The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire

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Fire, and all it represents, is one of the building blocks of survival along with food, water, and shelter.  Fire will cook the food, purify the water, and heat the shelter.  For that reason, it should come as no surprise that fire starting tools and paraphernalia are one of the first things newbie preppers acquire when they are first getting started.

Acquiring tools is all well and good and not to be discounted.  The real test, however, lies in the ability to actually start a wood fire. To that end, there are as many ways to start a wood fire as there are preppers.  Everyone has their favorite method, even if it is inefficient and poorly executed.  Most likely, they simply do not know of a better way.

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire | Backdoor Survival

Help is on its way. Ron Brown, friend of Backdoor Survival and author of the Non-Electric Lighting Series of books and eBooks, knows how to light fires.  He has been doing it for over 50 years, and he is here today to teach us how.

Ron Brown’s Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire

Intro

I’ve probably started upwards of 10,000 wood fires in my life. My parents heated with wood when I was a child and I, myself, have heated with wood most of my adult life.

Still, 10,000 sounds like a lot.

I keep a box of strike-anywhere wooden matches beside the stove. I use about one box a year. The boxes hold 250 matches (though some hold 300). At that rate it would take 30-40 years to light 10,000 fires. Then again, I’m 75 years old.

The purpose of this article is to share with you what I’ve learned; to share with you the easiest way I know of to light a fire.

Objective

At the onset, we need to recognize that your objectives and my objectives might not be the same. My objectives are simple: (1) to start a fire, (2) as easily as possible, (3) with as high a success rate as possible, and (4) as safely as possible.

I feel no obligation whatsoever to start a fire the way grandpa did. Or how the American Indians did. Or how the aborigines in the Australian outback still do it today.

I have a camping buddy who feels that if it takes more than one match to light the campfire then it is not a proper fire. It’s his Boy Scout religion. I’m sure he constantly fights the urge to dump a bucket of water on my campfire and force me to start over and do it right this time.

In his heart of hearts he knows that my fire is inferior to his. It’s like new math. Okay, so I got the right answer. But I didn’t use sanctioned methodology so, in his eyes, my answer doesn’t qualify as an answer even though the result is correct.

How about you? Do you want a fire? Or do you want to play primitive? Only you can answer that. For my part, my aspiration is to keep my fanny warm and cook supper. I just wanna get the fire going. How can I say this politely? Screw primitive.

So Here’s How You Do the Doin’

In general terms, we’re going to:

(1) assemble a stack of firewood ready for burning
(2) insert, into the stack, a patch of cloth soaked in kerosene
(3) light the patch with a match

Done. The fire is started.

For “insertion into the stack” I, personally, use some long-nose needle-nose pliers from the Dollar Store. Cheapies. They work great.

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire | Backdoor Survival

Basically, that’s all there is to it. Lesson over. (Although the devil, as they say, is in the details.)

Firewood. The firewood needs to be seasoned, dry. Not green. Not wet. It should be split so that it has sharp edges, something for the flame to bite into. Split wood is easier to start than round wood (i.e. round like wooden pencils).

The Stack. You can skip the so-called bird’s nest, the tinder, and the kindling. If the wood is both dry and split, you can start out with wood the size of your wrist. Starting out with “real” firewood saves mega time compared to starting out with newspaper and wood shavings and building the fire up with successively larger pieces.

The pieces in the stack can be parallel to each other (just like you would carry them in an armload of firewood). The stack does not need to have successive layers crisscrossed. Nor must it be set up teepee-fashion.

The Cloth Patches. Cotton works better than synthetic fabrics. Synthetics will not absorb and hold as much kerosene as cotton. Discarded blue jeans, T-shirts, sweat shirts, and athletic socks will all fill the bill.

A patch of cloth 4″ x 4″ is a good size but please realize that a 4″ x 4″ piece from a handkerchief will not soak up as much kerosene as a 4″ x 4″ piece from a Turkish bath towel. Of course, when you get to the actual fire building, you can always use two pieces.

  • Safety. Here I need to add a word about spontaneous combustion. I started out as an industrial arts teacher. I learned that all of the high school industrial arts shops in New York State have a red-painted metal can with a spring-loaded cover labeled “oily rags.” Why? Because oily rags are subject to spontaneous combustion.

It’s a fact known to everyone of my grandfather’s generation but to no-one of my children’s generation. I invite non-believers to Google for “spontaneous combustion oily rags” and do their homework before scoffing.

