Top-Down Fire Laying: What Am I Missing Here?

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Wade A.

Feeling the Heat
Nov 4, 2010
360
South
I've been intrigued by the idea of a quicker lighting fire using the "top-down" starting method, and decided to give it a try.

Let me first sort of lay out my bona fides, so to speak, on firestarting. I've got decades of experience in burning backcountry campfires, fireplaces and woodstoves. Frankly, I've never had a problem getting a fire started when I wanted one, in just about every kind of condition, and using about every grade of wood fuel imaginable. As y'all know, it is a learned skill that can be mastered, and I started young. But, I'm always interested in a better mousetrap, so I've given top-down a try. It is a counter-intuitive thing to put your fastest lighting fuel on top, but I was willing to challenge myself that I might have been doing it wrong, or at least not the best way I can, all these years.

And....I have to say, I didn't see much of a difference between this start, and the ones I typically have, using the same exact fuel, kindling and tinder. If anything, I'd say that it started a little slower.

So, this leads me to ask: Am I expecting too much from this? If you have no problem typically with getting your fire lit the conventional way, is top-down not likely to be that dramatic a change?
 
One of the advantages is that it auto heats the flue and you get a better, faster draft. For those who have slowerdrafts with smoke problems at cold start it offers a nice advantage. There are some other advantages that some others will chime in here.

NOTE : I forget how to start a fire since I haven't started one cold since early November.
 
If the size of the splits I have in the wood rack are large, I will start a top down this way so that I don't have everything right up against the baffle. If the splits are medium in size, I'd build the first pic right on top of a row of 4.

The biggest thing I've found is that your pieces splits need air between them vertically but need to be very close together horizontally. Additionally, if your wood is not well seasoned, you are peeing into the wind.

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The time it took from the first to last picture was less than 20 mins.

pen
 
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ploughboy said:
So, this leads me to ask: Am I expecting too much from this? If you have no problem typically with getting your fire lit the conventional way, is top-down not likely to be that dramatic a change?

I think you are expecting something spectacular to happen, and it just ain't there to happen. The main thing about a top-down fire is that, if done correctly, you get a good fire every time, and it burns cleanly from the beginning. With your experience, you are probably already getting those results with a conventional startup, but like you say, it is an acquired skill. New burners can often get better results using the top-down method.

Personally, I've tried it for numerous outdoor fires last year and I have had great results. Naturally, I couldn't wait to try it in the stove. Results there were mediocre at best. It works, but I find I get the stove a lot hotter a lot faster by using my tried-and-true method graduated feed method, kickstarted by a wax/sawdust firestarter like the Super Cedars. I recently timed a cold start (stove at about 125ºF, flue at 75ºF) and found I can go from cold stove to 700ºF in less than 20 minutes.

Here are the stove top temps as they climbed:

10:00:38 - 350ºF - 8 minutes and 27 seconds after lighting
10:03:17 - 525ºF - 11 minutes and 8 seconds after lighting
10:05:40 - 600ºF - 13 minutes and 23 seconds after lighting
10:09:00 - 700ºF - 16 minutes and 51 seconds after lighting


I don't know if anyone can get their stove that hot that fast using the top down method, but I know I can't even come close. I'll stick to the conventional method in the stove while experimenting more with the top-down method when camping. The sweet thing about the top-down for a campfire is that you get a completely even coal bed for cooking in under half an hour. When you're done cooking, just pull the coals together in a pile, toss a few splits on top and your evening fire is instantly underway.
 
That helps guys ,thanks. Nice pics Pen. What I guess I'm still wondering is: Would your fire have started any slower if that newsprint was underneath, and not on top? My experiments, with my fuel and stove tell me "nope". In fact, I'm willing to say that it would start faster, for me.

Yeah, I think that my Jotul F400, as it is set up, is just a quick lighter. This is especially true under typical conditions here in the deep South. I'm very rarely trying to get a fire going in a really cold flue like you can have up North. (Too, we don't have the extreme temp differenetial to overcome either, so who knows?) I'm partial to the lay it, light it and forget it shool of thought. I'll typically start from scratch by laying two half-length splits N/S, crumple lots of newsprint between them and place my current tinder du jour, bamboo, across that E/W, larger splits above, also E/W. At that point, my 6 and 7 y.o. bicker over who will get to strike the match and touch it off....most times they each light one and start on opposite ends! Typically, with the door ajar for about 15 minutes, we'll have flash over.

I keep coming back to a basic of thermodynamics that makes me scratch my head.....hot air rises on this planet. If your hot air is not passing your tinder and secondary fuel on its way up, you have a less than efficient condition from the get-go. Of maybe my incomprehension is why I studied letters and not numbers in school.
 
You know Battenkiller...I think that is the answer. The top-down method is more forgiving. Once you get in the habit of giving the base of your fire access to a good draft, the top-down way becomes less an advantage. In my case, it probably has crossed over into the less-efficient side of the equation. Too bad I hadn't heard of it 40 years ago! It could have really flattened out my learning curve.'
 
ploughboy said:
I keep coming back to a basic of that makes me scratch my head.....hot air rises on this planet. If your hot air is not passing your tinder and secondary fuel on its way up, you have a less than efficient condition from the get-go. Of maybe my incomprehension is why I studied letters and not numbers in school.

