How to Build a Fire

The right approach produces a roaring hot fire that will burn for hours

Illustration of fire pit in backyard Illustration: Brown Bird Design

A fire crackling in a backyard fire pit is a natural gathering spot that will keep you warm as the weather turns cool. 

And the right approach will mitigate the risks, leaving you with little to worry about other than toasting too many marshmallows. 

Building a great fire is easier than you might think. The most important step is to use extra-dry tinder and wood, then slowly build up to the largest wood you’d like to burn. And ultimately, the process is the same for a portable metal fire pit, at a campsite, or even an indoor fireplace or wood-burning stove.

What You Need

• A fire pit or a suitable area for building a fire.
• Newspaper, paper shopping bags, or a firestarter (sticks or balls often made from straw or compressed sawdust and sold at home centers).
• A long-reach lighter.
• Dry kindling wood, about ¼ inch in diameter, found on the ground often near the base of evergreen trees.
• Larger kindling, up to about 1 inch in diameter.
• Split firewood, seasoned or kiln-dried.
• Long tongs or a fireplace poker to adjust wood.

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Fire pit in safe space in backyard

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Find a Safe Spot

The single most important step to building a safe fire is placing the fire pit in the right spot. It should be far from your house or any wood structures, in an open area with nonflammable material below. A stone patio, gravel driveway, or grass field are fine, but an area littered with dry pine needles or dead, dried grass isn’t safe. 

Looking for More Ways to Keep Warm This Fall?

We break down the pros and cons of patio heaters, chimineas, and fire pits in "How to Crank Up the Heat Outdoors."


Prepping the tinder in a fire pit

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Prep the Tinder

Place a firestarter in your fire pit. They look like little bundles of twine or straw and they light instantly and burn long enough to ignite kindling. Or you can use several sheets of crumpled newspaper (crumple each sheet separately) or paper bags. In a pinch, dry leaves work well, too. Lay kindling wood atop the firestarter or paper, with the sticks lying in different directions so that they’ll catch fire once the firestarter is lit.


Lay the Larger Wood in a fire pit

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Lay the Larger Wood

With a nest of tinder and kindling at the center of your fire pit, choose dry firewood 1 to 3 inches thick and about 1 to 2 feet long. You can buy firewood in bundles at gas stations or cut it yourself from fallen limbs and trees. Opt for hardwood species like oak and birch, and stay away from pine and spruce, which tend to be full of pitch and sap, making it smokier as it burns and harder to light. The wood should be seasoned, meaning at least 6 months have passed since it was cut, or kiln-dried, which is a process that dries the wood out to help it burn more easily. Stand the firewood upright around the perimeter of the fire pit in the shape of an upside-down funnel.


Tending to the Fire in a fire pit

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Tend the Fire

Use a long-reach lighter to ignite the tinder. Make sure that as the tinder and kindling burn out, the firewood is igniting. If it’s not, adjust the wood to make sure larger pieces are directly over the burning kindling so that the flame can catch the dry wood. Once the initial batch of firewood is lit, continue to add more, periodically, before the flames have died down too much. Each new piece of wood should be placed directly over the hottest, largest part of the burning fire to help it light.


Let the Fire Burn Out Safely in a fire pit

Illustration: Brown Bird Design Illustration: Brown Bird Design

Let the Fire Burn Out Safely

The easiest way to wind down your fire is to let it happen naturally. Dousing it with water leaves you with a bigger mess to clean up. Stop adding additional wood 45 minutes to an hour before you’re ready to wrap up. Allow the fire to burn out almost entirely, then saturate any remaining embers with water to put them out entirely.

Stay safe and stay toasty.

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Paul Hope

As a classically trained chef and an enthusiastic DIYer, I've always valued having the best tool for a job—whether the task at hand is dicing onions for mirepoix or hanging drywall. When I'm not writing about home products, I can be found putting them to the test, often with help from my two young children, in the 1860s townhouse I'm restoring in my free time.