How to Light a Coal Fire





Introduction: How to Light a Coal Fire

About: I'm an experimentalist, a scientist and I have a tendency to do things just for the sake of doing them, or to find out what they're like. I love life, show me something I can feel good about. I've got an ...

Easy? Not necessarily.
I've seen plenty of people fail to light coal efficiently and the same applies to other fires. Since I'd got the materials, I thought I'd share some fire-lighting experience.
Lighting fires is a much less common task for the average person these days, and if you stuff it up you don't impress. Light it first time and you demonstrate that you have mastered fire.

Step 1: Let's Clean It Up.

Clean your fireplace.
Old ash and cinders will restrict air-flow, this makes for poor-burning. In addition, having ash up against the fire-bars can cause them to overheat due to lack of sufficient air-flow, they sag and "burn through".
Rake the remains of the last fire such that ash falls through the grate and pick-off the cinders for re-use. These are the lightweight dark lumps, not powdery un-burnable pieces of roasted shale. Clear the fire-bars of small cinders, clear all the ash.
You are off to a bad start if you don't do this

Step 2: Build Your Fire - Paper

Start with dry, unfinished paper. That is cheap-newsprint as you find in "news"papers rather than glossy magazine-print. Screw sheets into rough balls, not too tight, but not too loose. The principle is to reduce the general external surface-area to a minimum, while keeping it open & crinkly and having a fairly high internal surface area. Don't pack your paper into hard nuggets, but do have them roughly spherical.

The paper should cover your grate, but with plenty of space to allow air-flow.
Don't go above one layer, as the paper burns down everything on top will drop, leave it at a couple of inches, no more.

The purpose of paper is to ignite the wood (next), you need enough, but too much will clog the fire-bars and cause stack-collapse problems.

If you find your paper doesn't burn well, stuff a loose sheet under the grate and light it. Keep stuffing sheets underneath and burning them, occasionally breaking the ash up with a poker.

Step 3: Build Your Fire - Wood

You can't light coal with paper* the wood layer is there for the coal as the paper is there for the wood.
Layer small pieces of wood (kindling) alternately such that you form a "raft". The construction should be a bit like a wooden-pallet, it is there to support the coal and ignite it as it burns. Criss-cross the wood so that it is in some way a structure and cohesive. When your paper is gone you want the wood to hold it's position rather than fall apart.
Choose a mixture of thick and thin. Thin will burn easily and produce heat, thick will sustain your fire and ignite the coal.
As a rough guide, aim for a cross-sectional area of about 1 sq inch maximum, but don't have the majority of your wood thinner than this.

What you see here is a bit more than "enough" - but it lit just fine. Not enough and you risk having to start again.

*maybe a massive amount of paper, stacked really high, someone show me in a video this if it can be done.

Step 4: Build Your Fire - Coal

Build a pile of coal on top of your wood-raft, don't bother much with the edges as it's likely to fall-off, but have a nice pile in the middle.
Choose pieces that are roughly the same volume as a golf-ball - too small and you have durchfall and poor air-flow. Choose pieces that are too big and they don't get enough heat from the wood to ignite properly.

Step 5: Light It!

Ensure the fire-front is removed for maximum air-flow, ignite the paper from underneath, and in multiple places - get as much of it lit as quickly as possible, as heat will feed between ignition-points (particularly if the paper is not the dryest)

If you've built this correctly all you have to do now is leave it for 30 min.

Coal needs time, the fire will blaze nicely while there's wood and paper left, but all that cellulose-fuel needs to heat the coals enough that when it's gone the coal-fire is self-sustaining. Coal produces gas and tar when heated only when it's "dried out" do you get the red-hot (or brighter) 99% carbon fire that makes coal so hot.

Step 6: Continuing Care

Once your fire is lit poke it gently to release ash and break-up coals that may have stuck together through tar production. Arrange your cinders (step 1) around the edge, and add more coal around the periphery of the fire you have stared.
Do not throw a bucket of coal on a fire, always put a bit at the edges, or in the middle. Picture 1 shows a strategic placement of coal at the rear of the fire, the others show the subsequent burn produced.


Step 7: Long-term Maintenance

Ensure the fire is periodically poked in order that ash falls through the firebars. Your approach should be to lift the burning coals (but I don't show this very well in the video because I'd been drinking wine and was thinking about not blocking the camera...)
Ensure ash is removed from under the fire bars
When adding more coal do not tip a bucket-full on top. Add a little at the back, or the sides, or in the centre. Coal needs time to warm up, if you smother the fire with cold-coal you'll kill the lovely heat, and it will take longer to burn up. pile it up around the edges, when it starts burning: poke and rake it into the centre gradually.



