If only one thing could be said about building an effective fire in an open fireplace, it would be this:

When the wood is smoking this means your fire is struggling!

Smoking logs and visible smoke coming out of a chimney are the signs of a struggling fire. It usually means the smoking log(s) is receiving too little air and/or heat. The amount of smoke your fire is producing is a good gauge of how it is doing.

The key to an effective fire is in positioning logs on the fire optimally. Don’t underestimate this, it is a developed skill which takes patience and observation. Here are some guidelines and tips, but the specifics are up to you to practise and learn:

  1. As you add wood to the fire, think about how their position will affect the airflow through the existing logs up through the ones you are adding. Similarly, think about if parts of the wood will be too far away from the fire to fully ignite.

  2. It is useful, sometimes essential, to add logs at slightly different angles to ensure proper airflow.

  3. Sometimes wood may smoke when you add it to the fire. If you’re unsure of why it is smoking, be patient and wait to see what happens. If it continues to smoke after a few minutes, consider repositioning it.

  4. Your goal should be to eventually get to a point where minimal airflow and minimal smoke characterise your fire. You should look forward refining your techniques for years to come.

Other tips

  1. Sometimes the logs will fall in unfavourable ways as they burn. Occasionally you may need to reposition logs to keep your fire burning effectively and smoke-free.

  2. As the wood burns, gaps of space may form between logs. If the gaps are large enough it may be necessary to move the logs closer together and reduce the gap (don’t choke the fire in the process, however).

  3. If you’re trying for a hot fire, don’t overdo the flames. Rather, focus on achieving a substantial bed of embers.

  4. Most fireplaces grates are designed to get a good flame, not produce good heat. Either switch to a grate which takes advantage of the embers (such as the “Grate Wall of Fire”) or don’t use a grate and instead build your fire on the floor of your fireplace. See the links page for tips on arranging a good fire this way.

  5. A fireback radiates more heat from the fire into the room. See the links page.

  6. Split logs generally burn better. Additionally, logs larger than 4-5” in diameter require a more macho fire to burn well, potentially too macho for your particular fireplace.

  7. When you are first improving your skills in maintaining an effective fire it is best to use the same type of wood if possible. Different woods burn differently.

  8. The drier the wood, the more easily it will burn. Wet or unseasoned wood is harder to burn and will smoke more easily, try not to use it.

Starting a fire

The following is just one of the many ways of starting and arranging a fire. A good alternative is the “tipi” fire and is very appropriate for Rumford fireplaces (it also naturally encourages efficient log placement). See the links page for alternatives if the following doesn’t suit your needs.

  1. Start by adding newspaper (stay away from coloured or shiny paper) or a fire starter such as fatwood. If you are using paper, take 5 or so sheets and bunch them up into balls or just crumple them.

  2. Next, add a reasonable amount of kindling (very small pieces of
    wood). Seasoned/dead twigs are ideal. If you are using a fire starter, you may be able to skip this step.
  3. Next, add small and medium sized split wood or twigs/branches. Be conscious of how they are arranged so that air flow is not choked by too dense of an arrangement.

  4. At this point, if you’re confident in your fire-starting skills you can add larger logs using optimal placement techniques. If you’re not confident, feel free to wait until the flame is going.

  5. Go ahead and light the paper or fire starter.
    It can help to blow (or use a bellows) toward the bottom of the fire. Using a fire starter can ease the pains of learning how to reliably start a good fire (and make it more convenient when you’re proficient).
  6. Having a layer of ash from previous fires on the fireplace floor is a good thing! There is no need to clean up the ash after every fire.

Next, we’ll look at how to heat your home.