How to start a fire
November 7, 2012 6:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a cast iron wood stove at my house that sort of looks like this. I suck at getting a fire light in it reliably. Can you help figure out what flues and doors and vents to open and close and devise a process to always get a fire going?

The stove has:
  • A door on the front
  • A door on the left
  • A big handle over the door on the left that appears to move a big metal thing that prevents or lets air go in and out of a bunch of holes on the inside bottom of the stove
  • A large pipe that goes up to the ceiling and through the roof
  • A knob 2 feet above the stove on that pipe that feels like it is turning a piece of metal inside the pipe to let smoke in our out of that pipe, or maybe to keep rain / snow out?
  • A small metal cable attached to a latch on the back that opens and shuts a tiny metal flap in front of a 4" square opening on the back bottom left
I have dry firewood, treated "fatwood" sticks, matches, paper, etc. And a "log grate" that can fit inside the fireplace.

What is the correct process? Talk to me like I grew up without a fireplace, because I did.
posted by neustile to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
first, are you sure that it has been installed and maintained in a safe manner? chimney or flue (the big metal pipe that goes up) fires can lead to catastrophe. a professional chimneysweep and/or wood stove installer can help here.

there's a ton of videos on youtube on how to light a wood burning stove. good luck!
posted by alabamnicon at 6:38 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

A lot of getting your stove to light reliably is just practise, and discovering what works for your situation.

When I had a wood burning stove, I used to lay the fire with the door and the vent open (unless it was very windy, when the draft from the open vent would literally suck the fire out before it started going!), and then leave the door open an inch or so (if you move it around this amount of openness, you can see the flames leaping up, or dying down, showing you where optimum draw is) until the fire was burning well. Then I'd shut the door, and adjust the vent for either a lot of fast hot burning (open) or slow, smouldery burning (closed) or somewhere in between. My vent was closed when the lever was on the left, but you can check it easily when you have a fire in there next. I don't know what the knob on the flue is (doesn't that sound like a visit to a euphemism doctor?) for, but possibly you should turn it until you think it is open and leave it there, for fire lighting purposes.

Other thoughts:
1) The stove should be cleaned out every now and then (depending in how much ash and junk your fire leaves in there, which will depend on what and how fast you're burning).
2) Possibly your flue needs cleaning.
3) Do you know how to lay a fire so it will catch easily and burn nice and hot while it's starting?
4) What you burn matters, some woods burn much more easily than others.

Hope that is some help.
posted by thylacinthine at 7:07 PM on November 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

So I grew up with a wood burning stove as the only source of heat, and often had to light the fire myself. I am probably not the best expert, but I think I could give some advice.

Generally, you want enough air flow to allow the fire to consume oxygen without blowing a nascent flame out. Therefore, you will usually open the damper (which is the knob on the pipe) to open or close the damper. If it is really windy out, you will likely need to close the damper most of the way until the fire is going well (stick your hand in the stove, does it feel drafty? then you will have a hard time lighting the fire). All those other knobs on your stove? I am not fully sure what they are all for, but I wouldn't be surprised if they are just for controlling air flow into the fire. Keep them open at the start of the fire. Once you have a fantastic flame going and the stove is nice and hot, you will want to close them a bit so that the fire burns more slowly.

Next, set up the fire. I have found that using a *lot* of newspaper balled up into tight little balls to be effective. I am talking like 10 sheets of newspaper. Next, I layer very small kindling, such as dry sticks or cardboard on top of the paper. I tend to put more easily ignitable things closer to the newspaper, and work my way towards the top of the pile with less easily ignitable things, such as thicker sticks etc.

I have found it is worth it to not skimp on the kindling. Regarding how your pile of kindling should look, it all depends on personal style. Some people like to make a full on teepee with the kindling, I just think a stable arrangement of flammable items that allows air flow is good. Keep in mind, when I say stable, I mean something that won't completely fall apart as soon as things start burning down. Keeping the fire concentrated is going to be important to lighting the main log.

Light the fire on multiple spots on the newspaper, and wait for the kindling to catch. As it starts to burn, slowly add more kindling in larger and larger sizes until you have a flame that will last a few minutes. Then add a smallish size log, preferably one that has bark or rough edges, which will catch better. *Don't just toss it on* this may cause a draft that could put your tiny fire out.

