How To Light A Wood Burning Stove

Ask a hundred stove owners how to light a fire and chances are you’ll receive a hundred different answers. From rustic traditionalists who chop and season their own fuel to modern subscribers to the Swedish lifestyle of Hygge (they’ve read a book don’t you know), the science behind starting a fire has of course never changed, you just need to understand how a stove actually works…

…You are aiming to warm the air within the flue to establish the draw which in turn, will power the fire in the stove below.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail…

Do you have the 3 essential elements of the fire triangle ready to go?

Fuel - Only use fully seasoned, approved woods from a wood fuel quality assurance scheme such as Woodsure. So no you can’t chop your neighbour’s tree down and stick it in your stove, nor can you burn those creosoted fence panels you’ve had laying around since last summer.

Heat - We will assume you have a box of matches but what about firelighters?

Oxygen - Do you have the correct size air brick installed to provide sufficient air to the stove? Legally required for 5.1kw stoves or higher but advised for all. A modern airtight home, lack of an air brick or nearby extractor fans will all impact negatively on your ability to light and establish a fire.

Tools and Controls

A basic fire side companion set along with a pair of heatproof gloves are all that should be required as you’ll want the brush for sweeping ash and the tongs for positioning your logs in the fire box. And having a basic understanding of the various controls on your burner before you attempt to light for the first time will put you in good stead.

The Primary Air control is typically found towards the base of the stove and controls the air fed from beneath the fuel. Called primary air as it creates the primary combustion and gets everything going. Also used to regulate the burn rate of coals and smokeless fuels.

A Secondary Air control will be above the door or high up on the side of the stove and controls air fed from above the fuel. Secondary air creates the secondary burn which combusts the gases created by the primary burn. This is an important stage in the efficiency of your stove and creates the bulk of the heat output. Also used to regulate the burn rate of wood and controls the air wash system keeping your stove glass nice and clear(ish).

Not all Tertiary Air is adjustable but as the name suggests, this is a third source of air into the fire box which has been pre-warmed and looking to ignite any remaining gases before they escape the stove.

And finally, you want to check your seals are all intact and that you either have a layer of ash insulating the base of the fire box for wood burning or have removed all the ash for coal burning. Now open all air vents fully and begin…

Starting Small – The Traditional Method

The go-to method for starting any fire is to start small and grow your fuel bed with the fire. Using newspaper and/or firelighters beneath small strips of kindling (I find a pyramid of kindling is the most satisfying visually), get a small fire started. Eventually the small amount of heat emitted will warm the flue sufficiently that the fire will establish and you can slowly increase the size of wood added. When happy, slowly close the stove door and reduce the primary air. The fire will dampen at first as you are reducing the oxygen feeding into it but with sufficient draw, it shall re-establish. Use the secondary air control to regulate the ongoing burn rate for wood.

The Upside-Down method

To almost guarantee your fire gets going no matter the conditions, literally turn the traditional method on its head. The key to getting a successful fire going in a modern closed heating appliance is to establish the draw as quickly as possible. The draw is established by warming the air within the flue system so it makes sense to focus on this.

First, place a larger log with a flat or level surface on the base of your stove (always keeping a small layer of ash underneath). Then, create a grid or hashtag of kindling on this log – 3 front to back with 3 left to right on top. There should be 4 gaps in your grid to place firelighters. Once lit, the fire will transfer into the kindling and burn down to the log beneath and once established, you can gradually increase your log size. Controlling a wood fire ongoing is always the same; close down the primary air and operate using the secondary air.

By following the above, you are creating a greater heat compared to the traditional method and raising the fire bed, warming the flue and getting that draw going faster and stronger. There is also less need to open the stove door continually. This method easily overcomes common problems when lighting a stove such as a cold flue or reversed draw (caused by the air outside warming faster than the air in the home/flue typically in spring or autumn time).