A new (old) fire building technique.
What has kept many of us engaged, if not engrossed, in the field of woodburning for our entire careers is its constant evolution and frequent surprises. For thirty years and more, we've been caught up in a wood heat vortex that has swept us along through the era of funky, ugly black box stoves, the early rash of house fires, the huge regulatory flaps – first over safety, then over smoke emissions – the appearance of wood pellet-fired heaters, then colorful, beautiful stoves and fireplaces with clear glass, no smoke and seventy per cent plus efficiency. We figured we'd about seen everything. Now, of all things, fire building itself has been reinvented.
Since the early 1990s, it has become de rigueur among many in the business, and by extension, their customers, to build their fires top down. The conventional approach, as you know, is to crumple some newspaper, put some fine kindling on that and some heavier kindling on top, light the paper and watch as the whole affair collapses into a smoldering mess. Or, as sometimes happens, it catches enough that you can begin to add bigger pieces until you have a respectable fire.
The top down technique is the counter-intuitive opposite: put down three or four full sized pieces of firewood, then a layer of coarse kindling, then some fine kindling on that and top off the pile with some bunched, twisted or knotted newspaper. The paper is lit and, believe it or not, the fire builds progressively, gaining intensity, down through the layers to the biggest logs on the bottom. It's a wonderful thing to watch.
I first heard about the technique back in 1992 in the newsletter of the Masonry Heater Association (whose headline I stole for this article) and first tried it during a camping trip deep in the wilderness of Algonquin Park. It worked perfectly, but I was still skeptical until I tried it a few times in various stoves and fireplaces. It has worked perfectly ever since and I wouldn't consider using the conventional method, except in a cook stove.
For most of us who heat with steel or cast iron stoves or fireplaces, particularly those that are approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a true top down fire is a little tricky because the fireboxes are limited in height. I manage by keeping the stack of wood fairly low. I take a handful of newspaper knots and, while holding down the small kindling with one hand, stuff them between the kindling and the top of the firebox. A newspaper knot is made by taking a full sheet and rolling it up corner to corner and tying a sloppy knot in it. Four or five is usually enough. Knots don't roll around when they burn the way bunched up paper does.
". . . and no one can have an idea of what a good fire is who has never seen a camp-fire in the woods of America. Imagine four or five ash-trees, three feet in diameter and sixty feet long, cut and piled up, with all their limbs and branches, ten feet high, and then a fire kindled on the top with brush and dry leaves; and then under the smoke the party lies down and goes to sleep."
John James Audubon, Cash Creek, Kentucky, 1810 (first North American reference to top down fires that we've found. Thanks for the tip, Tim)
The advantages of the top-down fire building method are:
- minimal start-up smoke;
- no chance that the fire will collapse and smother itself;
- no need to open the loading door to add larger pieces once the kindling fire is established; and
- it is trick.
I have spoken to a lot of people about top down fires, including two on-air interviews with Morningside, the former national morning show on the radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I have found there are three typical responses to the concept. The first is absolute amazement at how well it works and a solemn commitment to use it from then on; the second is the claim that although it was tried, it didn't work; and the third is that the top down fire is old news, that my (uncle, grandfather, whatever) used to do it that way. Which only proves that wood burners are an independent lot.
Try the top down fire building technique in your stove, fireplace or next campfire. If you give it a chance, you'll find that your fires will become consistent, predictable performers with fewer false starts and much less smoke. Of course, the really great feature of the top down fire building technique is that once you have perfected it, you can impress your friends and family with your near-magical skill as a pyromaniac.
Here is a step-by-step photo essay on building top-down fires.
Graphic courtesy Harrowsmith Magazine, 12/93