Skip to comments.How to build the perfect (real) fireplace fire....
Posted on 12/27/2006 4:12:16 PM PST by AnalogReigns
Ever wondered how to make a real wood fire in your fireplace, with beautiful tall flames, which draws nicely, and warms the room up too? Do the fires which you have made not look like those in the movies, photographs or in cozy paintings and such?
It's an easy task with this method I learned in a book written by a man who grew up in early 19th Century Loudoun County, Virginia. Joseph Janney, in his 90s in the 1890s wrote a little text for his children and grandchildren to read about his life as a child in frontier America. One of the things he detailed is exactly how they built wood fires in their shallow fireplaces--which kept them warm all winter--their only source of heat.
It's very simple and requires a minimum of fuss. First you need something to support the wood--NOT modern cast iron "coal grate" log holders, nor the worse iron grates which cause the logs to roll together....these just don't work well making a lasting fire. Old fashioned "andirons" (those things with tall posts, sometimes brass, in front and flat rails a few inches off the fireplace floor extending to the back) or even a couple of bricks will work fine. I repeat, get rid of the typical home's fireplace grate--great fires cannot be made using them.
Next it's best to have a layer of ash on the floor of the fireplace and inch or so thick...acts as an insulator, and is called an ash-bed.
Be sure (of course!) to make sure your flu is OPEN!!! Also that your fireplace and chimney are clean and in good shape. (writer bears no responsibility for smoky or dangerous fireplaces!)
Then you need 3 sizes of logs. A large diameter (8" + depending on the size of your fireplace) should be placed horizontally in the back, leaning, if it has to, against the back wall of the fireplace. This is your backlog, and protects the brick back there, as well as projecting the heat forward. It will burn from its frontside back. I have also used 2 medium sized logs stacked for the same effect.
Next you need a medium sized log (4" to 6" diameter) up in front, up against the vertical log holder of your andirons. In between the backlog and the front-log you should have an area of 6" to 10" or so. This is why standard grates typically won't work...as these logs will roll together, something you do not want. Traditional andirons work perfectly (even though they are hard to find these days).
Finally you need small kindling sticks in the middle. The easiest way to make these usually, (if you don't have sticks available) is to simply split some of your other logs into smaller pieces and inch or so in diameter. Place a loose handful of these in that area between the back-log and the front-log. Of course pieces of pine or other softwood are ideal for kindling, as they burn fast...but be careful, as pine-pitch can also throw lots of sparks.
Then you use crumpled newspaper, or whatever fire-starter you like to light up under the middle kindling pieces. These should be roaring in no time after lighting the paper...and after 15 minutes or so you can place normal sized logs (like the front-log) in the middle...and your fire is buring from the middle on out. You keep adding wood to the middle of the fire--keeping the backlog and front-log where they are.
Such a fire made this way will kick out plenty of reflective heat (the main way a fireplace heats) and if the backlog is big enough, can keep burning all night and more. The front-log will burn from its back forward, protecting you from sparks flying out from the center burn area...and the back-log will burn from its front back, keeping the hottest part of the fire from cracking bricks in the back of the fireplace.
Such a fire makes for the perfect beautiful winter fireplace, adding grace and beauty to the season. This method is how our great-great-great-great-grandparents heated their homes.
A classic fireplace fire, burning from the inside out, showing the andirons and the front-log and backlog.
Is there a way to somehow pipe the heat and join to the oil burner furnace heating sytem?
Probably not. In the old days they did hang pots over the fire though...
Hey, Gabz! Git over here! :)
Gasoline works for me.
My Father-in-Law one year shoved the entire Christman tree up the flu and lit it. That was the year of the BIG fire.
You are quite correct. My father built a log cabin (as a hobby I guess) and the fireplace had hinged arms that one could swing out over the fire or towards the floor. One attached pots on them (by their handles) and was able to cook or serve quite handily.
A fireplace insert is about the only way if you dont have the heat ducks built into your fireplace.
Fireplaces are not a good way to heat. To do any heating at all with them you must keep them going 24/7. Expect to use tons of wood if you do.
They do become better with an insert.
Thanks fer the glowing advise...My 1776 center chimney,3 fire place colonial remembers all of your procedure very well,but my Vigelent/Vmnt Castings(sp) woodstove has eliminated all the dangers associated with the old time procedure.....Stay warm and thanks for an interesting read...
