Total reading time: 9 minutes.
How would you like to light a fire perfectly and have it burn for 3-7 hours without touching it or putting on more wood? It can be done, every time, but it requires forgetting everything you’ve learned about starting fires…
I have — as most boys and men do — fancied myself quite a fire-maker.
I can make a raging furnace like the world has never seen, a crackling and screaming banshee of life-giving heat that springs to life. This lasts for a euphoric five minutes. Then the real fun begins: the fiddling and fussing, poking and prodding, every five minutes thereafter for the next hour to keep the charred remains clinging to life.
I was in the Boy Scouts and learned the ropes from men who repeated the steps like religious commandments: tons of paper and tinder at the bottom, building up like a tipi (teepee) with the smallest kindling at the bottom and the biggest logs at the top. It’s how fires are built, right?
Let’s call this the “tipi” fire.
Here’s the problem: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It requires dry wood. I needed a fire-building method that worked every time with all types of wood, whether dried like an octogenarian in Palm Springs, or bordering on waterlogged, like most of the wood we had at home, which had been rained on due to a punctured tarp.
Enter the Upside-Down Fire.
To learn the manliest of the manly arts, it took one of my most feminine readers, Marcie, who also happens to help moderate the forum. She was looking for the best method of starting fires for her mountain-side cabin, and the final result was as odd as it is effective.
Even I couldn’t believe this one until I tried it.
The method is simplicity itself: do exactly the opposite of the tipi method.
1) Put the largest logs at the bottom, ensuring there is no space at all between them.
2) Put a second layer of smaller logs on top of the largest, again ensuring there are no spaces between them.
3) Repeat until you get to the top, where you will have strips of crumpled paper and — at the very top — 3-5 fire-starter squares (my preference) or fire-starter oil sticks. My favorite sequence from bottom to top is large logs (unsplit), split logs, sapling wood, cedar shingle wood, then paper and fire-starting squares.
Here’s what it looks like in photos, which you can scan through quickly, taken here at Christmas 2008 at home on Long Island. The embers this fire produces are unlike anything I’ve ever seen:
The final construction after three minutes of assembly. Following lighting, I wouldn’t touch it again for about three hours:
The second successful experiment, with about 50% less wood and almost equal burn time:
Much more heat – Once it’s about 3/4 through the shingle wood — in my example sequence above — it will start to give off a LOT of heat. The upside-down fire produces and projects much more heat than a standard tipi fire. The fire from the top warms the air in the flue and creates a more efficient current of air for cross-ventilation, and there is little warmth wasted.
No smoke or minimal smoke – this is related to the thermodynamics of the flue air being heated faster, based on explanations I’ve read. Since most fireplaces aren’t actually very well designed for fires, this is a huge benefit. No backdraft smoke into the house.
No management – once it in process, assuming you don’t have gaps between logs, it will burn beautifully for 3-7 hours, depending on the amount of wood used. This alludes to one potential drawback: you must start with a substantial amount of wood. It’s less than you’d use over 1/3 the total burn time with the tipi method, but it makes it largely impractical for outdoor survival purposes.
No ashes – this amazed me. It all burns down to nothing. No waste at all as every fiber is converted into heat. Beautiful, in fact.
There are a few things to keep in mind:
1) The upside-down fire will take longer to produce large flames, and it might not look like much for about 20 minutes. Be patient. The goal is to create embers that then fall to the layer below, which is why there cannot by any spaces between logs.
2) This is important: ensure that the paper strips are bent or otherwise prop the fire-starting squares/sticks a bit off of the shingles or layer below. If you don’t have this slight elevation for the paper to catch, you will have trouble starting the fire and get frustrated.
Don’t let fire tending turn into another full-time job. Enjoy the warmth and reap the rewards of a better method, as counter-intuitive as it might be.
Additions from readers:
There are some great suggestions from readers in the comments below, which also address modifications for survival use and outdoors, plus tipi-style fires for cooking:
“For outdoor application, I recommend doing a mini “log cabin” on top of the fire-starters with a small gate surrounding them to prevent a draft from snuffing out the fire in it’s infant stages.” (also see JBB’s points)
From Andy, even if you use a tipi-style fire:
“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”
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238 Replies to “How to Build an Upside-Down Fire: The Only Fireplace Method You’ll Ever Need”
That is genius and exactly what I expect from you and this site. The best way to do something that is often counter-intuitive.
Looks like a fantastic way to build a fire, am definately going to give this method a try next winter, nothing worse than keep having to get up off the sofa to put more logs on the fire!
I used to light the fireplace in my parents house but i never really think about it.
Definetly worth trying next time !
I think I’m going to try this tomorrow. I always struggled making a lasting fire on my barbecue.
Smoke comes from incomplete combustion, which is what you’ll get when you have a flame struggling under a heavy pile of wood. (Prove this for yourself: Take a stick of incense or cigarette, and hold a lighter up to the smoke. Because of this extra burning, the smoke disappears.)
