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How to Start a Fire Pit: Wood Burning

I was originally going to call this post “How to Start a Fire Pit Without Lighter Fluid,” but I thought I’d go with something a little more subtle and on point. Learning how to start a fire pit the right way (meaning the safe way) is not as hard as you think.  

Note: We are talking about wood-burning fire pits in this post – I’ll cover the safe lighting of gas fire pits in a future post.

In a nutshell, this is how you start your fire pit fire (read further below for the details):

  • Begin with placing tinder in a small pile at the bottom of the fire pit; then form kindling in a teepee-like structure over the tinder pile
  • Carefully light the tinder, waiting for the kindling to start burning 
  • Once the kindling is burning, begin adding seasoned or kiln-dried split firewood logs one at a time, in a manner that allows for proper airflow between the logs, preferably in a teepee, log cabin, or pyramid configuration
  • Add additional logs when the fire begins to wane, taking caution as logs in the fire can shift, potentially throwing embers and other burning debris outside the confines of the fire pit

Before starting your fire, take note of your surroundings, making sure your fire pit is in the right place, away from structures and other unintended fuel sources, and in compliance with the local fire code and your HOA covenants (if you have a HOA).  

Preparing to Start A Fire Pit

In order to properly start a fire in a fire pit, you will need to gather dry tinder and kindling, seasoned firewood, something to start your fire with, such as matches or a lighter, and a supply of water for emergencies.  

A pair of log tongs and heat-resistant glove(s) are recommended for anyone tasked with tending to the fire.  Take caution to not wear loose clothing that might put you at risk for injury from an errant fire pit flame.

What is Tinder?

For the purposes of lighting your fire pit, tinder is that easily lit quick-burning fuel source that gets your kindling, and eventually your logs, burning.  

Tinder itself can be anything from fatwood shavings, newspaper, pine needles, tree bark (birch bark is the best IMHO), leaves, etc., as long as whatever you use is dry at the time.  

Image of three types of tinder used when asking how to start a fire pit fire; fatwood, dry pine needles, and newspaper
Tinder examples

I’m a fan of this idea from Wikihow, using lint from a clothes dryer and the cardboard tubes left over from rolls of toilet paper.  These are things you are going to throw out anyway, why not start a small stockpile to get your fire pit fire going a lot faster.

Image of of a dryer lint fire pit firestarter
Photo Credit: WikiHow

What is Kindling?

Kindling is essentially the sticks, branches, twigs, and small cuts of wood that, when ignited, will burn long enough to get your fire pit’s main fuel source (your hardwood firewood) going.

Image of different types of kindling for starting a fire pit

Softwoods, in general, are great for use as tinder and kindling; wood choices like pine, poplar, cedar, and spruce are options that work well.

What is Seasoned Firewood?

Seasoned firewood is wood that has been cut and stacked in a place that allows it to dry to the point when its moisture content is 25% or below, 20% or lower is ideal.  

This firewood seasoning process can take anywhere from six months to three years depending on the type of wood.

Making sure you have properly seasoned firewood, particularly for fire pits, is important because it lights fast, stays lit, and burns hotter and cleaner than firewood that has not been properly seasoned, or dried.  

Image of a stack of well-seasoned firewood
Well seasoned (dry) firewood is usually grayish in color and is significantly
lighter in weight than its more “green” counterparts; see the firewood pieces
highlighted by the red arrows in the image above for ideal examples

Seasoned birch, oak, maple, and beech firewood are great options among many when selecting wood for your fire pit. Check out my article Best Burning Firewood for Your Fire Pit for my top firewood picks.  

Like most things, shop around for the best price to get an idea of the costs in your area.  Seasoned firewood prices and delivery charges may vary greatly from supplier to supplier.

If these types of wood are not available on your property or you are not interested in chopping, stacking, and seasoning your own wood, look for suppliers in your area that offer kiln or air-dried firewood options.  

These suppliers will also typically offer seasoned softwoods as well for your kindling needs.

What is Kiln-Dried Firewood?

Kiln-dried firewood is produced by placing green wood in a specially designed kiln, providing a quicker way of reducing the moisture content, under 25% as mentioned before, to the point where it will burn more effectively with far less fire pit smoke.

A further advantage is that insects are eliminated during the drying process, which is nice if you plan to store at least some of your wood indoors.  

Image of six pieces of kiln-dried firewood
Kiln-dried cherry firewood
Photo Credit: Cutting Edge Firewood (Atlanta, GA)

Most firewood suppliers do not offer kiln-dried wood currently so you will have to shop around if this option sounds good to you.  

For more on the topic of kiln-dried firewood, check out my article 5 Great Reasons to Consider Kiln Dried Firewood for Your Fire Pit.

Firestarter Options

If you are like me, you get really annoyed using those kitchen lighters that are always out of fuel, don’t stay lit very long, and forget about using them outdoors in a little bit of wind.  

After a very frustrating 4th of July one year, standing out on the lawn looking like a jacka**, trying to light fireworks for everyone in light wind, I began a serious study of alternative firestarter options.

Unlike fireworks, you’ll most likely only have to light your fire pit once, but having a dependable firestarter option that works every time (especially in wind) will save you a lot of time and anguish.  

Basic disposable lighters and even the more expensive Zippo type don’t do well in wind but are options under the right conditions.  

Matches obviously present similar challenges, but like lighters, they are an option in a pinch.

Personally, I prefer an option like an electric arc/plasma beam lighters or a butane torch lighter for lighting a fire pit. Both types work great in wind and other conditions and shouldn’t break the bank.

One thing though, most of these lighters are not that well made, even the ones at higher price points. But, when they do work, they usually work very well.

