Having a fireplace in your home can be great. Not only is it a fantastic source of heat on those cold winter nights, but it’s also a great aesthetic choice for helping to make your larger rooms look a little homier – that’s why electric models have become so popular amongst homes lacking a chimney. Not everyone, though, actually knows how to use a fireplace correctly. Whether you’ve never owned a home with a fireplace before or you simply have never gotten around to using one on your own, it’s always a good idea to learn the right way to use this incredibly valuable tool. Fortunately, doing so is as easy as paying attention to this simple guide.
Using Your Wood Burning Fireplace: A Guide in Six Steps
While it might seem a little silly to follow a step-by-step guide for using something like a fireplace, the truth is that getting the most out of one of these great devices does require a little more than just setting fire to a piece of wood. The goal of properly using a fireplace isn’t just to create a temporary burst of heat but to ensure that you can use your fireplace in a way that’s both safe and that’s going to allow you to enjoy the use of the device for as long as possible without having to worry about any major repairs.
Step One: Basic Safety Protocols
It’s always a good idea to start out by looking at ways that you can keep yourself and everyone in your home safe before you light your first fire. Though fireplaces are quite safe when used correctly, there are injuries and fatalities every year that occur because certain homeowners refuse to take some simple precautions. The best way to avoid sharing in that fate is to take a little time to make sure that both you and your home are prepared for your first fire.
Step one is a basic safety inspection. Check out the inside of your fireplace to ensure that there’s nothing unexpected either in the firebox or in the flue. Next, you’re going to check out the area around the fireplace – if there’s anything flammable that’s closer than three feet, it needs to be moved immediately. You will also want to make sure that you have a fireplace grate ready to set up at this point, especially if you have children or animals wandering about your home. If you’ve got an older fireplace, this is also an excellent time to get a quick inspection from a licensed professional.
Your next step is to make sure that you have some basic safety precautions on-hand. If you have a fireplace, the two most important things to have in working order in your home are a carbon monoxide detector and a smoke detector. These are the items that are not only going to keep you safe when you know that the fire is roaring but when you’re dealing with the aftermath of a fire. It’s also a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher handy just in case a fire gets out of hand while you’re around to extinguish the issue.
Preparing the Fuel
We are going to start with the assumption that you are using a traditional, wood-fueled fireplace for the purposes of this guide. As such, it’s important that you actually have some wood on-hand to burn. This might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but you’re going to need more than just a log or two to get a fire going. As nice it would be to throw in a log and to get a roaring fire, you’re actually going to need a few different items to get your fire going.
The traditional firewood log is, of course, a big component of your fire. Softwoods like pine or cedar are usually recommended for first-time fire builders, simply because they tend to light a bit easier. As you get more comfortable, you’ll also want to consider using harder woods that tend to burn longer and with more heat.
Not only are you going to need your big log here, but you’re also going to need kindling. You’ll need some medium and small pieces of wood here if you want to go the traditional route, with drier wood really being preferred for those who want to do things the traditional way. Not so sure that you’re interested in building a good pile of kindling? You can actually go out and buy any number of starter logs that can be used instead.
What’s important to know, though, is what not to use. If it’s not wood – or at least a product specifically designed for a fireplace – it should not be burned. That means no trash, no plastic, and absolutely no chemically-treated wood. Adding such items to your fire will give off chemical smoke that can cause pain and potential health problems.
Adjusting the Damper
Now we’re getting to the part that’s a little more complicated. While fireplaces might look simple, there are actually some moving parts involved that not only help to ensure that the smoke from your fire will go outside, but that the fire can burn safely in your home. One such piece is the damper, which is the piece then opens up to allow the smoke to flow from your fireplace back outside of your home.
While operating the damper is not actually hard, you’re going to give it a dry run before you light your first fire. Look inside your fireplace and locate the damper on top – it should be a flat plate, and the lever to operate the device should be nearby. Turn the lever and you should see the damper move. Once it’s moved, shine a flashlight straight up. If you can see up the flue, congratulations – you’ve successfully operated your damper for the first time and you should be more than ready to build a fire in your fireplace.