Smoke is minimized in this formation because there’s nothing on top of the flames; that is to say, nothing is undergoing the smoky partial combustion inherent in a regular fire.
All the flue does is provide a tube through which air is drawn upwards. However, because at the beginning of the fire, the flame is much higher up and closer to the flue, the flow of air is started immediately, and any remaining smoke will go straight up rather than simply collect until the flue warms up from a bottom-based flame.
Enjoyed the book and your blog. Lots of great stuff.
I too fancy myself a skilled fire maker, which came in handy for some great omelets cooked over an open fire a few weeks ago after camp stove failure.
OK, I admit it. Like most man-boys, I just enjoy poking at a fire endlessly. It’s one of those ‘journey is more important than the destination’ things. Maybe there is strong potential to ‘out man’ the other guys at the fireplace with this obviously superior method, which has its own level of enjoyment for the man-boy…
One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.
Keep up the great work.
Congratulations on another great book: The 4-Hour Chef. Each of your books is a significant improvement from the previous. Keep up the amazing trend.
I have to admit, footnote 14 on page 45 is my favorite part of 4-Hour Chef. Glad I could make a small contribution.
Being from Quebec, I’m always on the lookout for a better way to start a fire! 🙂
I learned something similar to this from a Scotsman in New Zealand, but this is a bit different. I’ll give it a try this afternoon.
However with the right, especially of a newer designs, a closed wood stove would be even more efficient and environmentally friendly I believe(for example jotul.com). Off course not as romantic, but you get models with larger windows as well.
That every fiber is converted into heat might be deceptive with upside down fires I think, I agree that this type of fire would make it burn more of it, but that this ash might as well be carried of and up with the hot air.
So then you also have to think about soot or creosote that could settle in your chimney and be a cause for chimney fires.
And how about a kotatsu?
Really can’t wait to use this method the next time I want to impress in the wild!
I’m amazed it cuts down on smoke, whilst still being more energy efficient, which is key.
Perfect illustration of how (Oscar Wilde) in Chapter 2 of my bible (The 4HWW) says ‘everything that is popular is wrong’. Some of the best times in my life were around great fires. Great re-frame.
Some of the best times in my life were around great fires.
Awesome comment. Happy Holidays
As a boy scouts, I sometime made large fire making a small ‘tipi’ on top of a large “upside-down’ fire… then there is even no need for fire-starter other then some newspapers.
Not really usefull for the daily barbecue where a volcano (aka chimney) works wonder (see pics and how to in French on http://www.senorfuego.com/techniques/le-volcan/ )
Such simple efficiency by-design!
Tim you need to have kids so you can do a hack on parenting an 18 month old! I love her to death but shes got me chasing her everywhere! Who’s the boss now!
Potential future topics:
-organizing an office space (to compliment your chair of course)
-How to lead &/or motivate team-mates / coworkers
-Quickly studying & retaining large amounts of info (language vocab, math equations, random facts or history)
Being someone who grew up in a cold climate (Northern Michigan) I have spent my last 5 years trying to avoid cold weather. It has not worked well. But I do like camping or sitting around a good campfire just about any time of year. I will have to use this technique and see if I can get the same results. I also find myself having to visit the folks and the rest of my family who have all seemed to either stay or move back to Michigan. It is just too darn cold up there. It would be nice to show off this fire building technique to “seasoned veterans” and it be a spectacular success.
Cool stuff as usual.
I learned about this method recently in another blog. It’s great to pass on useful stuff, but at least try to give your sources. It breeds trust.
I appreciate the comment, but I did pass on my source: one of the readers of this blog, Marcie. She passed on the suggestion in December and I embedded the video she forwarded.
Hope that helps,
It’s not counter intuitive at all, it makes a lot of sense if you really think about it.
As a kid in Summer camp, my friend Larry and I stumbled on a similar method. Were were on an overnight camping trip. Earlier, before leaving for the trip, Larry and I we were caught jumping off the roofs of the camp cabins after being told not to. As punishment we were put on fire duty. We were made to get wood and build the campfire for the group while everyone else got to go swimming at Mohawk falls. In the morning it would be our job to clean up the campfire too. We were told to build a teepee type fire the way the camp counselors had taught us.
We, being smart aleck kids, decided to make a joke out of it. We piled the wood in a similar fashion to your upside down fire. We layered the big pieces of wood in a criss cross fashion as kind of a platform and then on the very top, we built a tiny little teepee fire. we were snickering the whole time. The platform part was very similar to yours. But slightly different. There were no spaces between logs at the bottom, then every other layer had an empty box. Similar to a hi-rise apartment. Hey, we were city kids. We lit the tiny little teepee fire, snickering in anticipation for the reaction following the return of the group.
