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

199 Comments

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.”

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

  1. Great post! I have a question that I am hoping you can answer for me. We use the duraflame logs in our fireplace and saw something quite strange the other day. The fire was still going strong and all of a sudden, we saw the embers higher up on the back wall of the fireplace. The weird thing was that there was a bunch of them and they were lined up like ants and moving slowly in unison. This creeped me out to say the least! The embers moved upwards and then as if pulled by a magnet, crawled into the space between the bricks on the back wall of the fireplace. Have you ever seen this strange phenomenon? If so, can you please explain what it is? Any info will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Tim. This method produced great embers for me, but since there was nothing above the embers to burn, after about an hour there wasn’t much in the way of flames. Did you have a similar result or am I doing something wrong?

    Many thanks,

    Nico

  3. We tried this last night and it was amazing! No tending, blazing hot fire. Who knew fire starting advice had been wrong this whole time!

    One question, however: when the fire starts to get low, is there any way to keep the upside down fire going? We just added more logs and it went back to the normal, smoky fire.
    Thanks!

  4. Tried this last night as well. It was *awesome*. Started the fire and sat back to enjoy it. No tending necessary. Only had to poke at it once a few hours later to pile the log-ends into the middle. They flared to life and the fire kept going for another couple of hours.

    Best. Tip. Ever.

  5. Great tip!! This makes a really nice fire. I was surprised how fast it catches fire, once it burns you don’t have to touch it anymore.

  6. Wow, it really works! Don’t even have to be that precise. I did a small fire, 3 logs wide. Just put big stuff on bottom, make sure no spaces like he said, and layer per directions. My top layers after 1″ logs were cardboard strips, then crumpled paper logs, on top of that was about 6 pine cones and a few hardwood scraps I use for kindling. We keep the thermostat at a debate-ably comfortable 68, but the room now registers 77 degrees! Nice. And it really is maintenance free, keeps going all by itself. Thanks for sharing!

    • Still got a couple fists full of embers, look at the time from our first post, very nice long burn, even temp all evening. Many thanks!

  7. I’ve spent the past 25 years tending a multi-fuel stove, until this winter always burning anthracite-based manufactured solid fuel. Last March, a grate-bar was replaced, but the fit was too tight and the expansion cracked the grate frame after a couple of days. An expensive mistake!

    I tried using a grate from a normal small UK domestic fireplace, but it wouldn’t hold enough smokeless fuel to keep going. Ordinary coal was more successful, but dirty, and I was pleased to get a CO alarm and realize the extra maintenance required for safe operation.

    I allowed ash to build up around the sides of the small grate, which improved matters immensely, with a sort of rocket stove effect, but then found a replacement grate of about the right size, which would allow a full charge of smokeless fuel once again. However, the bars are only 5mm thick, so it would no doubt burn through in no time, when burning the hotter manufactured solid fuel.

    As an insurance measure to get through this winter, I tried a sawdust briquette and then ordered in two tonnes, to burn during daytime and evening. A 5kg charge of solid fuel would slumber overnight, producing plenty of ash and not much heat, but at least having sufficient red coals to ignite the briquettes in the morning. The cost of firelighters could otherwise be equivalent to a quarter tonne of fuel per year!

    The hourly tending of the stove was irksome and I had intended to replace the stove last year, or in a few months’ time. Stacking the briquettes three deep would could give a burn for half the night, but they are dirty enough, even when burned with plenty of air (my stove doesn’t have secondary vents at the top, just bottom air).

    With the upside-down technique I’m back to having the flexibility (perhaps more-so) of using manufactured solid fuel, with convenient storage of the easily stacked briquettes.

    Several briquettes burning in one fire will expand somewhat, so I allow 50mm clear on either side. The ones I use are 15x10x6.5cm and weigh 1kg each. I use six or eight, laying them two flat (one above the other) at each side and one or two on edge, in the middle. If there’s just one in the middle, it will create a depression for a firelighter and another briquette is placed over the top. The briquettes are smooth and dense, so they need a lick of flame from underneath to get started, but will then ignite the lower layers (or courses) of briquettes.

    If there are two briquettes on edge in the middle of the stack, then the top one will project above the ones on either side, and another two briquettes are laid like sloping eaves of a cabin, with firelighters placed in the attic space.

    I do a bit of Dutch oven cooking on the embers, so it’s useful to get in a routine and know when the stove will need refuelling in the “conventional” way, which is less likely to cremate the meal!

    To re-lay the fire for another upside-down burn, the embers are scraped to one side and half the stack of briquettes put in position. A small coal shovel is used to place the embers on top of the stack, and the embers are redistributed when the rest of the stack has been built, not forgetting to top the embers with a briquette.

    Many thanks for bringing this technique to my attention. Bananas are best dealt with upside-down, too!