Consider this from back in the day:  “Spontaneous combustion [is] . . . the ignition of bodies by the internal development of heat without the application of an external flame. It not infrequently takes place among heaps of rags . . . lubricated with oil . . .” – Encyclopedia Americana, 1919

Storing Patches. When I tear up my rags into 4″ x 4″ pieces, I start with the used (and oily) shop clothes in my workshop. I do this in the fall and spend a couple of hours cutting up enough rags to last for the whole upcoming year.

Starting with the shop cloths means that many of the pieces I’m cutting up will be oily right from the get-go. So, after tearing or cutting my rags into pieces, I store them (before use) in empty metal paint cans (one-gallon size). I can tap down the lid with a rubber mallet and make an air-tight seal. When needed, I can pry open the lid, just like opening a gallon of paint, with a screwdriver.

Four or five one-gallon cans of cloth patches, tightly packed, are enough for the whole upcoming year.

Marinating the Patches in Kerosene. Gallon sizes are fine for on-the-shelf storage but are not convenient for day-to-day handling so I buy pint-size cans of wood stain from the Dollar Store. “Stain cans” are much easier to clean out than paint cans.

These pint-size cans are metal so there’s no danger of breakage. They’re air tight so they don’t leak on other gear. They’re easily pried open with a screwdriver and easily resealed with finger pressure.

I pack a pint-size can with dry patches (taken from a gallon can) then pour kerosene into the pint-size can, letting it saturate the cloth all the way to the bottom. I prepare a couple of pint-size cans at a time. In use, when the first pint-size can is empty, I start using the second. In the days that follow, before the second can is empty, I refill the first.

Matches. The source of ignition can be matches or a cigarette lighter or sparks from a magnesium/flint striker or steel wool touching both terminals of a 9-volt battery. Your choice. The easiest technique (and “easy” is the theme of this article) is to use a strike-anywhere wooden kitchen match.

Diamond (brand) still makes strike-anywhere matches. They are for sale today in mom-and-pop grocery stores as well as eBay. Interestingly, although strike-anywhere matches can be purchased on eBay and sent through the mail, “strike-on-box” is all you’ll find in the big-box stores like Wal-Mart. And don’t bother searching for Ohio Blue Tip. Diamond bought them out years ago.

Gaye’s Note:  Our local supermarket in Friday Harbor told us that they do not stock the strike-anywhere matches because they self-combust.  Urban legend or CYA?  Who knows.  Amazon sells them.

Incidentally, if the tiny white tip (the “strike anywhere” part) breaks off the head of the match, the match will still light if you rub it against the “sandpaper” panel on the side of the box. But you already knew that, right?

AND, don’t forget that you can carry fire from another source. A twig, a splinter, or a rolled-and-twisted sheet of paper can be used to carry fire from a stove burner, a candle, or a kerosene lamp to the fire you are building.

Still, the EASIEST ignition source is a strike-anywhere wooden kitchen match.

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire | Backdoor Survival

Kerosene. Throughout this write-up I’ve said “kerosene” because it’s something everyone is familiar with. Actually, diesel fuel is the better choice.

The odor we associate with both kerosene and diesel fuel comes from the sulfur content.

There are two grades of kerosene, K1 and K2. The K2 grade is intended for use in appliances that are vented to the outside (a home-heating furnace with a chimney, for example). K2 kerosene contains 3000 ppm (parts per million) sulfur.

K1 kerosene is intended for appliances that are not vented to the outside (kerosene lamps, for example). K1 kerosene contains 400 ppm sulfur. You can confirm this with online MSDS sheets. Just Google for “k1 kerosene sulfur.”

In the bad old days, before 1993, diesel fuel contained 5000 ppm sulfur. Between 1993 and 2006, “low-sulfur” diesel fuel with 500 ppm was introduced. Since then, diesel fuel with “ultra-low” sulfur (15 ppm) has been mandated for on-road use.

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire | Backdoor Survival

Point is, if you use my fire-starting method but want to avoid a kerosene smell inside the house, then today’s diesel fuel with 15 ppm sulfur is a better choice than K1 kerosene with 400 ppm.

“But what if I don’t have any kerosene or diesel fuel? What if the stuff really does hit the fan? OMG. Armageddon is here. The sky is falling. The sky is falling.”

Easy there, big fella. There are lots of materials you can substitute for kerosene. They might not smell good. They might smoke. They might be flammable (e.g. gasoline) rather than combustible (e.g. kerosene). In which case you must exercise some brain cells to avoid – POOF! – losing your eyebrows. But you can start a fire, no doubt about it.

