Early Man Has it All Over Me

By all (archaeological) accounts Early Man, once he had discovered it, was very good at starting and maintaining a fire.  Fire was essential to humankind’s survival – it provided warmth and cooked food, and was eventually harnessed as a partner in tool making, producing sturdy pottery vessels and metal implements.  Fire was good and Early Man must have been a big fan.

Since we rely on fire (in a wood stove) to heat the house, we are also big fans.  But Early Man has it all over me and I am rapidly developing an insecurity complex about my ability to keep my family warm.  The fires I start are essentially non-starters!  They have no drive, I’m ashamed to say.  No ambition to become a source of warmth, much less a conflagration.  Never out of control, they are shy and retiring little things who despite my best effort at fire CPR fade and die within minutes of being brought to life.  Never mind that I hover at their side, feeding them tender morsels of newspaper and twigs, blowing the breath of life over their little sparks, and exhorting them in my best firm parental tone to take light!

The newspaper catches and burns merrily (the CVS brochure in beautiful turquoise flames – probably terribly toxic but very pretty), then the twigs flare up giving me hope that combined they will provide enough of a blaze to catch the small logs.  But they don’t.  The small logs blacken but don’t burn.  I squat in front of the stove watching as the paper turns to gray ash, littering the bottom of the stove in fragile heaps.  The twigs crumple, the middle burned through, the ends left unscathed.  A few embers glow amongst the ash and I hasten to crumple more paper and lay more twigs upon them, and blow and blow until they light. 

I sometimes go through three or four of these cycles before I give up, add another sweater to my layers and retreat to the kitchen.  There I turn on the oven to 400 degrees and toss in some big potatoes to bake.  I turn on the stove and put on a big pot of water to boil for soup.  I fill the sink with hot sudsy water and plunge my cold hands in and begin washing dishes.  And the room warms up.  And I savor my victory – this is the fire I control!

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21 Responses to Early Man Has it All Over Me

  1. Jeannette says:

    I am bowing to you, we have been without power for ten days, we are in the midst of the hurricane and of course much devastation. Living without power was a challenge, going to bed at 7 or 8 just because there was nothing else to do, trying to stay warm without heat, taking boiling water baths, holy crap, what a challenge.
    so my hats to you for keeping your family fed, safe and warm.

  2. boxcarkids says:

    Thanks to all your great advice and tutelage I have been much more successful at fire making – and maintaining, which seems to be a key factor – this week. I must say that after hauling in wood and fussing with the fire almost constantly I can see why modern conveniences (like furnaces) caught on! Even with my new improved fires I am COLD a lot of the time. I need to knit myself some fingerless gloves!

  3. zelda says:

    Every one seems to have covered the art of fire starting and keeping but I thought I’d add my two pennies. When I build a fire with unseasoned wood, I go all over my property picking up old twigs and broken limbs (they are usually dry and seasoned). I also save old cardboard like my cat litter containers or cereal boxes. I cut them up and keep a box full in my wood box. So I place the split logs in the fireplace with a little gap between them and I put two or three sides of the cat litter container or any box, but the thicker cardboard is much better and burns hot. So, I stick some paper around those cardboard pieces and light them. Then, I feed that fire some of the dry twigs slowly building up to putting larger pieces of branches on the fire. You might need to add more cardboard to keep a hot fire until all of your little branches and twigs catch on fire and then I put one of the split logs over the burning cardboard and twigs and until it catches fire, I keep feeding that fire under and around it.
    Seasoned wood, on the other hand, will catch quickly with a few pices of paper. Until you master the art of fire starter, you can cheat by spilling a little candle wax on one of the logs and the twigs and putting paper near the spilled wax and catch that on fire and the wax will usually catch the log on fire.
    My final suggestion is to make sure that when you use paper, to roll it really tight so that it will burn longer.

