fire is started (see Starting A Fire), you’ll have to learn to keep it going. Here are some general tips before we get into the meat of the matter:
Good Wood ! - First of all. don’t even start unless you have good seasoned firewood of mixed sizes and types. Unseasoned wood or wet wood will only cause frustration. Also, keep a good supply of fire starters and kindling handy…it can be very aggravating attempting to start a fire without small, dry kindling.
Fire needs a “critical mass” in order to burn well. Just one log sitting in a stove will not ignite or burn. You must first establish a good draft in the chimney and a good bed of red-hot embers to achieve a good burn.
A good Flame means a good Fire - Much of the heat from wood is in the form of the gases we know as “smoke”. If you burn your stove improperly, lots of unburnt smoke will escape up the chimney and cause excess creosote (tar) formation on your chimney and also pollute the great outdoors. A proper fire BURNS this smoke. In general you should always see a flame on your fire. This is a simple gauge of whether you are burning properly. A smokey fire is a dirty and inefficient one !
Leave some space between the wood - Musicians say “it’s not the notes we play that make great music, it’s the spaces between the notes”...same with a fire. Cris-Crossing your wood or placing odd-shaped pieces in the fire help the airflow through your stove or fireplace.
Less is More - Generally, it is better to burn Less wood with MORE air to get the most out of your stove or fireplace. A smaller, hotter fire will cause less smoke and creosote than a cold, smoldering one.
Good Draft - If you have a poor chimney suction, or an improper installation, your efforts will be in vain.
Three Types (L to R) Rumford (w/Tepee fire) - Jotul - Regency
Different types of stoves and fireplaces require different techniques to keep them burning properly. Let’s divide these appliances into three types - this will make it easier for you to learn about YOUR fire.
Type 1 - Open Fireplace, pre-fab or masonry, or campfires, etc.
Type 2 - Older Stove or newer model that is rectangular and uses a front-to-back burning method.
Type 3 - Newer stove utilizing a “base-burning technique, including catalytics and non-catalytics.
We’ll assume you can recognize if you have a Type 1, so lets be more specific about Types 2 and 3.
Many of the older stoves, and some newer ones, use a front-to-back burning method. These stoves are designed to burn wood like a cigar - from one end to the other. To determine if you have a Type 2 stove, simply look at the location of the air inlet of the stove. If the air inlet lets air into the stove at the “end” of the logs (the cut ends), chances are you have a front to back burning stove. A perfect example of such a stove is the Jotul #118 stove shown below. The diagram next to this stove details the airflow through this model.
So, to summarize, if the air inlet is at the end of the logs, and if the firebox is rectangular, you have a type 2 stove.
Burning a TYPE 1 Fire - Open Fireplace or Campfire
As with any fire, a critical mass of red embers must be established before everything will work properly. If you do not have a grate to hold the wood off the ground, use two or three medium size pieces of wood to hold the fire off the ground or hearth. If you have a fireplace, get yourself a good quality grate. The best grates are made of cast-iron and have smaller holes in them. This serves to hold the bed of embers longer since they will not fall through to the hearth until they turn to ash.
Once the fire is burning, you can use either the TEPEE method or the Cris-cross method when you add wood. The TEPEE method is just like it sounds - stack the wood with one end against the ground and the other end all meeting in the center above the fire. The Cris-Cross method (my favorite) is achieved by placing two split one way and two splits the other way. This allows plenty of air flow around the wood and will result in a good fire. Remember the fire occurs from the interaction of adjacent surfaces of wood. A fire is a social event - a single piece in the fire will get lonely and cold very quickly !
Burning a TYPE 2 Stove - Front to Back burners
Front to Back Example
It is important to be equipped with a good stove hoe or poker to move the embers back toward the air inlet.
The key to burning this model is keeping the front-to-back burning in mind. These stoves burn in a cycle.
#1 - After starting the stove and burning through the first load of kindling and wood, rake the embers and coals back toward the air inlet.
#2 - Reload the new wood as shown in the figure below.
#3 - Close the door, open the air inlet to get the wood burning well. Adjust the air inlet (less air) when you are comfortable with the heat output. More air=more heat and a shorter burn time. Less air=less heat and a longer burn time.
Repeat as needed
For overnight burn - Always time you are loading so there will only be embers left when you are ready to retire. This will assure that you can get the maximum amount of new fuel into the stove..and therefore a better and longer burn. Rake the embers as before and add new wood. Pick your wood so it fills the firebox completely, both in length and height. Open the air control fully to catch the wood and drive the moisture off of the load. This should take 5-15 minutes. Then shut the draft control down to a low position. The exact setting will vary with the stove, wood, weather and chimney, and may take some experimentation.
Burning a TYPE 3 Stove - Modern Catalytics and Non-Cats Base Burners
I use the term “Base Burners” to refer to stoves that hold a bed of embers spread evenly around the base of the stove. Most modern stoves use this method.
Starting the stove - Check out “How to start a wood fire”, but remember these main points.
Burn hot and fast through the first load to warm up the chimney and establish a good draft.
Do not let the stove burn down too low before reloading
Air flow and air Inlet - Most newer stoves take in their combustion air from a slot located just inside the stove at the top edge of the window glass. This allows the air to drop down and form a barrier behind the glass. This system, called “air wash” helps the glass stay clean. Since the air entering the stove is relatively cool, it falls quickly and is sucked into the hot combustion zone at the base of the fire. When reloading this type of stove, be careful about placing very large logs in the very front of the firebox. Such a log could close off the airflow to the fire.
Hints for catalytic stoves -
What it does - The catalytic converter “burns the smoke”, much in the same way that a car’s catalytic converter burns your fuels’ pollutants. This burning creates intense heat, which is then transferred to the stove and room.
All catalytic stoves employ a bypass damper, which is opened when starting or reloading the fire. When this damper is opened, the smoke can escape directly up the chimney. When closed, the smoke is routed through the catalytic converter. A decent fire MUST be built previous to closing the bypass damper. Catalytic converters require temperatures of 500 degree in order to start doing their thing. Once the catalytic is “lit off”, it should stay hot and continue to burn the pollutants and create heat. Take care not to let the fire burn down too low. If you do let the fire get low (stove surface temperature below 400 degree), make sure to freshen the fire (see below) before re-engaging the catalytic converter.
Restoking a fire when it is low (Freshen the Fire)
Always keep a good supply of small sticks (kindling) available. You can use these to freshen up your fire. If your fire is just a bit low, you can simply add a small stick or stick before placing a larger log on top. If the fire is almost out, you may have to add some newspaper or fire starter (see Supercedar site for an example of a commercial fire starter). Since the chimney is probably still warm, it should be fairly easy to freshen up a fire.
It’s important to be patient. Fires do not react to you getting mad at them. If you use common sense and develop a method that suits you AND your Stove/Fireplace/Chimney combination, you will be well on your way to FIREMASTER status.