The Dao of Starting and Burning a Fire in a Wood Burner


For those of you who already are experts at starting and maintaining fires in wood burners, you may choose to skip this post; or read it and compare it to your style of starting and maintaining fires in wood burners. 

Ideal environment and materials:

–The wood burner has an excellent, clear stove pipe that vents to the outside

–The wood burner has a clean ash pan, or at least clean enough to allow air circulation under the fire.

–The wood burner has a decent grate upon which the fire rests.

–2-3 pieces of fatwood, which are splintered pieces of the bottoms of pine tree trunks, where the resin collects in the tree.  The small (4-5” long by ½-3/4” wide) sticks, or some other starting agent (small packets of gel accelerant, small paper cups of wax with wicks) is preferable for the smooth starting of a fire.  When it’s cold outside and that cold has started to seep into your dwelling, the sooner you get the fire started the better.

–Assorted kindling, such as dried twigs, sticks, small branches, no bigger than 6 inches long and an inch or two wide.

–Light, dry small logs, or light, dry small split pieces.

–Light, bigger, dry logs or split pieces.

–Dry, heavier logs or split pieces.

–A poker

–A cast iron wood burner handle

–A pair of heavy leather gloves

–A whisk broom

–Small fireplace shovel.


–Stove heat gauge – it’s attached to the outside of the stove with a magnet on the back. 

–Matches, if a Calcifer isn’t already there from a previous fire.  This is a pretty good sized piece of burning charcoal, which is a mostly burned piece of wood that is glowing red.

If the calcifer isn’t there, and you’re starting “cold”, look for cold pieces of charcoal from the previous fire.  Sweep the *cold* ashes from the previous fire down through the holes in the grate, into the ash pan below the grate with a whisk broom.  If calcifers are present, sweep carefully around them so as not to melt the fibers on the broom.  Alternately, scoop the calcifers up with the fireplace shovel then sweep the ashes down below, then place the calcifers back on the grate.

Set your stove to “high” setting.  Where it is located and what the setting apparatus is will vary depending the type of stove you have.  It’s like a choke on a lawnmower or snowblower or other combustion engine.  This will determine how much air gets into the stove once you close the doors.  You also need to check your flue, which is located on the chimney, to make sure enough air gets into the burning chamber so that the fresh air gets in but the bad air gets sucked up the chimney and out of the house.

If calcifers are hot, arrange your fatwood in a tent-like but overcrossing pattern.  Depending on the size of the calcifer, it might immediately start the fatwood smoking, or it may take a few focused puffs from the bellows to ignite the fatwood.  If you’re impatient, one match should ignite it.  If there are no calcifers, prop one piece of fatwood up against the old, cold charcoal.  If there are no calcifers or pieces of leftover cold charcoal, create a small bundle of your twigs and small branches, then lay the fatwood up against it, pointing upward. 

If the fatwood is propped on cold charcoal, light the fatwood with a match until it ignites.  Note:  it may take *several* attempts to get the ignition, but don’t give up.  It will catch.  If the fatwood is laying on the bundle of twigs, etc., light the twigs, which should fire right up if they are dry, and they will ignite the fatwood.

Once ignition occurs to the fatwood, regardless of circumstances, carefully place your assorted kindling over the flame in a way where it is getting burned but not so it ends up extinguishing the itty bitty flame you have going.  This is the crucial step in getting your big fire going.  If you put too much stuff on it, it will get overwhelmed and suffocate, as fire needs oxygen to consume.  Then you have to go back to the previous steps to get it going again, which is a pain, as you can imagine.  Slowly feed the fire bits of bigger and bigger kindling, until the fire seems to be burning fairly confidently.  The stuff under the small fire is starting to glow, which will help support the burning of the bigger pieces of kindling you’re adding.

You’ve reached the stage where you can add a small dry log or split piece of wood.  It is ESSENTIAL that the wood be seasoned/dry.  Wet wood won’t burn, at least at this stage.  You will hear it sizzle and you will watch your baby fire die.  Again, placing it so it is not suffocating your small fire, you watch it until it looks like the flames are consuming the edge of the log/split piece.

Here is another crucial part of building your fire.  Turn your stove to low setting (i.e. turn off the choke), then shut the door of the wood burner.  Use your leather glove to shut the door with one hand and use the stove handle in the latch to seal the stove door shut with the other.

There are a couple of ways to tell if your fire continues to burn inside without opening the door right away.  One is you can hear the stove “knocking” with sounds.  Another is the stove begins to feel warm.  Warning, this is NOT a good habit to get into with a wood burning stove.  You should never really touch it at all without a glove, but at a fire’s infancy it won’t be more than slightly warm at first.  The knocking is the best way, and it might not get warm at first, so that is not so reliable.  You can check your heat gauge which is stuck to the outside of the stove’s door.  If you see the temperature going up at all you know your fire is burning!

Give it maybe 15 minutes, then open the stove.  It is hopefully burning real well by then.  If it’s gone out, think or say a few choice words, then go back to the beginning.  If nothing else, there should now be some calcifers, ready to be cultivated easily into flames again.  If it IS burning well, now is the time to add 3 pieces of the bigger wood.  Take 2 pieces of fairly light, but fairly large, seasoned/dry wood and lay them side by side, placed horizontally in the stove, but leave a fair-sized space between them for the fire to burn up through.  Think of an “equal sign” or “=”.  Once you see the fire is able to keep burning and growing for a minute or two, then you add your bigger, heavier, dry/seasoned third piece, which lays halfway over each upper and lower side of the equal sign.  Shut the door again, making sure you are using your leather glove on one hand and sealing the door shut using the stove handle with your other hand. 

At this point, you should be all set.  Keep your eye on the temperature gauge, making sure the fire stays in the zone between too low (0-300F), which produces creosote and doesn’t give off much heat, and too high (550F+), which could melt your stove down and can become quite dangerous.  Keeping the fire temperature between 300-550F is very important for optimal burning, heating, and safety.  Once you get some experience under your belt, it’s easy to do (at least it is with the stove I use.)

Wood Burning in the woodburner


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