Fireplace Top Down Fire

How To Use A Fireplace (The Complete Step-By-Step Guide)

In Indoor Fireplaces, Wood Burning Fireplaces by James O'KellyLeave a Comment

The are a number of steps to using a fireplace including starting and maximizing the draft, building and lighting the fire, and keeping the fire going.

This article discusses the main steps you need to take to have hot and successful fires in your open fireplace, while also explaining what you can do to keep your fires burning for longer at how to prevent a fire in your fireplace from going out.

To use a fireplace:

  • Start the draft by opening the fireplace damper (if it has one), opening any doors or external air vents within the room and warming up the air within the chimney.
  • Build a fire in your fireplace using logs, kindling and a form of fire starter such as newspaper. The fire can either be built using the more traditional method or using the top-down fire method.
  • Light the fire using long matches by lighting the fire starter in as many locations as possible across the fireplace.
  • To keep a fire going, add a couple of larger sized logs to the fire once the initial bits of wood have burnt through. Use hardwood logs for longer and hotter burning.

We’ve explained how to use a fireplace in much more detail below, taking you step-by-step through all the processes that are required to have a fire, with pictures showing you at each step how we use our own open fireplace to have hot and successful fires.

Whether you’re using your fireplace for the first time or are just looking for ways to improve your fires, we’ll be explaining how to properly use your open fireplace at each step when starting a fire.

How To Use A Fireplace

Using a fireplace isn’t as difficult as it may seem, but once you get into using your fireplace more often you’ll find that there can be a lot of things that won’t quite work out how you wanted.

You may find that it’s hard to start a fire without it going out or smoking, or it isn’t putting out as much heat as you’d hoped. There are a number of aspects that need to be considered when having a fire in your fireplace and in particular the two things that are required to keep a fire going, which are fuel and oxygen.

Understanding what type of firewood you should be using in your fires and how it can affect how well your fireplace burns, as well as understanding how air flows in and out of the fire, will help you to have more successful and hotter fires in your home.

The steps that you’ll need to go through to operate a fireplace are:

  • Starting the draft.
  • Building the fire.
  • Lighting the fire.
  • Keeping the fire going.

Each of these steps will have their own sub-steps, and there’s also a couple of different options or routes you can go down, especially when it comes to building a fire. We’ve covered all of these things throughout this article.

This guide explains how to operate an open fireplace for burning wood. For our complete guide to using a wood burning stove click here.

1. Starting The Draft

Hot air rises and cold air sinks, and so hot air from a fire rises up a chimney, taking products from a fire such as smoke and waste gases safely out of your home.

As the hot air rises up the chimney it creates a (negative) pressure difference that sucks more air into the fireplace to replace the air that is lost up the chimney.

This puling affect of a chimney on a fireplace is known as the draft.

The stronger the draft the more air can be pulled into the fireplace to help feed the fire the oxygen it needs to keep burning. Draft is therefore an important aspect of having a fire in a fireplace and understanding it helps you to think about how you can improve and maximize the draft wherever possible before each fire.

The diagram below shows the typical airflow up a chimney through a fireplace.

Fireplace & Chimney Airflow
Airflow into a fireplace and up a chimney

If you would like to know more about how fireplaces and chimneys work we’ve explained it in more detail here.

The two main things that affect how strong the draft is can be the:

  • Temperature of the air within the chimney compared to the outside air. The greater the difference in temperature the greater the draft. Hotter fires can mean higher temperatures within the chimney and therefore a greater draw on the fireplace.
  • Height of the chimney. In general, the higher the chimney the greater the draft.

A stronger draft can help a fire to get going more quickly and sustain a hotter fire throughout its entire duration. Poor draw on your fireplace can lead to a fire that keeps going out at the start due to a lack of sufficient oxygen supply.

As such there’s a few things that you can do to help maximize the draft and therefore improve the chances that your fires will be more successful, as well as having less issues such as going out or producing more smoke.

