The Fire Fiddler

From Gene Logsdon

Now comes the test of one’s homesteading stamina: January.  Might as well throw in February too except that by then the aconites and snowdrops have started to nose up through the ground or may even be blooming in sheltered places. But for now,  hang in there and read garden catalogs.

Another way to ride out the depths of winter is to spend time staring into the burning embers of a fireplace and lose self-awareness to the flames. That’s what I do, but losing self-awareness sounds terribly precious. What I am really doing is looking for more excuses to fiddle with the fire, that is, tweak the burning sticks of wood around so it flames brighter.  Fire fiddling is a more or less safe way to compensate for tendencies toward pyromania.

Something in the human psyche loves to play with fire. It probably is something we inherited, genetically or environmentally, from cave dwellers. They fiddled with fire for survival.

Even today, as the peak oil age arrives, fire fiddling can be once more a practical skill, even an art. Everyone knows that fireplaces are not efficient home heaters— most of the heat goes up the chimney. But a master fire fiddler can get twice as much heat out of a fireplace as a beginner.

The first condition of happy fire fiddling is to burn well-cured wood. If the wood in the fire sizzles on the ends like a frying egg, you may keep the fire going okay by mixing in a good dry stick occasionally, but fire fiddling will not be nearly as gratifying nor will be the amount of heat generated.  And the more uncured wood used, the more chance of little whiffs of smoke puffing out into the room before it gets dry enough to burn well. On the other hand, if the wood is cured through and through, rain water on its surface will dampen a cheery flame only briefly.

The second condition is good fireplace design. The proper ratio of hearth depth to front opening is important. So is the angle for the sides to take (a little inward) from front to back as well as the angle of the rear wall from the floor of the fireplace. It should slant inwards slightly as it goes up to the chimney opening.  The details of design have all been studied and debated for centuries. Needless to say, not everyone agrees  and we don’t have very many fireplace masons around anymore with a couple of centuries of experience under their belts. To be on the safe side, we purchased a steel insert for our fireplace, one whose design was in keeping with the best knowledge available as far as we could ascertain. Then we built the fireplace about twenty inches off the floor so it was easier to lean in and fiddle with the fire without bending over so far (and perhaps falling into the fire if one is also at the time fiddling with a martini).

The steel insert afforded us a handy way to increase the amount of heat going out into the room rather than up the chimney too. The stonemason who laid up the stone around the insert built ducts into the wall to draw in air from below the fireplace hearth and circulate it up and around and over the steel jacket. The heated air then passes back out into the room from ports above the fireplace. You can install circulating fans to move the air faster but they are not necessary at all. The heat pulls the air strongly enough through the system on its own. The fire not only throws out heat from the fireplace directly but indirectly through this circulation system.

To add a little more efficiency, our fireplace is in the finished basement of our home so that heat coming from it out into the basement rises up the nearby steps to the kitchen and dining area above. You can actually feel the warm air ascending the steps.

The art of fire fiddling involves the placement of the pieces of wood, or sticks as we call them, so that they generate as much flame as possible and as close to the front of the fireplace as possible without belching out any smoke. The first rule, if one must get formal about it all, is to keep a big backlog at the rear of the fire to throw the heat forward, and then to arrange the sticks in front of the backlog so that there is a bit of a crack between each of them. Then the flames rise cheerfully up through the cracks rather than sulk underneath because of being blocked by the sticks. Ideally, you keep the logs so placed, and then add new ones as the old ones burn up, so that a wall of flame from four to ten inches or thereabouts is always dancing above or in front of the wood. Some master fire fiddlers lay the sticks on top of each other at a sort of angle from each other so that there is plenty of room between the pieces,  or actually rack them up two one way and then two crisscrossed on top of the first two.

You realize the joy and purpose of fire fiddling when for the first time you pry with a poker two pieces of  wood apart and the sulking fire below them suddenly springs up with a sprightly flame in the crack you made.

Making sure there is space  between the sticks is most important when starting a fire— what was referred to in former times with the art of “laying a fire.”  I “lay my fires” on an iron grate that keeps the wood about three inches off the floor of the fireplace. First I lay in the big backlog behind the grate. Then a handful of twigs goes on the grate and then a small front log piece. Then I put two pieces of wood (split chunks no more than about five inches thick) on top of the twigs about an inch apart and parallel to each other. A third and fourth piece go on top of the first two but at slight angles to each other and to the bottom two so that there are spaces between them. Then I light the twigs from below the grate with a twist of paper. Sometimes two or three twists are necessary before the twigs start.

