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Making an Upside Down Fire

January 7, 2013 | Appropriate Technology, Build It, Building, Cook It, Cooking, Natural Building, Permaculture | 45 comments | Author:

upside down fire1

The upside down fire technique rocks. It’s a cleaner burn with far less smoke and better combustion, gives off more heat, needs less tending and uses the embodied energy in wood more efficiently than the tipi-esque fire method.

As an added bonus, the first time you make a fire like this in front of a ring of uninitiated folks, you exist in a ring of utter skepticism. Which makes your rockin upside down fire all the better when it works beautifully.

upside down fire2

Paul (Speedy) Ward introduced this fire-making method to Milkwood Farm last year, in our campfire circle where many evenings are spent after a day of work or education, watching the sunset and waiting for yet another scrummy dinner to emerge from Rose’s kitchen.

As one of the ring of utter skeptics that day, I’s sorry to say that i didn’t believe it would work. But it has, that evening and ever time since.

Why it works:

Heat energy actually radiates equally in all directions from the point of combustion, not just upwards (it’s the displacement of gasses as they expand that sends hot air upwards, not the actual heat energy itself). So once combustion of the top layer of your upside down fire occurs, the heat energy is radiating down as much as it is up.

This in turn means that the wood below the combusting material is getting well heated before it catches fire, which in turn facilitates better and more complete combustion of the wood below when it does catch fire. And more complete combustion means less smoke.

More complete combustion also means a hotter fire, which is usually the point of the exercise.

And in turn better combustion also means better coals (when you get to that stage) which mean better campfire cooking (should you be looking to multi-purpose your evening campfire, which you should).

Floyd lighting an upside down fire with intent to create a charcoal BBQ in 2 hours or so...
Floyd lighting an upside down fire with intent to create a charcoal BBQ in 2 hours or so…

How to make an upside down fire:

Start with the logs that you would normally put on last, and lay them flat in your firepit (or slow combustion wood heater). Then cross-hatch successively smaller layers of wood on top, until you’re up to the kindling.

The more stable the structure of your upside down fire, the better it will be, as the structure won’t be compromised while burning which will lead to more complete combustion for all the wood, right down to those big logs at the bottom.

Place your paper on top, and light (a sprinkle of extra kindling on top is a good idea).

Trust the laws of physics, and light your fire.

The first 10-15 minutes will be somewhat unspectacular as the fire makes its way through the kindling and the combustion gets going. Soon though the flames will be roaring and the fire’s smokeless state will be apparent.

Collect whatever bets were placed upon your complete failure, and enjoy your upside down fire.

As said, this technique also works well in combustion wood heaters and indoor fires also, resulting in higher heat for a smaller amount of wood as well as far less smoke and ash, which is good for everyone and the Earth to boot.

Off and away...
Off and away…
A little later, the whole thing had burned down to beautiful coals for our  home grown/butchered/butterflied pig BBQ...
A little later, the whole thing had burned down to beautiful coals for our home grown/butchered/butterflied pig BBQ (in readiness for a Barn Dance and 30 or so guests)…

>> More posts about Appropriate Technology at Milkwood

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*Of course only light fires when it’s safe to do so – i.e. not this week at Milkwood Farm, nor anywhere else in the midst of this Summer heatwave we’re having! And always put your fire completely out once you’ve finished with it.

First picture of upside down fire by Gianna Bonis

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  • Brendan January 7, 2013 at 8:20 am | Reply

    How was the pig!?

    1. milkwoodkirsten January 7, 2013 at 8:46 am | Reply

      Ridiculously delicious!

  • annie January 7, 2013 at 8:54 am | Reply

    I’m going to give this a go under our fire bath… as soon as the fire bans are over and we’re able to fire bathe again… Thanks! these are my favourite posts of yours.

  • narf77 January 7, 2013 at 9:42 am | Reply

    LOL! I thought that was some sort of fire blanket! A pig you say? I dare say a fully loaded rubbed with spice pig that tasted like heaven but you just made me laugh hysterically. I am saving this post for posterity (and for when we are allowed to light fires again in Tasmania which should probably be some time mid winter 2050)

  • sandy :) January 7, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply

    I will have to try this and remember to do the betting as well..
    Sandy :)

  • milkwoodkirsten January 7, 2013 at 10:24 am | Reply

    yes sorry for posting this while none of us (in OZ) can actually HAVE a fire… but keep it up your sleeve for autumn, and don’t forget to collect your bets…

  • Jim January 7, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply

    I have used this method of fire lighting for decades, especially to dispose of dead animals, which died due to disease or old age. I don’t have a ready supply of wood now so burying is the only option.
    When I boil a drum of water for dunking bee equipment or for scalding chooks to pluck, I place the big sticks down first, then add the smaller bits closer to the drum and then strike the match. Certainly runs hot and gets the water boiling in no time.

  • Shannon January 7, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Reply

    What an informative post. Thanks!

  • Penny Kothe January 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Reply

    Hey Kirsten, this type of fire has been used for Girl Guide camp fires for decades… stops anyone needing to then play with the fire after it is lit… ;-) Works well eh!!!

  • Cecilia Macaulay January 7, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Reply

    I’m amazed.
    How can an entire culture get it wrong for so long?
    My grandfather lit a fire every night of his life The Wrong Way.

    How many other things need to be turned upside down?
    Maybe we should celebrate upside-down day once a year, just to see what emerges.

  • Linda January 8, 2013 at 6:42 am | Reply

    Damn! I want to try it! Now! I reckon I’ll have to wait another three months before we have safe conditions. Of course I know your telling the truth but I still need to see it to believe it!