Sometime during this process, sometime after you think the fire is going okay, slowly open the damper if you have closed it. Make sure not to let your room fill with smoke. If this is happening, the damper is not open enough.

Once the smallish log is going well, you can start to add larger logs. As the fire goes, you will have to keep an eye on it, possibly stirring the flames a bit to evenly distribute the fuel.

Unfortunately, there may be days you don't get the fire to go well, possibly due to the quality of wood or the windiness of the day. But I have found the above procedure to be pretty good most of the time for me.
posted by nasayre at 7:10 PM on November 7, 2012

Not to be harsh, but based on the description you've given, you do not know enough about your stove to operate it safely. You could easily start a chimney fire in your ignorance.

You also don't know what kind of shape your chimney is in. It could have just been cleaned, or it could be chock full of creosote just waiting to explode.

Take alabamnicon's advice and call in a chimney sweep to check/clean your chimney. He/she will be happy to explain the workings of your stove to you in great detail, and will probably be happy to show you the best way to light it.
posted by bricoleur at 7:20 PM on November 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

A clean will probably help.

Here's my patented method: (YSMV)

Open the damper.

Place two logs on floor at either side of the stove, front to back, creating a tunnel with flammable sides. If they have bark or a rough side, put that towards the centre, as that's where you are hoping it'll catch. Ball up a lot of newspaper. I roll it diagonally and then tie in a knot. Fill up the space between the logs. Put some kindling on top of and through this, and then some larger sticks going from the top of the logs over the kindling and onto the floor of the stove at a variety of angles. This gives them space to catch, and stops them falling to the floor and putting themselves out.

Light the paper at a few spots. Then, try closing the door most of the way, turning the handle so that it just catches, but doesn't fully seal. In the stove I used to have, this would cause a bit of a wind tunnel which helped the paper burn hotter. What should happen is that the paper goes Whompf, and lights the kindling. The kindling then lights the larger sticks.

Once the larger sticks (and if you're lucky, the sides of the logs) have caught, prop a smaller log over the bit that's caught the best, then close the door to just open again. Once the smaller log catches, you're pretty much done. The larger logs may need a rearrange at some point, maybe shifting one so that it's propped up over something that's caught well, but you probably won't accidentally put it out.
posted by kjs4 at 8:25 PM on November 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

AFTER you have the chimney checked out, you may want to crack a window open, near the stove, when you start a fire. Then close the window when the fire is going good. That works for me. Has something to do with oxygen circulation in the room you are using.
posted by cda at 8:29 PM on November 7, 2012

A door on the front

You lay the fire from this side and observe the lazy floaty flames through the window in the door once things have lit off properly.

A door on the left

This is how you put more wood on the fire without having to suddenly drop the temperature in the fireplace (too much). On stoves like Jøtuls this may even be pedal-operated.

A big handle over the door on the left that appears to move a big metal thing that prevents or lets air go in and out of a bunch of holes on the inside bottom of the stove

This control is called the draft. You use this to control how much air the fire is getting.

A large pipe that goes up to the ceiling and through the roof

This is the chimney. Its length should be at least 20 times its diameter and its diameter should be not less than six inches. If the chimney is too short the fireplace will not draw - induce incoming airflow because of the buoyancy of the outgoing warm, up-floaty air - very well.

A knob 2 feet above the stove on that pipe that feels like it is turning a piece of metal inside the pipe to let smoke in our out of that pipe, or maybe to keep rain / snow out?

This control is called the damper. Its function is to limit the draw when you have a very good fire, so that you can keep the warm air in the house as long as possible. It complicates matters because it also influences the draft.

A small metal cable attached to a latch on the back that opens and shuts a tiny metal flap in front of a 4" square opening on the back bottom left

This is a mystery control but it may have to do with secondary air or something. Close it for the following. If and only if you have a clean, Warnock-Hersey (or equivalent) listed chimney (you know it is clean, or it is not) then proceed as follows:

Lay the fire. I am assuming from the look of your stove that it is lined with firebrick. Open the door on the front. Build your fire right on the bricks. Put a dry chunk of wood at the very back of the stove. Crumple up a bunch of newspaper - six to eight sheets of the normal format - and place all of the crumpled balls right in front of said chunk of wood. Egg boxes, toilet paper tubes, and the like make wonderful starting material if you have them.