When the group got back, much to our chagrin, the fire was burning nicely and our joke was gone. Every still laughed at and joked at how the fire looked like a burning tenement. (We were all Bronx and upper Manhattan kids). The little tiny teepee was gone, but we still got a laugh.
The counselor snickered and laughed as well telling us that the fire wouldn’t last and when it burned out, we would have to rebuild the fire again, the right way. And as further punishment, it was also going to be our job to tend to the fire all night.
The fire never burned out and only got stronger and stronger, every time either Larry or myself woke up during the night to check on the fire, it was still burning strong. It was still burning in the morning and cleanup was really easy.
We joked with, Sven, the camp counselor that we had come up with a better way to build a fire and he told us it was a fluke and that we should stick to the tried and true method in the future. Huh? That floored us.
Crazy how people stick to conventions and refuse to see or try any other way. As a grown up, my wife and I went on a camping trip with a big group of friends. When it came time to build the fire, I suggested my way and everyone in the group made fun of me. I didn’t know how to make a fire. There were a couple of guys who had been in the boy scouts when they were young and they new the “right” way. After a lot of argument, I gave up when one of the experts (husband of a friend and former boy scout), seemed like he wanted to fight with me. So I let them have their teepee fire.
Amazing how violently some people defend their conventions. Starts with jokes against those who try a different way, then it becomes argument, and then violence. It’s the unfortunate way of the world.
Didn’t expect to be reading about fire-starting in the reader this morning 🙂
If this works in the natural elements, which I assume it does, this method is quite the find for campers too. Didn’t realize you were originally from Long Island, Tim.
Thanks, Tim. I’d heard about the upside-down fire, but the method you describe is a pure, Platonic form I hadn’t heard described before. Cool!
I read a report once that insisted that corrugated cardboard is the secret weapon for starting fires, and I think it’s true, Rip it into strips or chips and use liberally. You’ll never have the paper burn out while leaving the wood unkindled again, and makes the fire-starters a lot more optional. (An agricultural experiment station did that research. Gotta do something in the off-season!)
This is a might bit old, but soak those chips of cardboard in some melted wax. They burn like half a box of matches for quite awhile. Obviously, they’re waterproof as well.
Who would have ever thought we’d be getting THIS kind of great advice from Tim. Looks like it makes sense. I’ll have to give it a try. And since I live in MN, I can put it to good use. Thanks!
Awesome! I’m excited to give it a try.
Combine this with the supposed 90% efficiency of a “Russian Fireplace” and you might have a killer combination.
p.s. Mother Earth News says Russian Fireplaces are the best performers thanks to 2 characteristics: “They contain enough masonry to provide a massive heat sink, and the interior flue path of each unit is arranged in a serpentine pattern so that hot waste gas has plenty of time to transfer its thermal energy into the walls of the stove.”
Ah yes…the fire. So many great memories formed around fires large and small.
The great thing about this post is that it not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and what every good boy scout is taught, but that the answer (better solution) was right there in front of our faces for so very long. Take the thing and flip it over. I never would have guessed that log on bottom and kindling on top would have ever started a fire.
The one question I have lingering is what if you don’t have an accelerant, like the fire starting sticks or oils. Would it work just as well with a nice big pile of tinder on top. Something to test after Michigan thaws out and I can have a bon fire again.
I wonder how this would work in a wood stove, where you want it to keep burning past the 8 hours. It seems to me that when the big logs at the bottom are rolling, you could then add large logs to it, to keep the fire going. Still less maintenance, but some maintenance will be necessary for any fire that you need to last all day, right?
Great tutorial! I will remember it for when I have a house with a fireplace.
Another cool post! What I appreciate about your blog is the varied nature of what you post about, around the central theme of counter-intuitive optimizations! Well done sir, looking forward to another year of great posts.
Oh man, you’ve disclosed my winning trick! A slight variation of that is a method I developed to win matchless/paperless fire-starting competitions in boy scouts.
For outdoor application, I recommend doing a mini “log cabin” on top of the fire-starters with a small gate surrounding them to prevent a draft from snuffing out the fire in it’s infant stags.
Great post Tim! Does this work as effectively for campfires?
Perfect illustration of counter intuitiveness and challenging commonly held beliefs. When you read about all the benefits of it it really sounds too good to be true but this one is easy to test. Gotta keep in mind this concept.
No, the same method works great for a survival situation — just scaled down.
The heat from the fire on top drives off the moisture of the wood below, and then actually turns the wood below into *charcoal* by driving off all the combustible gases, which burn beautifully well. Then, as the wood doesn’t have any of the gas materials left in it, the charcoal ignites. The charcoal keeps the next layer heated up so *it* produces wood gas and slowly turns to charcoal, and on and on.
I’ve used the home-made camping stove referenced above. I can get a solid hour out of a medium-large coffee can full of wood pieces no bigger than my thumb, and you’re left with a tiny bit of white ash at the end.
