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MyNewtBoobs's avatar

What do I need to know about fires in real fireplaces?

Asked by MyNewtBoobs (19026points) October 9th, 2010

Ok, so yesterday was the first day cold enough to start a fire in my first ever real fireplace. So, what tips do you have for me? Any woods that I should look for, or stay away from? Tricks you like to use to make something easier, or make the fire smell especially good? Any part of your real-fire routine you’d care to share to a n00b?

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17 Answers

Seek's avatar

Just make sure the flue is open. You don’t want to go the way of Weird Al’s parents.

I like the smell of cedar and hickory. They’re good to burn together – cedar is a softwood which is good for kindling, and hickory is a hardwood – harder to light, but burns hotter and longer.

Don’t burn pressure-treated woods – ever.

If you’re going to burn newspaper, close the door. That stuff flies everywhere.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr I don’t think it has a flue. I kept trying to open it but there was nothing there, so I figured I’d start a small fire and then had the extinguisher close by if it didn’t all go up….
What are pressure-treated woods, and why shouldn’t I burn them?

Seek's avatar

Pressure-treated woods are things like the 2×4s that you build your deck with. Most construction material meant to be in contact with the outdoor elements are pressure-treated.

They’re treated with chemicals that can spark and emit harmful fumes.

Brian1946's avatar


Do you have a spark arrester on top of your chimney?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Brian1946 How would I know if I did?

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Brian1946 I’ll have to figure out where the chimney is and check. What if I do, what if I don’t?

Brian1946's avatar

I’m sorry, but I’m not sure.

I had one mounted on top of my chimney when I had it rebuilt, so I don’t really have any experience doing it myself.

I guess you could call a Home Depot or other home supply store and ask if they carry them.
If there are standard size openings for chimneys, then perhaps you could get the measurements and buy the arrester. I think they’re usually pressure fitted so that you won’t have to drill through your chimney top and mount it with bolts or screws.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Brian1946 Oh, I can’t do that. I rent.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Find out from the rental office the last time the chimney was cleaned. If they don’t know, ask that it be done. Link

Brian1946's avatar


How about contacting the manager or the landlord?
Since you rent, I’d say that it’s their responsibility to ensure that one is mounted.

Kayak8's avatar

1. Chimney MUST be cleaned before use (preferably each season, but in this case you have no idea the last time someone burned something in it and you have no idea what they may have burned). A real chimney sweep will also make sure none of the fire-bricks are loose and can tell you if you have any reason to be concerned about the condition of the chimney and its various parts. In my area of the midwest, a thorough cleaning runs about $60.

2. Have someone SHOW you how to open and close the flue. This is essential!

3. @Seek_Kolinahr is absolutely correct you don’t want to burn pressure treated lumber, anything that has been painted, and you really want to take it easy on woods like pine that are very “sappy” as they can increase the build up of creosote in the chimney.

4. The easiest thing is to have someone SHOW you how to lay a fire, start it, etc. There are fire starters available commercially (make sure the one you pick is designed for an interior fireplace and not to start fires outside). Just remember that fires need air to burn. As you put the wood into the firebox, there should be a heavy metal grate onto which you will put it (this allows air to get underneath the wood). You need to start small (twigs etc are called tinder and are used to start the fire). Then you add kindling (starting with small branches about as big as your thumb in diameter and working up to as big as your arm in diameter). The big logs are called fuel and they go on last after the fire is established using the smaller wood.

5. See if your fireplace has a gas starter and have someone show you how to use it. It can be a little scary the first time.

6. DO NOT start a fire unless you have fireplace tools available. You need to be able to move the wood around as the fire burns and there is no substitute for a good set of tools.

7. It is also critical that you have a way of closing off the fire from the room—even if it is a chain-link screen, you don’t want to have to sit next to the fire until it is cool (could be up all night). If it has glass doors, even better.

8. Having a fire extinguisher nearby is excellent but make sure it is for wood fires and make sure you know how to use it should you need to. I have seen people with a working fire extinguisher who had no idea how to make it go. If you need it, follow the instructions on the side of the extinguisher for addressing a wood fire (I think it is slow side to side motion).

9. Never leave a fire unattended. Do not leave the house for any reason unless you have a wood stove that is rated and has a door that can be sealed on the front of it (even then it may not be your best move to leave the house particularly if you have pets).

10. This is October, fire prevention month. It would be a perfect time to make sure all of your smoke alarms have working batteries and that they are properly placed near bedrooms etc. so in the worst case scenario, you will be safe.

11. Enjoy your fireplace! Once you have taken care of all the necessary safety features, a fire is a great way to warm up a cool evening, add a romantic feeling to dinner or drinks, and just warms the heart!

YARNLADY's avatar

Do not use a fireplace in a rental that has not been fully inspected for safety and cleanliness. If you have never used a fireplace before, don’t start with one you know nothing about. Contact a professional and pay the fee.

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

@Kayak8 Do real fireplaces have gas starters? I thought those were only in gas fireplaces. It was built in 1915, so it’s definitely not gas.

woodcutter's avatar

Often times there won’t be that much creosote build up in the flue of a fireplace. Sometimes there will be but it is the flues of a wood stove where it builds up more because the smoke is being slowed down with the damper both in the flue pipe and in the front of the stove, usually in the door. Some fp use folding glass door sets that have an air adjustment to control the draft but if the firebox is wide open the room air will draft full blast right up the chimney and the fire will have 2 settings: hot, and wicked hot. You will be going through wood faster than bullshit coming out of a tin horn. This is why often times these kinds of FP won’t leave much build up inside the chimney as its so hot it burns right off.
Don’t be a schmuck and buy those cute bundles of firewood sitting out front of 7-Eleven stores you will go broke before the end of the night. Look for someone who cuts firewood and have it delivered. Fireplaces are not really efficient to heat a house but it will be better than nothing in an emergency. Most fire wood will have bugs it it so don’t bring a lot inside or the cats will be jumping all over the floor pouncing on these. It is amusing though. A fireplace tool set is a must and a metal ash tub to take the wood ash out of the house also. If those aren’t available then don’t make a fire. Fireplaces are dirty and not without their upkeep. Make sure the grate is in good shape. If its an old one it might be deformed(sagging).
Keep enough kindling on hand and the daily rag to get things going. If your damper is open before lighting it up there won’t be smoke backing up into the room. Open damper all the way when the fire is starting, then once it is cooking right along carefully move the damper more closed, but not so much the smoke and heat burn your face off, move it a tiny amount. It will be trial and error with this. Some FP won’t be able to move it so it might have to be left open all the way.
Make sure you have seasoned wood, not wood that was just cut down the week before. It won’t burn well, it will hiss more and won’t produce usable heat.

lillycoyote's avatar

I think everyone has given you very good advice. Talk to your landlord to begin with. Are you sure it’s functional? Some old apartment fireplaces aren’t or at least not functional enough. Get it cleaned and inspected. Educated yourself on what kind of fireplace it is, what it’s limitations are and what the parameters are regarding using it. Until you’re certain it’s fully functional, in good working condition and recently serviced and you know how to use it don’t fool with it.

Kayak8's avatar

There is a difference between a gas fireplace that uses fake “gas logs” and a gas starter in a wood-burning fireplace. For a gas starter, you would likely see a metal key in the floor and there will be a pipe that runs from one side of the fire box to the other under the grate—these have been around for a very long time so the age of the rental still doesn’t deter me asking the question.

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