Getting a good burn going is essential for making the most of your log burner. However, sometimes you might need a little advice on how best to go about it.

So, for this week's blog, we asked expert woodsman and author, Vincent Thurkettle, to give us some tips on how to create your own firelighters and kindling like a pro!

In this post, Vincent shares a few valuable pointers on how to create your own firelighters and kindling, so you can feel like a fire master in no time.

Kindling Winter’s First Fires by Vincent Thurkettle

One of my favourite things through the summer is to be barefoot, something I miss during the winter. And my favourite thing through the winter is my wood fire.

Now, well into November, I am back in the routine of filling my wood basket during daylight hours, having plenty of kindling handy and making sure the small basket of my fire-lighting scraps is full.

I give great attention to the materials I use to light my fire; I want it to light quickly while using as little kindling as possible. I am, by training, a woodsman and throughout my adult life all of my homes have been heated by wood fires. Now retired, this efficiency is still important to me.

I think I enjoy the frugal challenge of gathering fire-lighting scraps and limiting my use of commercial firelighters - I have a packet in the kitchen cupboard, but they didn’t come out at all last winter.

My scraps bin could easily be mistaken for a rubbish basket. It does not enhance the aesthetics of my fireside, but I cannot resist a magpie-like urge to collect the many and varied little bits of clean inflammable material that will help to start my fire.

Vincent Thurkettle kindling scraps basket

What to Use Instead of Firelighters

There is a weak environmental argument against using firelighters and of course they are an unnecessary cost, but in truth I gather the scraps because I enjoy it. I am careful to avoid plastics. My bin contains a tangled assortment of cardboard, pine cones, nutshells, peel, tree bark and thin wood slivers.

The orange peel, or any of the satsuma, tangerine, or clementine group of citrus fruits, is peeled carefully into a starfish shape and dried beside my wood stove.

I gather and squash flat the cardboard centre tubes of toilet and kitchen rolls. The cones of Scots or Corsican pine are collected any time I am out in the forest and again left on the hearth to dry and open.

The wood slivers are gathered from around my chopping block, as are strips of birch bark - shook loose by the impact of the axe. In fact, birch bark is such a favourite of mine that I will sit with a pruning knife and peel the bark from the logs of freshly felled trees. While birch bark does make an excellent fire lighter, it has the habit of curling up tightly as it starts to burn. To stop this curling I interlock my pieces like the links of a paper chain and find that this keeps them open and helps them to burn more efficiently.

Vincent Thurkettle kindling

Paper is the most obvious fire lighting material, but during my lifetime the nature of paper, newspaper in particular, has changed and it is nowhere near as good as it once was. My understanding is that modern newspaper is coated to allow for colour printing and the sharp definition of text. I believe the coating is largely china clay – a product of the decomposed rock feldspar – which is unhelpful in fire lighting. Brown wrapping paper and cardboard contain a much higher proportion of wood fibre than newspaper and are more useful in starting your fire.

It was once my custom to simply screw up a few sheets of paper into rough balls, but my mother-in-law showed me how she was taught as a girl to fold a sheet of paper into little paper sticks, which then concertina out into lovely firelighters.

Vincent Thurkettle paper firelighter stick

My grandfather used a different system and would carefully roll his sheet of newspaper into a thin tube with an airspace down the centre. The tube was then gently bent into a circle with the ends twisted together to keep its shape. In the fireplace they looked vaguely like a little heap of white horse shoes. Another shape that works is to roll a paper tube and then scrunch the ends, like little Christmas crackers.

Vincent Thurkettle round paper firelighter

How to Make Your Own Kindling

For the kindling itself I use well-dried hedgerow twigs or carefully chopped thin sticks. They should be well sized and absolutely dry as they are the key to lighting your fire quickly. Bought kindling can be quite expensive as there is a lot of work in chopping up the little pieces, so making your own may well be a good way to save a little money.

It may be enough to simply gather fallen twigs during woodland walks, or perhaps driftwood from an old high-tide line. If not, put aside a few of your driest, knot-free logs for splitting.

The most useful sized pieces are about 150–200mm (6–8in) long and 25–50mm (1–2in) in diameter. Dryness really is important and I always have a dozen or so kindling sticks laid neatly on the hearth. I have checked the moisture content of my kindling and doing this brings it down from about 18% in the woodshed to less than 10% when I use them. There is a temptation to make kindling from recovered wood, but this wood may contain preservatives, creosote, or old paint, and care should be taken not to burn this “dirty” wood.

In my wood burner I tend to lay a “U” shape of logs around the ash bed where I intend the kindling to go. The back log goes in first, with the side logs resting upon it. I try and create small gaps between these logs to aid the fire’s spread and development.

Another pattern I often use is a “V” shape of split or bark-free logs, 50–75mm (2–3in) in diameter. Again, it is good to have small gaps between these logs. It is important, and especially so in these days when clean burning is such an issue, that the early flames are not smothered by a mass of larger wood above the kindling.
Research in Norway has shown that most of the smoke produced by a wood-burning stove is during the first 20 to 30 minutes, when the fire is first lit. This is bad practice and being careful to ensure that your kindling burns easily and brightly will significantly reduce any smoke produced.

The first logs should always have the split wood surface facing into the fire, never the bark. Even with birch, whose bark burns delightfully, I have the split wood surface facing inwards. I believe that the initial heat reflection from these, and very soon their early charring, is a great help in ensuring that your fires light quickly.

I have almost finished building a small cottage for my retirement. It is super insulated and will be heated by an 8 kW wood-burning stove in the living room and a wood-burning range in the kitchen. The range is plumbed in to provide my hot water and supply the underfloor heating for the whole of downstairs. It is my dream that soon I will be able to walk about barefoot all through the winter too!

Vincent Thurkettle
Author – ‘The Wood Fire Handbook’

Find more stove advice and article on the Direct Stoves Blog, including these posts...

How to Properly Put Out a Fire in a Log Burner | How to Stack, Season and Store Firewood | Why Does My Log Burner Keep Going Out?