Fire is what raised us from animals to humans; it let us eat food that would otherwise have been indigestible and enabled us to extend our range from the warmth of Africa into places that would otherwise have been completely inhospitable.
Yet arguably fire’s greatest contribution was its civilizing effect; it gave man a centerpiece to gather around, a place to share stories, cook food, and to warm us as a social unit. A fire turns the dark into light, the cold into warmth, and it lifts your spirits even when you hadn’t realised you needed a boost.
Here are some of the skills our Stone Age ancestors would have taken for granted, but brought slap-bang into the 21st century because life doesn’t have to be as hard as it was back then...
Read our tips for choosing a garden wood burner
You can pick kindling up for free by collecting dead twigs and small pieces of wood when you’re out on a walk. Or, if you’re feeling lazy, you could buy some from the shops or petrol station.
Alternatively you can make your own from larger chunks of wood; if you’ve already got logs to burn then turning a few of them into a satisfying pile of kindling is the work of moments. You should wear a thick pair of gloves while you’re doing it (I wear the same welders’ gloves I use to manhandle the fire) and the trick is to keep your fingers out of the way of the axe. I’ll hand over to Ray Mears to show you how it’s done:
Lighting your fire
If you’ve got enough small kindling and a firelighter or two then lighting the fire is simplicity itself. Simply place the firelighter on the bottom of your stove or fire pit, pile a small amount of kindling on top and light it.
If you want to use newspapers, then the best way to get the fire started on the first attempt is to twist them up and then knot the length around to hold it all together; you’re looking to produce a tightly wrapped bundle of paper that will burn for a couple of minutes or so. If you just scrunch it up then it will burn too quickly and the flame will die out before the kindling has caught.
Either way, just keep adding a small amount of kindling every now and then until it has taken hold and then add progressively larger chunks of wood until you’re happy with the size of the fire you’ve got.
I try and keep the fire going by adding wood at regular intervals, but if you’ve misjudged it and it’s in danger of going out just add some kindling or small chunks of wood and use your ‘fire reviver’ poker to blow some life back into it!
Choosing your wood
If you’re buying your wood from the petrol station then you’re going to be stuck with whatever they’re selling that week, but if you’ve got a choice then your options fall into two main camps: softwood and hardwood.
Softwood, like pine and fir, burns very well as it contains a lot of resin. It does tend to spit though and lit can leave a tarry residue in your chimney or flues if you burn too much of it.
Hardwood, like oak, beech or ash, burns more cleanly but is more expensive to buy. Wood from fruit trees is a hard wood and smells lovely as it burns, so if you’re pruning or removing the odd dead branch, you should pop it to one side to use later.
You will sometimes come across of piece of wood that is sticky with hardened resin. If so, keep it to one side and use it to start your next fire, as nothing burns better and catches the flame faster than resin!
Disposing of the ashes
The cold ashes – you must either douse them with a lot of cold water or leave them for at least three or four days to go completely cold - are a valuable resource.
You can dispose of small quantities of ash on the compost heap or you can spread it in the garden. I put most of mine around the base of the fruit trees to give them a bit of a boost. Ash is, after all, just concentrated tree, so contains all the minerals and goodness the tree did when it was still alive and growing.
The Wood Fire Handbook; the complete guide to a perfect fire by Vincent Thurkettle is a well written, no nonsense guide that I can heartily recommend.
It’s packed full of tips and advice on building the perfect fire and gives advice on choosing, seasoning, and storing wood for use in all sorts of fires, indoor and out.