Here’s the one other problem: How do you add more wood to this sort of fire? You really can’t. But if you’re in it for a short duration fire, this works great!
The thing with the tipi fire is that it’s supposed to be used to get the fire going, as this design allows it to go from lighting the fire to quickly igniting the whole structure. From here, any veteran Boy Scout should know that you transition to a “log cabin” structure on top of the coals from the tipi. This is similar to your upside down fire except has the spaces in between.
In my opinion, the upside down fire would not do well in the outdoors, as it is too reliant on the enclosed element free nature of a fire place.
Heya Tim, was wondering if this could work during overnight camp trips? Same concept I suppose? 🙂
Sounds like someone’s been reading the website of Mother Earth News: The Original Guide to Living Wisely.
They just had a feature on this.
Lots if good tips for living frugally and richly.
This is amazing. Not only that, but it’s inspired me.
I have a fireplace that I haven’t used. Now I have a perfect excuse to build a fire in the name of science.
My wife will buy that, huh?
When we went to cut our tree at Christmas, the local forestry department in Zürich was giving out a brochure which described exactly this.
One reason they want to promote this method is that far fewer pollutants and fine particles (PM10) are given off. Northern Switzerland suffers from inversion layers in the winter and the “normal” wood fire don’t help the smog situation.
Apparently this new method has been around for a long time, it’s just that it needs to be made popular again.
@Victor and All,
Thanks for the great comments! To point out what Victor mentioned:
“When we went to cut our tree at Christmas, the local forestry department in Zürich was giving out a brochure which described exactly this. One reason they want to promote this method is that far fewer pollutants and fine particles (PM10) are given off. Northern Switzerland suffers from inversion layers in the winter and the “normal” wood fire don’t help the smog situation.”
Thanks a lot Tim,
This is awesome info. I find that when I get back to mother nature like
a fire, or by water, or out in the woods, under the stars, I become more
centered, more calm, and more creative.
In a day an age when most people are telling themselves that they do
not have enough time to work-out, let alone come up with million $$$
ideas that can help people around the world live a higher quality life; it is very important to find ways to get back to the basics and get their mind to slow down.
I love tips like this to get away from the hecticness of the busy day and ground me. Thanks so much Tim, keep up the great work,
darin steen (aka The Chicago Kid)
Thanks Tim, good stuff! The irony is, we have a small-ish wood stove at the cabin and my husband has been reluctant to try this method. But, I bet he will now that he’s read this post 🙂 If anyone has done this in a wood stove, let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org – Thanks!
A few more great suggestions from other readers (also answering Mike’s question about use for campfires):
“For outdoor application, I recommend doing a mini “log cabin” on top of the fire-starters with a small gate surrounding them to prevent a draft from snuffing out the fire in it’s infant stages.” (also see JBB’s points)
From Andy, even if you use a tipi-style fire:
“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”
Keep up the conversation, and thanks again,
If one uses a Duraflame or other wax/sawdust log, would it go on the top, middle of bottom of the upside down stack?
Does anyone know how well this works without the fire starter squares? My understanding was that the tipi method was used to get the fire started (thus the high allowance for airflow). So if you don’t have fire starter squares, maybe put a small tipi on top of the upside down tipi?
that is the method I use almost every day in winter here in Finland. It works perfectly but it is important to have dry wood. (obviously, dry wood is best with any technique…).
the great thing is also that it produces much less smoke. That is good for the environment.
Tim, I found a link to the brochure I mentioned. It’s in german but it has plenty of pictures.
Thanks for the excellent blog, there’s some great stuff here!
I too was taught the tipi method (thank you Scouts), but will give this a go next time out and see what happens. Cool trick. Thanks!
This makes sense for an indoor fire, particular using well-seasoned shingles and long-burning fire sticks on top to generate embers.
Greenhorns build campfires by laying down a few logs, laying down a few sticks and dropping the tinder on top. The tinder burns in a flash and the sticks never catch fire.
For outdoor fires where you may not have ideal wood I’ve always found that a tipi inside a log cabin works best. Outdoors your tinder tends to burn fast and hot and leave little in the way of embers to drop down into the larger wood. It also seems to position the split face of a log toward the flames, because the fibers of the wood are exposed, leaving more surface area to catch fire.
We used this top-down firemaking method all the time for our woodstove when we lived in Upstate New York and it works just as well for woodstoves too.
Our house also had an electric heating system, however the heat produced via this method by our centrally located woodstove was more than enough to heat the house through the winter.
Great one Timmo! I’ve been building fires since before my Scout days, I was taught to build them exactly as you described, this looks so much better, cannot wait to build it and see for myself….B Jim
Forgot to add, I saved it to Evernote!!!
