Sometimes, your firewood won’t light no matter what you do. There’s no doubt that struggling to start a fire can be frustrating. The odd spark might trick you into thinking you’re getting somewhere, and inclement weather is out of your hands. From sooty workspaces to wet materials, a single culprit might be difficult to find. If you’re having trouble now, or if you want to avoid trouble in the future, we recommend the following tips for starting and maintaining the brightest fires.
Are You Using the Best Firewood?
A great fire starts with the best materials. You won’t get very far without the driest and densest wood. Here, we’ll share what the best option is, but we’ll also tell you how other options fare.
Why Does Some Firewood Not Burn?
The densest wood yields the longest and hottest fires. The easiest and most effective way to discern a wood’s density is to find out whether it’s a hardwood or a softwood. Softwoods, like pine, cedar and spruce, are exactly that — soft. Fires they yield don’t burn brightly or last long. Firewood won’t stay lit if it’s made from softwood. Hardwoods include oak, birch, beech and maple, all of which are dense enough to keep uncannily hot fires going for many hours. Oak is the densest of the hardwoods, generating the most heat for the longest time. We often recommend it to people who use fire as a primary heat source.
Why Firewood Won’t Burn, Even If It’s Hardwood
Good firewood is dry firewood. The same goes for tinder and kindling, but there’s plenty of that outside. Removing moisture from hulking logs of firewood is a different story. If you’re looking for firewood, hardwoods are a great place to start, but don’t get too excited if you see one in your backyard because fresh wood (a.k.a. green wood) is often too moist for anyone other than a t.v. survivalist to start a fire with it.
Many major retailers season their firewood before selling it. Seasoning firewood means storing it in a dry, well-ventilated area for six months, give-or-take. As much moisture as seasoning removes, the process also decreases density by giving the wood time to decompose. After all, it’s dead. Somebody chopped it with an axe. Nobody lives through that.
Kiln-drying is much more effective. We keep our firewood in hot kilns for about two days, after which the wood is much drier than it would be if someone had seasoned it, and it hasn’t had nearly as much time to decompose. Accordingly, kiln-dried hardwood is the best firewood. You’re free to use seasoned wood and fresh wood, but realize that seasoned wood won’t work as well and fresh wood might not catch at all.
There are a few important things to remember about where you store your firewood. To minimize moisture, stack your firewood above ground, and keep enough space among individual logs for ventilation. If you store your firewood outside, be sure to shelter it from the elements with a tarp or shed. Not only does moisture reduce flammability, but it can also invite mold that’ll eat away at your wood’s density. Otherwise, when you bring stored firewood indoors, give it some time to warm up before trying to light it.
Are You Arranging Wood Effectively?
Especially if you’re making a fire outside, building something strong enough to stand up to wind and rain can be an art. Whatever you design, tinder will have to ignite kindling, and kindling will have to ignite your firewood. Here are a few best practices for structure along with more general tips.
Did You Remember (Enough) Tinder and Kindling?
If you don’t have much to use for either, and you don’t want to go outside, newspaper and lint from the dryer make great tinder. As for kindling, you’ll need the thinnest pieces of firewood you have if not several long branches from the backyard. When you’re ready to lay your tinder and kindling, remember that using too much at once might suffocate the fire.
The Best Way to Build When Firewood Won’t Burn
If you’re using a fire pit outside, arranging your firewood into a log cabin is best. Lay your tinder uniformly around the pit. In the center of the pit, arrange your kindling into a teepee. A teepee shape will allow ventilation to embolden the fire from the kindling onto the firewood. Finally, arrange your firewood into the shape of a log cabin: Place a pair of parallel logs on either side of the pit, and place a perpendicular pair on top of the original pair. Rinse and repeat until you’ve laid all the firewood you’ve designated. Remember to light the tinder only.
If you’re using a fireplace inside, we recommend an upside-down log cabin. Begin by arranging your firewood in the way we’ve already explained, but put your kindling and tinder on top. To compensate for the smaller space, simply lay several pieces of kindling flat upon the firewood and lay the tinder on top of the kindling. While heat rises, a grate inside a fireplace isn’t a big space to house a fire, so we advocate for compactness.
Whether you build a log cabin, teepee or lean-to, you must monitor three factors with care, even after you get a fire going: heat, air and fuel. If pieces of wood within the fire are too far from each other, they’ll burn out. If pieces of wood are too close to each other, they’ll suffocate the fire. Finally, if your fire has darkened enough, only another log might do the trick. Of course, having great firewood in the first place works best.
Maintain Your Workspace
Any problems you’ve been having with starting a fire might also come down to the condition of your workspace. Did you build a good firepit? Is creosote building up inside your chimney? Your problem might have nothing to do with seasoned firewood or a poor building strategy.
If Firewood Won’t Burn, is the Pit Good to Go?
A good firepit must be as far from plant matter as possible, but this is more of a safety concern than anything else. When you dig a firepit and make a bed for a fire, nothing apart from dirt should be inside – a lot of dirt. Make sure that your bed of dirt is at least three inches thick. As it’s inside your home, a fireplace requires more aggressive pruning. Make sure ash doesn’t remain beneath the grate for long. Creosote may also stick to the walls of the fireplace, so be sure to scrape that off as well.
How’s the Chimney?
Chimneys require annual maintenance, at least. Using soft or moist wood to make fires might require you to schedule maintenance more often, but using hardwood doesn’t keep your chimney exempt from a good clean, either. Without regard to starting fires, a clogged chimney can keep deadly fumes inside your home.
Mind the Damper
Make sure the damper is wide open before you build your fire. Sometimes, opening it leaves it only slightly ajar.
Warm the Flue
In winter, cold air can fill the chimney flue, keeping warm air from exiting. You may benefit from warming the chimney with either a blow dryer or a makeshift torch (since you’re making a fire anyway). Starting a fire in a warm chimney instead of a cold one can be the difference between a generous blaze and no fire at all.
Build Better Fires and Keep Them Going!
Figuring out what to do when firewood won’t burn can be difficult. If you follow our tips, we know you’ll be on your way to building better fires and keeping them going for longer. As long as you recognize the risks of straying from best practices and premium firewood, we hope you feel more confident about your fire-making abilities. For more information about making fires with the best premium firewood, please check out our complete kiln-dried firewood guide, call us at 815-337-1451, or stop by for a visit.