To help start the draft before building and lighting a fire in your fireplace:

  • If your fireplace has a damper open it as a far as possible.
  • Open any external air vents within the same room as the fireplace.
  • Warm up the air within the chimney.

Fireplace dampers help to stop heat loss from your home when the fireplace isn’t in use. Dampers are essentially a metal or ceramic plate that sits within the inside top of your fireplace, at the base of the chimney. They can be opened or closed using a handle, and can also typically be left on a latch so that they can be left partially open.

Fireplace & Chimney Diagram
The damper is located just above the fireplace

A damper needs to be fully open prior to having a fire so that there is maximum draw on the fireplace to help get a fire going as quickly as possible. A fully open damper also helps to ensure that any smoke created by a fire at the start leaves up the chimney rather than coming out into your home.

We have a complete guide to fireplace dampers here if you want to know more.

If there are any external air vents within the same room as your open fireplace then they should be opened prior to starting a fire. If you don’t have an air vent then cracking open a window in the same room will also help.

A strong draft will need to replace the lost air within the fireplace and chimney quickly. Opening any windows or vents will help to supply a fire with as much air as possible to help it get going without any major issues.

We open the external air vent in our living room before each fire.

Fireplace Vent

Opening air vents and windows can also help prevent warmer air from being sucked up the chimney from other areas of your home.

You should also have your chimney swept if you haven’t done so within the last year.

Burning wood can produce creosote that can line the inside of your chimney and reduce the effectiveness of the draft. Burning wet wood or only softwood logs can increase the rate of buildup. Debris can also fall down the chimney and birds can also nest.

It’s recommended to have your chimney swept at least once per year. If you regularly burn wood in your home you may need to have it cleaned more regularly. Having your chimney swept just before your burning season will help to ensure that it’s working as efficiently as possible

For more information we have a complete article dedicated to explaining how to quickly improve the draw on your fireplace.

Lastly, to help improve the draft you can warm up the air within the chimney prior to starting a fire, also known as priming the flue.

Cold air can be trapped within the chimney and can make a fire struggle to get going if there isn’t already a draft. To help start the draft and make it easier for a fire to get going as quickly as possible you can use a heat source to warm up the air inside your chimney.

We like to use a rolled up sheet of newspaper to start the draft in our open fireplace, by simply lighting it at one end and holding it under the chimney inside the top area of the fireplace for a short while.

Warm Chimney Priming
Warming up the air in the chimney before starting a fire

For more information on the process of warming your flue and other ways to help start the draft, click here to go to one of our other articles.

2. Building The Fire

The next step in how to use a fireplace is building the fire.

A fire in an open fireplace should be built in such a way that allows the fire to get going as quickly as possible. This means building a fire to ensure that there’s enough fuel to burn when in close proximity, while also allowing enough air to get to the fire in order to keep it burning.

There are two main types of fires you can build in your fireplace. One is the more traditional way of building fires while the other revises the order of how the materials are added to the fireplace in order to achieve a few other benefits.

These two main types of fires are:

  • The conventional way. The fire starter is placed within the fireplace first, followed by the kindling and logs respectively.
  • The top-down fire method. The logs are placed in the fireplace first with the kindling and fire starter placed on top respectively.

Whichever method you choose, either method can work very well when having a fire in your fireplace.

However, the top-down method has a few benefits over the conventional method of building a fire. These main benefits include:

  • A potentially cleaner burn straight from lighting the fire, which can lead to less smoke being produced.
  • More logs and of larger size can be added to the fire, meaning that the initial bits of wood can last longer before the first load of logs need to be added to the fire.

There are a few other benefits as well as the above, which you can read more about in our dedicated guide to building top-down fires.

Another thing to consider is whether you’ll be using a fireplace grate to build your fire in.

A grate can help to supply air to the base of a fire, but wood can burn more efficiently with a source of air from above the fire, and so whether you’re building your fires with or without a grate you’ll still get very similar results from a fire.

A benefit of building fires on your hearth is that the ash can help to insulate the fire and reflect the heat back into the fire to aid in combustion.

