Thursday, January 6, 2011
Top-down method of lighting a wood fire
Here's a great way to light a fire in a wood stove that works every time yet boggles the mind. It's called the top-down method.
Start with a few medium sizes of dry, split firewood. On top of that place 12-20 finely split pieces of kindling. You can criss-cross these into a few levels.
Next roll, cornerwise, 6-9 sheets of newspaper into tubes and tie overhand knot in each tube. Place these on top of the kindling.
Light the paper knots, close the door to the stove and completely open the draft control.
Leave the draft open while the kindling flares away and only close it to half way once the kindling has begun to turn to glowing embers and the main wood has begun to burn. Leave it that way until the stove is producing sufficient heat, then close the draft to 1/4 of its opening. That's where the stove will burn most efficiently, producing the most heat value from the wood.
This system seems upside-down compared to the traditional fire-starting method which is to put crumpled paper on the bottom, kindling above that and bigger pieces of wood on the very top.
The thought was that the fire from the paper burns upward and its flames ignite the kindling whose flames go upward and light the firewood.
The problem is that once the fire is lit, frequently the weight of the firewood will compress the whole works and snuff out the flames. Or, as the kindling burns down, the firewood shifts or rolls out of the burning pile and consequently the fire goes out. This never happens with the top-down method. Also with the traditional method many people leave the stove door open a crack so the "wind" of the air coming in carries the flames from the bottom to the top. This is highly dangerous -- sparks can jump out of the stove onto the floor of the cabin, and also if the stove is left unattended it can burn extremely hot.
So the top-down method is far safer and more successful to boot.
But how can it work at all? After all, the flames of each level of components don't even touch the next level.
The reason is wood just needs to reach a certain temperature to ignite. It doesn't need to "touch" the flames. The heat of the burning newspaper, reflected against the baffle plate in the top of the stove, radiates its heat to the kindling below which ignites and burns even hotter and then does the same thing to the firewood on the bottom.
Rolling the newspaper into tubes makes the paper burn longer and tying it into knots keeps it from falling off the top of the pile.
Here's a couple other wood stove tips.
Never add wood to a stove until it has burned down to coals. Then put in several pieces of wood of varying sizes rather than all one-size. The irregular shape of the woodpile in the stove makes it burn better.
Round, unsplit wood, burns slower and longer. It makes the best wood for keeping a fire overnight.
Incidentally, when burning wood in a stove, you must let the stove "cycle" through the burning process to properly consume the wood, heat the cabin, and make the stove operate efficiently.
This means letting the fire burn down to coals each time before adding more wood.
If you keep feeding in wood every time there's an opening in the stove, the stove never gets a chance to consume the creosote produced by the inefficient first-burning of the firewood. The glass door will become blackened with such creosote. That's a clue that you aren't doing things right. When you let the stove "cycle" the glass will stay clear.
At night, put in several pieces of wood, round ones if they're available, otherwise just larger pieces and close the draft entirely, and go to bed. The temperature in the cabin will fall. That's what is supposed to happen. It should be cooler at night. You should still be warm under your blankets and the cooler cabin air is great for sleeping.
When you heat with a woodstove the temperature continually rises and falls. It isn't like you were heating with a natural gas furnace that runs on a thermostat.
Even when the draft is closed at night there is a small opening that lets the fire burn slowly. This is the only time you should allow the fire to burn so slowly and inefficiently. In the morning, there should be some glowing coals left. Rake these into a pile and put 12-20 pieces of finely split, dry kindling on the top. Open the draft and soon the kindling will be blazing. When it has mostly burned down, put larger pieces of wood on top, close the draft to half-way and the cycle starts again.
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