  4. mbgith says:

    Dryer lint stuffed (packed) into empty toilet paper rolls works as a good fire starter, too. I never put twigs in, but I suppose that would be a good addition. When I was a kid – during 80s oil shortage – we heated our house nearly exclusively with a wood stove. I spent a lot of time rolling paper “logs” for getting a fire going. Here’s what we did: start with a piece of newspaper, folded on the crease, but not across the middle. Roll halfway like you’re rolling a sleeping bag. Slip in the next sheet so sheet 1 and sheet 2 overlap for half the length of a newspaper. Keep rolling like this until you have a log about 2-3 inches in diameter. Secure with paper-covered metal twist ties (you’ll obviously have to attach a few to get them long enough to wrap around the log). The paper logs were dense enough to burn slowly until the reall logs caught, but obviously – being made from paper – easy to catch. My mom’s trick was to put a long match sticking right out the end like a candle’s wick, light it, then toss the log in the stove. Best, it was a family project every week to roll a few paper logs to keep us going, but be ready for very dirty hands! Now, I wouldn’t use more than a few in a week, though, having since learned that the burning inks are probably toxic (esp. colors, and all newspaper uses colors now).

  5. bogart says:

    We have (and use) a gas furnace, so it’s not our only source of heat, for which I’m grateful — but, we use a woodstove as our principal source of heat. The following thoughts:
    1. Quality of wood absolutely matters. This is a function of its age, size (including “splitness”), dryness, and origins (e.g. sweetgum almost qualifies as a fire retardant, as far as I’m concerned). Getting (at least some, see below) good wood is worthwhile, though it can be expensive in time and/or money.
    2. If you have good wood, you can get a good fire going with a blend (as described above) of paper/cardboard, kindling/small bits, and real (but split!) logs. If you don’t, you will likely struggle, lots, though it may still be feasible if you are really determined. It will require persistence and time and isn’t really recommended unless essential.
    3. Lacking any of the ingredients listed above (including time and patience), you would be well advised to turn to fire starters of the sort that are commercially available — basically a blend of wax and sawdust. Obviously these can be made at home as well as commercially bought. A little bit (one) goes a long way. Lacking money to buy parafin (which is not cheap), you may want to hoard bits of cardboard (especially wax-coated, like milk cartons) and cram them in small paper containers (cups, egg carton cups) with oily residue from food prep and/or animal care.
    4. As noted by others, keeping the fire going is easier than restarting the fire, and certainly would be the approach used by our ancestors. That said, in my experience there’s a tradeoff between keeping-the-fire-burning and the-value-of-good-wood. Note, though, that once you’ve got a (good) fire started, it’s often possible to use bad wood (old, wet, skunky, sweetgum) to keep it going. And, it doesn’t need to be ablaze, what you want is hot embers available to you the following morning (or whatever) to get the fire blazing (again). I’ve found that by stacking bad-ish wood on top of the extant fire and then cutting the airflow down (which our woodstove has a lever that makes possible, I’m assuming yours is somehow similarly equipped), this can be feasible. Though we buy some wood and work hard to get other wood, and what with natural gas being cheap (and our alternative source of warmth), I’ve been leaning toward letting our fire dwindle, sleeping “cold” (but bundled!), and then getting stuff (like, the fire) started again the next morning, in a house that’s not frigid (the furnace is programmed to come on for 45 minutes before we wake up, raising the temperature to no more than 64 degrees but, even if it’s frigid outside, usually not less than 60), though not toasty.

    Good luck figuring out your options and what’s most workable.

  6. Don’t know if your financial situation has improved enough to let you afford a large supply of fire starter logs. I spent a winter burning wet wood, and it was a pain to work with. However, if I put a fake log in (compressed sawdust and some sort of inflamant) and then small pieces of wet wood on top of it (and next to it), the hour or two that it took the fake log to burn was enough for the wet wood to dry up enough to catch. Once the wet wood on top caught well, I’d move the logs drying by the side to the top position, and put more wet logs on the side. It took a lot more effort than working with properly cured wood, but it kept us warm.

  7. Leilani says:

    From what I’ve been told, my son’s scout troop makes fire starters from paper egg cartons, dryer lint and wax from old candles. You can add tiny bits of twigs too. They stuff/pack the 12 egg compartments full of dryer lint and a few tiny bits of twigs. Then they pour some wax over them. After they harden, cut them apart and you have 12 fire starters.

