Mysteries of Fire

How did man discover fire?  I used to assume that a caveman was just sitting around rubbing a couple of sticks together one day because, well, he didn’t have a book to read and he’d already read everything on the cave walls.  Suddenly a fire started, he acted surprised for a moment, and then said to himself, “Hey, I think I’ll toss a piece of meat on this and see what happens.  After all, I just happen to have this piece of rancid smelling meat hanging around in my cave from last week’s hunt.”

But do fires really just pop up whenever you rub sticks together for a few minutes?  I once witnessed a demonstration at Wolf Creek Indian Village by a guy dressed in Native American garb.  He rubbed sticks together and started a spark that lit a fluffy piece of shredded bark; he held the burning fluff in his hand for an instant and blew on it causing smoke to plummet out, then the fluff ignited into flames.  It was like magic!

However, I find this scenario completely ridiculous now that I have a woodstove and have gone through the experience of trying to start and maintain a fire.  Even with the use of a lighter, fire starter logs, lighter fluid, and crumpled papers, building a fire that lasts for more than a few minutes is a challenge and a learning process.

Now that I know this, I believe that a scenario from the show “Naked and Afraid” is more realistic.  In case you have never seen it, don’t worry—this is a survivalist reality show, not pornography (the private areas are pixelated).  But even so, perhaps their self-consciousness over their nakedness is somehow hindering them in building a fire.  After all, the guy at the Indian village was wearing some pretty swanky buckskins.  All I know is that people on Naked and Afraid usually spend an average of two to three days trying to build a fire by rubbing sticks together.  By the time they succeed, they are usually naked and dying, because they can’t sterilize the water they gathered in their palm-frond bowls.

I’ve also heard the theory that the first man may have discovered fire when a tree or some dry grass was struck by lightning.  I guess that is plausible.  I just can’t figure out what prompted him to run out and throw a piece of meat on it.  Maybe the lightning caught the tree on fire and the caveman threw a carcass on top of it to put it out, the sweet smell of burning flesh triggered his appetite and, well, the rest is history.  Maybe I should put a lightning rod on my woodstove…

There is actually quite a bit of science involved in building a good fire.  I mean, even if you have a lighter or matches, the process of getting a fire going—and keeping it going—to warm your house on a constant basis, involves many factors like the type of wood you use and how well aged it is; how it is cut; how it is stacked in the stove; the tinder you use; how your chimney is set up for drawing air currents; and whether the doors or windows of your house are opened or closed.  Then you have to make sure you hold your tongue in the right position when you light it.  Well, maybe not that last part.

I decided to install a woodstove because I looked around at all of the fallen trees on my little hilltop and started imagining my electric bills withering down to nothing.  But first I needed to find a way to cut those trees up.  I found that axes aren’t nearly as easy to use as they appear to be in the old westerns, and when it came to using an old chainsaw someone gave me, I found myself to be pull-cord challenged.  So I went out and bought an electric pole-saw and about 60 feet of extension cord.

The first winter, I trudged through the woods behind my house looking for fallen trees and stretching the cord as far as I could.  Some trees would cut like butter, while others pinched the chain on my saw, causing it to fall off.  I suspect this has to do with a combination of impatience, lack of chainsawing technique, the fact that I bought the cheapest chainsaw on the shelf, and my inability to understand certain concepts that seem so clear to others, such as “tighten the screw on the chainsaw, but do not tighten it too much.”  I have problems with those shades of gray.

At any rate, whenever my chain fell off, I would have to pull off my gloves and protective glasses, pull out my wrench and go through the process of putting the chain back on.  Needless to say, at first I was pretty excited to find that certain logs I encountered in the woods were downright soft and fell apart like a well-cooked pot-roast.  This is when I first learned the term “punky.”  No, this time it doesn’t refer to disgruntled teenagers playing loud music, but soft rotten wood that burns quickly, but way too quickly.  It is also often full of ants, termites, and grubs, who tend to scream, grab their baggage and run for the hills (or your floorboards, in the case of the termites) once the flames start licking at their sticky little feet.  I guess that sort of foretells another problem with punky wood: the bugs that have any sense will jump off and hide in your house before you stick them in the woodstove.

