Anyone that’s stomped into a country pub on a cold winter’s day will understand the distinctive delights of a roaring fire.
But how realistic are they for most homes? And what about eco concerns, not to mention safety?
We spoke to Vincent Thurkettle, author of The Wood Fire Handbook, now in its second edition, about the comfort, care and controversy surrounding the modern wood fire…
An ancient affinity
For many, a wood fire isn’t just a household amenity, it’s a way of life. “I don’t have a cat or a dog,” says Thurkettle, “but I do have a wood fire. I sit beside it, feed it and clean up after it, and I can’t leave it alone for too long.”
For Thurkettle, the love affair is borderline instinctive. “Wood fires are the thoroughbred,” he says, “we had them before we were even human and I sometimes wonder whether they’re in our DNA. The earliest fires that we know about are almost a million years old, and there’s something atavistic about how much we like them.
“Even until fairly recently if you were cold, wet and hungry, the smell of wood smoke meant you were getting near home, and with it warmth, food and company. I’ve never known someone to get the same feeling by snuggling up with their radiator.”
Despite our obvious kinship with fire, Thurkettle is often surprised by how little many of us know about one of man’s earliest discoveries. He recalls one woman requesting his help lighting a pile of absolutely sodden green oak (“you couldn’t set fire to that with napalm”), and a neighbour asking how much coal his wood fire needed.
A buyer’s guide
The first rule of fire club, according to Thurkettle, is to pick up a modern, wood-burning stove. “An open fire is roughly 13-15% efficient,” he says, “as it’s throwing several cubic feet a second up the chimney. Modern wood burners operate at 70-85%, so you’re getting at least four times the heat for the logs that you burn.”
Most modern stoves, unlike older models, have what is called ‘secondary air’ – pre-heated air sustaining flames above the main fire, which burn off much of the smoke emitted by your logs.
Otherwise, individual units are mostly distinguished by size, and the heft that you need depends on the space you need to heat. “Heating engineers might throw stones at me for this,” says Thurkettle, “but I always buy something slightly bigger than the numbers say – then you can open the door and let the heat permeate through the house.
“I’ve got a cousin who had an engineer install a tiny stove in her house, and now she can’t get logs small enough. It’s got such a small fire box that it needs constant feeding, so she’s always having to cut wood in half.”
Finally, selecting your stove is not the right moment to be miserly. “Don’t buy cheap,” says Thurkettle. “If you purchase a good one, it should last more or less the rest of your life.”
Tender burning care
It’s the raw materials that will decide whether you sputter or spark. “In a stove, the species of wood doesn’t really matter,” says Thurkettle. “But make sure it’s dry, and that means a moisture content of 20% or less.” The Government recently introduced a scheme called ‘Ready to Burn’, a quality label marking timber dry enough to go straight on the flames.
If you have room for storage, Thurkettle suggests some DIY. “You can get wood straight from a woodsman or firewood supplier and buy a moisture meter – they’re dead simple and really cheap. Just jab it into the log and look at the reading.”
When it comes to lighting, there’s a knack to ensuring your fires get lit and stays lit. When introducing new wood, do so from the side, letting it warm and dry before it lights. “There’s an old farmer I used to visit that had an open fire,” recalls Thurkettle, “and when he put on a new log, he would plonk it right in the middle. It was like the sun going behind a cloud.”
Wood fires can be aesthetically, physically and emotionally satisfying, but Thurkettle accepts they’re never going to be for everyone. “My father likes a push-button world,” he says. “He was a Royal Navy sailor with no real interest in woodland, and I don’t think he’d thank me for a wood fire. If you don’t want to gather and store and nurse and clean, it’s probably not for you.”
For the best of both worlds, time-poor consumers should set their sights on stoves. “An open fire takes real skill,” says Thurkettle. “You’ve got to light it, manage the embers, and manage the smoke. So long as you avoid dirty wood – wood with paint, creosote or preservatives – stoves are much easier to manage.”
Snug but safe
There are some specific rules to follow to ensure you’re only burning what you intend to – and always putting safety first.
“Overnight burn at your peril,” says Thurkettle. “Some people take pride in keeping their fires on overnight, but they do so by restricting airflow, limiting the burn off of tar, creosote, and so on.” Over a period of time this can result in stalactites of tar, and something called an explosive chimney fire. You really don’t want that.
It's pretty cold outside. If you're lighting your fireplace/wood burner make sure that you've had your chimney swept regularly, installed a carbon monoxide alarm and haven't stored the wood too close to the wood burner. #chimneysafety #community #safety #coldweather pic.twitter.com/iBmxx2bDnG— Lincs Fire & Rescue (@LincsFireRescue) November 12, 2019
Even the most responsibly fuelled flue needs the odd deep clean, and the usual rule is to have your chimney swept once a year. Be aware that there are strict regulations on how close fires can be to flammable materials, and ensure that rooms with wood stoves are always fitted with carbon monoxide detectors. “Never in my life have they gone off,” says Thurkettle, “but it’s good practice to have one.”
There’s no doubting its hygge-tastic homeliness, but wood-burning has been a little bit under fire in recent years. Wood is one of the ultimate renewables and is not a fossil fuel, but it also produces pollutants, mostly particulates. Some, generally urban parts of the UK are now ‘smoke control areas‘, with rules regarding what you can burn, and how you can burn it (contact your local council to find out more).
It’s a complex issue on which not everyone agrees, but for ardent wood fire advocates, it’s not all bad news. “This year’s update to the handbook was done to include clean burning techniques,” says Thurkettle. “It’s so topical and rightly so – nobody wants smoky old buses and lorries on the road, and nobody wants smoky old fires in our cities.”
Step one is an efficient, modern wood-burner; step two is to burn clean, dry timber; step three is all about technique. “There was research recently,” says Thurkettle, “that found that almost all the smoke produced by wood fires was produced in the first 20-30 minutes. If people stick to good fire-lighting practice, and follow these principles, we’ll have good, efficient, moral fires.
“Clean air is important – of course it is – but we mustn’t take the joy away. It’s such a wonderful way to heat your home.”
The Wood Fire Handbook by Vincent Thurkettle is published by Mitchell Beazley, priced £15.99. Available now.