  8. I always used a different method, I laid the wood in layers changing the direction for each layer, kindling & paper at the bottom, I am going to give your way a go and see how it works, that’s thinking out of the box!

  9. Woodstove with a small firebox?

    Upside down is the way to go–I’ll never do it any other way. I don’t know if anyone has touched on how to do this with a small woodstove. I’ve got a lovely little Buck stove in my fireplace with secondary burn tubes, a blower and glass door. But the firebox is small. I have to ask the supplier to save up the shorter pieces of wood for me–length of 15″ max. I can’t really even build up two layers of it because after adding the medium pieces and kindling it is up against the secondary burn tubes at the top. So I get 7-8 straight wedges and lay them in a row along the bottom–thinking of the wedges as like a V on the ends, it looks like this: V^V^V^V except they are all about the same size, of course. Then I lay 4-5 one-inch cut branches into any crevices, and in a layer on the top. Then a layer of smaller kindling. I put one firestarter in among the kindling and lay the newspapersheet on top. Light the firestarter and paper to get the draft going. It gets the whole pile going every time. After a few hours, I’ve got a blazing hot “floor” of burning logs so that I can add wood one piece at a time through the night to keep it going. Next morning there are very few small chunks of charcoal, the rest is ash.
    It’s so counter-intuitive–why does it work? Dunno, but perhaps it’s because if you put the kindling on the bottom there will be large air pockets as the larger pieces fall at angles and burn unevenly–and then you get isolated ends that peter out later. Not so with this system!

  10. so this would work outside as well and is it possible with no fire start sat a survival method could it be done with just wood and some paper?

  11. Dunno if anyone mentioned this parallel, but this is basically a miniature pyre.

    I tried my first one today and it burned HOT, but only lasted a a little over an hour. I think I had too much gapping between the logs, and it burned hotter.

  12. I thought i knew how to build fires, i was wrong!
    Was with the wife at a B&B which had a natural fire place. The first one i made fizzled out in 10min. Thank God for the iphone! Took my battered ego and went searching to find the best way to build a fire and came across this website.

    It’s been an hour now and the fire is still raging! Wife was concerned i made the fire too big! Thanks alot for posting this, now i can have my man card reinstated and look good in front of the wife!

  13. Taught this dog a new trick! Thought I knew it all, regarding fire-building. Taught classes, everything. Then read Four Hour Chef, just a few pages into it… and there, Tim had the AUDACITY to challenge my perfect fire-building technique! NO WAY was that going to work….

    …. but just had to try it. So, following the entirely-too-simple (and illustrated) instructions, I built a fire in my large fireplace at home.

    It started slow, and I thought, uh huh, another nice uselss idea that can’t make it in other-than-ideal circumstances. Nice try, Tim.

    And then… about 20-25 minutes after ignition, I started to back away. 40 minutes after ignition I was a good 4-5 feet away from the freaking towering inferno. UNBELIEVABLE. There were a good 15 logs on that thing, and they were all involved. In 40+ years of making fires (and some pretty big ones, too), this was, without question, the HOTTEST fire I have ever built.

    Not only that… it burned that way for over two hours. I poked it once… only ONCE, mind you… during that period (vs my continual tweaking and adjusting that I’ve had to do with every other fire I’ve built). For the first time, the fire actually warmed the room (most of the time 90% of the heat goes up the chimney).

    And in the end… I had a tiny (36″ x 48″ x 48″ stack of wood) to a 6″ x 5″ x 3″ pile of ashes… the fire was so efficient it burned nearly everything! Again… unreal.

    Okay… so one success doesn’t make it, in my book. Repeated it, a few days later. Same result.

    A couple of months later, a Cub Scout camping trip presented an opportunity to do this “in the field.” Told some of the other adult leaders that I was going to have a very different fire-building class. Some real doubting Thomases were present when I started in with the construction… but a half-hour later they were stepping back from the heat being kicked out by the fire. Repeated it in the morning. Have quite a few believers now.

    Tim has quite a few very impressive things in that book (along with his other book), but that fire-building recipe takes first prize with me, simply because it challenged me in an area where I considered myself an expert.

    Keep an open-mind, folks, and give Tim’s stuff a try!

    And Tim, if you read this… very cool (well, hot) stuff in all your books, much of which I’ve incorporated in my personal and professional life. THANK YOU!

  14. Kinda neat. I built an upside down fire tonight similar to your method. It worked great. The smaller wood was dry, the larger pieces had already been rained on. I figured the small dire on top would defy out the underneath larger logs. I wasn’t sure it would work. Did a search. Found your page. My fire is going strong.

    Thanks for taking the home to post about this topic. Helped me :)

    Jim

  15. Amazing! My boyfriend watched me start it and very nicely told me what I was doing wrong – and then saw it roaring in a few minutes – and still going full on after an hour! Thanks for that :)

  16. This is one of the wonders of the internet. My wife and I tried it two years ago and we do not have fires any other way. 100% genius.

