At the New Forest Woodburning Centre, as part of stove-commissioning after an installation, we always try to give our customers a quick lesson on fire-starting. A pinch of technique and a teaspoon of patience adds up to a quick, happy fire and saves a lot of aggravation, not to mention matches. As Princeton’s Professor James Richardson opined, ‘All work is the avoidance of more difficult work,’ and as any habitué of the raw flame will agree, the axiom is as true of fire-lighting as it may be of novel-writing.
There are a few simple rules on which most experts agree, and then a fractal infinity of esoteric possibilities to inspire total disagreement (how to start an argument: convene two or more experts in a room and lock the door).
All you should need to start your fire are dry newspaper and kindling. We use chopped-up pallet wood for kindling, because we always have a surfeit of pallets. Softwood makes for good kindling, as long as it is really dry, because it is less dense than hardwood and thus burns faster. We scrunch up lots of single sheets of newspaper – not too tight or it won’t ignite – and lay a good handful of kindling tepee-style against it. Light the paper at multiple points and push the door to.
The air inlets on your stove should all be wide open at this point and it’s usually beneficial to leave the door just ajar. The fire should be crackling away in no time and larger pieces of wood can be added judiciously. Be careful not to smother the fire with huge chunks. Your patience will pay off within minutes once your stove is going strongly.
Lighting a stove is not just bushcraft-ignition transplanted into a metal box, and differs in one crucial respect from an outdoor fire. As well as initiating the fire itself, you are also priming the flue - the stove’s engine - which will be full of air, and cold. Air is heavier than smoke and needs to be displaced before your chimney will work. A cold chimney can slow down the initial flue gases to stalling speed and needs to be warmed up quickly. Sometimes, especially in very cold weather, or with an especially exposed or uninsulated chimney, the flue will need warming up even before attempting fire-starting, otherwise you will just fill your room with smoke. It can be surprising how little heat is needed to make a difference between a healthy draw and a stubbornly resistant chimney. Either way, it’s an easy fix.
Burn a good bunch of newspaper first, all in one go, then start again, adding kindling this time. Cardboard torn into strips and added judiciously to a young fire can usually defeat the most recalcitrant of chimneys. Or you can use a hair-dryer!
Our friends at Stuv in Belgium, who, in their typically rigorous manner, have put as much thought into the subject as anyone, recommend building your nest of kindling on top of a bed of logs, which they call ‘the upside down fire’. It’s a great technique which optimises combustion and negates the risk of collapsing the fire through piling logs on top.
There are many beautiful ways to arrange your kindling and you will soon find your own favoured pattern to advocate. Local lore deems The Lymington Times to be the best firelighting newspaper (apparently, it’s something to do with the ink), but if you’re not lucky enough to be in the circulation area for that fine publication, try one that’s black and white and bleeds newsprint; for fire-lighting, old-fashioned is best! Happy woodburning!