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How to build and maintain a wood fire
Whatever your wood burning system, you can improve its efficiency and reduce air pollution by learning to burn correctly.
The knowledge and skills needed to operate a wood burning system effectively need to be learned and practiced to get them right. Although it is not brain surgery or rocket science, it is not as simple as it might first appear. So, when you can light a fire with a single match and get a hot, bright fire burning in just a few minutes, you've accomplished something worth knowing and we salute the time and care you've taken. Reach around and pat yourself on the back.
How does wood burn?It is a complex process, but it can be divided into three stages:
In reality, all three phases of wood combustion occur simultaneously because the wood gases can be flaming and the edges of the pieces can be glowing red as charcoal burns, while water in the core of the piece is still evaporating. The challenge in burning wood effectively is to boil off the water content quickly and make sure the smoke burns with bright flames before it leaves the firebox.
Starting a fireYou will need the following materials to build and maintain a good wood fire:
You can build a conventional fire by starting with news paper and putting kindling on it and then larger pieces, but this method can lead to fires that collapse on themselves and smolder. It also tends to be smoky and fussy because you have to keep adding wood until you have a full fire. Here are three methods you will probably have more success with.
1. Two Parallel Logs. Put down two split logs with a space between them and put some twisted newspaper in the space. Add some fine kindling - one inch across or less - on the newspaper and more kindling of various sizes across the two logs. This method works well because the two logs give some space for the newspaper and kindling to get a good start. Their burning is usually enough to ignite the two larger logs. After the kindling has almost burned out, more wood must be added to make a full fire.
2. Top-down. While this method takes a little getting used to, it is absolutely reliable, and when it is done properly there is almost no smoke right from the start. Just place three or four full-sized split logs on the firebox floor or on the ground. Place several pieces of medium kindling across them and then maybe another layer of smaller pieces at right angles to those. Then put 10 or so pieces of fine kindling on top. Now take four or five full sheets of newspaper and roll each one up corner-to-corner and tie a sloppy knot in it. Knotting the paper helps to keep it from rolling around as it burns. Place the knots on top of the fine kindling. Light the paper and watch as the fire burns down through the light kindling, the heavy kindling and into the bottom logs. Using the top-down method, you can light the paper and watch the fire burn on its own for up to two hours.
3. Using Fire Starters. Many people use fire starters made of sawdust and paraffin wax. You can buy commercial versions or make them yourself. You can even cut up a wax firelog to make your own starters. If the starters are placed among split pieces of dry wood, the fire will start reliably.
The goal when lighting a wood fire is to achieve quick ignition of the load without fussing or waiting for it to catch. After practicing with these procedures a few times, you might be surprised at how quickly you can establish a bright, hot fire.
Rekindling a Fire from Charcoal
For most wood-burning appliances, the live coals that remain after the fire has burned down are found at the back of the firebox furthest from the air supply. This is the time to clear excess ash from the firebox. Before disturbing the remaining charcoal, remove a small amount of ash from the front of the firebox. Now rake the live coals forward to just inside the loading door. If only a small amount of charcoal remains, you will have to start with kindling. If you have a good quantity of glowing charcoal to work with, place at least three, and preferably more than five pieces of firewood on and behind the charcoal. Open the air inlets fully and close the door.
If everything is just right, you should expect instant ignition of the new load. In fact, the bottom pieces should be flaming before you get the door closed. Allow the fire to burn with bright turbulent flames until the wood is charred. This usually takes between 15 and 30 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces and the moisture content of the wood. When the wood is charred, you can reduce the air setting to produce the amount of heat and length of burn you desire. You may want to try reducing the air control setting in two or three stages. The result will be less air pollution because the fire will not have to recover from the single, large reduction in air supply.
The most important rule is NEVER LET THE FIRE SMOLDER. As long as there is solid wood in the firebox, there must be flames or the smoke will escape unburned, both reducing efficiency and increasing pollution. With modern appliances, it is possible to achieve a reliable overnight burn while maintaining flaming combustion and having enough charcoal in the morning to rekindle a new load.
More tips and techniquesFuel load geometry:Small pieces of firewood arranged loosely in a crisscross pattern burn quickly because the combustion air can reach all the pieces at once. Larger pieces placed compactly burn more slowly because there are fewer spaces where the air can penetrate the load. Never add just one or two pieces of wood to a fire. Three or more pieces are needed to form a sheltered pocket of glowing coals that reflect heat toward each other and sustain the fire.
Fire in cycles: Don't expect perfectly steady heat output from the fire. Wood fires burn best in cycles. A cycle is the time between the ignition of a load from charcoal and the consumption of the load back to a coal bed. Each cycle should provide between four and eight hours of heating, depending on how much wood was used and how much heat is needed. Plan the firing cycles around your household routine. If someone is home to tend the fire, use a short firing cycle. If you must be away from the house during the day, use the extended firing cycle.
The flash fire is a small amount of wood burned quickly. Use it in spring and fall when you just want to take the chill off the house. The flash fire technique eliminates the smoldering fires that are common in spring and fall. To build a flash fire, rake the charcoal towards the air inlets and place several small pieces on and behind it. The pieces should be stacked loosely in a crisscross arrangement. Open the air inlet to produce a hot, bright fire. The air supply can be reduced slightly as the fire progresses, but never enough to extinguish the flames. When only charcoal remains, the air supply can be reduced further to prevent cooling the coal bed.
The extended fire: To achieve a longer-lasting fire, rake the coals towards the air inlets and use larger pieces of wood placed compactly in the firebox. Placing the pieces close together prevents the heat and flame from penetrating the load and saves the buried pieces for later in the burn cycle. Open the air inlets fully for between 15 to 30 minutes depending on load size and fuel moisture content. When the outer pieces have a thick layer of charcoal, reduce the air control in stages to the desired level. The charcoal layer insulates the rest of the wood and slows down the release of combustible gases. This allows you to turn down the air control and still maintain a clean-burning fire. Use the extended fire technique to achieve an overnight burn or a fire to last the day while you are at work. Do not let the fire smolder.
Removing ashes: When you follow the suggestions for raking of the coal bed, you will find that ashes accumulate at the front of the fireball. These ashes can be removed easily before coal bed raking in preparation for loading. Most modern wood-burning appliances work best when a small amount of ash is removed each morning before the first fire of the day is built.
Look for these signs of good combustion:
6000 AUBURN BLVD.
CITRUS HEIGHTS, CA 95621
(916) 722-FIRE (3473) (916) 969-WOOD (9663)
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This site was last updated 10/18/09