At first, I thought you were getting desperate for blog material. But having experienced the frustration of continuously tending a fire (I have two wood burning fireplaces), I was soon hooked by your post. I just put it to the test, and I’m impressed! It’s been 1 hour and 10 minutes of continuous burn and I haven’t done anything but light the match. I won’t get 6-7 hours, but my fireplace is small compared to your examples. Stil, more than enough time for a romantic evening without interruptions. Great on a cold February night!
I agree with the first comment. “That is genius and exactly what I expect from you and this site. The best way to do something that is often counter-intuitive.”
Thanks for another interesting article, Tim.
This reminds me of our village’s annual New Year’s bonfire here in rural Japan:
We get wood and bamboo from the surrounding forest and build the fire with the largest logs first in a criss-cross pattern. Smaller logs and twigs are placed on top as well as a few thick lengths of bamboo in the middle – these explode loudly when they get hot enough. Rather than place kindling on top, the whole pile is “wrapped” with leafy bamboo branches and everyone from the village stuffs in their old New Year cards and decorations. A bit of sake to bless the New Year and then it’s beer and barbecue for the rest of the day. Good times! This year’s one is on Sunday if anyone wants to come…
Now, if you want to cook on this fire, don’t crosshatch the logs the way it is shown in the picture – lay the logs all parallel to each other but still tight together. Try to lean any flat sides towards the middle of the pile – light it and let it heat up as Tim has shown. Then, after you build up some coals/embers in the middle of the pile, spread apart the logs on just one side. This will make a sideways ‘V’ shape which is what you place your pots on – big pots/fry pans on the wide side and small pots on the narrow side. Then you can rake the coals/embers either one way or the other to make hotter areas between the logs so that you can simmer on one side and boil on the other. When done cooking, push the logs back together (called banking) and settle in for the night. Read Woodcraft and Camping by “Nessmuk” George W. Sears for more on this style of building and cooking fire.
@ RC – just wanted to confirm – Tim tweeted about fire building suggestions in December and I responded with a youtube link on the blog comments — I was looking for efficient ways to build a fire in a woodstove as a new woodstove owner 🙂 I really like the efficiency of this method, as a hyper-green person! Good stuff, thanks again to Tim for putting it in the mainstream!
This is simplicity itself! Simple is so much better in everything. Personally, I use simplicity for making money and investing. It’s soo much better to do almost the exact opposite of everybody else. This fireplace thing, this is another example of the same logic.
Thanks again, Tim!
Thanks for sharing, that is a very useful tip for everybody who has a fireplace at home (like me 🙂 ).
In the german brochure (http://tr.im/ebb9) on the first page is mentioned the “Anfeuer-Modul” what means “Fire-Starting-Module”. You can see it on the first page, it’s the four pictures at the lower line. You take four smaller pieces of wood which you stack with some space in the middle. There you place a fire-starter (the red ring in the second picture). As you can see in the fourth picture you place everything on top.
NOW THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE BROCHURE
because it is not mentioned here (or i read it over) is on the second page, the first line of pictures. There is explained how to stack the wood in different build fire-places.
First picture: In NARROW fire-places place the wood with the cut (open) side to the front.
Second picture: In NARROW AND HIGH fire-places place the wood upstanding with the cut (open) side to the top.
Third picture: In WIDE BUT NOT DEEP fire-places place the wood lengthwise with the cut (open) side to the sides.
Fourth picture: In STORAGE HEATER place the wood with the cut (open) side to the front.
Please apologize my bad english.
I had a buddy show me a variation of the upside down fire. (Of course he didn’t show me until I admitted defeat and was unable to get the teepee version going.)
Basically you put 2 logs at the bottom level. The next 2 logs sit on top of the first 2. Looking from above they make a #
Remove a section from a newspaper and twist each page and place it in the middle of the #. You want a lot of newspaper and you want to make sure it’s twisted tight.
Add some more logs alternating two at a time moving up a level. When you’re done you probably create a total of 3 or 4 levels with a lot of twisted newspaper in the middle.
Light the middle and watch it go up. Doesn’t take long.
I wonder if this will work in a fireplace in my basement that smoked my house up when I last tried to burn wood. The chimney is about 30′ tall and I figured the stack pipe used was too small therefore I installed gas logs designed to be used in ventless fireplaces. Maybe this will create enough heat to start the draft up the chimney.
Note: I found original link on Twitter
I never would have thought it, being so ingrained by “those in the know”, and camping all my life. I have no problem with learning how to build an efficient, long-lasting, low-maintenance fire! I have no need to poke and prod for hours!
Of course I had to go and move to Florida, where this will rarely be needed, and I don’t think they even have fireplaces down here 🙂
I think I may try this on my next date. I think she’d be very impressed. Good stuff as always Tim!
This is a head-slap ‘doh!’ moment for me. I’ve been using a similar method to light and maintain a long, steady burn on my BBQ smoker for 3 years, yet never thought of trying it in the fireplace.
Going to get right to it tonight!
