The classic method of starting a fire – build an inverted pyramid starting with very small pieces of kindling wood and creating layers of increasing size – is all fine and dandy, assuming you have a whopping great heap of kindling at your disposal. On the exceedingly rare occasions when this has been the case for me, it’s worked like a charm. But the operative phrase here is “exceedingly rare”.
Much more frequently I find myself with a garage full of big old logs that would burn like an SOB if I could just get them started, but nothing that would even remotely qualify as kindling-sized. Since I live in the northeast (the land that Spring forgot) and I depend on a fireplace insert for most of my heating, this can become a major hooha. My one and only attempt to actually split logs into kindling with an axe was an utter failure, and fairly terrifying as well; within minutes it became clear that I stood a much greater chance of lopping off a toe than getting that damn log to split. So over the years I’ve come up with a serviceable repertoire of kindling replacements.
Commercial fire starters – the lazy (and rich) person’s kindling substitute. Most large retailers (i.e., Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Lowe’s, etc.) carry these, which are essentially small slabs of treated compressed sawdust. They’re pretty effective, but expensive and (around here, at least) are only available during the peak of the fireplace season. So in late March you’re outta luck.
Newspaper knots – my personal favorite; free, easy, and pretty darn reliable. You simply lay about four or five sheets of newspaper (NOTE: regular pages, not the shiny stuff from ads or magazine sections) together in a pile and roll them lengthwise into a fairly tight tube, then tie the tube into a knot. If you tuck the “tails” of the knot back in, you wind up with a pretty dense wad of paper about the size of a softball. In my experience it takes between four and six knots to get a fire going (depending on how big/dry your logs are). Crumple up three or four sheets of newspaper and put your knots on it, then lay a couple of your smallest logs over the knots. Most of the time the knots will burn long enough to get at least a good smolder going, and hey …. you can always throw in a couple more. The price is certainly right.
Bark – You know when you get a really crappy load of wet wood, so wet that the bark just drops off in big sheets? Well start looking for a new wood delivery guy, but in the meantime don’t throw that bark away – pile it up somewhere and let it dry, because dry bark is just a dynamite fire starter. It usually catches like crazy and it burns hot, but it tends to burn up fairly fast. It’s good on its own, but superb combined with a few newspaper knots.
Pinecones – They start super-easy and burn like gangbusters but they don’t last long, so you either need to have a million of them on hand or else just use them to enhance newspaper knots or bark. They smell nice, too.
Twigs, sticks, and other assorted yard debris – It’s the low-rent option, but hey – you do what you gotta do. The leftovers from tree and shrub pruning can be piled up to dry and then broken into serviceable kindling. I do a lot of this (cause I do a lot of tree and shrub pruning) and I won’t kid ya – it’s kind of a pain, but it works.