We like to use a grate because our living room open fireplace came with one when we bought the house. Building fires with a grate also helps to keep the fire off the base of your fireplace and can help protect it from the heat of your fires over time.

If you’re building fires without a grate it’s recommended to leave about an inch of ash at the base of your fireplace between fires.

Before building any form of fires you’ll need to make sure you have the right materials and the right quality of materials. To be able to build a fire in a fireplace that will get going quickly and effectively you’ll need the following:

  • A selection of smaller and large seasoned or kiln dried logs.
  • Dry pieces of small bits of wood known as kindling.
  • A form of fire starter such as firelighters or newspaper.

You’ll also need to make sure that you have the right quality of wood for it burn efficiently in a fire.

Both the logs and the kindling should either be seasoned or kiln dried. Wet wood will burn highly ineffectively in a fireplace, likely leading to your fires going out and more smoke being produced.

Seasoned wood is wood that has been left outside for an extended period of time (of up to 2 years depending on the wood) to help it dry out. Kiln dried wood is wood dried out in a kiln over a number of days.

We like to buy in a load of seasoned wood before our burning season, but periodically top our supply up with bags of kiln dried wood from our local store.

Kiln Dried Hardwood Firewood Bag
A typical bag of kiln dried logs

We also either use dry bits of wood taken from our property or buy kiln dried kindling from a local store.

Kiln Dried Kindling Bag
A typical bag of kiln dried kindling

Kiln drying can be a more expensive process as so expect to pay a bit more for kiln dried wood. Kiln drying is also more likely to give better results of wood that is dry enough to burn in a fire, as there are a number of factors that can affect how well a log seasons outside. If wood isn’t seasoned the right way, or for long enough, then it may still be too wet to be suitable for use as firewood.

Green Wood Moisture Content
Try not to burn wood that is too wet. It will struggle to burn effectively in your fires

There are some signs that show that wood may be dry enough to be used, and these include wood that:

  • Has bark that is peeling away and can be removed fairly easily.
  • Is brown in color rather than a greenish tint.
  • Has course or splitting ends.
Dry Firewood
Dry firewood like this will burn very well in your fires

You don’t want to be using any sort of wood that is green, moldy or rotten, as well as any treated or painted wood.

Whichever type of dried wood you use in your fireplace you’ll need to ensure that the moisture content in the wood is low enough. This means accurately checking the moisture content of each piece of wood before using it in your fireplace.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that firewood should be within the region of 15-20% moisture content to burn its most efficiently on a fire.

To find out the exact moisture content of your wood you’ll need to use a moisture meter, which is a small tool that when pressed against wood gives you a moisture content reading.

Kindling Moisture Content
A moisture meter will give you can accurate reading of the moisture content of your firewood

A moisture meter is the most essential tool for your fireplace. It will help you to ensure that you’re never burning wood that is too wet, and can therefore help you to have hotter and more successful fires in your fireplace.

If you don’t have a moisture meter you can check out our recommended moisture meter right here.

If you’re in the UK you can find the moisture meter we use and love right here.

A further thing to consider with the type of wood you’re burning is whether to use softwood or hardwood logs.

Softwood logs from coniferous (evergreen) trees can catch alight and burn more quickly than hardwood and so is a popular choice for use as kindling or the logs you use to build your fire with.

On the downside softwood logs won’t last as long in a fire and so you may find that you’re adding wood to the fire more often. Softwood logs are typically less dense and so can put out less heat than hardwood logs. Softwood logs can also have a higher sap content and can produce more creosote (tar) as a result, and lead to needing to have your chimney swept more often.

Softwood can work very well as kindling

Hardwood logs from deciduous trees tend to be denser and so can last longer in a fire and produce more heat overall compared to softwood logs.

Hardwood logs can therefore be a preferred choice once the fire has got going as they can last longer in a fire before more logs needed to be added. On the downside deciduous trees can take longer to grow causing the logs to be more dense, meaning that they can take a longer period of time to dry out through seasoning or kiln drying. This can be reflected in the price of hardwood logs.

