How (and why) to Build a Top-Down Fire

How (and why) to Build a Top-Down Fire

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A top-down fire is a great strategy for a fire in wood stove, fireplace, outdoor oven, or campfire. The process is just like it sounds – you build a fire with the largest pieces on the bottom and the kindling on top, instead of the other way around. You light the top of the fire and it slowly and efficiently burns down through all of the layers underneath.

Building a top down fire is one of many strategies that we use to burn wood efficiently and effectively in our home. You can read more about heating with a wood stove and saving money on firewood elsewhere on our site to round out your wood heating strategies!

Why build a top-down fire?

Top-down fires have multiple benefits:

  • Top-down fires start more successfully. If you have ever been that person (like me) who thinks they’ve gotten the fire going only to find it dead a few minutes later, you’ll love this method. As the top layer of kindling catches and burns it settles down into the wood below it and the fire follows suit, keeping itself going with little effort.
  • Top-down fires are less likely to collapse into themselves. One of the reasons that top down fires burn more successfully is that they are not prone to falling in on themselves. A fire with smaller pieces on the bottom will burn those smaller pieces first, and larger pieces will fall in on them, potentially putting them out or halting the progress of the fire. This is also great from a safety perspective – a sudden collapsing of a fire can lead to flying sparks dangerous to the people and environment around the fire.
  • Top-down fires result in less smoke. One of the functions of the flue in your fireplace or wood stove is to suck smoke up the chimney and out of your house. This happens faster when the flue is hot. By lighting a top down fire, you are putting the hottest flames at the top, closest to the flue. As a result, your flue will heat up faster and therefor pull more of the smoke from your fire right from the start.
  • Top-down fires last longer. When you build a top-down fire, you are building up a significant pile of logs that will burn for a long time without having to add more logs. In the case of a wood stove, I have had a top-down fire burn for up to four hours without having to revisit it at all.

The one down-side I have noticed about a top-down fire is that it can take longer to heat up a wood stove. The fire tends to move slowly down into the larger logs and thus the fire burns low and slow. It still heats up our wood stove and gets our heat-activated fan going in less than 10 minutes, but if you’re in a rush for high heat, you might want to build a typical fire and let it burn hot and fast, and then add more wood.

How to Build a Top Down Fire

While the process of building a top-down fire is pretty straight-forward, there are a few tips that can help lead to success on the first try.

layer one of a top down fire
Layer One of a Top-Down fire is your largest logs.

Step 1: Lay down your largest pieces of wood close together as the bottom layer.

The first layer of logs are your thick, wide logs that usually take a little while to get started and will burn for a long time. You don’t need a ton of space between them because as the fire burns down and catches it will have plenty of airflow above it. Putting them close together leads to an even longer burning fire.

Build layers progressively with smaller pieces of wood on each layer.

Step 2: Build your second and third layers with progressively smaller logs, placed close together.

Depending on the size of your wood stove, or how big you are building an outdoor fire, you can add 2 or 3 more layers before moving onto the kindling. Cross-cross these in opposite directions from the layer beneath, placing them close together and building as solid a block as you can.

The top layers are kindling and a fire starter of your choice.

Step 3: Finish by putting small kindling and newspaper or a piece of fatwood on top

The last two layers of your top-down fire are small pieces of kindling and whatever you will use as your fire starter. Your fire starter can be twisted pieces of newspaper or an alternative fire starter – like a piece of fatwood. You can also use a pine cone fire starter – these are easy to make at home and take advantage of the safe burning qualities of beeswax. We started using fatwood because it lights quickly and doesn’t result in lots of small pieces of paper floating around. Choose a variety that is sustainably sourced and well-aged.

Top-down fire successfully lit on first try.

Step 4: Light your Fire and Enjoy!

Once you have built your fire, all you need to do now is light your newspaper or fire starter with a match or lighter (or a spark if you’re a skilled outdoors person!). Watch the top-down fire work its magic as the fire starter settles down into the kindling and the process of getting the whole fire going begins! If you’ve built your top down fire well, you should still be enjoying its heat up to four hours later.

top down fire after four hours
Top-Down Fire after 4 Hours of Burning on its own
How to start a top-down fire PIN
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Carrie Williams Howe
Blogger & Homesteader at The Happy Hive
Carrie Williams Howe is an educational leader by day and an aspiring homesteader by night and weekend. She lives on a small homestead in Vermont with her husband, two children, and a rambunctious border collie. She is a Founder and Editor of Homestead How-To and also blogs about her family's homestead life at The Happy Hive.

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