Awesome info as always Tim! Its cold, windy and snowing like crazy here on Long Island and here I am in front of my upside down fire drinking an ice cold corona eating chips and salsa with my kids! Does it get any more enjoyable? LOL
Build a good foundation
start of slow
and you’ll go the distance with a minimum of waste
What you’ve covered is essentially a small exhibit of why forest fires can get so hot and out of control. The small kindling or starter material burns very quickly. Big logs and large fuel sources take a much higher heat level to get burning, but once they do God help anything that gets in the way, especially when fueled by strong gusts of oxygen (i.e. wind). By create a hotter environment the larger logs will cook hotter and burn hotter than if started cold with a starter kindling underneath.
When you look at it from a forest perspective its the same thing. Kindling underneath all the trees just burns quick and does nothing much to older trees. But if fire can get hot enough to reach the crowns of the trees, then it’s an entirely different story, and can get as hot as 1000 degrees F with the right wind conditions.
Wow, the article was an exciting read and the comments were an awesome exchange of ideas, many thanks!
Now where can I learn about the best child-raising habits 🙂
I don’t know where you get all these “how to” ‘s, but every time I get sucked into them. Will definitely do this on my next backpacking trip.
Just put it to the test in the mountains of Vermont. Worked like a charm the first try!
Tried it last night.
I didn’t have any split logs, just whole logs & pine cones. It burned for about 15 minutes and then went out.
To my surprise 20 minutes later it was burning from the second layer of smaller logs. It burned GREAT for over 8 hours… no poking and turning the wood freed me up to drink more beer and goof off.
Also, there was almost no smoke back-draft and house kinda smelled like Cracker Barrel.
Pretty cool. Thanks Tim for sharing.
(In frigid Iowa)
I have just built this fire and it works superbly. It’s the best fire I’ve ever made and will now be the only fire I ever make.
Thanks for the great advice.
From the high tea estates of South India where it gets cold at night….
I have an old-fashioned Franklin stove in my lake house in Pennsylvania. There’s not much room in the firebox for a large stack of wood as you have shown. Can this method be scaled-down to a smaller stove area?
My guess is that it will work but the fire won’t last as long.
This is great, thanks Tim,
Tried this last night and it was so hot, it heated my 2500 feet Craftsman home. There were still hot coals in the of the bottom of the “Heatolater” fireplace this morning from 8pm last night.
It did start slow, so I added a clementine box and extra kindling to get it started. Heating up the flew with burning paper does prevent the smoke from back-drafting.
Another cool thing to heat homes: Aluminum Can Solar http://youtube.com/watch?v=bRZvAAqzXIw&feature=related
Just a heads up, your “fire starter oil sticks” are actually just pieces of fatwood. I don’t know if you allow URLs in your comments, but here is the wikipedia article on it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatwood
I’ll definitely have to try this new fire starting method, even though it appears counter intuitive.
There is a time and a place for fires. Unfortunately, my neighbors light fires and the smoke is drawn in through the “fresh air intake” of MYregular home furnace. Thus, I get to enjoy (not) the smoke from their fires.
A little research caused me to learn that the smoke from a fire is more damaging to the lungs of me and mine than tobacco smoke. It is very disappointing.
That’s great, Tim… but as Mr. Efficiency, what would be nicer would a bulletproof method for starting a top-down fire in a 70-80% efficient (at turning wood into room heat) woodstove as opposed to a wasteful, 5-10% efficient open fireplace! I own a Jotul woodstove which I use to heat my main 600 sq. ft room (rather than use my gas furnace) and I have yet to find a method that works reliably all the time without a lot of fussing. Mother Earth News was only moderately helpful on this. The Swiss PDF methods look promising, but this is an area where we need more of a literature review. Woodstoves can be a very green and economical way to heat, whereas fireplaces tend to be pretty and pretty wasteful. I live in Georgia (USA), where wood is by far the cheapest and most abundant heating fuel. And it’s damn cold at the moment…
Where were you 25 years ago, when I had to make fires everyday for our wood burning stove to kept our house warm? It was my job to tend that thing. It locked tight and kept things burning a long time even with my method, but it could have gone all day with this method for sure! This was really cool to read, and when we go camping I’ll have to try it, even if I get laughed at by the guys who were boy scouts who always love to tell me what I don’t know. WOW-neat info. Efficient. Tim-you rock.
Yesterday’s blog was humorous. It’s was great to see that side of you. I’m a fan of Mitch Hedberg. Anyway, I scored some brownie points with this upside fire technique, thanks! Enjoy London, I sure did enjoy their pubs.
Excellent article. Thanks for sharing!
I’m saddened by the predominance of gas log fireplaces in Atlanta. I converted mine to wood-burning long ago, and will never go back!
LOL! This is is SOO useful, I’m going to try it as soon as I come back to my log home in Canada. Normally my fire dies because we often forget about it after it’s lit. This is great!