As a note, it’s vital that you absolutely never build a fire unless you are sure that your damper is open. While you might not necessarily open it all the way at the beginning of the process, it needs to be open enough that it’s constantly moving the smoke from your fire up your chimney. It’s very easy to tell if the damper has failed to open, as all the smoke from your fire will inevitably have to come back out the front of your fireplace.
Ensuring the Flue is Primed
This part is going to make you go back and use some elementary school science. As you might remember from fourth or fifth grade, cold air sinks while warm air rises. As fires are typically lit during the colder months of the year, you’re going to have to remember that the air outside of your home is just as capable of traveling down your chimney as the warm air is capable of heading right back outside. When you first open your flue, then, you’re going to be faced with the prospect of a quick, cold gust.
As you might imagine, cold air coming down your chimney is the last thing you want when you’re building a fire. Rather than allowing your smoke to travel up the chimney, the cold air is going to push it all backdown and out into your home. As you might imagine, this might lead to a pretty unpleasant experience for all involved and thus the flue needs to be primed to avoid that problem.
The first step in priming your flue is checking to see if there’s a draft coming down. If you can hold your hand under the flue and feel cold air, you’re going to have to get ready to prime. Doing this simply involves rolling up a newspaper, lighting one end on fire, and holding it against your (now open) damper. Check the flue again in a few minutes and you should no longer feel a draft. Once you’ve made it to this point, you should be able to move on to building your fire.
Time To Build A Fire
In all honesty, there are several really good ways to build a fire and hundreds of mediocre ways to do the same thing. As you get more used to your fireplace, you’re going to find new ways to build a fire that work better depending on the wood and kindling you use, to say nothing of the design of your fireplace. When you’re first starting out, though, it’s usually a good idea to use the tried and true bottom-up method of fire building.
You’re going to start this process with your biggest pieces of wood. Place a row of them on the bottom of your fireplace, careful to keep them together so that they can create a good base for the next step. You’ll then grab your medium-sized pieces of wood (or firestarter log) and stack them on top of your base wood – this stack will be a few layers tall, but no more than half the visible height of your firebox. Finally, you’ll add some dry wood, wood shavings, or even some newspaper to the top.
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Simply take your lighter (one of the long-handled grill lighters is a good idea here) and light the top of the pile. If you have built everything correctly, that spark will ignite your kindling on top and the resulting fire will spread all the way down to the very bottom.
Congratulations, you’ve built your first fire!
If you want your fireplace to last without expensive repairs, you’ll also need to make sure that you clean up after yourself. This means cleaning up the ashes, and it’s actually a more time-consuming process than you might imagine.
You may need to wait a few days between the death of your fire and cleaning as the ashes can continue to stay hot for longer than you think. Once they’ve cooled, you can actually leave a layer of a couple of inches on the bottom of the fireplace because doing so will help you start future fires. What you do clean out, though, needs to be stored in a lid and kept away from anything that might be flammable just in case.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you properly use a fireplace?
Properly using a fireplace is a matter of knowing how to ensure that you’re using the right safety methods, how to ensure that you know that your fireplace is in good working order, and how to build a fire. Start by making sure you have safety equipment like smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms ready, then check out your fireplace to make sure that it’s clear of flammable items and that your flue is empty. Once that’s done, you’ll want to open up your damper, prime your flue, and build a fire. After you’re done, you’ll need to clean up excess ashes.
How do you use a fireplace for the first time?
The most important thing to do when using a fireplace for the first time is to make sure that it’s still safe to use. It’s generally recommended that you have a licensed technician come out and check your fireplace to make sure that there’s nothing unusual wrong with it. If it’s brand new, though, you will do the work yourself. Check to make sure that there’s nothing flammable in or around the fireplace, that your damper can still open and close, and that there’s nothing in your flue that will obstruct the smoke from leaving your fireplace. If everything is in good shape, you can open your damper, make sure your flue is primed, and build a base for your fire by building a pyramid that has big logs at the bottom and kindling on the top.
What are the two levers on my fireplace?
Many fireplaces have two levers. One of the levers controls your air vents, which allows you to bring in more oxygen to fuel your fire. The other controls the damper, which allows smoke to go up the flue and out of your home.