And here I just went and bought an expensive new grate!
But I notice the old 'grate' which was very low, almost no legs, soldered together out of rebar, made a much warmer fire.
Well, so much for my new grate.
I got a beautiful antique pair of hand-forged iron andirons on ebay a year ago for 13 bucks...
Ebay always has the (cheaper, mostly ornamental) brass kind on there. They will work too though.
A woodstove shop or places that sell fireplace utensils can get real anirons for you. But like I said, they are hard to find, as no one seems to know how to properly make a fire these days.
Key is having the rails the logs sit on straight, not bent, or tilted backwards, like grates usually are, as you don't want the logs to roll together.
*SIGH* I'd really like a fireplace...but in a house like mine (1906 American Four Square) in "The Great White North" they are totally inefficient.
On a more positive note, I did get my natural gas bill today. After a high of a $317.00 CREDIT when they adjusted my budget plan in July, I finally owe the gas company $37.00 after a five month break. Dang! And I thought new windows and added insulation and weather stripping wouldn't amount to jack. ;)
Fireplaces ARE romantic, and knowing how to build a fire in the outdoors is a skill every Able-Bodied American should have, but unless your home is designed to work around a fireplace, they aren't the smartest use of your energy dollar.
And the best part about being an "Eeeeeeevil Conservative" is CONSERVING resources, is it not? ;)
*Ducking While Others Pelt Me With Rotten Tomatoes* :)
No, they are not........I found one at the local dump.....
This is great info, but it doesn't do me a bit of good for building a fire in the woodstove :(
take notes my pyro man ;)
You can have a good welder make a set for you. A blacksmith also.
All they are is two good heavy pieces of steel bent up 90 degrees at one end. 6 inch I beam would work fine. The upright end must not be beyond the throat of the firepit.
If you own wooded acreage and if you wish it to cleared of tree litter (broken or dead branches/trees) it is conserving to capture that energy source decaying away (and releasing greenhouse gasses in the process). You have the added plus of eliminating a fire hazrd on your property.
LOL! I knew you'd like this one. Now get them Griddle Cakes on the wood stove Granny. I'm hungry! :)
"Thank God I'm a country boy"!!!!
Okay boys, I've just started a fire using the method mentioned. I'll let you know how it turns out.
made sense to me. ;)
me too! ok, boys, get that fire fired up ;)
The hinged iron "cranes" you will find in colonial era houses are actually a deluxe feature--found in the houses of the rich.
Most typical (according to Janney) was a horizontal pole up inside the chimney supported at either end of the "smoke shelf" where a modern fireplace has the damper placed (a feature also absent colonial fireplaces). Such poles would only be found in the large kitchen fireplaces. Suspended from the poles were iron hooks, often banded iron with holes in them, allowing one to lower or raise the pot-hooks above the fire.
Kitchen fires, by the way, were not huge...even if the fireplace itself was 6 feet tall. That height and width was made so women (yes, they were the cooks) could easily get in and out to tend the pots. As evidence that they were not huge--I've seen several old kitchen fireplaces with the top lintel made of wood....so one would never make a fire with 5 foot flames, or you'd rick burning down the house--or burning up your pot-holding pole.
Its called a "hob".
Thanks for the timely info, I'm building a fire tonight in my living room. I remember those old andirons with their flat, straight, place for the logs rest. Your article makes sense and I'm gonna try it once I get this new fangled curved log holder outta'here!
I'm an old fashioned kind of guy but my fire place insert and stainless chimney pipe run up the flu along with thermostatically controlled blowers sure is nice.
I would never have a fireplace. They became obsolete when Franklin invented his famous woodburning stove...
We do have a woodlot, and we have a wood stove in the Machine Shed, so you are 100% correct.
However, because of the STUPID design of my house, and the idiotic "remodeling" thereof by 70's-era Hippies, heating with wood is not an option...
However, the "Homestead House" that's on our property is pretty cool. That's the little "cabin" that the original owners lived in while they were building "The Big House" which is now our house. We call it "The Mother-In-Law House" and tell our Moms that that's where they're going to end up, LOL!