  • Farming Secrets (@farmingsecrets) January 8, 2013 at 11:08 am | Reply

    This means our game of moveable chairs around the camp fire at Easter may cease! Can’t wait to try it.

  • Debbie January 9, 2013 at 2:51 am | Reply

    I am a Girl Scout and this goes against everything I been doing for the last 50 years! Can’t wait to try it!

  • Karen January 9, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Reply

    Love it, as self proclaimed master of the fire, I am keen to try this out (come winter)! A smokeless fire, what a treat!

  • compostcorner January 10, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply

    Tried it last night in our pizza oven. It really does work! It was a beautifully quiet and less smoky fire. Because the fire gradually moves down through the centre of the heap, any collapse is towards the centre rather than the edges…so the logs stayed right where I had placed them and didn’t need re-arranging to keep the fire burning well, nor did they threaten to roll away… which all adds up to an easier and safer firing :)

    Damn, I was enjoying this so much that I forgot to take bets!

    1. milkwoodkirsten January 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Reply


  • Lindy Camden January 11, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply

    this was how one made a campfire in girl guides back in the ’60s. it had to burn for 3 hours without any attention to it and you were only allowed 2 matches to light it, and of course, no paper.

    1. milkwoodkirsten January 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply

      thems were the days!

  • sumati January 12, 2013 at 12:58 am | Reply

    I just stumbled on your site, wow!
    I shall certainly try your upside down fire on my open fire indoors and later when my new house is built in the wood burner stove I am installing… you think it would still work in the northern hemishere;scotland to be precise

  • Lord of the Smoke Ring « grooveheat January 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply

    […] Making an Upside Down Fire ( […]

  • Corno February 25, 2013 at 2:06 am | Reply

    This worked really well!!! Thanks! Definitely the easiest and fastest fire I have ever built

  • Slow combustion heaters March 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Reply

    This technique of making upside and down fire is very nice.It looks that it has been used before.

  • paul bunyon(herb douglas ) April 23, 2013 at 4:29 am | Reply

    Anyone camping @ florida State park Little Manate in 1990’s I was sat nite host I built my special upsidedown fire. I recieved mail of enjoyment.

  • […] We rarely use any other fire lay these days. […]

  • […] explicación nos la ofrece el blog de permacultura Milkwood, que se apoya en que este método de combustión se utilizaba hace siglos en los campos europeos […]

  • Edward Metcalfe July 20, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Reply

    Great intelligent way to burn outdoors using an open fire. However, rocket stoves burn much better without smoke using an insulated ‘L’ or ‘J’ tube. Check out the inventor from Aprovecho in Oregon. This stove is saving much pain and death because of the effective burn. I build one and can attest to their superior methods.

    1. milkwoodkirsten July 20, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply

      Yep, we know. See our posts on rocket stoves :)

  • Lee Ann July 21, 2013 at 8:05 am | Reply

    We camp every year in July. So when I found this, I knew I had to show this to my brother-in-law (he is our campfire maker). So when I showed this to him, he says, hum we can try it ( there was a note of skepticism). They go up a few days before us so when we got there I asked him how was the upside down fire? He says you will see. So that night he builds the fire upside down, one match and walla we had fire. He then said I will never build a fire the od way again. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    1. milkwoodkirsten July 21, 2013 at 9:34 am | Reply


  • Merinda August 6, 2013 at 11:42 am | Reply

    re the upside down fire… Girl Guides have been building their campfires this way for decades!!!

  • Randy Smith August 29, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply

    I remember making fires with this method from Boy Scout camporee

  • Great Reasons to Build an Upside Down Fire November 7, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Reply

    […] An upside down fire offers a reduced amount of smoke, a cleaner burn, improved combustion, more heat, less need for tending and better use of the energy embodied in wood, according to […]

  • Terry November 15, 2013 at 6:31 am | Reply

    I will definitely be trying this method late this afternoon…thanks! Your right,why didn’t anyone think of this before (thanks Girl Scouts! lol ) My neighbor and I trade off having backyard firepit campfires..we love it! And the heat will feel very good indeed,going down to 28 tonight here in Southeast MI. :)

  • […] […]

  • […] Link(via milkwood) […]

  • […] 1. Making an Upside Down Fire […]

  • Larry wacadö January 18, 2014 at 2:36 pm | Reply

    If you bake a potato you can place it down with the big logs and eat it when the pig is done.

  • […] […]

  • […] via Making an Upside Down Fire « Milkwood: homesteading skills for city & country. […]

  • mvcgcommittee April 15, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Reply

    Reblogged this on Manly Vale Community Garden and commented:
    Had to post this.

  • Tracey May 30, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply

    Must try this! Another great one I saw is the Swedish Candle (or torch) which uses one log and some twigs. It’s on YouTube.

  • […] To get your fire going all you need do now is light your kindling as you would any other fire. Once a fire is lit, heat actually radiates evenly in all directions from the point of combustion. So the wood below is being heated well before it actually ignites. This helps with better combustion, which in turn means a cleaner fire and less smoke. (Find a little more detail on the whole why, how and what-for by the Milkwood folks here.) […]

  • Phil July 6, 2014 at 12:14 am | Reply

    I can’t believe I have never lit a fire this way in my 45 years of being a bit of a fire bug (in a good way). I have used this method for my last 3 fires and it works beautifully. Lit the fire in the wood heater and didn’t need to put any more wood on until just before going to bed to keep going overnight, amazing.

    Thanks and now for some mushroom growing…

  • […] Image source: […]

  • Jon October 1, 2014 at 8:06 am | Reply

    Have used this method for MANY years. If you are lighting it for the evening fire,
    Use 4 or 5 of your largest logs spaced about 2″ apart for the bottom layer, and you should have enough hot coals for coffee and breakfast in the morning.


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