Townie that I am, I lack many necessary rural skills – sheep wrangling, chicken sexing, advanced gate-leaning – but the one that looms large at the moment is starting fires. No, not arson – remind me to tell you of the time I almost set fire to Ascot racecourse – but little domestic fires, the kind that keep you warm. My mother, who was a girl guide, made much of the fact that she had learned to start a fire with a single match, but all I can recall from my brief stint in the guides was making up rude words to the songs (they don’t give you a badge for that) and I can’t have been paying attention when they taught us this part, if indeed they did.

I’ve got all the theory. Newspaper to start, then sticks, then bigger sticks, then the logs, then all the poking about that makes having a fire so much fun and such an inefficient way to heat a room. And once I’ve got the newspaper going, the rest of it usually goes more or less as advertised, it’s lighting the newspaper that seems to be the hard part. This seems odd. I apply the lit match to the paper and after some luridly coloured flames (colour printing has a lot to answer for) it seems to lose heart and simply go out.

I’m beginning to think it’s the newspaper itself that’s at fault. It is, after all, the Guardian. Perhaps it’s not just metaphorically, but actually wringing wet –  I’m sure the Telegraph takes a much more robust approach to starting fires. And the Daily Mail? No need for even the one match, I’m guessing. Just show it an illegal immigrant single mother on benefits and it will spontaneously combust then and there…

Any suggestions, folks? Petrol? Or change the newspaper reading habits of a lifetime?


28 Responses to Firestarter

  1. bikinginla says:

    Having grown up in cowboy country, I must humbly confess to great expertise in building a good fire. Of course, we traditionalists prefer using straw and kindling, preferably while wearing boots and dangling a bit of straw from the lower lip. However, if you insist on using newspaper, try this: crumple the daily rag of your choice into a very loose mound before stacking your sticks on top of it. The key is to create as much surface area as possible, while allowing air to circulate freely through it. Too flat, or crumpled into too tight a ball, and your fire goes right out. Crumple it just enough, though, and you’ll build a bonfire that could signal ships at sea.

    Now, about that almost Ascot blaze…

  2. Dom says:

    A sheet of kitchen towel also works well, especially when you drizzle a little petrol or lighter fluid on it… say 10 gallons? 🙂

  3. Jo says:

    It sounds obvious, but light a corner at the bottom of the pile – I don’t know why, but it catches better that way.

  4. disgruntled says:

    Clearly I’m doing it all wrong: over-scrunching, lighting the wrong corner … (I’ll pass over the petrol suggestion). I think cowboy country may be substantially drier than round here, if you can find straw that does anything but a damp smoulder.

    Must try harder

  5. Stormfilled says:

    For my old wood burner, rolling the newspaper into tubes worked well, then it seemed to make its own chimney and go up like a rocket. Either that or rolling loosely and making it into pretzels. Round at mum’s now with the coal fire, we resort to firelighters, but I’m now an expert at a kindling free fire-lighting!

  6. disgruntled says:

    I was doing the pretzel thing, but my pretzels must be too tight because I can only light those by crumpling them inside a sheet of paper. The tubes sound a good plan though

  7. Huttonian says:

    My father used to say that Guardian readers were wet. Perhaps it drips off

    Loose paper and a Maya stick plus very small logs never fails

  8. 2whls3spds says:

    Preheat the chimney with a couple of pages twisted tight and lit, it will help the draw and get the bottom paper to flare. I also light it in several places…


  9. Elizabeth says:

    I think there are not enough sentences in the world with the phrase “chicken sexing” in them. So thanks for replenishing the stock. E

  10. disgruntled says:

    Huttonian – Maya stick?
    2whls – ah, happiness is a prewarmed chimney
    Elizabeth – you should have done philosophy at Uni. Plenty of rubbish talked about chicken sexing there.