Tim, why did you delete the latest post on your blog? Did the number of comments have some influence on that? Just curious.
Oops, sorry Tim… I didn’t read the rules right in front of me! Thanks for the info on the fire-I appreciate it!
Thought you might be interested in this amazing girl who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.”
Click on my name and see my blog…
I have used this method twice now. The first time, I was skeptical to the point that I gave up after the first died out. 5 hours later after returning from a night out I was shocked to find most of the wood had been consumed and the house was nice and toasty.
I had to try it again, this time with an audience. The first 20 minutes are a trying time using this method. I had to add small pieces of wood on top in order to build up enough embers. But once the first larger pieces caught, the fire had no trouble maintaining it’s strength.
Thank you Tim.
I have a very finicky fireplace in my house, and I could not get the smoke to go UP the chimney for 2 years. (Not that I was trying very often… I was convinced the design was just horrible, and the fireplace was useless). Doing the whole “light a newspaper and hold it high in the flue” trick didn’t do anything more than blow smoke from the newspaper back in my face.
The real trick: crack open a window. Let a bit of the colder, ground level air sneak in around the bottom of the fireplace, and then light your fire… The air at the top of the chimney outside that is causeing that downdraft is going to be warmer than the air at window level… and the heat from the fire will have no trouble heading up the chimney like it is supposed to. Same applies to woodstoves.
Worked perfectly, first time! I over thought it, of course, stressed about it, of course but it worked and actually gave me more manly-man satisfaction than the usuall hours of fire tending and stoking. haha! I am one up on my buddies. thanks Tim.
I’ve tried this in our lounge fireplace over the last 3 evenings. It works but I’ve found out a couple of things while experimenting (I’m an engineer and pyromaniac I can’t help it).
1. You need a critical mass of fire to make this work. We’ve got a tiny fireplace and it worked great when when we filled the thing up. Packed as much wood in as it could hold. Trying again the next day with a much more modest pile of wood has left me choking and the lounge smelling like a campsite.
2. It works with peat blocks as the bottom layer if you don’t have big logs. But it’s best to separate them slightly as when they’re packed together (as they are when you buy them) they really struggle to get going. Logs would have some gaps anyway because of their natural irregular shape.
3. Ash in your tea tastes terrible. (Don’t poke the fire – resist the urge – it’s a lot less messy leaving it alone!)
It makes me wonder though… I haven’t read through all of the comments… but has anyone thought about the chemicals in those fire starter logs? I’ve read that their chemicals and the process of producing them can be environmentally taxing. Certainly when we build fires we want to try to be as environmentally sound as possible since timber is not the most efficient heat source. Is there another way to build this fire without the starter logs?
When I made my fire I didn’t have any fire starters (they don’t sell them in India) so i just added 4 tea-light candles just under the top layer of paper. These melted into the first layer of sticks and helped get the thing hot enough to work beautifully. I’ll try some other candles next time – the wax just acts as another fuel in the early stages of the fire.
I tried this in my fireplace yesterday. It worked GREAT!!! I started it at 4pm and it was still going at 11pm, very impressive. I feel like a “Prodigy”, get it – Firestarter! Okay, bad joke.
Wow, amazing. We’ve got 36 acres of mostly forest. This is one cool way to heat up the house and save on propane. Must try this week. Curious to see if “no ashes” holds.
Wow – definitely going to give this a try! But I think our hugely irregularly shaped logpile might be a challenge, to creating any kind of layers… as well as a tiny little grate. GOt to be tried though I think!
Being as we live in Mexico, and the local kindling is called ‘diesel,’ it took a few tries to get this to work. I agree with the ‘critical mass’ comment.
Even though it took a few attempts, the good news is I was able to accomplish it while simultaneously achieving my goals of becoming conversationally fluent in Urdu in under 30 minutes while achieving a perfect 1,000-meter head shot with a .50 caliber sniper rifle from the back of a rutting cape buffalo!
Seriously, though, thanks for posting this – very useful.
I noticed a mix of split logs and round logs. We usually use all split logs, do you need the rounds for the top layers, or will this method work with all split wood too ?
Thanks for reminding me about the Council Fire lay.
Since 99% of the fires used in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are for individual cooking fires (Teepee for a quick boil or Log Cabin for frying), yes, they teach ways that burn out quick and are easy to extinguish.
Maybe I was just lucky, but for evening programs held after dark, we always used a Council Fire for lighting.
During the heating season, a Council Fire is fine for open fireplaces or to start an airtight stove. Most of the time I am unwilling to let the fire go completely out in my airtight so I am still going to need to avoid pine and wet wood when adding fuel.
I’m a convert! Tried it last evening – produced a great fireplace fire. Quick suggestion for those who live in conifer areas. Pine cones work very well for firestarters. For added pop, drip some candle wax on the cones before you use them.
