How to Start a Fire (You Know, Intentionally)

Operating a fireplace is one of those useful life skills everyone should know -- especially at the most wonderful time of the year. Brush up and cozy up with our step-by-step guide.

Warming Hearth

Everybody loves a fireplace -- an architectural anachronism that still has the power to warm us, body and soul. But a fireplace is also an aesthetic tableau. The mantelpiece sets the stage for fireplace tools that are decorative as well as essential to starting a fire.

How to Start a Fire

If your fireplace has an adjustable damper, open it all the way. Begin by crumpling single sheets of newspaper or other tinder into grapefruit-size balls, or twist them into batons, and place one or two underneath the grate or in between the andirons on the floor of the firebox. Place strips of newspaper on top of this pile.

Create a Crisscross Pattern

Lay six to twelve pieces of kindling in a crisscross pattern on top of the crumpled newspaper on the grate or in between the andirons. Leave spaces between the sticks for air circulation.

Arrange Logs Loosely

Place a couple of thin, split logs on top of the tinder and kindling. Remember to arrange logs and paper loosely so air can circulate.

Don't Overfeed the Fire

Light the tinder with a long match. When the fire is going and the small split logs are burning steadily, add two more small logs and one larger log. Leave at least an inch between them so the flame can breathe. As the warm air rises up the chimney and into the room, cool air is sucked up into the spaces between the logs, fanning the flames. Don't overfeed the fire, which can smother the fire or cause it to blaze out of control.

Deposit Ashes Safely

A fire will cease on its own provided you are not adding fuel to it. Leave the fire alone and allow the ashes to cool completely (for up to a day) before removing them. Sweep ashes and coals into a metal coal hod, never into a garbage bag or can. Take the bucket outside, away from the house, and leave for another day to make sure all embers have died. Ashes can be deposited onto flowerbeds around the garden, since they benefit roses and other flowers.

Fire and Fireplace Tips

Tinder is the first thing to catch fire, so it should consist of a highly flammable material such as brown bags, twisted newspaper, applewood chips, dried hemlock and birch twigs, birch bark, and the feathery tips of dried pine branches. (Don't use paper with colored inks, since it can leave a flammable residue in the chimney.) Tinder ignites the kindling.

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Kindling Options

Kindling, such as pine and birch twigs, is placed on top of tinder and will stay ablaze long enough to set fire to the logs. Dry corncobs, pinecones that are well-dried and free of sap, and fatwood (highly flammable, resin-laden sticks from coniferous trees) are also good fire starters.

Firewood Types

Firewood must be properly dried before use. Freshly cut, or "green," wood is still full of water and will burn unevenly, produce smoke and ash, and won't smell very good. Tiny radial cracks along the cross-sections of a split log indicate that the wood is fully dry and ready to use. Hardwood logs from broad-leafed deciduous trees are ideal. Hickory, oak, maple, ash, beech, and birch are good choices (birch especially so as it leaves no ash). For fragrance, try cherry, pear, and pecan. Softwood logs from needle- and cone-bearing trees should only be used for tinder and kindling, since they burn very quickly.

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How to Maintain Your Fireplace

It is essential to hire a chimney sweep for a professional cleaning of your firebox and chimney at least once a year, ideally each spring. Be mindful of creosote and soot. Creosote is a brown or black residue that appears on the inner surface of the flue liner. When wood is burned slowly, it produces tar and other organic vapors, which combine with expelled moisture to form creosote. Excessive creosote can occur because of restricted air supply, and it is extremely combustible -- it's the major cause of most chimney fires. Soot is the carbonized deposit of fine black particles and, when wet, can stain very quickly.

How to Remove Soot

To remove soot, use dry methods of cleaning. Start by vacuuming the stained area using the dust-brush tool of your vacuum. Never rub with a cloth or rag, which will only spread or smear the soot. Use a "dry sponge" (available at hardware stores) to rub the stained area in even, light strokes in one direction. Start at the top and work down. Only after removing the bulk of the soot should you wipe the area with a cloth dampened with an all-purpose cleaner and warm water, if necessary.

More from Martha Stewart:
20 Super-Efficient, Super-Effective Ways to Clean All the Things
47 Ways to Maximize Space in Your Kitchen
65 Quick and Easy Holiday Decorating Ideas from Martha Stewart
22 Gift-Wrapping Ideas for Turning Any Gift Into Something Spectacular

Now learn how to avoid a fire when making electric repairs.