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How to Build a Better Fire

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Photo by <a href="">green_mind</a>/Flickr/<a href="">Creative Commons</a>

As temperatures start to dwindle outside, you may find yourself yearning for the warmth of a cozy, crackling fire inside. After all, fires are the stuff that winter weekends are made of: home on a lazy afternoon, curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book.

One of my favorite things about winter is bringing the smell of campfire into the living room, especially if I'm using a fragrant wood (and especially if the wood came from one of the fruit trees in my yard).

For the fire-deficient folks, no Duraflame log or lighter fluid is needed either. The best fire needs only four things: tinder, kindling, firewood, and matches (or a lighter).

This is what you'll use to start a fire; it's the material that lights up instantly. When you collect them outdoors, tinder usually comprises of little twigs, pine needles, or dried-up moss; indoors, rolled-up newspapers or cardboard strips work well.

Kindling is wood a little larger than tinder; think sticks that are anywhere from half an inch to an inch in diameter. They burn easily and get the fire going quickly to ignite your logs.

You know what these are. Your logs should be dry, properly split and sized for your fireplace, and preferably hardwood, which burns longer and forms lots of coals. All fruit woods (like cherry, apple, and orange) are hardwoods, and they give a slightly sweet scent when burned. Pine (which you'll often find at the store bundled up with twine) is inexpensive and abundant, but burns quickly so you'll need more of it for your fire. (Check out our guide on everything you need to know about firewood.)

Building Your Fire
Before you stack or light anything, open the flue and make sure it works correctly. If it's open, you'll be able to feel the cold air coming through. The last thing you need is a house full of smoke when all you want to do is relax!

The traditional way of building a fire usually involves crumpling up newspaper, stacking kindling on top of it, stacking larger kindling on top of that, lighting it all up, then gradually adding your firewood until you have a full fire. While it's a tried-and-true method, it also has serious drawbacks: it creates a lot of smoke, it could smother itself as the paper burns and the kindling collapses on the flames, and you have to keep adding more firewood to the pile until it really gets going.

An easier and better way to build a fire — even in the smallest of fireplaces or wood stoves — is by using two parallel logs.

Place two split logs parallel to each other with a few inches of space between them. Crumple up some newspaper and put them in this space. Add small kindling on top of the paper, then lay medium to large kindling across the top of the logs. Light the paper. Once the kindling has almost burned out, add a couple more logs to keep the fire going.

The parallel log method works well because the kindling between and on top of the logs is usually enough to ignite the logs.

If you have a taller fireplace, an even better method to try (which only requires you to stack the wood once) is the top-down method.

First, lay three to four split logs on the bottom. Add a layer of large kindling on top, cross-wise, then a layer of small to medium kindling on top of that, also cross-wise. Roll up a sheet of newspaper and tie a knot in it; this keeps the paper in one place, rather than rolling around in the fireplace. Make a few of these "paper knots" and pile them on top of the kindling. Light the paper and watch as the flames first burn through the paper, then the medium kindling, then the large kindling, to finally the logs on the bottom.

Using the top-down method, the fire will burn on its own for up to two hours before you have to add more wood... so you can kick back with your book and enjoy all the work you didn't have to do.

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