A banker friend of mine who is an avid fire fiddler, says that if you are short of paper and twigs with which to start fires, good, cheap substitutes right now are bank notes and stock certificates.
See also Gene’s Easy Way To Start A Grove Of Trees
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Fireplace © Luckynick | |
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I spend many an hour in front of, next to, or otherwise engaged with our woodstove. It warms my body but also relaxes my soul. Yes, a cup of hot tea, a good book, and a rip roaring fire and you’ve just about have heaven in your living room!!! Kim

Jan Steinman, yes someplace, more than one place I’m sure, I carried on in print about how to use shovels and pitchforks. It is a kind of sore point with me, not to mention muscles when used improperly. Especially as to using your body in various ways as a fulcrum to make lifting easier as you point out. And oh my how people kill themselves using a maul improperly. The point you make is so important because it is at the basis of why so many people think they dread physical work and why they buy “labor saving” gadgets that don’t save anything especially their bank accounts. I will try to find the passages, or if not write something new. Thanks for a great suggestion. Gene Logsdon

Building a fire — like using a shovel — is something everyone thinks they know, but most could stand a little training or mentoring!

This is one thing that I’m eternally grateful for my time in Boy Scouts. Not only did you learn how to build and maintain a fire, but you could actually get a merit badge for learning it well!

Unfortunately, I don’t think the Boy Scouts taught basic ground-tool-craft. We get a lot of “city folk” here for work parties and such, struggling away with their upper body, complaining of sore shoulders at the end of the day, but they never once let the shovel handle touch their thigh to use as a lever or source of “oomph.” The brighter, more observant ones might notice that an old guy can out-shovel them, and ask how, but most bristle at any suggestion about improving their technique.

So it seems with firecraft. “Hey, y’think it might wanna breathe a bit?” I ask as a city folk piles big chunks of wood on. “I know how to build a fire!” is often the angry retort.

Gene, if it isn’t already in your writings, I’d love to see a practical treatise on the use of common ground tools! Y’know, something to show those who don’t believe anything you tell them unless it’s on the Internet… 🙂

Meadowlark, Greg, Teresa, thanks for comments. Yes, an efficient woodburning stove beats a fireplace for serious heating. We have a stove upstairs, fireplace downstairs.
Paul. If your land lays wet, your pasture will probably never be very satisfactory. I don’t know where you live, but the Soil Conservation Service is nearly everywhere in the U.S. and its big deal is advising on tile drainage and surface drainage systems. SCS is in every county seat, I think. Under FSA now— Farm Service Agency? I can’t keep up with the lettering brigade. Anyway they have gobs of info and can suggest ditchers who do this work. Essentially, nowadays, the tiling machine digs a trench and lays in plastic drainage pipe. Might seem a little expensive, but it is the best money a farmer can spend on poorly drained soil. I have dug my own tile lines on occasion (when I was younger) where the lay of the land made it easy to stay on grade. My grandfather dug tile ditches by hand and kept a bucket of water handy so he could test to make sure he stayed on grade (the water drains through the pipe by gravity to an outlet. The main thing is the outlet. You need to exit the tile to a creek, a pond, or some such so the water is carried away properly.
As for the tree saplings, I don’t know what to say. If four or more inches in diameter, the cedar would make fairly good fence posts. The maple of course might be good for syrup when the get over 12 inches in diameter. What kind of pine? We used to gather and sell pine ones at Xmas. Would they make Xmas trees? I know what I would do but don’t know if it’s the right thing or not. I’d clear off only enough trees to make plenty of sunlight for the grass, and save some of the trees for whatever, dotted over the field like a savannah. The best of both worlds. As the trees grow, you could harvest them for firewood occasionally to maintain the savannah like sunny pasture effect. Gene


I’m happy to have run across this blog. As a big fan of your writing it’s nice to see current articles. I have a couple of questions about a subjects I see repeated often in your books. I have an old grown up pasture on our farm that I want to return to pasture. It has a lot of small/medium size pine, cedar and sapling maples. I hate to just discard them and I don’t burn wood yet, any ideas on what to do with them. Also, much of our land lays wet, what exactly is tile draining and how is it done. Great blog and thanks.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House January 1, 2009 at 8:40 pm

We heat with wood also and I agree it is an art in itself.

Great site and I’m glad I found it, I have many of your books and have read your writings for years. I’ll be sure to put it under my favorites.

Your student in contrary-ness,
Teresa Sue Hoke-House

You forgot the marshmallows. 🙂

We had a wood stove with a window, not as fun as a fireplace but much more efficient. Our wood stove was our primary source of heat for many years until we built a super-insulated passive solar home. Now the sun is.

I loved this post. I am a “firebug” from way back. 😉 We have a Heat-a-lator insert too in both the basement fireplace and the living room one. They really do a good job, although wood is our secondary heat source.

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