No matter how you stack it, a perfect fire requires wood, air and a spark of insight


January 06, 1996|By ROB KASPER

THE IDEAL fireplace fire warms up quickly, smells good, is inviting to look at, and doesn't leave a mess. It is sorta like a dream date.

I thought of this the other day while wrestling with the question on the minds of many folks at this time of year. Namely, how to build a perfect fire.

In my research, I talked with guys and gals who sell fireplace equipment. I read the fireplace theories of Count Rumford, an 18th-century nobleman who had a lot of time on his hands and a lot of ideas about fireplaces. And I drew on my own fire-building experiences, some successful, some not.

For the record, I have never burned down the house. However, after a certain smoky incident a few years ago when I tried to

light a fire in one of the 100-year-old fireplaces of our house, I have decided my fireplaces are "scenic," not functional. Since that incident, I have become an occasional fire guy. I build fires when I have access to a fireplace, usually in the home of relative, that has a clean flue and a chimney that isn't crumbling.

My foray into fireplace research taught me several things.

First, it taught me that the successful fire builder wants to keep his draft moving up. A draft is a breeze moving through your house. In most parts of a homeowner's life, drafts are considered evil, something you try to prevent. Many of us have spent hours putting weatherstripping around doors and windows to stop drafts.

But in the world of fireplace fires, drafts are a good thing. They are supposed to sweep under the logs, help the fire burn, then shoot up the chimney. The crucial word here is "up." A "down" draft, one that pushes air down the chimney, is a bad draft.

Kevin O'Hara, a salesman at Baumgardner's, a fireplace sales and service store in Westminster, told me a quick way to tell whether I was dealing with a good draft or bad draft. It is the match test. In this test, the flue is opened, a lighted match is held for a moment in the middle of the fireplace, then the match is extinguished.

If smoke from the match moves up the chimney, your draft is moving in the correct direction, he said. If the smoke lingers, or rolls out into the room, you have work to do, he said. He mentioned several steps that can help get a bad draft turned around. One is to burn rolled-up newspapers in the fireplace. This sends a burst of hot air up the chimney. He also said that fireplaces in new houses sometimes have a sliding door on the back or side of the fireplace. This is called "an outside air kit," he said. It encourages good drafts. But only if the sliding door is open.

Another way to improve the draft of a fireplace is to open a window in the room with the fireplace. This is good for the fire. It is not good for your heating bill. Fireplaces, I learned, are full of contradictions.

I also learned that according to Count Rumford's theory, the efficiency of fire depends not only on the supply of air but also on the size of the flue compared with the size of the front fireplace opening. The Count theorized that the opening of the flue, the passage that heads up the chimney, should be one-tenth the size of the front of the fireplace. The idea is that in a fireplace built with these proportions, the air rising off the fire speeds up as it passes through the narrow flue opening, thus improving the draft of the chimney.

I learned that the preferred local way to arrange logs on the fireplace grate is the "log-cabin" position. In this mode, layers of logs overlap so they form a rectangle that somewhat resembles a log cabin. No one I spoke with seemed fond of my favorite position, the teepee postion. In it, three logs are set on their ends and touch at the top.

The teepee technique works well for campfires, but not fireplaces, said Leigh Bearden, a saleswoman at Watson's Fireplace and Patio store in Lutherville, who said she is known among her co-workers as the "fire mistress." There usually isn't enough room in a fireplace to accommodate a teepee made of logs, she said.

Finally, I heard different theories on how to start a fire. Jim Tupp, owner of Pikesville Hardware, a store that deals in fireplace equipment, spoke well of the igniting abilities of compressed cubes of sawdust called firestarters. O'Hara in Westminster preferred rolled-up newspapers and kindling. Fire Mistress Bearden said she liked using a combination of firestarters and kindling.

Armed with all this knowledge, I can't wait to try yet again to build the perfect fire. If at first I fail, I will open a nearby window. If I fail again, I'll blame the Count Rumford factor.

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