Best Ways to Start a Wood Fire in your Fire Pit

I was a Boy Scout. Of course I know how to start a wood fire. Start with twigs and build a sort of Teepee. Make sure there is air access. Fast forward to my sixties starting a fire in a new fire pit. Now I had a new technique. Don’t throw out the whole Christmas tree in January. Save the branches …. outside away from the house but somewhere dry. Cut the branches up into small sections and lay them in the bottom of the fire bow. Then ad the kindling and small wood. Light the fire and be prepared to back off in a hurry. Those dry Christmas tree branches explode, instantly shooting flames several feet high. When you see that, you wonder why real Christmas trees are even allowed. They are a serious fire hazard when the branches dry out.  I read recently online that those branches emit a toxic smoke. So when you light the fire and jump back, don’t breath for a couple of minutes.

Another technique is to dowse whatever you use to start the fire with Charcoal Lighter Fluid. Whatever you do, make sure the fire is not already going. This technique is either toxic, or cheating, or simply not cool. (Inhaling the fumes from the lighter fluid is harmful to your lungs, but then inhaling smoke from a wood fire is also not good for your lungs.)

Turns out there are better ways to start a wood fire. 

The Teepee Method (also spelled Tipi)

The “teepee” is the most recognized traditional method using twigs and small branches. This arrangements allows for a lot of air flow (fire needs oxygen). You will want something in the center that catches fire easily to get it started. Here I have crunched up newsprint inside a circle of corrugated cardboard with the flute vertical. If you don’t subscribe to a local paper, you may be fortunate enough to find those supermarket circulars with weekly specials in your mailbox, in which case, save them. I think corrugated cardboard is cool because it is just paper glued to more paper in the center forming the “flute.”  This flute is like little air chimneys. However, just crunched up news print works fine because it is thin paper surrounded by a lot of air.

The Log Cabin Method

Though it seems obvious now, I did not know about this method until I saw it online a few years ago. And it is now my preferred technique for building a good fire. Each layer of kindling is just two pieces, creating good air space (oxygen) around each “log.” Further, this construction creates a center chamber that is perfect for your starter stuff… like crunched up news print. You can then toss a variety of twigs and small branches on top, and the base of the build has really good air flow. 

If you don’t have fallen or trimmed branches in your backyard (that you have saved for a year or more to give them time to dry out), you may have a woodworking shop in your garage. In the photo above I used scrap wood from my shop to build the log cabin. You can purchase split-log fire wood in several locations in most towns, but you will need smaller wood or kindling from somewhere.  

I like to build a pile of cut branches, give them a year or more to dry out, then cut them up into pieces 10 inches or a foot long.

This photo is what I would call a sloppy log cabin build. It will work fine as long as there is crunched up news print at the bottom center of this pile. 


Now I am embarrassed to admit that I did not know about Fatwood until a couple of years ago when I saw somebody online talking about it Turns out you can buy boxes of fatwood in many hardware stores or even Walmart. You can order a box from Amazon. Great news if you don’t have a back yard shedding tree branches. The photo above is pieces of fatwood cut to 8″ lengths that I bought from Amazon. So what is fatwood, you ask. When a pine tree is cut down for its wood, it leaves a stump. It turns out that the sap has been settling in the base of the tree trunk. And after a number of years the base of the trunk is saturated with it. Here is what I read on Wikipedia:  ”Coniferous tree sap is a viscous liquid that contains terpene, a volatile hydrocarbon. Over time the evaporation of the terpene changes the state of the sap; it slowly gets thicker until it hardens into resin. New fatwood leaks the sticky sap, while in aged fatwood the sap has hardened and is no longer sticky. At every stage of the aging process, fatwood will burn readily, unless excessively damp.” 

Terpene… who knew? That is the magic ingredient. It is what they make turpentine from … of course. The best source of fatwood is the longleaf pine, which is grown as a crop in South Carolina and used for making telephone poles and milled into 2×4’s and 2×6’s for house construction. Southern pine is also used for making pressure treated decking boards. You will be happy to know that pine is a renewable resource. 

So anyway, the special magic of fatwood is that you can set it on fire with a match.

Once you get the fire going, it is time to add logs or split fire wood. As shown in the photo above, it is good if you can, to set the logs in an upright position so the flame will follow the log upward. 

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