Thermodynamically, the radiant energy from the flames goes in all directions, not just up. That's what makes it work.
 
The main advantage to a top down fire for me is little to no smoke on startup ... not on speed of building up heat which is about the same for me using any method. Go look at your flue on start up to see the difference. I try to be nice to the neighborhood. Top down SuperCedars fires ROCK :coolcheese:
 
Granted it does. I've never tried it, but I think that if I put my tea kettle under my stove, I'd be waiting a long time for tea! O.K., unfair analogy, but you get my meaning, I'm sure.
 
ChillyGator, I hadn't thought about that, but you've pointed out something that is undeniably true.
 
Top down, at least judging from the pictures, means starting the kindling by putting newspaper ties on top of the kindling. This starts the kindling, and puts a bunch of hot air from the burning paper up the flue to kick start the draft. I have a stone stove, so kick starting it will hurt my foot, and while top down is the way I start fires to cut down on the initial smoke, leaving the door cracked until it is rolling and then burning the first load with the primary air open is how I get 500 pounds of rock warmed up. It takes over an hour from a cold start, and it does not matter if I put the kindling on top of the paper or underneath it.
 
ploughboy said:
You know Battenkiller...I think that is the answer. The top-down method is more forgiving. Once you get in the habit of giving the base of your fire access to a good draft, the top-down way becomes less an advantage. In my case, it probably has crossed over into the less-efficient side of the equation. Too bad I hadn't heard of it 40 years ago! It could have really flattened out my learning curve.'

It's still a great technique to know. My camping buddies this fall were biting holes in their lips waiting for it to fail. We had bass fillets frying within 20 minutes from when I struck the match. Now they are believers.

Here's the photo sequence of the beginning of the conventional startup I mentioned, along with the times involved.

First photo is time stamped at 9:52:09, just prior to lighting the starter.
Second shot was taken at 9:55:44, 3 minutes and 33 seconds later. I added more wood at this point and closed the doors.
Third shot was at 9:57:05, 1 minute and 21 seconds after the wood addition. Closed the doors again.
Fourth shot was at 9:58:41, 1 minute and 36 seconds later. I closed the doors, shut the intake damper to about 1/4 open, and waited while the temps rose.

So, from firestarter sitting on top of mostly charcoal to the last photo with a box full of flame - 6 minutes, 30 seconds. This was with less than "ideal" wood as well, up close to 30% water. Note.... not a lick of smoke at all at any time. ;-)
 

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ploughboy said:
Granted it does. I've never tried it, but I think that if I put my tea kettle under my stove, I'd be waiting a long time for tea! O.K., unfair analogy, but you get my meaning, I'm sure.

But it's not about delivering a large quantity of heat, it's about achieving ignition temperatures. There is not a lot of heat energy radiating downward, but the proximity of the base of the flames to the wood below is close enough for the fire to continue to burn downward as well as upward. Still, as I think I demonstrated in the photo sequence, the stick-fed fire gets roaring very quickly and burns just as smoke free. In fact, a lot more smoke free than the wood added at the end of Pen's sequence is burning.
 
What?!! You use a FIRESTARTER when you have coals to go with??!! That's just not cricket. ;-)

I'm so danged stingy with my kindling that I'll puff for 10 minutes on my blow pipe before I'll break down. Clears the head in the morning, too.
 
I've found top down doesn't work in every stove. I had a smaller 1.7 cf insert that made it impossible to get a good top down fire in.

I have a larger firebox now and top down are the way to go for me. It's not the fastest way to get the stove up to temp, but I'm having draft issues, so the top down is the best way to avoid smokey starts. One thing that I do that I haven't seen anyone else mention when starting a top down i keep the bottom (largest) splits elevated a little bit. I prop them up on the lip of my firebox and clear away some of the ashes to allow air to get under the large splits. This helps get the bottom going. Hope that helps. Good luck.
 
ChillyGator said:
The main advantage to a top down fire for me is little to no smoke on startup ... not on speed of building up heat which is about the same for me using any method. Go look at your flue on start up to see the difference. I try to be nice to the neighborhood. Top down SuperCedars fires ROCK :coolcheese:

I forgot to note that my method is using regular size splits at base, 2 small cross pieces and smaller splits on top with the SC resting on top of that with a couple pieces of splitter trash on top of the SC.
 
Chilligator, i just noticed you're trying this in a Morso. I don't know that it's going to work out with the small firebox. I had trouble with 1.7 cf firebox, and I heard others say they had little success with a smaller firebox as well. But as you stated you are a fire pro, and i am a novice. Good luck with it.
 
With my old pre-epa fisher here is how I started the fire

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The top down method wouldn't work for beans in my fisher because of how the air entered the stove. So much came rushing in past the dampers that it would basically put out any fire on top of what I was trying to start. If I tried building it up higher in the firebox, then the air never hit what I wanted to burn.

