Woodburning Fireplaces for Beginners

A pair of woolen socks in front of a fire in a fireplace.

My house has an automatic fireplace, so when I want to be cozy by a fire I simply press a button and sit close enough for the automatic fan to warm my toes. This luxury isn't often found, especially in older homes, and even those blessed with a hearth and chimney may not know how to safely make it work.

Traditional fireplaces are a bit more complex than first meets the eye. Actually making and keeping a fire lit is a more complicated effort than simply flipping a switch, not to mention more dangerous. This article will focus on a couple things beginners should know about their wood burning fireplace.

What's a Damper?

For those new to the world of fire building in a proper fireplace, a fireplace damper is simply a small flap that must be manually adjusted to allow for a fire’s smoke to escape. Made of ceramic or even metal, this part has been specially designed to withstand the heat from a roaring fire as well as shut very tightly to disallow access breeze or debris from entering a home. Though it seems inconsequential, its purpose can have a grave effect on the safety of having a live fire within the home, for if left shut while the fireplace is in use, gases and carbon monoxide produced can back up into the home creating a grave, sometimes even deadly, situation.

When Should I Call a Chimney Sweep?

Beyond basic understanding gathered from Disney films, most people do not know much about what a chimney sweep actually does. However, the job of cleaning a fireplace and chimney is quite serious, as the buildup of soot and carbon has been found to pollute the air and increase exposure to carbon monoxide. According to the Chimney Safety Institute of America, a chimney stack should be inspected at least once per year to ensure freedom from deposits and built-up matter. Should even an abnormal increase in smoke occur, a sweep should swiftly be contacted.

For beginners, if a new home is purchased featuring a fireplace, or one is simply unsure when the last cleaning occurred, a basic understanding of terminology is always helpful when speaking with a sweeping company. To start, one should simply ask for a "Level 1" chimney inspection and sweep. This procedure is an industry standardized test, and a good place to start when getting your chimney in check.

Try the Boy Scout Trick

Finally, the most important thing to know when getting acquainted with a wood burning fireplace is how to actually build a fire. Unlike the fireplace in my home, most fireplaces don't have a button to ignite the flames, so here is a trick I learned in the Boy Scouts many years ago, which best creates a long-lasting fire with as little effort as possible.

Using dry wood, place some wadded newspaper in the center of a hearth. Next, place timber in the shape of a teepee hovering over the papers. Once a match is lit, simply place it among the papers so the flames gently touch the wood, and within a few minutes, under proper circumstance, a fire should begin to gently engulf the space.

This concept works because the main element needed to procure a successful fire is oxygen. The teepee idea allows air to enter through the sides of the structure, embracing the flames and making them larger. The build has saved me time and energy in the past and, if used correctly, can let you enjoy your indoor fireplace sooner and with less hassle.