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The upside down fire: right side up thinking for firing up our sauna stoves

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How crazy is it that it has taken this stubborn mule decades to learn the best way to start a fire?

Having lit well over 3,000 saunas in my day, and probably that many more fires in fireplaces and fire pits and other pyrotechnics best left forgotten, I had been using a method to start a fire that was good enough, but now I use the “upside down fire” method and it feels like returning to Finland after 3 decades: bummed it’s taken me so long, but grateful to be doing it.

The upside down fire is totally the way to go.

What I used to do:

2 pieces of crumpled newspaper on the bottom, then a bunch of kindling on top, then 2-3 pieces of firewood on top of that. Light newspaper.

What I do now:

3-4 pieces of firewood on the bottom, then only 1 piece of crumpled newspaper, then just a small bunch of kindling on top of that. Light newspaper.

Is there a difference?

Huge difference.

  • Flames ignite the kindling fast.
  • The immediate fire creates a faster draw (air flow) up the chimney.
  • The stove pipe heats up quicker.
  • More air flow, fans the fire, igniting the wood faster, quicker.
  • Coals from ignited kindling drop down and ignite the logs.
  • All this action produces a fire faster and with MILES less smoke.

The upside down fire means way less smoke against the glass. I haven’t needed to clean the window in my sauna stove in a long time. Because the firebox heats quicker, with a kick ass stove like the Kuuma, gasification happens quicker. This means a faster fire, a hotter fire, and that much less wood needed because all the smoke is turning to gas that much quicker.

Sauna prep time is reduced 18%.

The upside down fire. Them are good.

the upside down fire in wood fired sauna stove, 2 minutes after ignition (and all is burning well).
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16 thoughts on “The upside down fire: right side up thinking for firing up our sauna stoves”

  1. Glenn, do you have an ashpan with a separate door underneath the firebox? I grew up with an Ashley wood stove to heat our house and that would seem to make this a bit easier.

    I think it may also be a product of what is available. Similar to firewood, I use what is available or firestarting. All of the paper in my house is recycled to start he sauna stove, which is cheap and has no separate ash pan below. I just load it up with crinkled paper, some kindling and fire it up. Sometimes I need to stack it to increase the airflow through the stove, but it works just fine.

    Good information though. Always like to see a more efficient way of doing things. Funny how you can do something one way or 30+ years and then learn that there is a easier way.

  2. Glenn,
    You should start a forum. All of us sauna aficionados could discuss sauna builds, sauna routines, sauna benefits, anything sauna!

  3. Hi Diloyd. The comment section is good for this kind of stuff, but i’m cool with whatever your thinking on the forum front. Please shoot me an email or lemme know what you’re thinking in terms of build out.

    Since we’re talking, if there is a better idea than the upside down fire start, i’m sure up for knowing about it.

    I am just amazed at how much better it works for starting my wood fired sauna stove.. I thought I had the smoke thing down to the first 10 minutes after ignition, now my neighbors are having trouble knowing when “it’s sauna time” as i’m getting basically no smoke at all.

    It’s an example, potentially, for for other things in life as this older dog has learned a new trick.

  4. Matthew: I know, right?

    Ashpan with separate door: Absolutely, and it’s totally the way to go. Both my saunas have this stove, with ash pan below with separate door. The upside down fire has also reduced ash 38%,(less paper) and I have to empty the ash pan only one out of a dozen or so fires.

    My stove:

    30+ years: Totally! The “upside down fire start” has rattled my brain. Now I find myself questioning everything. I mean, why do we pour beer into a glass instead of, say, pouring it into a glass made entirely out of ice? And why do we bother trying to remember to bring a bathing suit to a sauna in the public domain, when we can be wearing a combination boxer short AND swim trunk, and be ready for sauna, anytime? And working for the man, maybe that’s all upside down too, we work and work and then retire and what’s money at that point but a number on a computer screen? Everything is upside down. It’s crazy. Hey, Matthew, you aren’t a psychologist by chance are you? Are you taking new patients?

  5. Hey Glenn,
    The fire technique worked awesome. Can’t believe how simple it is. I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.
    My Sauna has been operational now for two weeks. Life is different now, better. Changed because I know I will never be without a sauna from now on.
    Love the website

  6. Dloyd… I know, right? Are you now, like me, questioning everything else in life? Like why do we put on our pants right leg first, anyway?

  7. Top-lit, up draft stoves appeared on my perhiphery about 15 years ago, but didn’t click. Then 7 or 8 years ago, went to a seminar on backyard charcoal making with a stacked pair of 55gal drums, fire started tlud style, still didn’t click. Then we visited distant fam who live outback in Norway, and *CLICK*.

    Next fall, i tentatively loaded my our soapstove stove upside down, and touched it off, and *wow*!
    Exhaust temps come up fast, stack goes clear in about 15min, can engage the cat in 20-30min,
    4x faster than the bottom up fires i’d been happily building all of my life.

    Bottom up sends so much unburnt combustible woodgas up the stack, we’ve literally been wasting nearly half of the wood we use in the cold firebox burn.

    I’ve tentatively explained this, almost apologetically to my wood burning neighbors, and they all think it’s nice that i would share, but clearly, i must be crazy. 🙂
    I’ve been tending woodstoves over half a century, and I could kick myself for not figuring this out on my own decades ago. No, the ways we were taught are not necessarily the best. They often are, sure, but they are also often knotheaded too.

  8. Oh,
    Try putting your tinder on top of your kindling.

    Same mechanism applies.
    If heated from below, the outgassing goes out the flue unburnt. Combusted from above, as the kindling warms, it outgasses, and in turn is combusted, increasing heat and lowering waste. Kindling burns more efficiently, hence hotter.

  9. Chipper: So well said! I’m right there with you. I too could kick myself for not figuring out the top down fire sooner. Yet, just as they make cars with windshields bigger than rear view mirrors, you and I get to enjoy the better way to start a fire for the rest of our travels.

    PS.. on your suggestion, i tried logs, then kindling, then piece of crumpled newspaper on top, and by golly… it keeps getting better and better. The way the this is going, any easier and my cat is going to be firing up my sauna stove before too long.

  10. Hehehehe,

    Let’s go gentle on ourselves,
    I still find that all those years of tending, tuning, and fiddling with woodstoves
    still builds a foundation of grasp on fire that is hard to convey by explanation

    The only way i have found to get a really good grasp on making heat with woodstoves
    is to make heat with woodstoves. :).

  11. Counterintuitive things I did this winter: built an upside-down fire,(this works great in the Kuuma stove); cut 2″ off the bottom of the sauna door (seemed to freshen the air). Thanks much for the tips!

  12. Right on Joe!

    During my trip to Finland, I was browbeaten many times about the importance of a “generous gap along hot room door.”

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