Chances are you’ve been there at some point. No matter what you try, the fire just won’t start. It looks promising as the flame grows, but then some unseen force extinguishes it and you’re back where you started. It happened to me one too many times, so I decided to get serious about the best ways to start a fire pit. So, I’m happy to share with you exactly how to start a wood-burning fire pit. Thankfully, it’s easier than you might think.
First, I’ll list an overview of the steps that I’ve had the best luck with, then I’ll get into details about each step and things like fire starters, wood, tinder, kindling, and safety. This post is only about wood-burning fire pits. I’ll tackle gas fire pits in another article.
How To Start a Wood-Burning Fire Pit: The Steps
Step 1: Gather Tinder, Kindling, and Logs.
You’ll also want to gather matches, fire starter, lighter, or your preferred method of producing flame. Fire protection gear is recommended but optional.
Step 2: Clear Your Fire Pit
Clear of any debris and ashes from previous fires.
Step 3: Placer Tinder
Place tinder in the center of your pit.
Step 4: Arrange Kindling
Decide on a structure and arrange it in accordance.
Step 5: Light it Up
Light the tinder. I’ll also discuss fire starters below.
Step 6: Add Logs
Gradually add fuel to build the fire without smothering it.
Supplies and Fire Protection Gear
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s talk supplies. I recommend using fire protection gear like gloves, tongs, but many people do just fine without them.
You’ll definitely want to have some sort of extinguishing substance on hand. You can use any of the following:
- Water (a large bucket or a garden hose).
- Sand (a bag or a large bucket).
- Fire Extinguisher (like the kind you keep in the kitchen).
- Dirt (make sure it doesn’t have little bits of wood in it).
As for producing flame, you’ve got tons of options. My personal favorites are regular disposable lighters and plasma beam lighters for windy days. But you can use any of the following:
Tinder vs Kindling: What’s The Difference?
I sometimes call kindling tinder and tinder kindling. It’s an easy mistake to make, but I’ll clear it up right now.
No, it’s not a dating app. At least not for our purposes. You’re welcome to try to start a fire with an app on your phone, but I strongly recommend that you don’t. No good can come from it.
Tinder is any kind of combustible material that will light quickly when touched with flame or spark. You’ve also got plenty of options for this, but keep in mind that your tinder, like all your fire fuel, needs to be dry. It’s nearly impossible to light wet or damp tinder.
Examples of tinder:
- Wood Shavings
- Brown Pine Needles
- Small Twigs
- Dry Grass or Leaves
- Birch Bark
- Cotton Balls
- Newspaper, Paper Towels, Toilet Paper
Kindling is kind of the halfway point between firewood and tinder. It’s larger than kindling but smaller than typical firewood. Good kindling is wood or branches that are dry, no thicker than your thumb, and about the length of your forearm.
Examples of kindling:
- Dry Branches
- Large Pine Cones
- Seasoned Firewood Chopped Into Thin Chunks
- As A Rule of Thumb: Any Piece of Wood You Can Snap With Your Hands
Best Characteristics and Types of Firewood
For best results when starting your wood-burning fire pit, you’ll want to keep in mind the best characteristics and types of firewood. Obviously, just like your kindling and tinder, you’ll want dry firewood. But I don’t mean just dry as in it hasn’t been rained on. I’m also talking about the kind of dry that only comes from dead and seasoned firewood.
What’s Seasoned Firewood?
When people talk about seasoned firewood, they mean wood that has been cut and allowed to dry. Over time the moisture and sap in cut wood will evaporate, making it ideal for burning. Seasoned wood burns hotter, lights easier, and generates less smoke than green firewood.
The amount of time wood needs to become seasoned varies by the type of wood. Generally, people suggest that you cut and store firewood this year that you want to use next year. But, if you want to get technical about it, some types of wood take two or three years to become fully seasoned.
How Can You Tell if Your Firewood is Seasoned?
Many people say that your firewood is seasoned when the moisture content is less than 20%. I don’t know about you, but I never learned the secret power of telling how much moisture is in a piece of wood by looking at it. Of course, you can always use a moisture meter if you have one lying around, but I wouldn’t go out and buy one unless you really want to geek out over your firewood. No judgment here.
- The easiest way to tell if your firewood is seasoned is by the color. Firewood that’s ready for burning fades, often to an ashy gray color, instead of a brown or tan. The color will depend on the type of wood, but just look for the dullest pieces because they’re the most seasoned.
- The bark on seasoned wood should come off easily. If it’s already falling off or comes off in your fingers, it’s a good indication that it’s ready to burn.
- While not the greatest indication, cracking is a sign of seasoned firewood. Usually the cracks start in the middle and radiate out, but some types of seasoned wood won’t crack at all.
- Seasoned wood is harder than green wood. It’s also lighter because the moisture content is lower.
Best Firewood for Backyard Fire Pits
Hardwoods will give you longer burn times, more heat, and less smoke. Here are some of the best hardwoods for backyard fire pits:
- White Oak
- Red Oak
- Hard Maple
All of these woods are great for fires and should be seasoned for a year, ideally. But, there is an alternative to seasoned firewood that you can use if you’re so inclined. It’s called kiln-dried firewood.
