How to Build an Upside-Down Fire: The Only Fireplace Method You'll Ever Need

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 steps:

The second successful experiment, with about 50% less wood and almost equal burn time:

Other benefits:

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.

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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:

From Kalavic:

“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.”

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with over 400 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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236 Replies to “How to Build an Upside-Down Fire: The Only Fireplace Method You'll Ever Need”

  1. It would be very easy to start a fire with a fire starting kit, one should always have one ready to go for emergencies, however, if you are trying to start one in the wilderness or an emergency and you do not have the typical matches, lighter or fire starter kit, you can still start a fire without one. Go to survivingtheaftermath.com and search for starting fire and you will see ways to start fires in the wilderness and campfires for cooking, and emergencies without using any of the conventional methods we are taking for granted today.

  2. Is this a joke? I tried this and needed to take all the wood out after the paper fizzled out on top so that I can build it the right way. Whoever wrote this is an idiot.

  3. It’s impossible to not leave ashes after burning as ash is unable to be burnt and broken into a smaller material as it is the minerals and nutrients that went into the material. Wood is basically cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. When it is heated these all break down (pyrolise) giving off gases, once all flammable gases are gone you are left with coal, when coal is burnt you get the white ash which can not be burnt.

  4. Thank you, just what I was looking for. THANKS for your beautiful manliness in crediting “Marcie” and her intuitive feminine approach.. and I agreed, it seems counterintuitive from what we all learned.. “To learn the manliest of the manly arts, it took one of my most feminine readers, Marcie… she was looking for the best method of starting fires for her mountain-side cabin… ..Even I couldn’t believe this one until I tried it.”.. (lovingly intended)…this is such a man thing.

    Thanks again! Ellen

  5. Forget it. Waste of time and wood. Followed directions and ended up with a pile of wood with blackened edges. Waited for awhile and rebuilt it the right way, kindling and paper on bottom. Roaring fire in no time .

  6. Didn’t believe it but tried it. Worked great first time. Thank you!!! Now I don’t have to wear holes in my knees from kneeling down in front of the fire babying it. Have used this method three times and works every time.

  7. 1000% works!

    After wanting to try this for years we finally got a chance.

    We are currently living in Southern France where during the winter time it gets cold!

    The huge open fire place gave me the perfect opportunity to use the 3 year old aged oak we ordered to build an upside down fire.

    Everything Tim and Marcie claim here is spot on and I will never light a fire the old fashioned way again!

  8. I am trying this method tonight. I sure hope it works as well as you say. I have put lots and lots of hours into my box, and house psi. It took me about 100 tea candles to pinpoint all of my drafts to create a positive pressure inside the house. My house was built in 58. Brick and 1″ plaster walls. Windows are aluminum that are negative R value. Even with plastic covering them, the wind cuts directly through. The front of my house gets a direct blast from the wind, so I get a breeze inside, unless I have my draft blockers up. Blah blah, i had to remove my draft blockers to have enough pressure to not get smoke in the house. I also did a bunch more tests on how to improve everything about the fireplace. Here she goes. All 7 smoke alarms tested and strategically placed along with class A dry chems and water. Tim

  9. If you have trouble with creosote build-up, an easy way to solve that problem is to toss in an aluminum can once or twice a week, when the fire is really hot. More often if you burn a lot of green or sappy wood. It causes a reaction that powderizes the creosote, and reduces it to small bit of powder that will fall to the bottom of your chimney.

  10. I tried this a couple of times. Perfect. The second time I had a few people over. The looks on people’s faces as I lit the fire showed me that they thought I was severely cognitively impaired. But they didn’t say anything. Just double takes and looks of disbelief. I finally said, “I know it looks like it doesn’t make sense.” Then they spoke and said, “That’s not going to work.” I said, “Give it a chance.” In an hour they said, “I can’t argue with that,” as the fire burned down nicely.

    It’s fun to silently convince people you are insane and then have them shake their heads as believers later on.

  11. It’s been two years since I spotted this post and since then, it’s the ONLY way I start both my fireplace and outdoor camping fires. It’s a brilliant idea, works perfectly every time, and I’ve passed this technique along to everyone who watches me build I fire.

  12. A decade on from the original post I’ve learned an additional tip, courtesy of Lars Mytting’s book, Norwegian Wood. I like to set a small outdoor evening fire in the garden fire pit; usually just a layer or two of 3 half logs each, on top of which I arrange Lars’ Nordic ‘Bridge and Valley’ method. A log, split in two, forms the valley with roughly pencil sized twigs and kindling spanning it to form the bridge. Spark up some tinder; place it in the valley and span the kindling over the flames. Once the kindling’s established it collapses into the valley and everything’s good to go. The bridge and valley arrangement lets plenty of air circulate through the kindling as the base logs get up to ignition temperatures. The fire lasts from dusk ’til midnight, 3 hours or so, with minimal attention.