Lean three sticks of 1" square kindling diagonally but parallel so they lie on the chunk of wood and angle downward toward the front of the stove. Lean three more sticks at the complementary angle. You should have a grid pattern of kindling with air spaces between the pieces.

Open both draft and damper fully. Close the door to ensure the kindling is not going to interfere with it, then open it again.

Light the newspaper at four equally spaced spots across the face the door occupies. Close the door almost but not quite fully and when each piece of newspaper is alight, close it fully while observing what happens to the flames at the newspaper. If the flames diminish a lot, re-open the door slightly. You do not want a blast of air at this point; you want the paper to warm things up enough to start the kindling. You may need just a little supplemental air to make that happen.

Leave things alone until there are six-inch flames all across the kindling. The kindling should be about half blackened all over its surface and the flames should be seen coming from the wood itself.

Close the door again. Leave it shut. Do nothing until the kindling is all black and you see bright flames all across the width of the fire. If the fire appears at risk of going out, you may want to open the door experimentally, but by this time either you have a good fire or you have faulty equipment.

Sit there and wait until big cracks appear all along the kindling. At this point the kindling is about half consumed.

Place one and only one piece of wood the same size as your first piece atop the burning kindling, parallel to the stove's front door.

Wait five minutes. If the flames begin to look scary or there is a roaring sound from the stove, ensure the door is closed and then very carefully begin closing the draft. This system responds slowly to control inputs. Close it by 25%, wait three minutes. If the fire is bigger, close it another 25% and wait three minutes. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You are aiming for a fire where the flames appear to float rather than roar: this is the most economical use of your wood. The mission you have is to extract the most heat from the wood, while maintaining enough heat in the chimney so that it draws well.

A decent fire in that stove will provide a lot of radiant heat and it should feel good to be two feet away from the window but a little uncomfortable when you are only one foot away from it. Flames should be yellow, not red and there should be no roaring or other unseemly noises. "Drift" of the flames is a good sign.

If the flame is yellow, the window is not getting brownish opaque deposits, yet the flames seem to rise too quickly, very carefully begin closing the damper. Start with just 15 degrees of angle (the damper is a slanted plate of metal within the chimney). You would like the temperature of the outside wall of the chimney a foot above the damper to be 250-300 F assuming you are using a Warnock-Hersey listed dual-wall chimney. Look for the Warnock-Hersey label on the back of the first length of the chimney.

As long as the flames have a lazy, floaty character and the window is not darkening you have a good fire. If you want to add wood (don't do it until the pieces you started with are at least half consumed, and that means grey flaky ash that falls off of itself), open the draft to 50%, open the side door, put the next chunk of wood in, close the side door, and as soon as that new piece of wood is uniformly blackened, back the draft off again.

No kidding, though: if you do not know for sure your chimney is in good shape, deal with that first.
posted by jet_silver at 8:47 PM on November 7, 2012 [11 favorites]

I have basically that exact stove. I was surprised to find that I could google the name of the stove [like literally what is on the front of it and/or a tag on the back of it] and get owner's manual type things for it on the internet which are often very helpful.

Folks have done a fine job explaining to you the pieces and what they mostly do. The "mystery control" is, I believe a heat operated little vent thing in the back. Does it have a sort of a spiral metal part that might expand/contract some?

The big deal, as people have said is to make sure this is a stove you can be using safely. The next step is to make sure that when you use it, you are using it safely. You want a fire that burns warm but not so hot that it's bad for the stove (i.e. burning up the gaskets), and not so cool that you are getting imperfect combustion which can leave a bunch of creosote [gunk that could eventually catch fire] in your chimney. If there is a thermometer of some sort on the stovepipe check it and it will tell you what the "safe" range is. If there is not one and you will be using this stove often, consider investing in one.

The other caution is to make sure you are using the proper tools. If there are gloves, use them to add wood. If there is a poker or other implements for manipulating the burning logs, use them. You can get some nasty burns just by brushing against a 400 degree stove. Also consider putting a pan of water on the top of it to keep the humidity up, woodstoves make the air warm, which is great, but very dry which is not great for humans or any wood in the house that you're not planning to burn.