Here are some alternate fuels with which to saturate your cloth patches:

Coleman fuel
Gasoline
Mineral spirits
Paint thinner
Turpentine
Linseed oil
Vaseline
Vicks VapoRub
Preparation H
Motor oil
Brake fluid
Power steering fluid
Mineral oil (laxative)
Baby oil
Hydraulic oil
70% isopropyl rubbing alcohol
151-proof rum
Everclear (brand) 190-proof grain alcohol
Sierra Silver (brand) 150-proof tequila
Denatured alcohol (used as shellac thinner and as fuel in marine stoves)
Heet or Drygas (methanol)
Charcoal lighter fluid
Cigarette lighter fluid
Automotive starting fluid (ether)
Lacquer thinner
Acetone
WD-40 (penetrating oil)
Cooking oil (olive oil and similar)
Lard
Margarine
Butter
Hoppe’s 9 (gun cleaning solvent)
Oil-based wood stain
Many kinds of cologne, after-shave lotion and perfume

Many aerosol spray cans (for insect repellent, paint, and hair spray) contain a flammable propellant. Here you’ll have to experiment to see what works; you cannot trust what it says on the label. Spray a postage-stamp-size cloth patch and see if it will light with a match. (TIP: When lighting, hold the patch with tweezers or needle nose pliers.)

Candle wax dripped onto a cloth patch works well. You can also rub (firmly) a candle or a bar of soap or a bar of paraffin canning wax into your patch (both sides, please). If you have a choice, avoid the soap. Scorching soap does not smell good.

Have I, personally, tried all these things? Yes.

“But that’s not the way grandpa lit a fire. Or The Waltons. Or Little House on the Prairie. That’s not how the Boy Scouts do it.”

Sorry ’bout that. You want romance? Nostalgia? A merit badge? Or a fire? Come on. The kids are starting to shiver. Wouldn’t you settle for a fire?

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire | Backdoor Survival

My “Russian fireplace” in action.

The photo above is my “Russian Fireplace”.  It’s all ceramic (no metal parts). In use, you close the stove door (thereby hiding the flame). The brick soaks up heat from the fire and then then radiates heat out into the room. You do not feed in one piece of wood at a time. This kind of stove runs at top speed or at zero, nothing in between. It runs flat out until only ashes remain. Then you start again.

That means starting two or three fires per day from scratch. Five months x 2 fires/day = 300 per heating season.

© Ron Brown 2015

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The Final Word

Why is it that humans seek out the challenge of doing something easy in a complicated fashion?  I know that I do.  I don’t know about you, but going forward I want to embrace easy.  I want to embrace simple,  I want to do the least amount of work necessary to get the job done with the fewest number of tools, implements, and gizmos.

I don’t know if it is even possible to back away from technology and incorporate the simplest of pioneer skills into our daily lives.  We can try, though.  Starting a wood fire the easy way will give us a good start.

Once again, I would like to thank Ron for his contribution and support of Backdoor Survival.  If you are interested in learning more about what he has to say, be sure to check out his books in the Non-Electric Lighting Series and also his real claim to fame, The Amazing 2000-Hour Flashlight.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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You can also vote for Backdoor Survival daily at Top Prepper Websites!

Bargain Bin:  Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article.  Of course, in addition to these items, you will want to check out Ron’s Non-Electric Lighting Series of books and eBooks.

Diamond GreenLight Kitchen Matches – 3 Pack (Strike anywhere):  Our local supermarket in Friday Harbor told us that they do not stock the strike-anywhere matches because they self-combust.  Urban legend or CYA?  Who knows.

BIC Disposable Classic Lighter With Child Guard:  This six pack of Bic lighters is reasonably priced but check around since these often go on sale locally.  BICs just work – every time.

Zippo Street Chrome Pocket Lighter:  Zippo has been creating virtually indestructible, windproof refillable lighters for more than 75 years. The Zippo Street Chrome pocket lighter is no exception. This lighter features a classic textured chrome finish and carries the same lifetime guarantee–to either work or be fixed by Zippo free of charge–for life. This lighter uses butane fuel. All wearable parts including flints and wicks are replaceable.  Every prepper should own at least one Zippo!

UCO Stormproof Matches, Waterproof and Windproof with 15 Second Burn Time – 25 Matches:  A ZIPPO or BIC lighter are always good to have but it would not hurt to have some stormproof matches as well.