Dry Firewood
Harwood is great for lasting longer in a fire and packing out more heat

With your materials ready and with a better understanding of what type of wood you should be using in your fires, we can discuss how best to build a fire in your fireplace that helps to get it going as quickly as possible in order to help reduce the chance of any issues occurring.

We’ve outlined how to build both of the two main ways to build a fire in a fireplace below.

Building A Fireplace Fire Using The Traditional Method

The more conventional way of building a fire in a fireplace can be seen as placing the fire starter such as newspaper at the base of the fireplace, with the kindling and logs added on top respectively.

For this method, the fire is lit at the base of the fireplace and burns upwards through the kindling until the logs at the top catch fire.

To build a fire in a fireplace the more traditional way, take your fire starter, such as newspaper or firelighters, and place them at the base of your fireplace.

We like to use newspaper because we have it in plentiful supply in our home, and so if you’re using newspaper as your fire starter you’ll need to take single sheets and crunch them up into balls. Don’t over tighten them as you’ll still want to allow air to flow in between.

Fireplace Newspaper Ball

If you’re using a grate in your fireplace (like we do) you can either choose to place the fire starter at the base of the grate or below it.

Fireplace Newspaper
Fireplace Newspaper

We like to place our newspaper under the grate because it helps to prevent the kindling and logs from moving out of position once the newspaper has burnt through.

Whatever fire starter you choose and however you place it, you’ll need to lay some small bits of dry wood known as kindling on top.

You can use small bits of wood such as small branches, twigs or even bark from the logs as the kindling.

Softwood kindling can work best when building a fire as we want the bits of wood to catch alight quickly, burn quickly and transfer the flames onto the logs as fast a possible.

The kindling should be added to the fireplace in a crisscross sort of arrangement, where the bits of wood are interlinking and touching so that the fire can spread without blocking off airflow to some of the pieces.

To help the fire to spread more easily, the kindling shouldn’t be placed in a block or laid to fair away from each other.

Fireplace Kindling

This is how we arrange the kindling in our fires. There’s no secret way to laying kindling, but if you place them interlinked with space for air to get to the fire like the above then you’re good to go.

Finally, the logs should be placed on top of the kindling.

Smaller sized logs are preferred at the start of the fire because of their smaller surface area, which can help them to catch fire more quickly than larger sized logs.

It’s also preferable to add around 2-3 logs to the fire. A couple of logs will be able to create turbulence of air around the logs and help to transfer the heat and flames between one another. Like the kindling, the logs shouldn’t be packed together inside the fireplace or spread too far apart, but arranged so that they’re touching with air still allowed to flow between them.

You can use either softwood or hardwood logs when building a fire, but if you find that your fires struggle to get going then you may want to only use softwood logs for some further assistance.

Here’s how we stacked the logs in a recent fire of ours:

Fireplace Logs

For more information you can read our complete guide to building and lighting a fire in your fireplace here.

Building A Fire Using The Top-Down Method

Instead of building fires in your fireplace in the more traditional way you can opt to build your fires using the top-down method.

The top-down method essentially reverses the order the materials are placed in your fireplace, meaning that the fire is lit at the top and burns its way down.

This may seem like a strange way to build a fire (it did for us when we found out about it) but it’s now long been our preferred way of building fires in our home.

Fire Back Of Fireplace

The main benefits that we get from building top-down fires is that the initial flames can help start the draft sooner into a fire, and the extra row of logs at the base of the fire means that the fire can last for a much longer period of time before any further wood needs to be added.

To build a top-down fire in your fireplace you’ll want to take your largest sized logs and place them together in a row at the base of your fireplace or grate.

The logs should be packed together horizontally so that they’re touching to allow the fire to be more easily transferred across the row of logs. It’s also recommended that the ends of the logs should be facing towards you for better airflow.

Fireplace Top Down Fire

You can use your larger sized logs at the base of a top-down fire, as well as using hardwood logs to help extend the burning time once the fire has been started.

