Have you ever tried to start a fire, only to have it smolder and sputter out after a few minutes?  Being able to safely, effectively and swiftly build a fire is a skill that a lot of people could use. In this short article, I will explain the three ingredients of a fire and how these ingredientss interact. When you are done reading this, you will have the foundational knowledge to build a fire without resorting to dangerous fluids such as gasoline. My guess is that you already know the ingredients and are just missing an element or two that will allow you to build fires almost without effort.

  Whether you are using a fire pit, fireplace, a fire ring of stones or a wood burning stove, the principles are the same.

  Most people accept that a fire provides heat, uses fuel and needs oxygen. These are the three essential ingredients for a healthy fire. Combining these ingredients in their proper proportions is often the missing element that beginners struggle with when building fires. 


  The fuel you are using to build the fire might better be understood by talking about the size of the fuel. I will split fuel into three categories: tinder, kindling and large fuel.


  The smallest fuel is known as tinder. Crumpled newspaper, leaves, pine and fir needles and very small twigs (think long matches ) are all considered tinder. The thinner the material, and the more surface area and edges, the better. For the purposes of this article, we can understand tinder as anything that can lit by a match. For more advanced fire building skills (flint and steel or various friction techniques such as bow and drill or fireplows, for example) the definition is slightly different.


  The next size of fuel is kindling. The first kindling you will use will be twigs and pieces of wood that are about the diameter of a finger, give or take a bit. The important thing to note is that first kindling is a step up in size from the tinder. Once the first kindling is buring, you can use second kindling--larger twigs and sticks, up to about the size of your wrist. 

Large Fuel

  Once you have your kindling burning, you can progressively add your large fuel to the fire. Just don't throw on pieces so large that they smother the fire--more on smothering later.

  The main thing to note about fuel sizes is that you build the fire by progressively adding larger fuel to the fire, once the smaller fuel is burning well.


  One mistake many inexperienced fire builders make is not providing a structure that allows for oxygen to get into the fire. Oxygen allows for the chemical reaction known as combustion, or fire. To maintain oxygen, you will need to maintain the structure of the fire.

  Perhaps you live in an area where people burn their leaves--often the piles of leaves will smolder and smoke. This is probably because the pile is so thick that oxygen cannot get inside; so the outside of the pile burns, while the inner layer of leaves just smokes. The fire is smothering because it lacks structure. If a few twigs are in the pile, giving it some structure, the pile will burn better. But more on structure later.


  Heat is often what we are wanting from the fire, but it is also an important element in building the fire. Without heat, in the form of a match or lighter , you couldn't get the tinder burning.

  But this is just the beginning of understanding heat in relation to fire building. Recall the discussion about fuel sizes. The tinder is started by an initial match, let's say. Now that you have the tinder lit, you can add the kindling. The heat from the  tinder begins to preheat the kindling, until it also catches fire. If any of the kindling is wet, it will take longer to preheat, and therefore to catch fire. Once your kindling is burning, you can add the larger, or second kindling. Again, wait for it to start burning before adding your larger fuel. 


  We have all seen the symbol for a campfire--it looks like a teepee with flames on it. This symbol is ubiquitous because it shows us that a fire needs structure to continue to burn. As the fuel burns down, and falls into the center, more fuel can be added in another teepee shape. 

  Now, the teepee shape is only one of many structures you can use. Some people prefer to build a log house shape, with the tinder inside a house of small kindling. In my wood stove, I build a lean-to against a larger piece of fuel, leaning tinder and then kindling against the larger log, until I have built the fire enough to lean other large pieces of fuel. It works well in the wood stove because the flue for airflow is at the front, restricting my structure a bit. 

  The point is that a structure will allow oxygen to get into the fire to continue the chemical reaction of combustion. I encourage you to try out various structures, keeping in mind the three ingredients and their proportions. 


  Understanding the ingredients and proportions takes the guesswork iout of building a fire.

  Adding fuel that is too large will cause you problems, because there is not enough heat to preheat the larger fuel. 

  Adding fuel in a haphazard pile with no structure might smother the fire, as oxygen is blocked from reaching the necessary areas.

  Building a structure that is too full of spaces betweeen the fuel will cause the fire to go out because the heat cannot continue to preheat the other pieces. If you find that you have done this, add smaller pieces of tinder or kindling into the spaces. 


  And there you have it, the three ingredients and a couple of extra elements that will have you feeling like a fire pro in no time at all. Someday you might even find yourself teaching someone else this skill. Until then, stay warm and cozy.



Campfire Symbol