  17. I respectfully have to say you are both right and wrong about the Boy Scouts teaching methods for fire building. What YOU want is a pretty fire that lasts and lasts for hours with no intervention so your method is correct. But, what Boy Scouts want is a cooking fire and for this you want a lot of coals in a hurry. The last thing we want is a lot of flames shooting up and over our pans for hours on end so we build the log cabin fires. They burn hot and fast and provide a lot of coals in a hurry. So both methods have their place.

  18. Thanks for sharing this info. We are on the gulf coast and tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, it will be in the low 20′s. Hasn’t been that cold here since the 1930′s! Most of us down here don’t even own an ice scraper and I do not know anyone with a snow shovel. I’m making the fire this afternoon to prep for tonight. Hope we stay warm!

  19. Tim,

    I doubted this method at first, but I just tried it and was blown away. One of the easiest and best fires I’ve ever built! Thanks for the tip!

    -Tim

  20. First off, yes this will work and i already have done it.
    But only in a situation where you have; paper, different kinds of wood and fire starters.
    The tinder and fire starters square work because they are rich in resin. Top or bottom doesn’t really matter because the resin will melt, catch fire and drop.
    You can pull the same thing of with an oil gasoline mixture next to a burning candle on top of the wood stack. Or even synthetic clothing. Animal fat is also a great tool in a pinch. Don’t forget humans are animals too. :)

    The thing to remember is that fire is a breathing eating living animal. It will tell you what it needs if you pay attention to it.

    I am a pyromaniac and have been since I was born, I have started a lot of fires with only a knive and magnesium stick as tools. Some fire burnt hot and large and others i kept small and smokeless. Fire is one of the most obedient pets you can have once you start to learn how to listen to it.

  21. Bought seasoned (supposedly) wood- very white. Had dificulty starting it unless I had some old wood. I also constantly poke and prod. Have been making fures for 25 years. Last night I decided to try your method . Vavoom! Never had to get up once. Burned all evening. Hope it isn’t just beginners luck.

  22. I got a new delivery of wood, hardwoods that are supposedly seasoned , but I have difficulty getting a fire, and I have been making them for over 25years. Tried your method and I never got out of my chair oince, Hope it isn’t beginners luck!

  23. Got a delivery of supposedly seasoned hardwood. Very difficult to get a fire going, so I searched and found your site. Tried it and it worked! Didn’t get out of my chair all night. Only problem, where do I get cedar wood shingles?

    • I don’t think you need cedar wood shingles… I’ve build the upside-down fire with several different types of wood, even using fairly green wood on the bottom. I’ve used fire-starter on top, and also build a small standard “log cabin” on top to get the thing going. Everything worked. The only real variance was how long it would take to really get going… you’ve got to be patient!

    • Since I first read about the upside-down fire in The Four Hour Chef, I have built eight of them. Three of them were done at a Cub Scout campout, with some very experienced outdoorsmen watching me with very skeptical eyes (30 minutes later they were backing away from the blazing fire, and asking me where I learned this method?). This method has worked EVERY SINGLE TIME.

      “No air flow.” Well… there’s just no way you’re going to eliminate air flow around the logs, even if you wanted to. Jam them in there as tight as you can, and there’s still pathways for the air, especially when the heat starts to build.

      I wish I could post the pictures and videos I’ve taken. All five layers are blazing. Truly amazing.

      Daniel… I’d suggest you not over-think it, and just give it a try. And then…. step back. It’s gonna get hot!

  24. I tried this method this evening to light a fire and it worked wonderfully, even though my fireplace has less than perfect ventilation. Usually, I have to close the glass doors on the fireplace to keep the smoke from billowing into the apartment, but I had no problem with smoke using this method. I suspect the secret to its success is the fire starter so I am curious to try it again without one. Anyway, thanks for this idea.

  25. I wrote in Dec.2013, thinking it was beginners luck. As I mentioned, I have been making fires since my husband died 25 years ago. Almost 80, I make a fire everyday all winter long, preparing it every morning for the evening. Thinking I had an unseasoned cord of wood delivered I sought and found your sight – tried it and it worked! I had 30 people for Christmas day, set the fire and it roared beautifully and every day since, and I do not have to attend to it until I need to add more logs.I praise you to all my friends,Thank you so much.

  26. What about the airtight fireplace..would this work as well?..I’m having problems with mine..works great when its hot..but smokes me out when I light it. My house has two fireplace each with its own chimney.. The traditional one has no issues its on the main floor. Airtight is in basement.

    • Hey Terry, be sure your airtight fireplace isn’t just for clean burning natural gas burning logs, pretty sure that type is not made for wood/coal fires.