How Fireplaces Work

How to Operate a Traditional Fireplace

Operating a traditional wood-burning fireplace is not difficult if you follow a few simple guidelines. First, you should begin by choosing the right fuel. Be sure to burn hard woods, such as hickory, ash, oak and hard maple. Soft woods such as pine and spruce generally don't burn as well or provide as much heat. Also, be sure your wood is seasoned, or dry. Wood needs at least six months -- many experts suggest at least a year -- of drying to reach the 20 percent moisture level that is recommended for a good fire [source: Taylor]. One way to be sure your wood is seasoned is to knock two logs together and listen for a hollow sound, not a dull thud. Seasoned wood is also darker and has cracks in the end grain. Avoid using wet or rotten wood, and never burn trash or cardboard in your fireplace. Pressure-treated wood and chipboard are also inappropriate.

To start the fire, you need kindling -- smaller pieces of wood that will take flame easily. Stack a few split logs on your grate and place kindling around and below them. Make sure the damper is open before you light the kindling with newspaper. Don't use too much paper, as flaming scraps can be carried up the flue and onto your roof. Never use gasoline, lighter fluid or a butane torch to start a fire.


Once the fire is burning, you may still encounter problems with puffs of smoke entering the room. One cause of a smoking chimney is a house that's too tight. If there aren't enough openings to make up for the air drawn up the chimney, it can cause negative pressure in the room, creating a partial vacuum. Air pressure forces air down the chimney to compensate, resulting in a smoky house. The solution is to crack a window near the fireplace to let air in [source: HGTV].

Here are some other points to keep in mind:

  • Leave a few inches of ash in the firebox to help reflect heat and provide a bed for coals, which radiate heat.
  • Some experts recommend using andirons instead of a grate, so that logs to drop onto the bed of coals where they burn more efficiently [source: Carlsen].
  • If your damper is adjustable, gradually close it as the fire dies down to maintain a draft and limit cold air from coming down. But don't close it completely until the fire is out.
  • If your fireplace is equipped with glass or metal doors, make sure they are closed before you go to bed.

No matter how carefully you operate your traditional fireplace, much of its heat is lost up the chimney. Next we'll look at a few ways to increase its efficiency.