Introduction: Building a Fire With Purchased Wood
There are several instructables on lighting a fire, and there are lots of good ideas in them. Mostly, however, they utilize the "tepee" method, and I've never been able to make that work out very well. My main problem is that it just isn't very stable -- it's difficult to build, difficult to light, and even more difficult to keep burning without it falling over into a random pile of sticks. It's also best suited to medium-sized sticks, not larger pieces of wood.
Also, I don't like gathering wood, I think it's hard on the forest, so I wind up buying one of the bundles of wood that are on sale at every campground, on the assumption that at least that wood is somewhat more ecologically harvested. Unfortunately the wood you get in these bundles is too short and stubby to make anything like a decent tepee. But I've come up with a technique that works very well with the typical cuts of wood you get in one of those bundles.
Step 1: Wood
This is the typical motley assortment you get when you buy one of those firewood bundles. A couple of fairly large pieces, several mid-size pieces, some plastic wrap to bundle it (I wish they'd use a couple of pieces of twine instead!), and in my area they usually put a paper label inside the plastic. There isn't much you can do with the plastic except recycle it, but the paper label makes a great starter and even the rope "handle" they staple onto one of the pieces is combustible.
Step 2: Base Layer
First, select the two largest pieces. Find their most stable orientation and place them side by side, just less than one length apart. Shove any remnants of the previous fire between the two main logs. You'll notice I'm doing this in my fireplace, but I've removed the grate to show how to do it directly on the ground. However, this technique works beautifully on a grate too.
Notice that I've left plenty of ashes on the floor of the fireplace. Ashes are a great foundation for a fire; they're a good insulator and reflect infrared energy very well, preventing the ground from soaking up all the heat and cooling the fire. When you do need to clean out the ashes, clean out only half and spread the rest out so you've still got a good layer.
If you're outside, there's usually a breeze coming from one direction or another. Place the largest log broadside into the prevailing breeze to help shield the fire; in this instance it would be coming from the left.
Step 3: Top Layer
Three of the medium-sized pieces go on side-to-side over the top of the largest logs. Make sure there's at least an inch or so of space between them so the fire can breathe easily.
These are the fire's main logs, and will burn the fastest, eventually breaking in the middle. If the lower logs are placed properly, when the top logs break in half they'll fall inward, adding fuel to the center of the fire just when it needs it. But if the lower logs are too close together, the ends of the upper logs will fall to the outside, where they'll just go out.
If you want a bigger fire, you can place a third layer front-to-back on top of the second layer. This will create a lot of heat but will burn through your wood pretty quickly.
The fire actually lives in the space under the upper logs, between the two lower logs. Cold air comes in the front and back, feeds the fire, and exhausts straight up between the upper logs. All that burning wood surrounding the combustion chamber keeps the temperature very high, which ensures the fire will be robust, and yet not huge.
Step 4: Firestarters
Remove the front top log, and add any smaller pieces that came with the bundle, including the paper label and any other small things that will help start the fire. Remaining pieces from older fires are great because they've been baked completely dry.
Step 5: Let's Talk
At this point, you could get busy with your hatchet and make some small pieces to use for kindling, challenging yourself to create the famous "one-match" fire. This fire is so efficient it really isn't hard to do.
But I cheat. I use lighter fluid, in a very short one-second spray that I wave around quickly to cover the entire interior of the assembled wood. When I say I use a one-second spray, I'm not exaggerating. This bottle of lighter fluid has lasted me three years now.
There are also a number of excellent firestarter instructables. When this bottle of lighter fluid runs out, I'm going to experiment with some of them.
Step 6: Light This Candle
Now light the tinder, quickly replace the front top piece, and step back. This is the fire about ten seconds after I lit it. You can see this isn't just the lighter fluid; the wood is already blackened up good and is burning.
Step 7: Sit Back and Enjoy
The fire will burn like this, in an amazingly stable fashion, for quite some time. Nothing will fall over or collapse until the upper logs burn through. It's a compact but hot fire, never getting very big but throwing off lots of heat.
Step 8: Time to Refuel
Eventually, the upper logs will burn through, fall into the center and continue burning until they're completely consumed. The lower logs, however, burn much more slowly, so if you have any leftover pieces you can add them on top, and the fire will continue going. You can see here that two of the three top logs have been completely burned, but there's still so much heat in those coals that logs placed on top will start up almost immediately.
Step 9: Back to Life
I added my last two pieces, and by the time I'd picked up the camera, this is how they were going. You can keep playing this game if you've got more wood; the two lower pieces will last a long, long time because there's no air circulation below them. The two lower logs may not be completely consumed, but they'll be so thoroughly baked dry that they'll make great firestarters for next time.