Now, when I purchased my englander stove I tried my old starting method and it worked, but I had to babysit the stove more as I needed to leave the door cracked, come back in a few minutes and close the door, come back and adjust the air. With the top down method, I can start the fire without leaving the door cracked. Additionally, I have neighbors that are only about 40 feet from my chimney. They have never complained but I do what I can to keep my fires as clean as possible so that it doesn't bother them. With the bottom up method, there is always some smoke. With the top down, there is virtually none.

I really need to re-do those top down pics of mine and put some better ones up.

At the end of the day, use whatever works for you. The goal is the same. Perhaps try a modified method? Every stove will be different. Especially if you are comparing a non-epa to an epa stove. Those are 2 different beasts.

Now that I have some practice, I can guarantee I can get this stove up to temp using less kindling and in less time than I used to be able to using my old method. This is especially true if the firebox has no or very little ash in it.

pen
 
ploughboy said:
What?!! You use a FIRESTARTER when you have coals to go with??!! That's just not cricket. ;-)

I'm so danged stingy with my kindling that I'll puff for 10 minutes on my blow pipe before I'll break down. Clears the head in the morning, too.

Ha, ha! No, no... that was a demo fire only, meant to show that marginal wood can burn just fine with a good start and enough breathing room between the splits. I deliberately let the stove go until 10 AM to get a cold start.

Ordinarily, I get up early (7 AM) after a cold night and get the fire going good again. This morning, the stove was still at 300º 8 hours after I filled it with four massive splits of black birch, with a good, active coal bed that would literally melt the wax out of a firestarter before it could even get going well. No huffing and puffing, just open the draft all the way, pull the coals together and toss 5-6 small splits on top. Close the door, wait about two minutes, then fill the stove. I'm usually up and running even faster than in the demo fire because I'm starting with a reasonable hot box.
 
Pen, I covet your wood. Love it when the bark is slabbing off like that....fuel and tinder all in one. The air gets between the bark and the sap wood and there is not stopping it, is there?

Got a sister and family in Doylestown. Having quite the Winter, aren't you?
 
last night used a firestarter, pitch wood mixed with food grade wax. typically they work great, burn long too. maybe it was cold yesterday but it didnt get the fire going like normal. after burning out with a sprinkling of coals i top-downed it. and thats what did it for me. I have used both methods, the paper under more in my life then top down. i must say though with the paper up there to burn the smoke etc. i can get secondaries in a minute.
dissapointed as the firestarter failed me for the first time....
 
ploughboy said:
Pen, I covet your wood. Love it when the bark is slabbing off like that....fuel and tinder all in one. The air gets between the bark and the sap wood and there is not stopping it, is there?

Got a sister and family in Doylestown. Having quite the Winter, aren't you?

Thanks for the compliment.

the Mrs. and I have some good friends from Doylestown. I'm about 2 hours north of there right on the PA, NY border. As far as the winter, it's been something. But I really hesitate to complain since we haven't had any real ice yet. I can handle a foot hell 2 feet of snow. 1/2 inch of ice is what scares me. The weather tonight is going to be very close to getting some sleet / freezing rain. Fingers crossed.

pen
 
I have a VC Vigilant 1977. Started using the top down this year. I really like it. I put two or three good size splits E/W on the bottom, a layer of smaller splits over that, then some still smaller splits maybe mixed with chips and junk left over from splitting. I top that with five or six pencil sized fat wood sticks I make myself by cutting down kiln dried, three hole cedar fence posts. I toss about half a dozen newspaper knots on top of that and light it.

This gives me an instant draft, the cedar sticks light almost immediately and they put off a fast, intense heat that sets off the small splits just below. I leave the stove door cracked open just a bit. I haven't timed it but I would guess that I have a fully engulfed firebox in less than 15 minutes, probably closer to ten minutes.. Stove top will be around 700 then, at which point I close the door and set it to horizontal burn.

One thing I really like about the top down method is that I can fill the box before I ever light the fire and not have to worry about continuously feeding in more splits as the fire gets hotter. I can light it and once it has settled in and is adjusted like I want it I can leave it for a couple of hours, or more, before coming back to add some big splits to a good bed of hot coals.

For what it's worth, I burn about 90% oak, with pignut hickory added to a well established fire for long, or overnight burns.
 
Pen...got any Moravian tiles set in your hearth? At my last house I had quite a number of them here and there. Mercer was some kind of mad genius. Right now I've got an unfinished surround for my stove backing, and I'm really wanting to finish it off with a couple of those in the corners. I probably wouldn't want to foot the bill to do it all with those. Right now though, I'm locked in negotiations with the "design committee."

Battenkiller... Think of it this way: Next time you want to light a fire, put your match an inch above your tinder, and then an inch below. See which one lights faster. I mean, the difference is hardly worth noting, but still, it is a truth that contradicts the top-down theory as being better in and of itself, everything else being equal. Of course, with stoves, everything else is NEVER equal, as I'm sure we can all agree.
 
No, unfortunately none of those. The ones I've seen are unbelievably ornate.

Yea, the top down method definitely defies the fact that hot air rises. But, one needs to remember that radiant heat travels in all directions and allowing the hot air to straight up the stack unimpeded by other wood gets the draft going faster which in turn and pull in more air to feed the fire quicker.

pen
 
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