A fireplace is not a toy, and operating one should be taken very seriously. When you start a fire in your fireplace you are working with something that can look quite beautiful, but, at the same time you are facing wood that is burning at a high temperature and that is giving off carbon monoxide gasses, which if not properly vented could be deadly.
If you are new to owning/having a fireplace, it is of the utmost importance that you know how to properly open your fireplace’s damper, and how to start the draft going, before you ever start a fire.
I have had two different fireplaces in my adult life, and both of them had different damper opening apparatuses to use. My suggestion to you, if you are a first time fireplace owner is to invite a close friend, who you trust their fire-making expertise, who has a fireplace and has built many fires, to come and show you, in your own house, how to exactly open your damper and how to get your draft going. Don’t just listen to their instructions over the phone, to see something done in person really is so much more informative. If you don’t know anyone who knows how to operate a fireplace properly, call up a fireplace store in your area. They are listed in the yellow pages. The fireplace store should be able to help you out, and they will also be able to answer questions about fireplace cleaning, chimney repairs, maintenance, etc.
I tell you this because my family does not have a fireplace in their house, and I never knew how to properly operate one. In 1983, when I bought my first house, I thought all I had to do was open the damper, crumple up some newspapers, stack some twigs and wood on the grate, light a match, and I would have a lovely fire burning in my fireplace. Boy was I Wrong! A few seconds after doing that, smoke billowed out into the room, staining the front of the mantel with soot, and for days the room smelled like I had a fire. This all happened in mid December, and the worse thing of all was, I just steam cleaned the carpeting.
Some General things to think about when you have a fireplace…
Fireplace Tools ..When it comes to fireplace grates and tools, buy the sturdiest and best quality you can afford. Never build a fire unless your fireplace has fireplace curtains, a fireplace screen, or glass fireplace doors.
Fireplace Grates are made of iron and come in a few sizes. Before going shopping for your grate, at places like Home Depot, Lowe’s, or a fireplace store in your area, measure the depth and width of your firebox. The firebox is where you make the fire. Buy one that is smaller than the firebox, and that you think will look good and easily fit in the space.
The purpose of the grate is to 1..hold the burning wood, 2..elevate the burning wood off of the floor of the fireplace, so there is air movement around it, and 3..as the fire burns, the grate makes a space for wood ash to fall downward below the fire.
Fireplace Tools consist of a poker, shovel, broom, and fireplace tongs. They are most often displayed on a companion rack. The fireplace tongs are really the most important tool. With the tongs, you will be moving heavy / burning logs, and you might even use them to add more wood to your fire. Tongs are long and scissor like. The best ones, I think, have a rounded kind of end that mimics for shape, and can wrap around a log (see illustration 1).
I feel the poker, broom and shovel to be of not much use. I recommend getting a good metal dust scoop that has a much shorten handle than the fireplace shovel. With it you can easily scoop out ash, and place it into an ash bucket (that comes with a shovel) that you must also buy (see illustration 2).
A good pair of heavy gloves to wear when adding more wood to the fire is also needed. My sister, one Christmas gave me a pair of ‘Ove’ Glove. They have non-slip silicone grips, and can be put on either the left or right hand. The manufacturer says they can withstand extreme heat to 540 degrees Fahrenheit.
Firewood ..When it comes to choosing the right kind of wood for an indoor fire, pick seasoned (really dried out) hard woods like maple, hickory, oak, white birch, ash and elm. Fruit woods like apple and cherry are also fine. Never burn anything that is part of the evergreen family like pine spruce, hemlock, etc. Those kinds of woods have a lot of tar in them, that will build up on the inside of your fireplace chimney. The creosote could burst into flames, causing a chimney fire.
Never burn any kind of plywood or pressure treated wood in your fireplace. The chemicals in them will / could give off harmful gasses when burnt. Never burn charcoal briquets, that you would use when barbecuing, in your fireplace, or try to start a fire with charcoal briquet lighter fluid. Never leave a fire unattended.
My way of Stacking wood for a Nice Roaring Fire
When I first started building fires in my first fireplace, I would stack the logs horizontally, one on top of another, on the fireplace grate. The wood would burn just fine, but I got a lot of popping and spitting of sparks. Sometimes a hot ember would shoot from the fireplace, through the chain mail fire curtains, and land on the carpet. Having hot embers burning holes into good quality oriental carpets is something I don’t want happening with any regularity. I had mentioned my problem to a friend, and her words of wisdom to me were..”Stack your fireplace wood as if you are making a bonfire“. With those words in mind, this is what I came up with, and it works for me…
After completely opening my damper and starting the fireplace draft I ..
Step 1 .. Crumple up a few single sheets of newspaper into balls and down the middle of the grate, shove them in-between the bars.
Step 2 .. On top of the crumpled papers I stack a small pile of wood / kindling, laying it left to right on the grate. I like to use small-thin logs, branches, twigs, sticks etc, anything that when lit can easily catch fire, along with two thicker logs. In between the two thicker logs I place a brick of Starter Logg. Starter Logg, or whatever is its equivalent name in you area, is a block of premium wax and kiln dried sawdust, that when lit burns about 30 to 45 minutes. It, along with the kindling, will help to get the thicker logs burning.