Fire Cord 550 Paracord, Black:  This is really neat stuff that I am putting through its paces right now.  Basically, it is 7 strand Paracord + 1 strand of Fire Cord added as fire tinder.  Like I said, need stuff.

Live Fire Fire Starter | Backdoor Survival

Live Fire Original Emergency Fire Starter: This emergency fire starter is compact and a cinch to use. Completely waterproof! I know because I tried to drown my tin in salt water.  The Live Fire Sport is the same product, but in an even smaller, 1 inch by 2 inch tin.

Light My Fire Swedish FireSteel:  This “Scout” is the one I own. Using this basic pocket fire-starter, you can get a nice fire going under almost any conditions. This is a small, compact version and is my personal favorite.

The NEW 2000-Hour Flashlight:  The first edition of this book (“The AMAZING 2000-Hour Flashlight”) contained 54 illustrations. This edition (“The NEW 2000-Hour Flashlight”) contains 128 illustrations.  Using off-the shelf supplies costing less than $10, you can modify a lantern-style flashlight to run for 2,000 hours!  Only 99 cents for the eBook version.

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Which are the best oils for your survival kit?  This article describes my top picks.

9 Best Essential Oils for Your Survival Kit | Backdoor Survival




Comments

The Easy Way to Start a Wood Fire — 13 Comments

  1. Mang, that’s a cool fireplace you got there. …Way cool.
    Like the pliers, too. I don’t have a pair like that but I can see how they would be useful, and if anything, it could easily double as an excellent fishing hook remover. (Or, self-defense spear?)

    I didn’t exactly think of, “a best method” for lighting a fire before. I know that sounds kind of lame, how-freaking-ever; it beats the heck out of using flaming bug spray on wet wood in the rain.

    I thought of this article as I lit a candle with an El CheapO lighter. It was the see-through kind. At first, I thought the El CheapO see-through lighter was better than using a Bic lighter or a match because I could see how much fuel I had left in the lighter,… but the danged thing took numerous flicks to get a flame. A match or a Bic, beats it, hands down.

    That all seems kind of silly even saying it, er, typing it. It matters little, here in the best of times,… it’s if ever, SHTF, that all might be important. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace like that to use on a daily basis. …Does that make sense? Wow, it’s difficult to even convey my thoughts on this simple matter.

    Fire and heat. …Soon to be outlawed in a State near you. ? Imagine that. Or, maybe you’ll be required to wear a helmet while lighting a fire? Fascist would be ok with that, eh? And wholely-moely, we’re surrounded by them.

  2. Since i can remember my dad always kept a 5 gallon bucket with sawdust soaked in diesel fuel. Saw dust from cutting firewood and just enough fuel oil to dampen the saw dust. just toss in a handful and light your fire !

    • Very interesting, David! I’d try it right now but it’s midwinter and I don’t have any sawdust handy. The way you describe it, it sounds like something you remember your dad doing but didn’t actually do yourself. I expect that he dried the sawdust first; that he didn’t use sawdust from green wood or sawdust that had been rained on. Plus the ratio of sawdust to diesel would require experimentation. And exactly how to use it. Probably a handful or clump of sawdust under the firewood and not sprinkled on top like table salt. I suspect there was a fair amount of technique and practice involved (like getting that first kiss). Straightforward in principle; not quite so easy in practice. It certainly is interesting though.

  3. If you’re using wood stain canisters… wouldn’t you use it for the first few batches in the small cans rather than pouring it out and getting rid of it?

    I’d be inclined to use old frying oil for later batches… I don’t have much other use for Kerosene or Diesel.

    • jdmitch – Nice catch. You are correct. You can use the wood stain itself (oil-based please, not water-based) on the cloth patches. When I originally wrote it up that way, readers found it confusing — Are you talking about the can? Or about the stain? was their question. So, to side-step any ambiguity, I described using the can to hold the patches and merely suggested “oil-based wood stain” in the kero substitutes list.

      And, yes, “old frying oil” will work, too, as you suggest. Just like the cooking oil, butter, lard, and margarine already listed in the article.

  4. There is no question that your method works, and I appreciate your sharing of knowledge. If I’m being honest, I still don’t get it, though. I’m not at 10,000 fires yet (I have another 20 years to catch up with you) but I have plenty of experience lighting fires in all manner of stoves, fireplaces, pits and just out there in the middle of nowhere. I’ve lit fires for heat, for cooking, and just plain enjoyment. I’ve never used a fuel soaked cloth….because it seems so unnecessary! I’m not a purist, and the goal is to get a fire going, regardless of the method. But examining your method, in my mind, just shows how much easier it could be.

