How to Build an Upside-Down Fire: The Only Fireplace Method You'll Ever Need

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Total reading time: 9 minutes.

How would you like to light a fire perfectly and have it burn for 3-7 hours without touching it or putting on more wood? It can be done, every time, but it requires forgetting everything you’ve learned about starting fires…

I have — as most boys and men do — fancied myself quite a fire-maker.

I can make a raging furnace like the world has never seen, a crackling and screaming banshee of life-giving heat that springs to life. This lasts for a euphoric five minutes. Then the real fun begins: the fiddling and fussing, poking and prodding, every five minutes thereafter for the next hour to keep the charred remains clinging to life.

I was in the Boy Scouts and learned the ropes from men who repeated the steps like religious commandments: tons of paper and tinder at the bottom, building up like a tipi (teepee) with the smallest kindling at the bottom and the biggest logs at the top. It’s how fires are built, right?

Let’s call this the “tipi” fire.

Here’s the problem: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It requires dry wood. I needed a fire-building method that worked every time with all types of wood, whether dried like an octogenarian in Palm Springs, or bordering on waterlogged, like most of the wood we had at home, which had been rained on due to a punctured tarp.

Enter the Upside-Down Fire.

To learn the manliest of the manly arts, it took one of my most feminine readers, Marcie, who also happens to help moderate the forum. She was looking for the best method of starting fires for her mountain-side cabin, and the final result was as odd as it is effective.

Even I couldn’t believe this one until I tried it.

The method is simplicity itself: do exactly the opposite of the tipi method.

1) Put the largest logs at the bottom, ensuring there is no space at all between them.

2) Put a second layer of smaller logs on top of the largest, again ensuring there are no spaces between them.

3) Repeat until you get to the top, where you will have strips of crumpled paper and — at the very top — 3-5 fire-starter squares (my preference) or fire-starter oil sticks. My favorite sequence from bottom to top is large logs (unsplit), split logs, sapling wood, cedar shingle wood, then paper and fire-starting squares.

Here’s what it looks like in photos, which you can scan through quickly, taken here at Christmas 2008 at home on Long Island. The embers this fire produces are unlike anything I’ve ever seen:

The final construction after three minutes of assembly. Following lighting, I wouldn’t touch it again for about three hours:

The steps:








The second successful experiment, with about 50% less wood and almost equal burn time:

Other benefits:

Much more heat – Once it’s about 3/4 through the shingle wood — in my example sequence above — it will start to give off a LOT of heat. The upside-down fire produces and projects much more heat than a standard tipi fire. The fire from the top warms the air in the flue and creates a more efficient current of air for cross-ventilation, and there is little warmth wasted.

No smoke or minimal smoke – this is related to the thermodynamics of the flue air being heated faster, based on explanations I’ve read. Since most fireplaces aren’t actually very well designed for fires, this is a huge benefit. No backdraft smoke into the house.

No management – once it in process, assuming you don’t have gaps between logs, it will burn beautifully for 3-7 hours, depending on the amount of wood used. This alludes to one potential drawback: you must start with a substantial amount of wood. It’s less than you’d use over 1/3 the total burn time with the tipi method, but it makes it largely impractical for outdoor survival purposes.

No ashes – this amazed me. It all burns down to nothing. No waste at all as every fiber is converted into heat. Beautiful, in fact.

There are a few things to keep in mind:

1) The upside-down fire will take longer to produce large flames, and it might not look like much for about 20 minutes. Be patient. The goal is to create embers that then fall to the layer below, which is why there cannot by any spaces between logs.

2) This is important: ensure that the paper strips are bent or otherwise prop the fire-starting squares/sticks a bit off of the shingles or layer below. If you don’t have this slight elevation for the paper to catch, you will have trouble starting the fire and get frustrated.

Don’t let fire tending turn into another full-time job. Enjoy the warmth and reap the rewards of a better method, as counter-intuitive as it might be.

