Lifestyle 20 | Lighting Fires
Lighting a fire is a skill that the modern man should not ignore. The ability to show off cave man instincts may not necessarily be required in the world of smart phone controlled central heating, but ignore the primitive aptitude to bring a pile of wood to light with one match at your peril.
My mind casts back to fifteen years ago when I was in the early stages of courtship with Mrs Clarke. My now father in law tossed me a box of matches and asked me to light the fire in his home. A test of suitability if I have err seen one. Luckily enough for me I was prepared with years in the boy scouts and cadets and my deftness with some kindling, a sheet of newspaper and a bit of luck.
Lighting a fire might seem a simple enough task, but it can be the source of surprising difficulties, swathed in smoke and frustration (as was aptly demonstrated by a recent guest to Clarke Mansions). Yet it is possible to succeed every time with a little knowhow (and dry wood). Over a few drinks, with some firelighting connoisseurs, in front of an empty fireplace I discovered a few secrets to pass to you.
A match alone will not make a big log catch fire is a mantra for us all. All fires have to grow, and the process should always be carried out in three stages. Purists swear by the same procedure for lighting a wood stove as for starting a bonfire: birch bark first, then dry twigs, and when enough heat has developed, the larger logs. A classic method is to use crumpled newspaper for step one, us romantics prefer a sun-browned edition of the Times with a half-finished crossword puzzle.
The drawback of using newspaper is that you have to arrange the kindling before you start the fire, and burning paper requires oxygen. Small firelighters or solid-fuel tablets can burn for several minutes and make for a better, controlled procedure. They generate little heat, but their long burning time makes up for that. Spruce or a similar light wood is perfect for kindling because it is easy to split into thin sticks. The main problems with the introduction of firelights are that you look like half a man, you cannot always rely on their availability and they cost more than old newspaper.
A versatile and effective way to be sure the fire will be roaring is the valley and bridge method or the Charlton & Chelsea as I like to call it. Two logs are laid side by side to create the valley/ Charlton, then newspaper is squashed in between. Thin sticks of kindling are laid across to form the bridge/ Chelsea. This works well because the burning bridge will stand above the ashes and air can circulate.
Turbulence is important when lighting a fire. A simple tool is a blowpipe or blow poker, a 2ft metal tube that you can easily make yourself. Crimp one end slightly; that will increase the speed of the air flow. Most people start a small fire, then put firewood on top of it when it has started to burn well. But the gases will always rise, and if there are no flames at the top to ignite them, they will pollute instead of giving heat. There is a solution: make the hottest spot on top of the burning wood.
The method goes like this: a layer of logs is placed flat in the bottom of a cold stove. Kindling is placed on top — the valley-and-bridge method is perfect. Soon the fire begins to eat its way down. Gas is given off as the logs heat up, but there will always be flames higher up to ignite it.
This works especially well in modern, clean-burning stoves with a large door, and in open fireplaces. It takes a little practice, but when you have mastered it you will have glowing embers, roaring flames and a smug smile on your face, what is more… you will be a cave man my friend.
Thanks to Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood, published by MacLehose Press, for the inspiration for this article.