    Kerosene, Diesel and other liquid fuels are effective, but also highly flammable, requiring proper handling, and also useful for other important purposes, such as lamps, heaters, etc. As well, storing those cloths, as you mention, has an inherent risk. Certainly not something I would want to carry if I have to leave my home base. So, why not a little adjustment? Use the same cloths, keep them in the same can, and include a small(ish) container of petroleum jelly. Cleaner, safer, and accomplishes the same goal. No need to pre-soak, just take a decent dab of the PJ on the cloth, place it in the wood, same as the oil cloth, and light it up. The PJ keeps the flame going long enough to start the wood. If you’re using a ferro rod or some form of spark, just include some cotton balls in that can. They light right up, and the PJ keeps them burning. A little effort to produce the smaller kindling size wood as you split your logs is worthwhile and just gets the fire going a little quicker when you’re not using oil or kerosene.

    I may sound like an internet troll, looking for something to complain about, but I truly think we should seek out simple, clean, safe skills to add to our kit. It’s not about being a purist. Lighting a fire is not as complicated as some would suggest, but the knowledge and skill we use at home should be as portable as can be. Learn a method that works, anywhere, and keep the same products/tools close, whether at home or on the road. No need to learn different methods for bugging in vs. bugging out. Just my observation, for whatever it’s worth.

    Cheers

    • Gord, you obviously put a fair amount time into composing your remarks and for that I thank you. The fundamental difference between what I wrote and what you’re suggesting is that my concoction is premixed (making it faster when it comes to the actual lighting of the fire). Try it both ways. Merely THINKING ABOUT IT both ways is armchair science.

      Incidentally, the risk of transporting a pint can of kerosene-soaked cloth patches is on par with the risk of carrying a small can of paint. The cans are metal (won’t break) and air-tight (won’t leak). The flammability risk of carrying after shave lotion in a glass bottle is many times higher.

      Technically speaking, gasoline is “flammable” whereas both diesel fuel and kerosene are “combustible.” You are incorrect in saying diesel and kero are “highly flammable.” They are not. As gently as I can say this, you need to do some homework on this part of it. Imparting false fears benefits no-one plus there is more than enough bad info floating around the Internet already.

      Hope you have a good New Years. Cheers!

  5. Here’s a very easy & cheap to make a fire . Get a can , Any t y sorry , type will do . g et a double oiler & put the can & gulf wax I it . Melt wax take a cotton balls in it . Squeeze out excess wax out . put on tray & dry . 1-2 cottonballs s all you need. instant fire .

    • Super idea, Bill, BUT you fat-fingered “double boiler” when you typed it in and it came out “double oiler” (which, to me, conjured up visions of some sort of oil can with a squirter-lever on it). Using a double boiler when melting paraffin wax (brand name = Gulf wax) is EXTREMELY important. DO NOT melt wax directly on a stove burner.

      At 395 degrees F, paraffin wax can explode and splatter flaming wax in all directions –- without warning; without smoking or bubbling beforehand. And how hot is that? Well, for frozen pizza you preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. So just about the time you’re ready to put in the pizza, molten wax is ready to explode.

      Once you get past the double-boiler thing, this sounds like a great idea. No doubt you can use cloth patches (like I do) instead of cotton balls. No doubt you can use scrap candle wax instead of Gulf wax. I’ll try some variations in the next few days and post here to let everyone know how it works.

      But PLEASE, everyone, if you melt wax, use a Double Boiler. If you don’t know what a double boiler is, ask your mom. Or ask a cook. Or Google for it. But DON’T melt wax directly on a stove burner.

      • OK, so I melted some candle wax in a double boiler and soaked some cloth patches in the wax. I let them dry and harden, then used them to start a couple of fires. They worked fine. No problem.

        Admittedly, the wax method is more expensive than the diesel-fuel method. Gulf canning wax at $3 a pound is more expensive than diesel fuel at $3 a gallon. Plus you’re going to consume some kind of fuel melting the wax in a double boiler.

        In addition, the diesel-fuel method is faster. I could have poured some diesel or kero over the top of my cloth patches and put the lid back on the can long before the water ever came to a boil in the double boiler. Just something to think about when you’re dipping the patches or cotton balls in the molten wax and missing the game thereby.

        But it works. No question about that.

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