On top of this layer of logs you’ll want to place another layer of logs, but of smaller size.

These smaller logs should be placed at a perpendicular angle to the logs below to help maximize airflow between the two layers.

Fireplace Top Down Fire

The kindling can then be added on top of the logs in a crisscross arrangement.

The kindling needs to be laid so that all of the pieces are interconnect while still providing gaps to allow for airflow. Ensure that the kindling isn’t placed bunched up together or spaced too far apart.

Fireplace Top Down Fire

Your preferred fire starter such as newspaper can then be added to the top of the fire.

If using newspaper, crunch up single sheets but don’t over tighten them.

Fireplace Top Down Fire

You can read our complete guide to building top-down fires in your fireplace here, as well as see all of the other benefits of using a top-down fire that we haven’t already mentioned.

3. Lighting The Fire

The third step on how to use a fireplace is lighting the fire.

By following the methods of building a fire explained in the previous section you’re setting yourself up to get the fire going as quickly as possible. A quick starting fire is important for ensuring that the fire doesn’t go out as a result of either insufficient wood quality or a lack of fresh air.

Whichever type of fire you’ve built, whether it’s using the top-down method or the more traditional way, you’ll need to start the fire by lighting the fire starter.

In a conventional fire you’ll need to light the fire starter at the base of the fireplace. For the method we’ve shown in the previous section we would need to light the newspaper located underneath the fireplace grate.

Lighting Fireplace

If you’ve followed the top-down method you’ll need to light your fire starter located at the top of the fire. In the example of the fire we built we would need to light the newspaper.

Fireplace Top Down Fire

When lighting a fire look to light a number of locations across the fireplace both front and back, as this can help to spread the fire more evenly to the kindling and logs and lead to a more successful fire.

When lighting fires in our open fireplace we like to use long matches. The main benefits of using long matches are that:

  • You can reach both the front and back areas of the fire to help light more locations on the fire starter.
  • The matches last longer before they burn too close to your hands.
  • You can light more areas of the fire while still keeping your hands at a safer distance away from the areas that are already lit.
Fireplace Long Matches

To see our recommended set of long matches click here.

For UK readers you can find the set of long matches we use right here.

If you have a fireplace screen you’ll want to place it in front of the fire to help prevent anything from the fire from being thrown out into the room. It’s a good idea at this point to keep an eye on the fire because the most likely time for a fire to go out is soon after lighting it.

You can now sit back and enjoy the fire as it burns through the initial bits of wood. A top-down method fire will typically last longer until the first load of logs needs to be added.

If the fire in your fireplace keeps going out when you light it, try to ensure that:

  • There is sufficient draft.
  • The wood you’re burning is low enough in moisture content.
  • You’re using enough newspaper or firelighters.
  • There is the right amount of kindling in the fire and it’s laid correctly.
  • The logs aren’t too big and that they are also arranged correctly.

For ways in which you can help to quickly improve the draw on your fireplace check out another one of our articles here.

We have a whole article dedicated to moisture content in firewood and how to check it here.

4. Keeping A Fire Going

Once the wood from the fire you built has burnt through you’ll need to add further logs to the fire to keep it going.

As the fire progresses and the temperatures within the fire increase, it becomes increasingly easier for new logs to catch fire. If you’ve only used your smaller sized logs when starting the fire then you can start to use your bigger sized logs.

To help keep a fire going in your fireplace:

  • Look to use hardwood logs as these will typically burn for the longest period of time and provide the most amount of heat.
  • Try to add a couple of logs at a time. Adding more than one log will help them to transfer the heat and flames to each other for more efficient burning.
  • Ensure that any further wood that you do burn is sufficiently dry and low in moisture content for it to burn effectively.

For more information on how to keep a fire going we have a whole article explaining how to right here.

Further Reading

How Fireplaces Work

How To Get More Heat From Your Fireplace

Essential Fireplace Tips

Leave a Comment