How to start the perfect fire

Make a deeper connection with nature by building a beautiful blaze

By David Gladish June 23, 2023

Friction fire

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Blue and yellow flames burst haphazardly out of the dark, dancing like lightning bugs on a crystal-clear summer’s night. Sparks shoot over my head; the crackle and pop of the fire at my feet is a symphony orchestrated just for me. The power of fire is innate, part of our DNA since the beginning of time.

Yet for most of us, the art of fire building has been lost, replaced by propane flames on demand, a flat screen TV projecting a fireplace, or a myriad of hacks and tricks to conjure up fire. There is something rewarding, natural, primitive, and affirming about making fire from wood, whether it’s for a 4th of July camping weekend, a long summer night roasting marshmallows with kids, or a reflective backyard evening with a cold beer in hand.

There are many reasons to make fire: for warmth, heat, light, survival, industry, and relaxation. To build a fire as art, a living, breathing sculpture, is the ultimate practice in fire building, teaching patience, and reflecting beauty. There are countless ways to bring fire to life, and none are right or wrong, but there is something satisfying about building a fire that is aesthetically pleasing and is built with care.

Samuel Bowman is the events coordinator at the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, a place that teaches primitive fire-building skills. Bowman helps students start fires using a bow drill, a palm rock, and a fireboard. Using a bow drill, a coal materializes by spinning a stick attached to a hunting bow-like device, creating an ember. This glowing hot creation is then gently placed in a nest of fine shavings, such as cedar bark, and igniting it with the introduction of oxygen and bringing a bundle of kindling to life.

Making fire by hand may be the best way to connect with our origins, but many of us have neither the time nor patience to learn these techniques. Simply making a fire on one’s own, no matter the method, is a meditative practice.

“The beauty of fire is that it’s alive and there is a relationship with it,” Bowman says. “Once you make it, you have to tend to it. It needs you but you also need it. Regardless of how it comes into being, fire is life, beauty, destruction, all at the same time.”

A big part of turning fire making into art form is being prepared. You must have all the pieces in place before you hit start. Begin with shavings, the fine particulate of the wood or bark of a tree. You can use the back of a hunting or pocketknife to make shavings. The kindling is next, my favorite part. I could spend hours with my pint-size, Japanese-made axe, sitting in a chair whacking small logs into even smaller pieces of wood.

“My uncle said, ‘I can start a fire with my lighter.’” I responded, “Can you make a lighter?”

I like to build a teepee with kindling, surrounding my shavings as if protecting them from the rain, though some prefer the log cabin, lean-to, or platform style. Stack bigger, then bigger sticks, and then logs, and as the fire builds, still bigger in diameter, if you want a slow and steady burn.

Wet wood is never good. It leads to frustration, hissing, and smoke, another factor in creating a beautiful fire. No one likes smoke, and to avoid it, build a fire that forces smoke up, use dry wood, and choose clean-burning hardwoods such as maple, ash, and birch.

“One thing I like about the more controlled fire is I’m being more intentional, I’m being more specific, I’m planning more and preparing more,” Bowman says. “I’m carving the shavings, I’m assessing the fuel, there’s more going into it. The steps adding to the creation of the fire add to the experience.”

Wooden fire in black

Photo by Thang Tat Nguyen via Getty Images

What’s the point of spending extra time to make a beautiful fire? For some there is no gain. “My uncle said, ‘I can start a fire with my lighter.” I responded, “Can you make a lighter?”

As Bowman says, “I can make every piece of a bow drill piece or a hand drill even without a knife, and that creates a deeper knowing.” For those like Bowman, who seek a connection with nature, perhaps spiritually motivated, or who simply enjoy working with their hands, a lighter and some lighter fluid aren’t the same. Fire building is a way to unwind, connect with others, and think deeply.

“What would human existence be like without the ability to make fire?” asks Bowman. “It’s the predecessor to TV.”

I love a good show, particularly one that I helped create, that I helped coax into this world, one that is beautiful, warm, and comforting. That’s what makes fire into art.


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