There’s something almost instinctive about an open fire that makes them continue to be popular. Even if they aren’t quite as efficient as enclosed log burners for heating your home, they still do a pretty good job. They may give off a bit of smoke, but according to Friends of the Earth, a log fire is actually quite a green way to heat your home, as it uses a renewable resource and encourages people to plant more managed woodlots to supply firewood. In spite of the smoke, which visibly puts carbon into the atmosphere, log fires don’t add to greenhouse emissions as much as you might think. Not all the carbon in the wood that is burned gets released into the atmosphere. Some of it remains unburned – this is what ash and charcoal are. And wood ash makes a good addition to a compost heap – it’s an excellent corrective for acidic soils, and it can be used to deter slugs and snails, too.
Coal fires aren’t quite as green, however, as they use fossil fuels, add more carbon into the atmosphere without encouraging people to plant more trees, and the ash is pretty unpleasant and is somewhat poisonous on the garden – never put coal ash on your compost heap. In this writer’s opinion, the smoke from wood ash, in small quantities, is quite a pleasant smell, but coal smoke stinks. Coal, however, does burn hotter than wood.
To have an open fire in your home, you need a good fireplace. Wood can burn quite well without a grate to lift it up from the ashes, but coal will need to be raised up on a grate so air can get under it to enable it to burn. While old housekeeping books give instructions on how to polish a grate, this isn’t really necessary – it’s going to get black again very quickly. The only time that polishing a grate is desirable is during summer when the fireplace will be sitting unused. The chimney should be cleaned regularly (once a year is enough), but this is a job for a specialist, and is not something you should attempt yourself.
Everyone should know how to light a fire, not just Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, although the Boy Scout ideal of using only two matches maximum to get one going is a good one. Starting a fire is the hard part. It must be laid correctly so it can get enough heat going so it will burn easily. Fires need three things to keep going: oxygen, fuel and heat.
A basic open fire in a fireplace should be laid flat rather than in the wigwam formation used for bonfires or Scout and Guide cookouts. Start with basic tinder. Newspaper (or any newsprint) is by far the best, but glossy paper is not much good, as the smoothness makes it hard for flames to take. Use plenty. Scrunch sheets of newspaper into balls about the size of an orange and place a bed of these in the fireplace. If you want to use firestarters, tuck these into the nest of paper. Next, you will need kindling. Regular wood chopped up into sticks 2’4 cm thick is the traditional type of kindling, but sticks about the same thickness work just as well – save and dry the sticks pruned from fruit trees and roses for kindling. Dried twiggy bits tied in bundles can also go on at this stage. Dried bunches of holly (leftover Christmas decorations?) and gorse burn particularly fiercely and can help kick-start an otherwise sluggish fire. Pinecones are also good kindling, and old stubs of wax candles are good at this stage. Lay a grid of kindling down on top of the paper, making about two or three layers. Pinecones go on top of this.
Once you have placed the tinder and the kindling, put some smallish logs on top (10’20 cm thick). Do not put too many on at this stage. Now it is time to light the fire, using matches or a lighter (save old-fashioned tinder-boxes for real enthusiasts – they are very time consuming and take a bit of a knack). Touch the flame onto the newspaper down the bottom in several places around the fire. For safety reasons, light the newspaper at the back of the fire first, then light the front. The flame from your match should start to lick along the paper.
This is the critical stage of lighting a fire. Here, your fire will need plenty of oxygen to get underway. Bending down with your face turned sideways and blowing like mad at the flames does work, but you will hyperventilate and start seeing stars before too long, so it’s not the best method if the fire is being stubborn (fires seem to have a mind of their own – some days they leap into life without much coaxing; on others, they sulk. Bellows are better for supplying a good steady stream of air across the new fire and are fun to use. Some open fires have a fire-board that can be held over most of the fireplace apart from a small crack at the bottom. These work excellently, but if you don’t have one, a piece of newspaper or cardboard held over the fireplace will do as a substitute – but be careful, as this will catch light once the fire gets going. In the initial stage of the fire, you want to get it to roar and blaze.
Once the fire is beginning to roar – it should sound like the sea or like the wind in pine trees, begin to feed it with fuel. At this stage, keep to thin to medium sized logs, and gradually increase the size of the fuel. If you want to add coal, put it on once the initial blaze has settled down and a bed of embers has formed. By now, the fire should be underway, and all it will need from now on is periodic feeding with logs.
Always keep safety in mind when using an open fire.
Nick Vassilev founded Anyclean, his London based domestic cleaning company, back in 1998. Nick is an expert on cleaning and loves to help people with his cleaning tips, articles and knowledge. If you would like to know more about his cleaning company, please visit http://www.anyclean.co.uk.