  11. j says:

    new here

    Afraid I can’t help, The Grouch (hubby) only has to look at a fire and it kindles – me used parrafin on bonfire mid august (S France where forest fires caused by fag ash!) nichts nada nowt. So as not to freeze when caveman not here to make fire I use gas – a tube with holes in it linked to gas pipe and stick it in middle of fire until a) it’s lit or b) house blows up. Not sure elfin safety would approve!

  12. disgruntled says:

    I’m glad there’s someone else confessing incompetence in the matter. I was beginning to think it was just me

  13. psychosplodge says:

    so that explains my success at lighting newspaper…

  14. yorksdevil says:

    Just for clarity, Mr. ‘Splodge’ means he reads the Mail.

  15. disgruntled says:

    I was rather drawing a veil over that one…

  16. 2whls3spds says:

    Having trained at least two generations of young pyromaniacs as a Certified, Trained Boy Scout Leader…

    Our best technique by far for wet, as in totally drenched campfires was the old fashioned railroad flares…those things will burn under water! However I would not suggest them interior use unless you are looking to collect insurance to be spent on a new abode.


  17. disgruntled says:

    Damn, the boy scouts sound a lot more fun than the guides were…

  18. Sarah says:

    Do you need to open the room door while lighting the fire to get the draught going? And pull the grate open at the bottom? If you shut all the doors and windows because it’s cold, the fire won’t light because there it won’t have an air supply…

    You’re probably over scrunching the paper as well… Try taking hold of diagonally opposite corners and rolling/twisting it up hand over hand – that’s how my mum taught me.
    I always light the paper in at least three places, to give it the best chance off one match.

    My other half prefers to use the gas torch we got for our wedding (supposedly for making creme brulees and the like).

  19. disgruntled says:

    Oh, there are plenty of draughts, doors open or closed. It’s the over-scrunching, you’ve all got me convinced. I shall do better next time. Or get one of those gas torch things

  20. Ross Angus says:

    I use old phone book pages. They are refreshingly retro in their inks.

  21. […] half away from the chapter on shark wrestling, I shall be checking it out. With that, and your excellent advice, I’m sure we’ll be in front of a blazing fire in no […]

  22. Jo says:

    Oooh, one other thing you could try is to strategically place additional rolls / tubes / not-too-scrunched-scrunched-up-balls of paper amongst the mood as well as at the bottom so when the flames grow, they’ll find new kindling in case the fire isn’t catching yet. That works on the bonfire.

    You could also cut some brambles and when they’ve dried, put them in the fire as well. Wet, they’d refuse to take in an inferno but dry…. stand back!

  23. Jo says:

    By “mood”, I did of course mean wood…

  24. disgruntled says:

    Ross – your phone books are probably bigger than ours. Ours is more ‘slim volume of verse’ than ‘something you can stun a cat with’.
    Jo – pine does that too, in a very alarming set-fire-to-the-chimney way. I’m trying to avoid it.

  25. Jo says:

    I’m trying to avoid it.

    That’s no fun!

  26. Stuart says:

    The paper is the problem. I’ve abandoned it. Definitely doesn’t burn as well as it used to, and produces ash that chokes the fire. Just use sticks, about ten, two or three north south, then two or three east west and so on. Part way through, take a sharp knife, and shave slivers off one of the sticks, a couple of dozen good slivers. Put these in the middle of the nest you’re building. Then balance coal on top, largest bits first, in the middle – their weight will hold the pile stable. Then light. It’s a point of pride to use just one match and to light it in one place only.

    Stay and watch, preferably lying face down on the floor; the best bit. Peer through the bars and watch the flames spread and curl and light up the interior. Without paper it goes really fast, the air rushes in, and the fire will be established in twenty minutes or so. Apart from the times when it goes out within seconds.

    Great blog.

  27. disgruntled says:

    I can see there’s a whole week of blogging here, just trying all the suggestions…

  28. […] that I was considered something of a bonfire expert, for reasons which escape me. Fortunately my fire-starting weaknesses remained undiscovered (something to do with lighting a bonfire of gorse using kindling made out of […]

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