Have you heard about a “Top Down Fire” or maybe even tried one? Many wood stove manuals actually show this as a preferred method to use when lighting a fire. Essentially in one sentence – it is a self feeding fire building technique that is very different from what we may think of as a conventional fire.
Many of use learned the old style fire building technique of starting with a small handful of tinder, perhaps in a wood-stove a crumpled up newspaper and place on top of it small pieces of kindling. Once burning you slowly add larger pieces of wood, followed by eventually even larger pieces.
This method works pretty well and we have been doing that way for years perhaps. But there is actually a better way, one that is more smoke free in fact. Developed in northern Europe and frankly once learned puts our old method to shame.
The real problem with the more traditional or conventional way of building a fire is the amount time it takes before the fire really takes off. It is during this slow, smoldering process, smoke and unburned gases enter your cold chimney where they will very likely condense and build up creosote. The goal is to eliminate or minimize that smouldering, smoky period and get the fire going quickly.
Really to accomplish this however we have to stretch and think outside the box, in doing so we actually build the fire backwards or in reverse and it will crate a hot burning fire almost from the beginning.
To most of us the top down fire seems completely backwards at first and frankly something is somewhat foolish, pointless and simply will not work well. However, once you try one it will quickly become your favorite choice in fire-starting. And the real benefit is that it works great in fireplaces, wood stoves and even outdoors in campfires.
Now there is a downside, and that is the setup process is a bit more complicated and it does take take a little longer than the conventional fire. However, it will burn longer without constantly adding more and larger logs to it as the fire grows, you simply light the fire and let it burn. The real benefit though is that the fire will burn hotter and cleaner right from the start, it will produce far less smoke and will burn far cleaner.
The most important part of this whole process is to ensure you only use dry, properly seasoned firewood. The top down fire works by having the coals and embers from the top layer fall into the layer of wood below it, if the wood is not dry it simply will not catch on fire and you will very quickly become frustrated. Read the blog on Northern Europe and you will understand how it works well for them.
To begin, start by placing a row of large logs along the bottom of your firebox or fireplace floor. These should be the largest pieces you use.
Next place another layer on top of these of slightly smaller logs in a criss-cross manner (the other direction).
Follow this with a third layer of even smaller pieces, again going the opposite direction or the same direction as the first layer. This row should be pieces that are perhaps one inch across.
On top of this place small kindling and some newspaper, perhaps even small pieces of pine or cedar.
Some prefer to use hardwood for the bottom row and softer (though no less dry) wood near the top of their firebox. The real key is to make the kindling small enough to easily ignite on top of the pile and that you use properly seasoned/dry wood.
To light the fire, simply ignite the paper sitting on top, which will in turn ignite the small kindling. The shavings at the very top should be small enough to light with a single match. As the fire burns from the top to bottom, it will continue to ignite the layers of wood below.
The fire should in a very short time get going and burn cleanly, no smouldering or smoking as the fire is not being smothered. The fire will begin to ignite the larger pieces directly below it. With only a little practice you will find building a top down fire really easy and wonder why we ever did it the old way at all. These fires are clean burning, supply a lot of heat and they don’t require adding logs as it lights and burns.
Yes, it is true.. No more fiddling around with larger pieces of wood falling down onto the struggling new fire. No more smoky startups as only a little smoke is created as the fire burns cleanly from the top of the stack down. In fact this brightly burning fire makes it less likely that the wood-stove or fireplace will smoke at all as it heats the chimney without the interference of loads of wood resting on top of it – a perfect solution for many.
Below is a video created by Jotul America on the top down burn and how to perform it. The Jotul is a wood-stove from Norway and happens to be one of my favourite wood-stoves on the market today. Below that is one from the Chimney Sweep Institute of America where we are proud members.