Cosy fires for chilly evenings


Cosy fires for chilly evenings

Sally Coulthard has been setting fire to things since she was a small, dungareed tomboy. Gently discouraged from a career in professional pyromania she's now a best selling author of design and outdoor living books.  Her latest book, The Little Book of Building Fires, has just been published by Anima, an imprint of Head of Zeus.
This 5th November, why not settle in to watch the fireworks with a glorious and cosy bonfire. Here Sally Coulthard shows you the best fires for the occasion and how to build them.

Which Fire to Build?
This is the fun bit. There are dozens of different ways to construct a fire, each with an army of faithful supporters. Until recently, most people relied on the traditional bottom-up fire, with newspaper and kindling at the base and logs on the top. In recent years, many wood-fire enthusiasts have been extolling the virtues of the Top-Down fire, the counterintuitive method of upside-down burning.

The reality is that every fire, fireplace and wood stove is different. Timber supplies vary, as do airflow and access to good kindling. This makes it difficult to generalize – what works for one home may not for another. The trick is to experiment. Work out which method suits the size and idiosyncrasies of your hearth or log burner.

If you’re outdoors, the weather conditions may influence what kind of fire you build – the Lean-To Fire, for example, is a good one to build if you need to protect the fledgling flames from wind or driving rain. If you want to cook on your fire with some degree of control, the Cowboy Fire works a treat.

Whichever method you choose, if you are outdoors you can also boost any heat the fire kicks out by building a simple reflector. Push two thin poles into the ground, leaning slightly away from the fire. Stack logs horizontally up the sticks to create a barrier, or lean anything reflective against them, and this will throw back some of that lost heat.

The Top-Down Fire
If you haven’t tried this method, do. Even if it’s just to prove that it works. It feels completely counterintuitive, after years of fire-building bottom-up, but more often than not it produces results. It’s also a handy technique for wood-burning stoves, which often have a log guard or grill at the front that can make accessing the base of a fire tricky.

Suitable for: large open fires, wood burners and campfires (only in good weather). Takes some time to build and uses lots of kindling, but has the advantage of pre-warming the flue, helping it draw.

Where top-down fires don’t perform as well tends to be if the logs or tinder aren’t dry enough, there isn’t enough room in the wood burner to create a decent stack, or if you’re outdoors and there’s a chance your tinder will be blown away or rained on before it’s had chance to catch. It’s also a fire stack that needs a generous amount of kindling to work, so if you’re in short supply, stick to the Teepee.

Indoors, the top-down method has the advantage of pre-warming the flue, which helps draw the smoke up the chimney, and it also allows you to make a relatively large fire in one go, letting you get on with other things. The trick with this fire is to take your time while you are building it – the more stable the structure, the less likely it is to collapse and potentially go out.

1. Lay your largest logs in a row on the hearth, ground or in the base of your wood burner. Leave a 2.5 centimetre (1 in) gap between them to allow for air movement.

2. Take your narrow logs and lay them on top, perpendicular to the first row.

3. Continue with two or three layers of kindling, again perpendicular to each other, and top with a final layer of tinder or newspaper. Secure the tinder or paper with a few extra sticks of kindling on top.

The Lean-To Fire
This is a good one if you are out in the sticks and struggling against the elements, as the inherent design of the fire acts as a windbreak to protect the first flames. It’s also a very stable structure. 1. Find a thick, dry log and use this as your ‘brace log’. You could also use a large stone.

2. Lean small twigs or any other kindling against the brace log, making sure they are on the downwind side (i.e. the brace log is shielding the twigs from the wind.) You can make this fire as short or long as you wish, depending on how far along the log you prop your kindling.

3. Fill underneath the kindling with dry tinder.

Once the fire is established, keep adding fuel to the downwind side of the log, but don’t prop it against the brace log. The brace log will char and burn very slowly, acting more as a windbreak than the focus of the fire. In fact, once the embers are glowing, you can add another brace log on the other side of the fire, parallel to the first, and you have yourself a makeshift cooking platform.

Suitable for: campfires, even if the weather’s bad. Can be turned into a cooking fire. Will work as an indoor fire, but the brace log can take up too much space in a small hearth or wood burner

The Little Book of Building Fires is out now in hardback and ebook