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.

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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.

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    11 Discussions

    Agreed...not only safer but much more eco-friendly.

    However, I've been experimenting with making my own firestarters out of (free) dryer lint (which is mostly broken cotton fibers) and (very cheap, and renewable) soy wax, with terrific results. The soy wax has high energy content, so it burns for a long time, while the lint lights very quickly (especially if you keep some dry on top, with no wax) and essentially forms lots of tiny wicks for the wax to climb up and burn.

    I'm feeling a new instructable comin on! Look for it.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Not being very eco savvy (but working on getting better) I honestly want to know if it's better to use dead dried twigs leaves or a petroleum based lighter fluid to start a fire? Which one has less impact on our environment? Seems like a toxic lighter fluid (that smells horrible burning IMO) would have a much worse affect on the environment than a few missing dead leaves/twigs.

    1 reply

    No question about it, natural firestarters are far more environmentally friendly. They're renewable, carbon neutral and already part of the carbon cycle.

    If I've left the impression anywhere that I advocate the use of lighter fluid as an eco-friendly solution to starting a fire, I apologize. It isn't, and using it is just a bad habit of mine. As I said in the instructable, it's a cheat.

    I'd encourage you to do what I intend to do, and experiment with some of the very good firestarter instructables. I'm sure we can both find something that's much more eco-friendly than the lighter fluid, cheaper, nearly as convenient (with some advance preparation) and works nearly as fast.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Those aren't store bought fire-starters, I hope? Because those are a tremendous waste of money, and are usually harder to light than the wood itself. There are dozens of free (recyclable) household and natural materials that work great as fire-starters, such as dry grass and leaves, small twigs (dead matter isn't hard on the forest), cardboard boxes, or good old fashion newspaper. And, personally, I like to use a little bit of dryer lint or a cotton ball as tinder, rather than lighter fluid; I've found that this makes the wood last longer, as lighter fluid is an accelerant.
    Just my two cents...

    2 replies

    You can use whatever firestarter you like, I'm using the term generically. Generally I use whatever small stuff is on hand, and a very short squirt of lighter fluid; you're welcome to use whatever you wish.

    There are people who say that even removing dead matter from the forest weakens it, and I tend to agree. That dead matter decomposes back into nutrients which feed further growth. Removing one fire's worth of fuel isn't going to have a huge effect, but it adds up if everyone does it.

    I have no doubt that it deprives the soil of some nutrients, but it's not going to destroy the ecosystem, no matter how many people do it. It's not as if you're uprooting plants and cutting down trees, you're just collecting what's already dead, and these organisms are constantly dying. And, although you are correct in that some dead matter is needed to fertilize the soil (after it has decomposed), when too much dead matter accumulates in an isolated area, it doesn't allow for new plants to grow. This is why the DNR occasionally does controlled burnings. Actually, for that matter, if you are truly concerned about the environment, you can scatter the COMPLETELY COOL ashes from your fire over the soil in the area that you collected the dead matter from. I'm sorry if I'm being a bit unconscionable about this subject, but it just strikes me as odd and ironic that you have such eco-friendly ideals, yet you support the large companies that manufacture lighter fluid and store-bought firestarters, who consume ungodly amounts of resources and energy to run their factories and produce their products.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    just screw up loads of old paper or newspaper into tight balls and lay them as the base, then put some kindling on top of that latticed over each other, then put the logs on top, set fire to the paper in a few places and let it go, perfect fire, no pointless firelighters or fluids.

    1 reply

    Dood... you need a wood grate. You are smothering your fire. With a wood grate your wood isn't sitting in the ashes and coals. Fireplaces don't get enough oxygen from the environment, a campfire does. Campfires get oxygen from 360deg. so the wood can sit in the ashes. Indoors you need the wood up off the floor. clean out some of those ashes too. I realize you have the two base logs to get your main wood out of the ashes, but it doesn't have to be that hard. A couple loosely crumpled pieces of news paper underneath, one lit up inside the flu to get the air drafting, then light the paper underneath. Instant fire.

    1 reply

    As I said in the instructable, I got rid of the grate in the fireplace to show how it's done on bare ground. But this method works so well that I don't use the grate any more.

    Do me a favor and try it this way, just once, before deciding it's not going to work. Believe me, it breathes beautifully.