How to Build a Top-Down Burn

How To Build a Top-Down Burn

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to easily start a fire every time with less smoke? It’s possible, But you will have to discard your previous experience and approach this new method with an open mind. Most people learned the old “log cabin” style of building a fire with the smallest kindling at the bottom. You are about to learn the top-down method, which is exactly the opposite of what you were taught.

The top-down method works equally well in wood stoves, fireplaces and masonry heaters. In fact, the technique has been in use for hundreds of years with the large masonry heaters found all over Europe. It works just as well today as it did then.

Start by placing the largest pieces of wood in the bottom of the fireplace or wood stove, with the ends at the front and back. Some wood stoves will have a deeper or wider firebox and this will certainly be a consideration when you’re cutting wood. Placing the wood with the ends at the front and back allows the air to mix well with the fuel instead of only hitting the broad side of the wood as it would if it were placed parallel to the opening.

ome wood burners prefer to use hardwood for the bottom row and softer (though no less dry) wood near the top of their firebox. The real key is to make the kindling small enough to easily ignite on top of the pile. All of the wood should be dry, but this is especially critical of the wood at the top.

Once you have placed the bottom row, stack 4-5 smaller levels of wood on top of the first layer until your wood is stacked to about 1/2 of the height of the fireplace. At this point you will begin placing your kindling (the smallest pieces of wood). Again stack smaller and smaller pieces until there are simple wood shavings on top. If you wish to cheat a little you can place a crumpled up piece of newspaper on top. In any case, the stack should not go above the fireplace opening.

The shavings at the top should be small enough to light with a single match. As the fire burns from the top to bottom, it will continue to ignite the wood below. This method is a “light it and you’re done” procedure. No more fiddling with larger pieces of wood falling on the struggling new fire. Notably, only a little smoke is created as the fire burns cleanly from the top of the stack. This brightly burning fire makes it less likely that the fireplace will smoke as it heats the chimney without the interference of loads of wood resting on top of it.

By the Chimney Sweep Institute of America -


    7 Clean Sweeps for Fireplaces

    With natural gas and propane prices continuing to rise, you'll likely be looking to the old fireplace this winter to help cut your home-heating bills. But before you spark up the logs, take heed that fireplaces and chimneys are involved in 42 percent of all home-heating fires. So first make sure yours is up to snuff by following the seven safety tips below. 

    1. Hire a chimney sweep. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that chimneys be swept at least once a year at the beginning of the winter to remove soot and debris. Find a certified sweep in your area via the Chimney Safety Institute of America

    2. Check for damage. In addition to cleaning, a chimney sweep should inspect the chimney structure for cracks, loose bricks, or missing mortar. Chimney liners should also be checked for cracking or deterioration. 

    3. Cap the chimney. A cap fitted with wire-mesh sides covers the top of the chimney and keeps rain, birds, squirrels, and debris from entering. Replace or repair a cap that's missing or damaged. 

    4. Burn seasoned hardwoods. Choose dense wood, such as oak, that's been split and stored in a high and dry place for at least six months. Green wood and resinous softwoods like pine produce more creosote, a flammable by-product of combustion that can build up in the chimney. 

    5. Don't overload. Small fires generate less smoke, thus less creosote buildup. Also, a fire that's too large or too hot can crack the chimney. 

    6. Build it right. Place logs at the rear of the fireplace on a metal grate. Use kindling, rather than flammable liquids, to start the fire. 

    7. Use a spark guard. Prevent errant embers from shooting out of the firebox with a mesh metal screen or glass fireplace doors. A guard in front of an open flame is especially important when the room is unoccupied. 

    By Shyra Peyton of This Old House Magazine

    Good Wood Fires

    Before you succumb to your primal urges and set even a single log ablaze, be certain you've taken the steps required to make the fires you start this season as successful—and safe—as possible. Mark Schaub, of Chimney Savers in Hillsborough, New Jersey, has offered his expertise on many This Old House television projects. Here, he takes you through the drill.

    1. Hire a Chimney Sweep

    Book a pro to give your chimney and hearth its annual physical. A certified chimney sweep will inspect your masonry, flue liner, chimney cap, and venting system to make sure everything's clean, clear, and up to code. You can locate a sweep through the Chimney Safety Institute of America ( Prices vary, but expect a basic hour-long inspection and cleaning to run around $200.

    2. Test Your Gear

    Shine a flashlight on the damper and try it out a few times to make sure it opens and closes tightly. Most wood-burning fireplaces have a metal grate to cradle firewood up off the bottom so air can circulate around the logs; if the grate is cracked or sagging, replace it. Sparks can fly into living areas through ripped screens or mesh that doesn't close all the way; prevent injury and damage by lubricating or replacing worn-out mesh.

    3. Use the Right Wood

    Next to an annual sweeping, burning dry, split hardwood is the best thing you can do for your fireplace. It starts easily, burns for a long time, and leaves less creosote in the flue. Try to buy or cut wood in the late winter, before it's full of spring sap, and let it dry outside for six months. Well-seasoned wood is grayish and furrowed with natural cracks. Bring in only as much as you need for your next fire; wood can harbor insects that may become active in the warmth of the house. Outside, keep the stack covered on top and open on the sides to keep the wood dry.

    4. Warm the Flue

    Smoke won't rise if the flue is filled with cold air. To avoid downdrafts that can push out smoke and toxic fumes, warm up the air in the flue first. After you've opened the damper—and before you've lit the logs—encourage fireplace smoke to travel up and out the chimney by lighting a rolled-up sheet of newspaper and holding it in a gloved hand at the opening to the flue, so warm air can ascend.

    5. Know What Not to Burn

    Fireplaces make poor incinerators. Avoid tossing in Christmas trees, pizza boxes, and driftwood, which flare up fast and could cause a fire in a dirty chimney. Also on the "do not burn" list: painted or treated lumber and newspaper printed in color, because the preservatives and inks create noxious fumes. Manufactured firewood—formed of compressed sawdust, pencil shavings, copper sulfate, and paraffin wax—is a fine choice on its own, but don't burn manufactured logs with real wood or flare-ups could result.

    6. Don't Overload the Firebox

    Burning more than three logs at a time increases heat saturation, which could eventually ignite combustible materials adjacent to the fireplace and chimney. (This is a bigger issue with older fireplaces, which may not have the air gap between framing and masonry mandated by current codes.) Schaub recommends testing for heat saturation by placing your hand right above the mantel: If it's too hot to keep your hand there, quit using the fireplace until you have the system inspected.

    7. Build a Fire (the easy way) 

    Here's Schaub's foolproof technique for a cozy fire in 15 minutes: Ignite a fire-starter brick in the center of the grate. Next, place one log, lengthwise, behind the starter and another one in front of it. When those catch, place a log diagonally across them. This setup encourages combustion air to flow around all three logs.

    8. Watch and Wait

    "Fireplaces are like children. They need to be watched," says Schaub. "Be prepared to stay with the fire until the end." Let it burn out naturally—water tossed onto the fire can damage the firebox—then dispose of ashes safely in a metal bin left outdoors until the embers die. Never vacuum up fresh ashes. "You'd be amazed at how long embers can stay hot in a bed of ash," Schaub says. "It could be a couple of days before they cool."

    By Mark Schaub of This Old House magazine // Photo by Kindra Clineff