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Maintaining and Using a Wood-Burning Fireplace

While a wood-burning fireplace adds warmth and comfort to a home during the colder months, safety should always be top of mind. Check out these tips to learn how to work and maintain a fireplace.

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fireplaceImage Source/Getty Images

Fireplace Safety Check

Before the temperature starts to fall, there are several things you can do to make sure your wood-burning fireplace is safe and efficient. The National Fire Protection Association recommends chimneys be swept at least once a year, at the beginning of winter, to remove soot and debris.

You can find a certified chimney sweep at Chimney Safety Institute of America. Also, make sure you’re familiar with how to work a fireplace before you attempt to start a fire.

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dfh17sep042-02 fireplace chimneyBartosz Zakrzewski/Shutterstock

Check Chimney for Cracks

Before that first fire of the season, check the chimney structure for cracks, loose bricks or missing mortar. You should also check your chimney liner for signs of deterioration.

Cracks and spalling on the chimney exterior indicate chimney deterioration, so check your chimney crown or have a professional take a look.

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dfh17sep042-03 fireplace chimney wire mesh capNick Beer/Shutterstock

Cap It

Use a wire-mesh cap to cover the top of the chimney to keep birds, squirrels, rain and other debris from entering. The last thing you want while working your fireplace is to find some deceased animals coming down the flue. Caps can deteriorate over time, so be prepared to replace your rain cap if it’s corroded or been damaged by weather.

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dfh17sep042-04 brick fireplace dirty damperjuliasv/Shutterstock

Check the Damper

The damper is a movable plate that sits above the fireplace before the flue. Make sure the fireplace damper is working properly. There should be no debris preventing it from opening and closing. This is a critical step in understanding how to start a fire in a fireplace.

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fire in fireplaceCarol A Hudson/Shutterstock

Check for Creosote Buildup

Creosote is a chemical mass of carbon formed when wood, tar or fossil fuels are burned. Creosote can linger in chimneys and you would have no idea it was present from the outside.

When creosote is not removed, it can become a thick coating of debris in the flue and chimney. Most chimney fires start in the smoke chamber/smoke shelf area so it’s important to clean those areas.

Creosote ignites at 451 degrees Fahrenheit and once it starts burning, it expands like foam sealant and can build to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in less than a minute.

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Dry Branch on a blue backgroundNguyn Nguyn/Shutterstock

Trim Limbs

Make sure there are no overhanging tree limbs encroaching on the chimney, and if so, trim or prune those limbs. Limbs can present a fire hazard and also restrict proper draft airflow in your fireplace.

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Cleaning the fireplace. Hand of man holding a brass shovel with ashglebchik/Shutterstock

Clean Out the Ashes

Another important step to knowing how to work a fireplace is to make sure all ashes are cleaned out of the firebox before you start stacking wood for that first fireplace fire.

Simply sweep or vacuum the cold ashes and dispose of them outside. But you may want to keep a few ashes around to help build a fire in your fireplace. Make sure you know how to use fireplace ash.

Be aware that coals can remain hot for up to three days, which can become a fire hazard if they come in contact with flammable materials. It’s one of several important steps for preventing fires in your home. Next, read about how to clean fireplace brick.

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limestone fireplaceLI Cook/Shutterstock

Fireplace Guard

To prevent hot embers from getting out, use a metal-mesh screen or glass fireplace doors. Don’t burn wood in your fireplace without a guard. Glass doors will need to be cleaned regularly too as they tend to get a bit dingy looking as the winter drags on.

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Man installing a smoke alarmPhovoir/Shutterstock

Check Alarms

Before starting a fire, make sure all of your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working. We don’t think we need to explain much further about why this is so important. Be sure to follow all of our smoke alarm maintenance tips.

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how to add kindling to a fireplaceBildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock

Test Function

Test your fireplace’s function by lighting a few small pieces of seasoned wood. Light the wood from the top down. If smoke doesn’t exit vertically from the fireplace into the chimney and instead enters the room, troubleshoot to correct any problems.

This is key to help you understand how to work a fireplace. Problems can include creosote buildup, debris in the chimney (such as birds or nests) or a closed or partially closed damper.

Also, if your home is tightly sealed for energy conservation, opening a window a little bit can provide the intake air needed to make the smoke go up the chimney.

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Pile of stacked triangle firewood prepared for fireplace and boiler.Marina Zezelina/Shutterstock

Choose the Right Wood

Choose dense wood such as oak. Wood should be split and stored in a high and dry place for at least six months. Green woods, such as pine, are not recommended for a wood burning fireplace since they can produce more creosote.

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fire within a large stone arched fireplace, with pile of logs and basket of pine kernels fireplace fireAdamEdwards/Shutterstock

Keep the Fire Small

Small fireplace fires generate less smoke and create less creosote buildup. When building a fire, put the logs toward the rear of the wood-burning fireplace and be sure to use kindling, not flammable liquids, to start the fire. These tips are crucial in knowing how to work a fireplace.

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Ceiling fan, indoorsAfrica Studio/Shutterstock

Circulate the Air

To get the most out of your fire, run ceiling fans clockwise on low speeds to redirect the warm air from the ceiling into the living space.

Rachel Brougham
Rachel Brougham lived through a major home renovation in 2019, knows the ups and downs of home improvement, and loves sharing tips with readers. A veteran journalist of both print and television, she’s won several awards for her writing and has covered everything from the environment and education to health care, politics and food. She’s written for several publications beyond newspapers including Bob Vila, Taste of Home and Minnesota Parent, and she currently writes a weekly syndicated newspaper column. Her memoir, Widowland, about the sudden loss of her husband, was published in 2022. She specializes in everything from home decor and design to lawn and garden, product reviews and pet care. When she’s not writing, you can usually find her tending to her garden (both vegetables and native plants), playing with her dog, watching sports with her family or getting some exercise. A native of Michigan, she currently lives in Minneapolis. An avid user of Instagram, you can follow her @RachBrougham.