How to Start a Fire with One Match

There is no place more delightful than one’s own fireplace.
— Cicero

At the grocery store today, I saw a big selection of different kinds of “easy burn” fire logs, fire starters, and such. The very existence of these things is a sad reminder of how far our culture has sunk. Why is the simple act of starting a fire, a skill humans have had for millennia, such a mystery to so many modern denizens of rich countries, to the point where you have to purchase a product specifically for the purpose? Why must the first impulse we have to solve any problem, no matter how trivial, be to purchase a product? Why bother having a fire in the first place in your central-heated home, if starting one is such a hassle?

I know, I know. A fire is nice and cozy in a way that furnace heat isn’t. There’s just something deep and primal about it. I am also embarrassed to confess that I have even tried those store-bought firelogs once or twice when I was feeling lazy, or had run out of firewood — and it’s true, they make it pretty easy to get a decent fire going. It just feels unmanly to rely on such things rather than start a proper fire yourself. It robs the fire of its primal nature, at least for me. Besides, the things cost $3-$5 a pop.

If you’ve ever been so frustrated trying to get a fire going in your fireplace or stove that you’ve been tempted to break down and buy a case of firelogs, I have a surefire method for you to get a great fire going using real wood, with just one match.

Step 1 — Use Properly Seasoned Wood

Green wood freshly cut off the tree still has a lot of water in it, so naturally it’s hard to burn. It also makes a lot of smoke. Wood generally needs a few months of drying before it’s ready for your fireplace. The best time to gather it, then, is the springtime, several months before you need it.

Store your firewood in a well-ventilated place that’s at least mostly protected from the rain. A shed or garage is best, but in a pinch you can just pile it under the eave of your house. Thicker logs will dry a lot faster if you split them with an ax, first. It’s a great workout!

You can also buy pre-seasoned firewood at grocery stores, if you really want to. Wuss.

Step 2 — Make a “Tipi” with Kindling

No, kindling isn’t just a way to read books — it’s smaller pieces of wood, generally an inch thick or less. (I know you knew that already, but I couldn’t resist making that joke.) Arrange your kindling in a “tipi” shape, so there’s space at the bottom for the secret ingredient (to be revealed in the next step).

Why a tipi shape? Well, heat rises, naturally, so the shape allows you to get all of your individual pieces of kindling burning at once by starting the fire at its base. Yes, I know, this isn’t the only shape that works, but I’ve personally found it to be the most effective.

Step 3 — The Secret Ingredient

Take a couple of paper towels or napkins and twist them tightly until they form a long, thin, rope-like shape, forming a sort of wick. Then soak your paper towel wick thoroughly in whatever kind of cooking oil you have on hand. Canola oil, corn oil, olive oil — any will do.

Place the wick inside the tipi you’ve formed out of kindling, and light it with a match. A single match should do the trick. That should be all that’s required to get a good fire going. Wait until the fire gets good and hot before piling on larger logs.

This works because oil burns really hot, so it can get even the most stubborn of hardwood burning merrily in short order.

By the way, this little trick works equally well with charcoal — I’ve seen it work when no amount of lighter fluid could do the job.

I suppose it’s not quite as manly as starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together, but it beats the heck out of those wussy store-bought firelogs. And gentlemen, trust me, the ladies love it when a fellow knows how to start a proper fire.

4 Comments

  1. dryer lint works inside the tipi, too.

    but the real question, and manly skill, is how to start the fire with no match at all.

    • Sean Owen

      Hm, I’ll have to try that dryer lint idea.

      As for starting it without a match, that’s easy: use a lighter. ;)

    • Stephen

      Hi Sean, thanks for writing this blog. It’s super insightful and inspiring. I found your site via the YNAB blog -> MMM -> ERE -> BNL -> you. At least I think that was the progression.

      As for fire, in the Scouts, we use firestarters made of paper egg cartons, dryer lint and wax. Put lint in the cups of the carton, then dribble some melted wax into each cup: fill the cup about 1/3 full. We’ve found that each cup burns for about 15 minutes or so, more than enough time to start your kindling.

      We’ve also started a fire with steel wool and a 9-volt battery, although it’s more of a novelty fire-starter. Put your tinder on the steel wool pad, then press the battery onto the wool, making an electrical connection. The wool will heat up, burn and light your tinder. Happens pretty quick, too.

      Hand sanitizer is pretty flammable, so that’s also an option.

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