First you’ll want to check that the damper is open. The damper is a device that controls the amount of air flowing through the flue. The flue is the passage or duct for smoke in a chimney. Feel inside the chimney or pop your head inside to look at the damper with a flashlight. There should be a lever which you can try moving one way or the other. One direction will close the damper, the other will open it – check to see that the damper is open, or else smoke will pour back into the room. This is much easier to do before lighting a fire in there. Once you have determined that the damper is open, you are ready to get started.
If your fireplace has glass doors, open the doors 30 minutes before to allow the inside of the fireplace to come to room temperature. Cold air is heavier than warm air, so if the outside is too cold, it can create a river of cold air flowing down the chimney, into the fireplace, and trapped there by the doors. By opening the doors and allowing some warm air from your room to rise up the chimney, it may be enough to start the draft moving upwards.
Next you’ll want to check the draft. Light a match near the opening of the flue and see if the draft is coming down or going up. If it is still coming down, you must find a way of reversing the draft and getting it to go up. Under no circumstances can you light the fire with the draft coming down. One method is to use a starter block (StarterLogg is one brand — break off a quarter of a stick) or a commercial wax log (such as Duraflame or Pine Mountain). These will light and stay lit, creating some warmth inside the firebox and helping the draft start upwards, and they burn with little smoke:
If the air is still coming down the chimney, you’ll want to close the damper to stop the air from coming down. Put the starter block on the back of the fireplace shovel, light it and place it up inside the fireplace near the flue opening. What you are trying to do is to heat the upper part of the fireplace.
When you have heated it (you will need to use trial and error to determine how long this process is) slowly open the damper and with luck and skill you will find that the heat and fire from your little block will force the air up the chimney. When the draft has fully reversed (you will hear the air sucking the fire and heat from the starter block), then you can light your fire.
Next it’s time to set up your wood and kindling. Newspaper helps the wood to burn. Put the kindling on the grate first, with crumpled up newspaper under the grate and mixed in the kindling. Stack your wood on top. Tinder (in this case, the newspaper) and kindling are materials used to start a fire. Tinder is little bitty stuff like dry grass or straw, tiny twigs, newspaper and the like. Kindling is a little bigger – branches that are thin as your finger, wood shavings, small bits of wood or bark (too small to be logs or to be stacked). Tinder gets lit first and burns very fast – the key is to get enough tinder under the kindling so that the kindling begins to burn. Once the kindling is burning, it should burn long enough to light the logs stacked on top. Don’t use too much newspaper, as it produces a lot of smoke. Be sure to stack the wood horizontally (lay it down, don’t stand it up on end) and leave gaps for air to pass through (create draft).
Stack it in layers, criss-crossed. Intersperse some kindling with the larger wood. At first, the wood should be no thicker than your forearm. Using slightly smaller wood to start will burn quicker and make a good bed of embers for later on. Stack the wood at most to 2/3 of the height of the fireplace opening.
Light the newspaper first. The kindling lights from that. Watch the smoke carefully for the first half hour. The smoke should be nearly undetectable if it’s drafting right up the chimney.
If the smoke from the chimney turns black, the fire is not getting enough oxygen. Use your fireplace poker to lift the wood stack carefully – just pry it up a little, like jacking up a car. Take care here – all you need to do is allow some air to get under it. If your bed of coals underneath the grate is too high, use the poker to spread them out under the fire, leaving a couple of inches of air space. If the smoke is grey, most of the combustible material is escaping through the chimney instead of burning.
You probably did not light the fire from above.
You may have used wet wood.
The fire is getting too much oxygen. Yes, this is confusing – fire is a delicate balance of air and fuel. When there’s too much oxygen, the fire has a hard time catching hold of the fuel, and can make more smoke than normal.
Open a window slightly. If you’re still having trouble getting a good draft on the fireplace, and smoke is coming back into the room, try opening a window about an inch. This works best if the window is on a wall opposite the fireplace, with few obstructions – you will not want to have people seated between the window and fireplace. Sometimes, this breaks a kind of “vapor lock” on the room and allows the smoke to rise up the chimney. If people are between the fireplace and window, they will be chilled because the fireplace will start to suck air up – and it’ll start pulling hard from that window, which will create a stream of cold air running between the window and fireplace. Stay out of the way and let it go – sometimes if the chimney isn’t tall enough, this is the only way to get the draft running well and keep smoke out of the room. The rest of the room should stay warm, it’s just the draft path that will be chilly.
Now it’s time to add some really big logs. If you’re trying to enjoy an evening, you can make sure the fire will go a while without tending by building it properly to start with. Once the fire is going well, you should begin to see some red, glowing embers beneath the fire. As the smaller wood catches and the fire burns hot, grab a larger piece of wood – big. Like, as big around as your thigh, this time (assuming your thigh is a normal sized thigh). Put that on top of the fire carefully, being as certain as possible that the stack is not leaning side to side any direction. The bigger wood takes a while to catch fire, but once it does, it will burn a long time without you having to get up and stir it or move it around. The glowing embers will keep things hot, and you should be nice and toasty for a couple of hours this way.
Stir the wood down at least half an hour before you want it to go out. Break it up with your poker and try to spread it out as much as you can over the area of the firebox. The thinner it’s spread, the quicker it will burn up and go out. Check after the fire is out to insure that the coals and embers are all dead. If so, close the damper so that you do not lose valuable home heat through the chimney all day long.