Using a fireplace without creating a smoky room

  • The teepee method of laying a fire is effective with smaller logs on a grate. Notice the fire starter in the center of the teepee.

    The teepee method of laying a fire is effective with smaller logs on a grate. Notice the fire starter in the center of the teepee. Courtesy of James Dulley

Posted12/7/2019 6:00 AM

Q: We had many trees taken down due to ash borers, so I plan to use my fireplace more this fall and winter. I have never had much luck building fires without smoking up the room. Do you have any tips?

A: Unless you have an efficient fireplace with glass doors or live in a one-room house, use your fireplace primarily in the fall and spring. During very cold weather, the typical open masonry fireplace loses more heated air up the chimney than it produces to help heat your house.


Almost any fireplace will smoke a little until the chimney gets warm enough to create an upward draft. Burning a few crumpled newspapers first can adequately warm the chimney. Open a window slightly by the fireplace to reduce the possibility of a negative pressure. This also reduces the amount of already heated air drawn from the house and lost up the chimney.

The two most important factors in having a fire without smoke in the room are the quality of the firewood and the design of the fireplace. Using well-seasoned wood with low moisture content produces a hot fire with a strong draft. Ash firewood can be difficult to start, but it burns well once going. It is good idea to also use some other softwoods to get the fire started.

Many fireplaces are designed to look good but do not always create a good air flow pattern. The relationship of the dimensions (opening height/width, firebox depth, size of smoke shelf and flue) is critical. It is not difficult to modify the opening size with decorative metal strips.

There really is no one best method to build a fire. If you ask 100 people, you will get 100 best methods depending upon their specific fireplace. In general, though, two of the most common methods are the teepee and English. These refer to the way you place the kindling and logs in the fireplace.

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I have an efficient heat-circulating fireplace, so I use the teepee method and build the fire on the base of the firebox. This transfers more heat to the circulating room air. First put some crumpled newspapers in the center. Using some wax/sawdust fire starters or small pieces of a fire log helps.

On top of the newspapers and optional fire starter, place a few long thin pieces of kindling in a teepee pattern. Next stack the logs around the kindling also in a teepee pattern. The hot burning gases and flames are channeled up through the logs creating a super hot concentrated fire. Once it is burning well, place more logs in any fashion over the flames.

If you prefer to use a grate or andirons, the English method can be very effective. Put crumpled newspapers under the andirons or grate. Lay several seasoned logs horizontally across it. Place a long piece of kindling perpendicular across the logs. Place another layer of logs on top of this.

Some people also recommend a back log. This is a large log laid at the back of the fireplace. It eventually burns, but its primary purpose is to keep the logs on the andirons and protect the fire brick. The front of the back log will glow red which radiates more heat out into your room.


You can buy packs of small fire starters, but it is not difficult to make your own. Divide paper egg cartons into individual containers and fill with sawdust or dryer lint and then pour in melted paraffin or old candle wax.

For more decorative starters, place a pine cone in a cupcake paper, add a wick and fill it with candle wax. Make newspaper logs by wrapping sheets of newspapers around a broom handle, wetting them with a water/flour solution and allowing them to dry. They will stay together when dry.

No matter what method you use, have your chimney checked by a professional chimney sweep. It is inexpensive insurance to guard against a chimney fire that can damage the chimney lining and possibly cause a house fire.

Q: I need a new garage door opener. Does the design affect electricity usage and which are quieter?

A: The amount of electricity used by any garage door opener design is very little. Even though a garage door is fairly heavy, the springs on the door support most of the weight. The garage opener basically just moves the door instead of actually lifting it.

The quietest garage opener design uses a belt drive. The quietest model I have seen (I use one at my own home) is the Genie Silentmax Connect. With the belt drive and soft start/stop technology, I can barely hear the opener itself. I can also control it from my cellphone.

• Write to James Dulley at 6906 Royalgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244 or visit

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