###

Additions from readers:

There are some great suggestions from readers in the comments below, which also address modifications for survival use and outdoors, plus tipi-style fires for cooking:

From Kalavic:

“For outdoor application, I recommend doing a mini “log cabin” on top of the fire-starters with a small gate surrounding them to prevent a draft from snuffing out the fire in it’s infant stages.” (also see JBB’s points)

From Andy, even if you use a tipi-style fire:

“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”

Posted on: February 2, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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210 comments on “How to Build an Upside-Down Fire: The Only Fireplace Method You'll Ever Need

    • Looks like a fantastic way to build a fire, am definately going to give this method a try next winter, nothing worse than keep having to get up off the sofa to put more logs on the fire!

      Like

  1. Smoke comes from incomplete combustion, which is what you’ll get when you have a flame struggling under a heavy pile of wood. (Prove this for yourself: Take a stick of incense or cigarette, and hold a lighter up to the smoke. Because of this extra burning, the smoke disappears.)

    Smoke is minimized in this formation because there’s nothing on top of the flames; that is to say, nothing is undergoing the smoky partial combustion inherent in a regular fire.

    All the flue does is provide a tube through which air is drawn upwards. However, because at the beginning of the fire, the flame is much higher up and closer to the flue, the flow of air is started immediately, and any remaining smoke will go straight up rather than simply collect until the flue warms up from a bottom-based flame.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tim,

    Enjoyed the book and your blog. Lots of great stuff.

    I too fancy myself a skilled fire maker, which came in handy for some great omelets cooked over an open fire a few weeks ago after camp stove failure.

    OK, I admit it. Like most man-boys, I just enjoy poking at a fire endlessly. It’s one of those ‘journey is more important than the destination’ things. Maybe there is strong potential to ‘out man’ the other guys at the fireplace with this obviously superior method, which has its own level of enjoyment for the man-boy…

    One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.

    Keep up the great work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Congratulations on another great book: The 4-Hour Chef. Each of your books is a significant improvement from the previous. Keep up the amazing trend.

      I have to admit, footnote 14 on page 45 is my favorite part of 4-Hour Chef. Glad I could make a small contribution.

      Like

  3. Cool topic!

    However with the right, especially of a newer designs, a closed wood stove would be even more efficient and environmentally friendly I believe(for example jotul.com). Off course not as romantic, but you get models with larger windows as well.
    That every fiber is converted into heat might be deceptive with upside down fires I think, I agree that this type of fire would make it burn more of it, but that this ash might as well be carried of and up with the hot air.
    So then you also have to think about soot or creosote that could settle in your chimney and be a cause for chimney fires.

    And how about a kotatsu?

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  4. Hey Tim,

    Perfect illustration of how (Oscar Wilde) in Chapter 2 of my bible (The 4HWW) says ‘everything that is popular is wrong’. Some of the best times in my life were around great fires. Great re-frame.

    Best,
    Rob

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  5. Wow,

    Such simple efficiency by-design!

    Tim you need to have kids so you can do a hack on parenting an 18 month old! I love her to death but shes got me chasing her everywhere! Who’s the boss now!

    Potential future topics:

    -organizing an office space (to compliment your chair of course)
    -How to lead &/or motivate team-mates / coworkers
    -Quickly studying & retaining large amounts of info (language vocab, math equations, random facts or history)

    Kudos,

    Nate

    Like

  6. Being someone who grew up in a cold climate (Northern Michigan) I have spent my last 5 years trying to avoid cold weather. It has not worked well. But I do like camping or sitting around a good campfire just about any time of year. I will have to use this technique and see if I can get the same results. I also find myself having to visit the folks and the rest of my family who have all seemed to either stay or move back to Michigan. It is just too darn cold up there. It would be nice to show off this fire building technique to “seasoned veterans” and it be a spectacular success.

    Cool stuff as usual.

    Like

  7. I learned about this method recently in another blog. It’s great to pass on useful stuff, but at least try to give your sources. It breeds trust.

    ###

    Hi RC,

    I appreciate the comment, but I did pass on my source: one of the readers of this blog, Marcie. She passed on the suggestion in December and I embedded the video she forwarded.

    Hope that helps,

    Tim

    Like

  8. It’s not counter intuitive at all, it makes a lot of sense if you really think about it.

    As a kid in Summer camp, my friend Larry and I stumbled on a similar method. Were were on an overnight camping trip. Earlier, before leaving for the trip, Larry and I we were caught jumping off the roofs of the camp cabins after being told not to. As punishment we were put on fire duty. We were made to get wood and build the campfire for the group while everyone else got to go swimming at Mohawk falls. In the morning it would be our job to clean up the campfire too. We were told to build a teepee type fire the way the camp counselors had taught us.