It's pretty efficient. It does have a fireplace, but it only needed to heat about a 30-square foot area, plus serve as an area for cooking. We actually found ancient cast-iron pots in there when we bought this place. It's built into the side of the hill, and the lower half is a fieldstone "barn" that housed a milk cow, maybe a plow horse and a few pigs. Nothing like the heat of fresh manure wafting up through the floorboards to convey "Home, Sweet, Home!" Yum-Yum! ;)
Gotta love those transplanted Wisconsin Germans. They were certainly efficient in all of their endeavors. :(
I've been to Germany twice so far; it's not unusual for a family in a rural town to have a goat or two living on the roof of their houses that are sunk into the side of a hill. Same goes for the Swiss and the Norwegian in our part of the state. Many settled here because Wisconsin really DOES look identical to Germany, Norway and Sweden in so many respects.
However, we're not ones to "Pine for the Fjords," LOL!
I have to admit this post made me laugh. I guess I've just lived in Alaska too long. To think there are people who "don't" know how to build a good hot fire is foreign to us. Wood stoves, fireplaces, burn piles, smoke houses, wood furnances... just a way of life here and you get "fire-building and wood-hauling duty" beginning around age 8. That said; forget about the grate and just put two of your sticks on the bottom about a foot apart, opposite of the direction you are piling your kindling. Sticks should be about an inch and a half diameter.
Keeping in mind that fireplace heat is RADIANT, not convection, or forced air, so the more heat flame and coals you can see...the more a fireplace will heat.
One thing I've seen that makes a big difference is an iron 'FIREBACK', another colonial era innovation. Like andirons they aren't that easy to find--and are usually used as just a colonial decoration. However, for reflecting heat back into the room they work GREAT!!!
All a fireback is a squarish plate of cast iron (usually with a pretty picture or motto molded into them) that sits in the back of the fireplace. The idea is to focus and radiate the heat back into the room, rather than to be absorbed by the brick. It protects the brick well, and really does add heat to the room. The ones I've seen are $60 and up. Of course also on ebay! (just the shipping for heavy stuff is expensive)
I don't do griddle cakes on it (I don't do griddle cakes period, that's hubby's job) - but I did cook tamales on it when the power went out a couple weeks ago :)
Finally! An expert on the subject! :)
My previous stove was a Jotul with catalytic converter. It was a pain in the ass. I replaced it last year and when I did my brother and I ran stove pipe up the oversized flu. Life is so much easier. Plus my granddaughters like to help me haul the wood in from my woods to the shed. Hearty little 7 and 5 year olds. :-}
I believe a ultra-efficient modern gas furnace beats the efficiency of any wood burning appliance.
Of course an open fire is not about efficiency, any more than a vision of people sitting around gas furnaces smoking pipes and telling tall tales.
Mmmmm! Tamales! So when you gonna send me some of your famous tamales...and hot pepper jam!
We can work out a swap of some sort, I'm sure. I can send you a live chicken...or not, LOL! :)
Same here. Half an hour later I replace the kindling with some split wood and voila, forced hot air.
I don't know about "expert" but I build a LOT of fires. All the fire-building techniques in the world won't make a fire burn unless your wood is appropriately dry. Lots of your trees are green and filled with sap and it takes a good 6 months to a year to get a wood pile burnable, depending on where you live. You can huff and puff and use all the gas you want and you might get it a little burn but there won't be any heat. You need good dry kindlin and firewood.
I would wager 90% in the lower 48, particularly in the
South, really do not know how to build a good fire, particularly in a fireplace. Otherwise fireplace grates would not be so common...
Well, I wish I could say that particular stove was mine, but I can't. Had one very similiar to it for years, though. Round Oak. Heated a drafty old farm house like a dream. In fact, if I wanted to, I could run you out of there on the coldest Midwestern January night. ;-) Fill that baby chockfull of red elm or oak, and she'd glow red! :-)
You got it.
Agreed. Fireplaces are pretty rarely used - no heat value. And if you're chopping the wood, you want heat out of that wood. There is a plathora of wood stoves out there and since a wood stove is an Alaskan staple, I can tell you that "earth stoves" builds some of the best made today.
Well, lots of woodburners have an eisenglass front that makes the fire very visable and enjoyable. And, unlike most fireplaces, they actually heat the house instead of the great outdoors. ;-)
Certainly, modern gas furnaces are extremely efficient. But I'd rather pay for chain saw fuel and oil than natural gas or propane, whenever possible. :-)
Thanks, but no thanks on the live chicken - remember I have 170,000 of them as my nearest neighbors :)
We'll work something out, I'm sure!!!!
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