For the electric arc-type lighters, buy the ones on the lower end of the price scale, looking for multipacks (around $15 to $20/multipack). Treat them like disposable items, because that’s basically what they are.

If those aren’t your thing, a butane torch lighter can be a reliable and generally inexpensive firestarter option. Unfortunately, like the electric arc and plasma beam lighters, most butane torch lighters on the market are crap too.

There are one or two bright spots in the sea of poorly made butane torch lighters I’ve found, and one is a model made by Dremel (the rotary tool manufacturer), it’s the Dremel 2200-01 Versa Flame Multi-Function Butane Torch (check the price on Amazon).

With the Dremel name, a 9-piece accessory kit, a 2-year warranty, and the fact that it can be used for a lot of other home-related tasks other than lighting your fire pit, you can’t beat it at its price point.

Blazer also makes a decent butane torch lighter for the money. You’ll pay just a little more for most of their models, but they’re generally regarded as solid and reliable, and you’ll have a much wider line to choose from.

Starting, Maintaining, and Putting Out the Fire

Once you have everything you need to start a fire in a fire pit, you can begin the short process of placing your tinder, kindling, and seasoned firewood in just the right way to get your fire going and keep it going.  Let’s go step-by-step…

How to Start a Fire Pit Fire

  • Position a pile of gathered tinder material in the center of the fire pit, about as big as an adult’s fist.
  • Then, assemble a teepee-like frame made from your kindling, directly above your pile of tinder positioned in the center of the fire pit, placing the sticks and twigs close together, but leaving some gaps for airflow and lighting.
  • Next, find a gap in your teepee between your kindling and light the tinder pile with your firestarter of choice.  
  • When the kindling starts to burn, you can then begin placing your seasoned or kiln-dried firewood in the fire pit.  

    Firewood placement should be in a teepee, log cabin, or pyramid stack that provides a concentration of fuel for the fire but with the necessary spacing and gaps to allow for adequate airflow.
  • Add additional tinder and kindling, as needed, if your main fuel source, your seasoned firewood, does not adequately light and begin to burn

Putting Out Your Fire Pit Fire

  • When the party’s almost over, stop adding wood to the fire and let begin to go out on its own.  

    Once the fire has had adequate time to die down, extinguish the embers by adding either sand to smother the fire or water to soak the embers.
  • If you choose the water route, stir the water/ember mix with a shovel or similar tool to make sure the embers are saturated.
  • Keep small children and pets away from the cooling fire pit as there are still dangers related to hot metal, embers, etc.

Conclusion: How to Start a Fire Pit

Like many tasks, starting a fire pit fire well and keeping it going, takes practice.  Do it enough and you’ll eventually get what works for you while keeping it safe.

Once you’ve got the process down, start to stockpile those items you’ll need so you have them on hand whenever the urge to light your fire pit arises.  

Keep safety at the forefront and remember to include those safety items mentioned (water supply, log tongs, protective gloves, etc.) in your fire pit sessions.  

Consider setting these items aside as part of a kit you can break out quickly without having to comb through your garage or shed looking for each of them.

Check out my list of 21 “Gotta-Have” Fire Pit Accessories for Your Next Backyard Burn for more on key fire pit safety items and much more.

Finally, make sure that the fire pit (if a portable model) is on a level surface and is adequately far away from things you don’t want to see catch fire.

If you are interested in reading about putting your fire pit out safely, check out my article How to Put Out a Fire Pit: Wood-Burning.

Enjoy your fire pit and thanks again for reading!

What are some good kindling options if I don’t feel like walking picking up sticks or live in a rural area?  A popular kindling option, if you don’t want to get your hands too dirty, is pre-boxed fatwood kindling.  

Fatwood is essentially the resin-rich byproduct of the taproot of longleaf and other pine varieties.  This naturally occurring resin contains the very flammable substance terpene, which greatly aids in starting wood fires.  

Another option is to go through your firewood supplier and ask if they offer softwood kindling with properties similar to fatwood.  Cedar, spruce, juniper, and fir are examples.      

What types of firewood are the most difficult to start? Beech and oak are among the most prolific firewood choices in North America, but both can be a headache to get started.  

With that said, both burn very hot and long once lit.  Keep plenty of quick-burning softwood kindling on-hand to get these two types of firewood going.  The choices mentioned in the previous question are good options.

In addition to kindling, there are a number of very effective retail fire-starter products that will burn hot enough and long enough to get stubborn-lighting fire pit firewood going for good.

InstaFire (Amazon link) is one, and probably the most effective in my opinion. About 2 tablespoons will get it done in good conditions (i.e. dry, low to no wind, etc), double that number if you’ve got some wind, damp weather, poorly seasoned wood, etc.

Pro Tip: Keep Instafire in a pile so it’s concentrated and up against the wood in your stack; don’t spread it out or sprinkle it around the base of the firewood stack – you’ll dilute its effectiveness.

Another solid fire-starter option is from Melt, and my second choice (link to Amazon). Had little confidence in them when I bought them but I was pleasantly surprised by how well they worked.

They were the only option in a local hardware store so I took a chance. They light quickly and provide a flame for enough time to get most wood going in more ideal conditions.

What can I do with the fire pit ashes once they have cooled?  Once your fire pit ashes have had a chance to cool over a 2-3 day period they can be disposed of via your regular neighborhood garbage pickup.  

Take extra care to ensure the ashes are cooled throughout before transferring them to a disposable container or bag.

Also, fire pit ash can be used around the home and garden to defrost sidewalk and driveway ice in the winter and used in the garden in the Spring/Summer due to its lime and potassium content.  

Artichokes, tomatoes, and broccoli, among other garden options, can benefit from ash due to its alkaline composition.

Image of a backyard fire pit