  8. Della says:

    P.S. In searching dampers/drafts and Fisher stoves and such, I ran across http://woodheat.org/index.php Figured it could possibly help. 🙂

  9. We heated our house with a woodstove when we lived in the Sierras in northern California (above Chico).

    Someone with more experience than me taught me how to light a woodstove fire:

    1. Use the “Log Cabin” formation with kindling–that is a rectangle with two layers of kindling that overlap on the corners.

    2. Put crunched up newspaper–not too tight–in the center.

    3. Put the big log on top of all of that.

    4. Light the newspaper.

    5. Close the door. Make sure your pipe is open and the damper is open.

    It should burn and get nice and hot. Once it got going, I would put in a real big log, close the door, and in less than 10 seconds, it would burst in the flame from the high temps–blue flames–real hot.

    We bought kindling at the local store, but you could probably use wood you’ve gathered provided it’s dry.

    Good luck! It can heat your house!! (Although maybe not the back rooms).


  10. Della says:

    My trouble has always been if I don’t adjust the draft right. I grew up with wood stoves (a cook stove and another just for heat.) I still don’t understand working the draft all that well, since I always relied on my Dad’s advice. I don’t even know if they all have a draft, but I’m guessing they should. Might be something to study on.

  11. V's Herbie says:

    You’ve gotten plenty of practical advice, so here’s a song about wood selection!

  12. SMS says:

    I am smokey the bears best friend. I can’t make a fire either even with good wood and tinder/kidling and lighter fluid.
    I use these for camping:
    No ideas for home though.
    Not sure if you could use wood instead of charcoal but I’ve used these successfully with charcoal. Have some one who is “Good” at it show you their technique. It helps sometimes.

  13. ee says:

    as an old girl guide leader (who still cooks on a wood cookstove), i would suggest a stage between twigs and logs — you need split kindling (oh, like maybe 2-3 inch splits). limb wood, which is round and barky, isn’t as good as the bark and round surface is harder to catch.

    crumple newsprint at the bottom
    add dry (DRY is the operative word) twigs on top of that
    add a couple of pieces of DRY kindling, criss-crossed, on top of that, right from the start

    you can add a couple more pieces of kindling once a fire is burning – and once that is solid, add larger pieces.
    I wouldn’t move to actual “logs” until you have both flames and red coals…

    Here’s a Mother Earth News article on building a stove fire:

    there are also a bunch of youtube videos – but making sure your wood is dry and you use at least 4 stages – paper/twigs/kindling/firewood – will help. along with experience!

  14. Jynet says:

    Aww, I wish I was there. I’ve build fires that put Boy Scouts to shame 😉

  15. Kelly Sangree says:

    It sounds like your wood is a) not cured enough, b) “punky” (old, wet and soft) or c) could stand to be split further. If you can manage a splitting tool to open up the wood a bit more, even if you don’t actually split it, the added air surface (and exposed splinters) will help it catch. An axe is traditional, but you can get a manual splitter tool from places like Harbor Freight Tools that use a car jack-type hydrolic piston and a blade to slowly split the wood apart. You pump the handle, the piston does the rest – much more lady-friendly in my experience! 🙂

    • Celeste says:

      I agree, punky. Where did you get it? I hope you can get some that’s drier for the winter.

    • wondering says:

      Exactly what Kelly said. In addition, once you get a fire started, try to keep the fire started. That was the main secret for early man. Bank the fire before going to bed so that the coals keep smoldering and the fire never actually goes out. Then, in the morning, stir up the coals to wake them up and add more wood to the fire. Use a bellows (or wave a fan in front of the open store door) to encourage the coals to catch the new wood.

      Also, here are some great firestarter tips that may also help:

    • Kelly says:

      Oh – and don’t skimp on the kindling! I start my fires with a full layer of crumpled paper on the bottom of the stove, top it with 3 – 4 inches of thin sticks and twigs, and one or two small split logs. Once the sticks catch well, a few more split logs on top is OK, then I close the door but keep the draft/dampers open wide. After about 15 minutes you should have enough red coals to load the wood on heavy.

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