SIde note: truly enjoy your site and book. Working on my ‘muse’ right now.
Tim – thanks for the great tips on building an upside-down fire. I tried it tonight, and it worked like a charm. I only had to mess with it at the very end to bring the final 2 logs together.
Love the book, and recommend it to others often.
Amazing! My first try, yasterday, was a great success:
I have a closed type fireplace (with a glass door). I put some wood pieces well stacked in, with smaller ones (branches) on top. Over all, i put just four little woods with a single fire-starter cube inside, as shown in the Zurich Brochure. No paper at all.
I started the cube at 15.30, closed the door and… it just burned all alone till evening! At 22.30 there were still embers, and I never never touched it!!
I love you! 😀
I think I will write a post on my blog (in italian language) about this, of course whith a linkback to this one. Thank you again!
Excellent tip! works great
Ok, I knew this was a spoof and I would end up with a smoldering mess.
I was wrong.
It was amazing to see each layer drop on to the next, just when I was ready to proclaim the fire ” was going out” it would catch and flare back up.
It burnt for 5 hours and the only time I had a problem was when I added wood when I did not have to.
I went though MUCH less wood also.
I am burning red oak and I built the fire right on the floor of the fireplace, no grate.
I am sold.
it really created a beautiful bed of coals that usually took hours to attain with the tipi method
To further prevent possibility of smoke entering the house, you can crack open a nearby door or window during the lighting process. (Even though it might be very cold outside, this will ultimately heat the house up faster.) The open door creates a vacuum of air up the chimney – or in our case, woodstove – that flushes all possible smoke out that way, rather than being pushed back down into the room by cold air stuck in the flu.
Having had numerous problems lighting our stove in the past, I’m proud to say that this method worked extremely well for me. I got about 5 hours out of a 50% smaller stack of wood than this in our large woodstove. The wood was even slightly damp!
Have been doing this on a regular basis since i first read the post. Awesome, awesome, awesome is all i can say! i have a rather small firebox in my fireplace so i can only get enough wood in for it to burn about 1 1/2 hours. but this is the thing, no more smell in the room. my wife used to walk in and the first words out of her mouth would be “it smells in here” now she just says “oh you lit a fire”. everything burns so much better. when i finally have to throw in a few more logs they take right off. i can finally throw my poker in the garbage! thank you tim!
Okay so the fire thing works, best part is everybody else lectures you on how your doing it wrong…. say nothing to them, just keep doing it this way, and Huzzah! it works.
Anyways Tim, i found this lecture interesting and likely up your alley.
18min worth watching all the way through.
I will certainly try this out. I have the same gripe that everyone else has about the teepee fire–you are tending it constantly after a great 20 minute burn.
I have traditionally started fires with very small pieces of wood–not paper–as paper leaves a great deal of ash in the firebox. These very small wood pieces are typically 1/4″ x 6″ lengths stacked vertically at the base of the teepee (chipped with a hatchet, broken further with an 8oz claw hammer). The next layer is finely (1″ square, 12″ length) split dry wood, and then large (3″ diameter split) pieces surrounding (yes yes, split wood is squarish, not roundish, so it doesn’t technically have a “diameter,” but you get the idea). A great deal of tending is required once the finer pieces ignite.
I would love to build a good burning fire that lasts all night. I have a buckstove that, when run for several hours, will elevate the temperature of my entire house (it has a cold outside air intake close to the firebox). The stove sits in the lower level on one side of a 26×50 square house (2 story). the thermostat on the 2nd level will elevate 2-3 degrees with a well maintained rip-roaring fire.
I Will comment on the result of my attempt to mimic the photos shown above. Regards
Question: In the video, the fire builder guy says don’t use a grate, build the fire on the floor of the fp. But, Tim, you used a grate, right? I’m kind of nervous about removing my grate. What do you think?
Please remove your grate for me…….
I put the bottom logs perpendicular to the opening right on the floor of the fireplace, it worked very well, no burning logs rolling out and I ended up with a bed of coals that I could toss anything on and it would burn. The fireplace guy right on target. Try it both ways, grated and grate-less.
Okay, so I just experimented with this… finally… in Steamboat, CO. It freaking works better than described.
NB: The size of our fire place is literally no bigger than 2ft x 2ft x 1.5ft(tall) so I had to downside the setup. This apparently did not affect the results.
I started with 2 decent sized large pieces of wood then 3 split smaller sized and toped it off with some broken (as flat as I could find) pieces. I skipped the paper and had a “starter log plastic packet” on top. As of right now (2 and half hours later) this “5 and change” log fire is still going and I haven’t touched it once.
Pretty freakin cool.
Now, Tim, your next topic: “Quickest Route to Becoming an Expert Skiier” and bring me along. HA!
Keep up the amazing”ness” (Owen Wilson, “You, Me, and Dupress,” couple years ago).