For a few years, I ran out of trees that were within the length of my extension cord, so I ordered my wood from some people who advertise in the trading journal.  Those people would explain to me which woods they had available and whether they were woods that burned high and fast or low and slow, so I began wondering how I could identify the trees around my house.

First, I got out the old leaf key to determine what type of trees I had. Unfortunately, fallen trees rarely have leaves, so I began to try to analyze the bark (I also wondered if I should be sniffing the wood like I once saw Al Borland do on the show Home Improvement, or perhaps licking it).   I’ve still got a long way to go in figuring out how to identify wood, but I did find some information on the Internet about what types of wood are best.

After scouring the internet for information, the best and most complete advice I found on which woods are best, was from a chimney sweep.  I found a website for Master Sweep Chimney Service in Redwood Valley, California, and it had a very comprehensive guide to log types and other burning issues, such as what causes the most creosote build-up in your chimney.  Well, I guess it makes sense that the guy who has to clean the stuff out, learns what causes the biggest mess!

All of my life I have been told that you shouldn’t burn pine because the sap causes creosote to build up in your chimney, but Chimney Sweep Guy explains in his article that it is all about the drying process.  It turns out,  that moisture, not sap, is what causes creosote, but pine that hasn’t been aged at least a year will hold that water in the sap.  He explains that if the pine is aged for at least a year, it will cause less creosote buildup than many other woods, because at that point, the dried sap acts as an accelerant and it burns really fast and hot, which in turn heats up the chimney more, causing less condensation of water, which is what actually causes creosote buildup.  On the other hand, if not dried properly, pine will hold more water in its sap, and this is why fresh pine causes creosote buildup.  He says pine and fir are usually fine after drying for one year, but hardwoods such as oak need to be dried for over a year and up to three years.

When it comes to choosing logs, you have to decide if you want a fast, hot fire or a slow, long one.  For me, it’s a matter of economy and the ability to sleep through the night without having to restoke the fire.  Steve Nix, a professional forester and natural resource consultant who maintains a forestry/forest/tree information web site for, explains that you will get longer lasting fires from wood that is very dense such as hardwoods.  So if you happen to have the advantage of being able to see what leaves are on a tree before you cut it, then you should know that hardwoods come from trees that have broad leaves (deciduous) and softwoods come from trees like pine, fir, et cetera (evergreens) which have needles instead of leaves.

For those who understand physics, Nix lists the following as the best burning firewood species.  He lists their BTUs per cord and their density, both of which are a bit Greek to me, so I ran to the dictionary to find out what a BTU is.  BTU stands for British Thermal Unit and is based on the amount of energy needed to cool or heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

Best Burning Woods for Heating:

Hickory – 25 to 28 million BTUs/cord – density 37 to 58 lbs./cu.ft.

Oak – 24 to 28 million BTUs/cord – density 37 to 58 lbs./cu.ft.

Black Locust – 27 million BTUs/cord – density 43 lbs./cu.ft.

Beech – 24 to 27 million BTUs/cord – density 32 to 56 lbs./cu.ft.

White Ash – 24 million BTUs/cord – density 43 lbs./cu.ft.

Drying logs

I spent last summer cutting up all of the trees that had fallen in my woods, assuming I would be able to use them this winter.  I thought, for sure, they had been lying around for long enough to be properly dried.  However, when I began searching for answers I found that the required length of drying time mentioned previously is only part of the drying process.

Just lying in a horizontal position for a year doesn’t necessarily dry out your wood.  The logs should be halved or quartered and stacked, uncovered, in the driest place possible, up off the ground, not too close to the house to protect it from possible termites.  Even though the nice, fresh cuts look prettier, the grayer-looking wood with lots of cracks is the wood that is properly dried.

In addition to the higher creosote issue with wet wood, I found at that the more moisture is in a log, the more energy it takes to heat it.  Freshly cut logs are supposed to have about 50% moisture before they are dried and 20% after, meaning they will generate around twice the energy when they are dry because they won’t be using that energy to heat the water inside.  Wow!  I think I understand now!  I believe that may be the cause of one of the problems I have with keeping a fire going.  Unless it is wood that I have purchased by the cord, most of my wood really hasn’t been aged properly.