On top of everything that I’ve just piled, I place two or three not too thick logs, that are laying from the front of the grate toward the back wall of the fireplace, and I make sure they are touching each other.
I then crumple up a few more single sheets of newspapers into balls, and put them on the floor of the fireplace, under the grate. Now look at illustration 3 to see my exact method of stacking. After that I strike a long fireplace match, or I could use one of those gun styled candle lighters to ignite the crumpled papers on the floor of the fireplace. In no time everything catches fire and I am on my way.
Adding Wood to the Fire after getting it Going ..There is a pattern to how I place extra wood on the fire once it has started burning. What I want are two or three logs stacked up on top of each other in the back of the grate, by the back wall of the fireplace, and two or three logs alongside and touching each other leaning from the front of the grate onto the stacked logs placed in the back (see illustration 4).
Once the logs in the back burn down, using the fireplace tongs, I move the now burning leaning logs in the front and stack them in the back. I then add two or three logs again in the front, repeating this step until I decide to let the fire naturally burn itself out.
By stacking wood this way, I get flames that burn upward; it is quite a picturesque looking fire, and I get hardly any popping or spitting of embers out from the fireplace, into the room, as I would if I just placed the wood horizontally on the grate to burn.
This method of stacking and burning wood can use a bit more wood than other ways of stacking wood, but the effect is quite beautiful, especially if I am having a fire when guests are coming.
The first time you start a fire, do it on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, when you have the time and nowhere to go. That way you will be able to judge how long it takes a fire to burn and die out. I like my fires to just be a bed of glowing embers, with no flames showing, at the time I am ready to go to bed. (My fireplace has glass fire doors).
Cleaning out the Fireplace and Closing the Damper ..First of all I want to say Never CLOSE your Fireplace Damper until you have cleaned the ash from the fireplace! Ash, if still burning is giving off carbon monoxide gas that could be fatal. The best time to clean out a fireplace, I feel, is the first thing, the next day after having a fire. ( A good eight to ten hours after the fire has gone out completely).
With an ash scoop, carefully scoop out all the ash and any pieces of not burned wood, and put it into your ash bucket. Take the ash bucket quickly outside and spread the ash on your lawn or garden. Do not put ashes in the garbage that is kept inside your house. There still could be some burning embers in the ash, that when mixed with other things could cause a fire. If you don’t have a lawn or garden to spread the ash on, get a metal garbage can with a lid, that you keep outside, away from your house. Keep the ash in it until garbage day. Don’t put anything except the fire ash in that can. If you live in an apartment building, that has a working fireplace, ask the building manager how he or she wants you to dispose of the ash.
If you are a Neat-Nick, and want to vacuum out your fireplace, scoop out the ash first, and wait a day or two extra before vacuuming. My cousin, once vacuumed out the fireplace ash, then put the vacuum cleaner bag with the other garbage under the sink in the kitchen. A little while later, she had a kitchen cabinet on fire.
Never think of your fireplace as a place to burn excess paper or cardboard. My cousin, just mentioned, and her husband, one Christmas eve thought… Why not burn All the cardboard boxes and wrappings of the gifts they put under the tree. While doing that, the doorbell rang. It was a neighbor, who came over to say the whole roof of their house was on fire. It was covered with embers from the papers and cardboard that flew up the chimney. Lucky for them, the roof was snow-covered, or they could have lost the house.
Some people like to keep a bed of ash in the fireplace and build the next fire on top of that. I am not at all for that! If you were to do that, before closing the damper, run your hands through the ash. If you get burnt, deadly carbon monoxide gas is still being emitted. I feel this is a dangerous practice.
I have a fireplace that has a shoot on the fireplace floor, where you can drop ash down to the cellar for cleaning. I say never do that if you have that shoot. Why have, possibly burning embers, down in the base of your chimney.
After cleaning out your fireplace, close the damper. That will stop the draft. The draft is sucking the air and heat out of your room and sending it up the chimney to outside.
Finally .. I am not in any way a professional when it comes to working a fireplace, just a man who has had two of them at my different houses. The information I’ve just covered, I feel is all based on common sense. As for my way of stacking wood to build a fire, it is up to you if you try my way or not. As with all things related to operating a fireplace, if you have questions Ask a professional.
Picking and Hanging the RIGHT size Picture or Mirror over your fireplace, 6-23-2011,
Arranging furniture around a fireplace in the corner of a room 9-29-2012.
This, my 100th post marks the Second Anniversary of Fred Gonsowski Garden Home. How quickly time has flown by. It almost seems like, just last month, I started this website. As I look at all the drawings I’ve made, and photos I’ve taken, on my computer’s picture area, I am astonished by all the images I’ve produced for the posts. I hope each of the articles, in some way helped my readers. I feel I’ve become a better writer with each new post, but sometimes I wonder if I get the punctuation right.
I want to thank the San Francisco Chronicle and eHOW for using my blog posts as references and resources for their articles. Also, many thanks to the fantastic people who pinned me on Pinterest. I also want to say Thank You to the people who commented, and as for my hundreds of thousands of quiet followers, I hope I inspired you in some way to get the projects that interested you done. In the year ahead, I look forward to writing more articles that I hope will continue to interest you all.