Try to avoid messing with it if it's mostly working and the fire is pretty much going. If it appears to be going out, try to move some logs again so that you're getting more air to them and/or opening the vents some more. Once the fire is going and hot, you will get less flames and additional logs will just catch from being places near other burning logs as long as there is enough air. Best of luck, woodstoves are fun.
posted by jessamyn at 9:49 PM on November 7, 2012

The most common fire starting mistake is too much balked up paper, no air can get in and all the ash puts your fire out. The tunnel method described above is, imho, the quickest way to a good warm fire. Use minimal paper and some little kindling sticks. Fire draws oxygen in from the bottom and burns up so make sure it can do that and that the little pieces of kindling are suspended over the paper or firestarter instead of just piling it all up in a heap. You can get a fire going superfast this way and with very little material.
posted by fshgrl at 10:04 PM on November 7, 2012

The "mystery control" is, I believe a heat operated little vent thing in the back. Does it have a sort of a spiral metal part that might expand/contract some?

That's my guess too; that's what it was on the stove I grew up with— a little bimetallic coil connected to a flap to act as a crude temperature regulator / thermostat kind of thing.
posted by hattifattener at 11:54 PM on November 7, 2012

Jet Silver's advice is spot on. Using a woodstove is an art, and satisfying once you master it. It takes practice, as noted above.

Regarding the "A small metal cable attached to a latch on the back that opens and shuts a tiny metal flap in front of a 4" square opening on the back bottom left " control. I would be curious if anyone could further expand on this. I've used woodstoves for years, none of which had this control, but my current one, which I've not used much yet, also has this control. The idea that it is a thermostate type of device makes sense, but wouldn't it react more to the temperature of the stove as opposed to the room temp?
posted by HuronBob at 3:12 AM on November 8, 2012

You're getting good advice here, and I agree: Get a chimney sweep out to check your chimney, and ask him to give you a stove lesson.

I don't usually use newspaper. I break up a single fire starter square and that seems to get things going well. The age/dryness/quality of the wood also factors in; make sure you're not trying to burn wood that's too moist.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:15 AM on November 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to add to jessamyn's comment, a woodstove thermometer looks like this. My sweep recommended running our particular stove between 400 and 600 degrees F to avoid creosote buildup in the chimney (YMMV).
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:22 AM on November 8, 2012

Response by poster: Oh god you're all so helpful. We did have it cleaned out recently and I have successfully started quite a few good fires, but my hit rate is about 25% and I didn't want to muddy the question with my approach (that obviously doesn't work.) Will try an amalgamation of everything I've read so far tonight, thanks so much guys!!!
posted by neustile at 5:40 AM on November 8, 2012

I would be curious if anyone could further expand on this

Here is a little diagram for people who were wondering about the latch/flap thing on the back. "thermostatic air control" reacts to the stove temperature and, I think, closes the flap a little if it's getting too hot, opens it if it's getting cooler. I had an old stove and this thing didn't work so well but that was the general idea.
posted by jessamyn at 7:33 AM on November 8, 2012

Response by poster: Jessamyn -- that's the thing I have! Good find.
posted by neustile at 8:25 AM on November 8, 2012

Really, you can try all kinds of things, but the best option is to look on the back, find the manufacturer and model and find a manual. It looks and sounds like a Vermont Castings to me, but it should have a little silver plate on the back somewhere (possibly this might be behind a thin sheet of metal known as a heat shield) that tells you all you need to know.

From your description, the handle that turns may be a draft control or it might be a damper to direct the air through a secondary combustion system (in this case the damper will move, moving a large plate inside the stove and then lock it into place with a thunk). Then the cable would be your draft control. Generally, it is best not to use the damper on the stovepipe, leave this open (perpendicular to the stovepipe) or else you will have a hard time starting the stove and will create lots of smoke. It is best to regulate the fire by controlling the amount of air going in, rather than the amount of exhaust going out.

If you do have some sort of damper to control secondary combustion being on or not, you need it open to start the stove and until it gets up to temperature (get a thermometer for your stovepipe), then closed to burn cleanly (and to prevent over firing). You may have a catalytic converter, which needs to be cleaned at least annually and replaced every 5 years or so, or else the stove will perform very poorly. So you really do want to find out what type of stove you have and read the manual! If you have trouble finding this information, perhaps posting some photos of the actual stove could help someone here ID it.

And, yes, it does sounds like you have a thermostatic air control, but those things generally don't work very well, in my experience.
posted by ssg at 11:27 AM on November 8, 2012

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