    We, being smart aleck kids, decided to make a joke out of it. We piled the wood in a similar fashion to your upside down fire. We layered the big pieces of wood in a criss cross fashion as kind of a platform and then on the very top, we built a tiny little teepee fire. we were snickering the whole time. The platform part was very similar to yours. But slightly different. There were no spaces between logs at the bottom, then every other layer had an empty box. Similar to a hi-rise apartment. Hey, we were city kids. We lit the tiny little teepee fire, snickering in anticipation for the reaction following the return of the group.

    When the group got back, much to our chagrin, the fire was burning nicely and our joke was gone. Every still laughed at and joked at how the fire looked like a burning tenement. (We were all Bronx and upper Manhattan kids). The little tiny teepee was gone, but we still got a laugh.

    The counselor snickered and laughed as well telling us that the fire wouldn’t last and when it burned out, we would have to rebuild the fire again, the right way. And as further punishment, it was also going to be our job to tend to the fire all night.

    The fire never burned out and only got stronger and stronger, every time either Larry or myself woke up during the night to check on the fire, it was still burning strong. It was still burning in the morning and cleanup was really easy.

    We joked with, Sven, the camp counselor that we had come up with a better way to build a fire and he told us it was a fluke and that we should stick to the tried and true method in the future. Huh? That floored us.

    Crazy how people stick to conventions and refuse to see or try any other way. As a grown up, my wife and I went on a camping trip with a big group of friends. When it came time to build the fire, I suggested my way and everyone in the group made fun of me. I didn’t know how to make a fire. There were a couple of guys who had been in the boy scouts when they were young and they new the “right” way. After a lot of argument, I gave up when one of the experts (husband of a friend and former boy scout), seemed like he wanted to fight with me. So I let them have their teepee fire.

    Amazing how violently some people defend their conventions. Starts with jokes against those who try a different way, then it becomes argument, and then violence. It’s the unfortunate way of the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Tim. I’d heard about the upside-down fire, but the method you describe is a pure, Platonic form I hadn’t heard described before. Cool!

    I read a report once that insisted that corrugated cardboard is the secret weapon for starting fires, and I think it’s true, Rip it into strips or chips and use liberally. You’ll never have the paper burn out while leaving the wood unkindled again, and makes the fire-starters a lot more optional. (An agricultural experiment station did that research. Gotta do something in the off-season!)

    Like

  10. Who would have ever thought we’d be getting THIS kind of great advice from Tim. Looks like it makes sense. I’ll have to give it a try. And since I live in MN, I can put it to good use. Thanks!

    Bob

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  11. Awesome! I’m excited to give it a try.
    Combine this with the supposed 90% efficiency of a “Russian Fireplace” and you might have a killer combination.

    p.s. Mother Earth News says Russian Fireplaces are the best performers thanks to 2 characteristics: “They contain enough masonry to provide a massive heat sink, and the interior flue path of each unit is arranged in a serpentine pattern so that hot waste gas has plenty of time to transfer its thermal energy into the walls of the stove.”
    http://tinyurl.com/6r22qk

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  12. Ah yes…the fire. So many great memories formed around fires large and small.

    The great thing about this post is that it not only flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and what every good boy scout is taught, but that the answer (better solution) was right there in front of our faces for so very long. Take the thing and flip it over. I never would have guessed that log on bottom and kindling on top would have ever started a fire.

    The one question I have lingering is what if you don’t have an accelerant, like the fire starting sticks or oils. Would it work just as well with a nice big pile of tinder on top. Something to test after Michigan thaws out and I can have a bon fire again.

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  13. I wonder how this would work in a wood stove, where you want it to keep burning past the 8 hours. It seems to me that when the big logs at the bottom are rolling, you could then add large logs to it, to keep the fire going. Still less maintenance, but some maintenance will be necessary for any fire that you need to last all day, right?

    Great tutorial! I will remember it for when I have a house with a fireplace.

    Like