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    36 Discussions

    I made a coal fire with less fuss than this. Start with balled paper. Add a criss-cross of kindling on top. Place coals close together on top of the kindling. Take a firelighter stick, crumble it, and spread bits among the coals. Then put a solid piece of firewood on top of the coals. Light the pieces of firelighter stick, and add kindling as needed until the top piece of firewood catches. (It will catch from underneath.) Make sure the coals are arranged underneath the firewood so that they are in the flame. Keep this flame going, by occasionally shifting the top piece of firewood so that it has sufficient air between it and the coals. Eventually the coals will catch. If the firewood has not burned completely, then you can move it off the pile and save it for future coal-lighting use.

    Hey, I have managed to light coal with just burning paper, however it is not an easy feat to accomplish. You need a lot of it. I mostly wrapped the coal tightly in layers of paper and put it all on a large paper bag, also atuffedwith paper. Use enough paper, it'll work.

    1 reply

    i meant in the bag, not on. Also, to add a side note. You can light coal without either wood or paper. Just use petrol! Lol But seriously, don't use petrol, it doesn't end well... Flames will spit everywhere, and are likely to burn you. I know from experience.

    Regarding step 4: What do you mean by the word "durchfall"? It is German for diarrhea.

    only thing ive found to my forge...i take the nurnt coke thats clumps of burnt coal off to side i made a sifter on a handle to help with this(basically giant spatula eith large holes in it) i put those to the side clean my stove like you did and then i take the burnt peices and put them in a ring then i put the new coal in center, mix in a few of the hard coke(burnt porus coal) in the center. i put kerosene on all the coal with newspaper in clumps. Light a stick stand few feet away for safety, let oil or keroene or lighter fluid soa (sometimesikk throw in a lil kindle to get a fire but its extra very careful, throw lit stick in ...let coals catch ang get hot, throw in crucible...good togo lol...


    2 years ago

    I tried all that and still can not get the coal to light/burn. Been burning wood for years without a problem.

    What else cold I possibly be doing wrong

    I have a multi-fuel stove and today I got 50KG of smokeless coal off a neighbor so I decided to use it. It's pretty good in comparison to wood as it's easier to maintain and cheap by the sounds of it.

    Thanks for writing this guide. I dislike the fact I had to give instructables 7 page veiws to comment.

    This was very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to explain so fully. I have been very disappointed with my fires up till now (I moved into a 'fireplaced' cottage ten days ago) but now have a huge roaring coal fire.

    not sure if it relates since this is different than an enclosed furnace, but after the little kindling I always put in three or four pieces around 3 or 4 inches in diameter, and followed THAT with the coal. that made a nice hot fire which starts the coal very easily.

    2 replies

    Three or four pieces around 3 or 4 inches in diameter - of what? You write as if they're not coal.


    sorry, I was speaking of larger chunks of wood, before I put on the coal. I admit though, that I was building it in a furnace, I wanted it hot fast to warm up the house, I wanted it to NOT go out when I put on the coal cause it's harder to build it up again after you have the coal on.

    No one ever taught me though, I just learned it from watching others, so I had no finesse. LOL

    I lit my first coal fire today (I prefer wood, but there was only coal, damp, smelly, dirty coal, to hand), it certainly throws out a lot of heat, but if you put too much on, it also throws out a lot of acrid, greeny-yellow smoke, and when you have a mother like mine who insists on just chucking a bucket of coal on the fire, then the whole local area knows you're burning (or at least, steaming) coal!! :S

    One thing to remember is to not burn wood AND coal together (as in, chucking a shovelful of coal over a burning log, or vice versa), as it can end up creating sulphuric acid which can eat away at mortar and metal in your chimney, so only burn one or the other... :)

    3 replies

    If you read it all again, you'll find that I avoid lots of smoke. The very last paragraph for example. Yes, if you put too much on it does go nasty, I know.


    Yeah, I read through it and followed the steps to get it lit properly, and it was very successful with little issue, it was just the afterwards bit where the mother decided to smother the fire with too much coal claiming she's been burning the stuff all her life (bar the past 20-something years when she hasn't actually had a coal fire!!!), parents eh? :P

    Oh yes, you can burn something all your life, but still burn it wrong all your life... There was a time when shovelling coal into fires (boiler-fires) was a full-time job for a lot of fellas. They learned of course.


    My extended family all worked in the mines/steel industry in the last century - I was of the impression that coal had gone out of use...

    Crazy!  Neat to see its still used.

    4 replies

    Oh no, maybe people still burn coal in their central heaters. we had one in several of the houses we've rented over the years. fortunately they had a grate shaker so we could shake the grate well and then add more wood or coal as required. it's a skill, that I'll say. my favorite part was chopping kindling. love using an ax. makes you feel strong.

    true true; lots of coal in the developed world is the smokeless coal (or at least reduced emissions from pre-processing)

    Mostly out of use, but it's a nice feature in a pub. The old buildings in my area were pretty much exclusively originally-coal-fired.
    E.g. 1916