When it comes to lighting your fire, I’ve heard tell you can make fires with flint; steel wool and a battery; rubbing sticks together; or with a magnifying glass.  I saw Anthony Hopkins do the magnifying glass thing in a movie once.  That was cool.  But, assuming I’m in the comfort of my own home, I prefer to do it the old-fashioned way, with a lighter and a piece of paper or maybe one of those long matches.


When it comes to kindling, I’ve tried it all.  I’ve hacked the bark off of logs for kindling, gathered sticks, crumbled up old students’ essays, and I’ve purchased those fire-starter logs.

One winter, I collected the cardboard tubes from inside my toilet paper and paper towels and filled them with the sawdust I created when cutting the logs.  It all seems to work pretty well as far as the initial rush of flames, but the wood products are more sustainable than the toilet paper tubes.

In scientific terms, it is said that “kindling should have a large surface to volume ratio, and more bulk than timber, so it will ignite easily,” which means that a bunch of twigs works well because the twigs have a lot of surface area in between and around them, thus more places for air to get in, and fire loves oxygen.  I found that information at a WikiHow site, which I find ironic because as an adjunct English professor, I always tell my students not to use such sites for their research.  It makes sense though, and the information was edited by Michael, Jack Herrick, Lisa Radon, Ben Rubenstein and 157 others.  I don’t actually know Michael, Jack, Lisa, or Ben, but those 157 others sort of tipped the scales in their favor.


Tinder is the fast burning stuff you usually ignite first so that it will ignite the bigger logs and get your fire going.  It’s the shredded bark the guy at the Indian village used, or anything fluffy that lights easily from shredded paper to dryer lint.

I must note that I have a preference for those small brown fire starters that you can purchase for about a dollar and divide into fourths.  But a quick search of the internet also showed me many many ideas for how to make your own fire starters.  I found something about using coffee grounds, paraffin, and molasses melted together and poured into wax paper cupcake holders.  Another suggested cotton balls rolled in petroleum jelly; and then there was sawdust and paraffin; dryer lint and candle wax; pinecones and paraffin… The big question is: is the most commonly used ingredient (paraffin) cheap enough to warrant the effort of making homemade fire-starters?  Well, I looked it up and a 10-pound slab of paraffin is about $18.85 and then you will need coffee grounds (presumably free after using for coffee) and molasses for a couple of dollars a jar, while a readymade box of fire starters is $26.66 for 9 pounds.  So, if you’ve got some time on your hands, it might save you a little bit of money.

(Call it pessimistic, but I’m always a little skeptical of everything that people say saves money.  For instance, when I see shows about extreme couponing, I wonder if these people are really saving any money considering the gas and time that they spend, and whether they ever get wholesome food like meat, fruit, and vegetables, or if they only get 15 tons of Twinkies to store in their garage until they expire.  But, at the same time, you have to consider the fun factor.  Many of those extreme couponers see this as a fun hobby they can share with their friends, trade coupons, shop together, and so forth.  I get that.  But I digress.  Back to the fire!)

Air and Smokey Air

The last thing I feel should be mentioned regarding the maintenance of a fire in your woodstove, is air.  There are a few different theories out there about air and ways to get enough air-flow to feed your fire, but then, with air, comes the problem of smoke.  Wood that hasn’t been seasoned properly may smoke more than usual, or it could have to do with the up and downdrafts from your chimney, or maybe your chimney isn’t drawing right because it is too cold.

You can help a chimney draw by crumbling up some paper, lighting it and holding it up your chimney, if you have access that way.  With woodstoves, that isn’t quite as easy as it is with fireplaces.  Also, some say leaving a window cracked in the room can help balance out the air circulation and help the chimney draw better.

I personally have found the issues of air and smoke to be my biggest fire-starting problems.  I try to leave the woodstove door open for a while in order to help the air circulate and get the fire burning well, but soon the room is full of smoke.  In fact, if I die in a house fire, when they come in to investigate, they’ll find that I had five smoke detectors and two carbon monoxide detectors in the house, all of which were long ago hidden in closets and covered with pillows because I just couldn’t handle the constant beeping whenever I had a fire in my woodstove.


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