Baby, it’s cold outside. Or at least it is here in the northern hemisphere! And I’ll bet some of you have festive or new year plans that revolve around forest cabins, country cottages, lakeside huts, seaside caravans or other cute holiday hideaways that involve leaving central heating and wifi behind and roughing it for cosy winter thrills.
So. You’ve finally arrived after getting completely lost on unmarked dirt tracks, you’ve dumped your bags, you’ve raced around the garden/lake/woods and it’s time to pop that bottle open and get cosy by the fire. Yay! Whether it’s hearthrug sex, board games or a lengthy discussion about social justice you are gonna need to get that baby lit.
I live on a boat which is heated entirely by a multi-fuel stove — I literally do this every day from October to March and I like to think I’ve got firebuilding down to a fine art. I thought I’d share my method with you so you can be the coolest cat in the cabin and build a perfect cosy fire for everyone to gather around. I also want to say right now for the record that I hate Scrabble. But I love brandy and sexytimes, so.
I’m doing this with a little iron stove, but the basic principles work fine for an open hearth or outdoor fire too.
You will need:
- Small wood like twigs and sticks (kindling)
- Firelighters (optional but recommended)
- Your main fuel: coal, or bigger logs
- Matches (preferably nice long ones to protect your wee fingers)
- Fires need three things: oxygen, heat and fuel.
- Wood burns from above, coal burns from below.
- Air flow is king.
- Fuel must be dry. Don’t try burning green (live) wood, this will result in smoke and misery.
1. Start with a clean grate
No shortcuts here! Clean out the grate, including the pan under the grate if there is one. Air flow is the most important thing for a hot, happy fire and it starts right here.
2. If you’re gonna be using coal, lay a few lumps now
You’ll put more on later but coal is slow to get going. A neat little pile right at the start will give you a head start.
3. Paper balls
Everyone has a different way with their newspaper bunching — my ex swore by ‘little snails’ where he’d twist big sheets of paper over and over til they curled up like snail-shells. You do you. Screw up some paper however you like and arrange this on your coal/grate.
4. Kindling cone
There’s an art to arranging your kindling so that air can flow all around it and it all catches at the same time, which is what you want. Lay your twigs and sticks vertically all the way around your newspaper so it forms a conical kind of shape.
If you’re using firelighters (you don’t have to but man do they make life easier!) nestle one or two at the top of your fire now.
6. Light it!
Light the firelighters, or a loose edge of paper. This is where you need to be quite attentive, to ensure everything gets going. Don’t assume your paper will all go up in a merry blaze right away. You might need to re-light or gently blow on the fire to help it get a hold. Crouch right down and blow gently into the bottom of the fire, where you can see smoke or glowing and you should be able to rouse up some flames.
7. Add things
When your kindling has started properly burning, find a couple of next-size-up pieces and lay these gently on top. Don’t smother your fire! Be really careful as you do this so that you don’t put the flames out — if neccessary, support the new pieces with more kindling. Watch to make sure these catch light.
If you’re using a stove, close the door now, but leave the vents fully open.
8. Add more things
As the fire builds, you can keep adding larger and larger bits of wood until you have a proper good blaze going. If you’re using coal, wait til your wood is burning well, then add a few lumps at a time (without smothering flames) til they start glowing too. Then you can chuck a whole load on!
Stove vents: If you’re using a stove, you can adjust the vents to control the heat output. Open vents = more air flow = hotter fire/burn through fuel quicker. Half-open vents = less air flow = mellower heat and slower burn. Closing the vents entirely will shut your fire down.
9. Mulled wine/hot chocolate/brandy/Scrabble/reading/sexytimes
You are now temporarily released from your duties to enjoy other fireside activities! Just keep an eye on things and refuel when you need to.
Enjoy, and have a glass for me!