What’s Kiln-Dried Firewood?
Essentially, kiln-dried firewood is an efficient way to speed up the drying process. It takes a special kind of kiln that will remove moisture and insects from the wood by heating it up. Kiln-dried firewood must dried for at least 75 minutes at 175 degrees. However, some firewood suppliers cook their wood for longer at higher temperatures to give you an easy-to-light and clean-burning firewood.
This stuff isn’t available everywhere, so you’ll have to shop around. Amazon does have a couple of options you can have shipped to your door. Here’s a customer favorite.
Step 1: Gather Tinder, Kindling, and Logs
You’ll want them at hand for easy retrieval. When you’re dealing with a stubborn fire, even a couple of seconds can mean the difference between the fire starting and dying.
- Tinder – Gather two large handfuls.
- Kindling – Gather two or three times the amount of tinder.
- Logs – Grab four or five small ones and a couple of medium-sized logs.
Step 2: Clear Your Fire Pit
Oxygen is essential for starting a fire, so you’ll need to clear out any half-burned logs, ashes, and other debris from the fire pit so oxygen can flow freely. Of course, make sure the ashes have had enough time to cool since your last fire.
Step 3: Place Tinder
Place a small pile of tinder at the bottom of your fire pit. Make sure the pieces of tinder aren’t loosely packed, so air can flow through. The only term I can think of for this is “fluffing the tinder” but you’re welcome to use a term that doesn’t sound quite so inappropriate.
All joking aside, this is a common mistake that people make— myself included. I felt like packing the tinder into a mound was the way to go. When my fire wouldn’t light, I didn’t know what was wrong. When I finally started laying the tinder in a loose pile, it became much easier to get a fire going.
Step 4: Arrange Kindling
This is where you can get a little creative. My personal favorite arrangement of kindling is the classic teepee look. Some people suggest a pyramid arrangement, which is pretty much the same thing as the teepee. You can also do a log cabin arrangement, but it’s a little more time-consuming and involved. However, it’s great for you architects out there.
Leave some gaps between the branches, sticks, or thin-cut logs that you are using for kindling. This is important for airflow and so you have a place to light your tinder. You also want it to be fairly sturdy. This is one drawback of the teepee or pyramid arrangement: they tend to fall over if they’re not sturdy enough.
However, if they fall over when the flames are going strong, it’s not so much a problem. You just need the structure to last until a majority of kindling catches fire.
Step 5: Light It Up
Once you’re happy with your kindling arrangement, it’s time to light your fire. For best results, light your tinder in a well-chosen spot, instead of skipping around all over. If you have a lighter, it’s not such a big deal. If you’re using a match, you generally don’t want to be skipping all over the place with it.
If it’s windy, light the kindling on the side that the wind is coming from. This way it will push the flame further into the kindling instead of away from it.
Step 6: Add Logs
When your kindling is lit nicely, you can begin to add small logs to the fire. You want to gradually work your way up to the biggest logs you want to burn so you don’t end up smothering your fire. The bigger the flames get, the larger the logs you can put on. So start with pieces of wood that are slightly larger than your kindling, and keep adding as the fire grows until you have made it the size you want it.
Only add one or two logs at a time to avoid smothering the flames, and try to maintain a teepee or log cabin structure throughout.
Now that I’ve covered the detailed steps of how to start a wood fire, I’d like to talk about a way to make it even easier. Personally I don’t like to use lighter fluid or any other chemicals to light my fires. Not only because I do cooking on my fire pit sometimes, but also because I just don’t like the smell.
Plus, with a young kid around, the fewer chemicals in the house the better. So, on those days when I’m feeling a little lazy, I’ll replace some of my tinder with a natural firestarter. Here are some of the options if you want to go this route:
- Grill Trade Firestarters
- These are made out of pine shavings and food-grade wax, making them a great natural fire starter. You only need one to get your fire started.
- Green Spark Fire Starters
- These are another all-natural option. They’re made out of wood wool and stearin. No chemicals or additives at all.
- Homemade Egg-Carton Fire Starters
- You can get the kids involved in this one, as it’s a fun little project to do around the house. You’ll need to collect dryer lint, old wax candles, and a paper egg carton.
- Melt the candle wax in a metal container (like a soup can) that you don’t mind tossing afterward. To do this, put a couple of inches of water in a pot, put the can with the wax in the water, and heat it up.
- While you’re heating the wax, place your dryer lint into the empty egg carton, filling each little bowl at least half-way. Don’t push it down too tight!
- Once the wax is melted, carefully pour it from the container (watch out, it’s hot!) on top of the dryer lint in the egg carton. Make sure all the lint is soaked in wax.
- Let it sit until it’s fully dry, then cut up the egg carton for 12 little fire starters that work like a charm!
As you can see, starting a wood fire pit is easier than you think. You can get as sophisticated as you want with fire starters, a moisture meter for your wood, or kiln-dried firewood. Or you can use stuff you have around the house and the yard. Either way, the same guidelines apply: use dry materials, leave room for airflow, use a teepee or log cabin structure, and gradually add larger pieces of wood until you have a nice big fire.