Picture of How to Build a Bonfire
Throwing a killer party? Burning some couches? This will get you from spark to ash with only minimal burns, and most of your hair intact. It may seem like just a bigger camp fire, but it comes with a whole set of dangers unique to the scale. If there is one thing the boy scouts got right, it's to be prepared. Especially when you are about to light something on fire that is at least as tall as you are. If you don't believe me, check out And that was before the fire was even lit!

I am an Eagle Scout, and have worked at a BSA summer camp. For reasons that shall go undisclosed, we often built bonfires which were designed to collapse on purpose (but always without hurting anyone.) Like a logger felling a tree, I learned a lot about the structure of a fire by trying to get it to collapse in a particular way at a particular time. This instructable makes up a good portion of what I learned about getting a fire to burn properly. I may save the other knowledge for another instructable.
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Step 1: Basic fire-building

Picture of Basic fire-building
Most people know how fire works. Heat meets fuel and oxygen and results in the chemical reaction of rapid oxidation called fire. Even adults who can explain this reaction in much more detail than I can show a depressing lack of ability to apply that. But you are all do-it-yourselfers, so you'll get it right. If you are absolutely confident (or plan on using a whole lot of expensive petro-chemicals) by all means move-on.

Fire needs fuel, oxygen and heat. If you hold a candle to a log, it will not light, but why? There is certainly enough fuel (see big log), and there is air all around it, and I have heat. Formula no work...Og no cook dinner. There are some people who understand this, yet still pile logs on top of each-other and stuff the whole thing to the gills with newspaper, and wonder why the newspaper just smolders and goes out.

Two keys here: surface area, and airflow. To catch a flame (and especially a spark) you need as much surface area as possible for your flame to catch (which is why newspaper works so well.) But you also need air to be able to circulate and get to where the flame is. If you need a reason, look up oxidation. In a fire, cool air has to come in from the bottom to replace the hot air escaping from the top. Keep that in mind when building any fire.

** The best tip in the whole instructable: Most people will blow on a fire that looks like it needs a little extra kick to get going really well. Do not think that this means that more blowing equals more fire. Almost everyone blows too hard and too quickly which just makes things worse. Blow at the bottom of the flames with a slow steady breath, you will hear a difference when the flames get that "turbo charge" you are looking for. You want to keep that slow stream going as long as possible, so regulate your breath. The sound is really the key here, but you'll get the hang of it. **

The fuel with the most surface area to combustible material ratio is called tinder which ranges from clumps of tiny fibers which catch quickly to sticks no thicker than a blade of grass. Next is kindling which can be about as big as your thumb. When building a bonfire, what you are really interested in is fuel. This is what really burns for a long time, gives off a lot of heat, and provides the structure for the fire. Once you have fuel going, the fire is well established; you don't have to keep feeding it, it's certainly too late to move it, and you don't want to be poking and prodding it too much lest you do more damage than good. It is often a good idea to add pockets of kindling dispersed evenly in the fuel to help ensure that everything catches together. But before we get to the big flames...
baneat7 years ago
Step1. Pile stuff up. Step2. Apply petrol/alcohol. Step3. Throw a match into it? You don't really need tinder and stuff unless you are in some sort of survival situation,
cpf baneat7 years ago
"You don't really need tinder and stuff unless you are in some sort of survival situation," "You don't really need tinder and stuff unless you want to stay alive and/or uninjured" Gasoline+Fire !good ideas. Good instructable!
baneat cpf4 years ago
I'm sure 25 ml of petrol (all you need to start a large fire) in an unenclosed space will suddenly cause a nuclear explosion.
bumpus baneat7 years ago
what do you expect, hes an eaglescout, i hate them brownie-boys
For you my friend how can you hate something you've never been apart of nor know what the meaning of it is? You cannot hate nor judge someone because of the organization they're in
Kozz baneat7 years ago
Don't need tinder and stuff? Well, it's darned dangerous to use gasoline(petrol) or other fuel oils on a wood fire. I've seen people pile up stove-sized logs, pour on gasoline (at which point I backed WAAYY up), and toss a match at it. It flares up quickly, and then all the "accellerant" quickly burns-off from the surface of the logs. Now you've got blackened logs that are no longer on fire, and hopefully you still have all your hair and eyebrows. Using the appropriate amount of tinder and kindling, and then building them into a log cabin-like structure is best for a bonfire, in my experience (I've built a few for camporees myself in years past). Why? Because you can light the tinder in three or four places and then walk away, having great confidence that your preparation will result in a fire that doesn't need any more attention. You know that it will continue to burn. Nobody has to monkey with it, stuffing newspaper in it, or anything else. It's satisfying to build the thing correctly, light as little as one match, and know that your work is complete. All you've got to do is watch it burn. It's also important to mention a few safety reminders: especially with a large fire, you may want to have access to a garden hose, or buckets of water, buckets of sand, or even fire extinguishers. It's helpful, too, to have a "fire stick" -- preferably a 5-6ft pole with which you can push any fallen logs back towards the center of the fire if needed.
Halopwner855 years ago
our scout camp does the same thing. They take pallets and tree branches and set them up in a way so they fall.
Doveman6 years ago
Nice eagle, im working on it now. Where you in the OA?
How do you make them collapse, I use small sticks on one side, and big on the other.
meatisgood26 years ago
To start mine I always use a roll of toilet paper soaked in kerosene. It doesnt explode when you start it and will burn for about half an hour
roll it out and use it as a big fuse with some piled out at the end.
berZirker (author) 7 years ago
My summer camp of choice is Chief Logan Scout Reservation near Chillicothe Ohio, and that camp is the only reason I stuck with the scouts. This is not the place for a flame war, but let me propose to "them brownie-boy" haters that it is possible to get something valuable from an organization you don't agree with across the board. As for the gasoline peanut gallery: yes gasoline is flammable. I will add some thoughts to the last page for anyone who was disappointed that my instructions were not "Ugg find wood, Ugg find gasoline, Ugg find match, Ugg throw in pile, BOOM!"
tron1o77 years ago
hey which summer camp do u work at? my troop ( troop 64)goes to camp Kia Kima which is near Hardy, Arkansas. and btw a good kind of tinder is cedar( and yes i know i spelled it wrong) bark. you just peel off the bark and once you get a good pile of the stuff just put it in your hands and just rub it into a ball. ive seen people in my troop just peel it off and try and light it with a match. it doesnt work well that way. One of my scoutmasters also told me that dryer lint works well to. he had some and he showed us how well it lights and boy it light very easily. just get like a box or something and whenever you use your dryer( if u have 1 tht is if u dont have your own house just ask your mom or dad to just collect it instead of throwing it away)and just put the lint in the box. and for those of you who hate people that are eaglescouts or trying to be 1 u might stop hating once they are making more money each year than you are & are your boss also
zuixro7 years ago
Great instructable. I put off clicking on this one for a while because I was expecting this: "get a big pile uv wood and sum gasolin. por the gas on the wood. lite a match and run away" But you explained everything well. This is great because I'm gonna be having a bonfire soon. Thanks!
firemanfu7 years ago
might i ask what bsa summercamp, me and my troop go to horseshoe every year.
lemonie7 years ago
Finding two of these images elsewhere on the internet is enough to convince me that none of them are yours. It would have been good to take some ictures yourself (and of yourself with a beer) L
C:\photos\wales - no date\DSCF0045.JPG
berZirker (author)  lemonie7 years ago
You are correct. Camping season is on its way again, and I'll try to get some good ones (beer and all.) Although I cannot promise anything as impressive as that first picture.
John Smith7 years ago
me wanna see video!!