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You Boy Scouts in the audience may laugh, but my big accomplishment last year was learning how to build and maintain a decent fire. I grew up as a city girl and starting fires just wasn’t a skill I needed to cultivate. However, being able to build a quality fire is necessary for farm families. A good fire allows you to roast marshmallows, heat your home, scald chicken carcasses during butchering, boil down maple sap into syrup, roast your latest catch and do myriad homestead tasks (especially in winter), and fire starters can make the process more simple for everyone.
Fire starters are simple materials placed around the kindling of your fire. You light the fire starters first, which catch quickly and burn for several minutes, igniting your kindling and eventually helping burn larger pieces of wood. Commercially produced fire starters are available, but you can save money and a trip to the store by making your own from upcycled materials found around your home. Plus, making them is a great project for kids of all ages.
Here’s a list of our favorite fire starter ideas. Everyone, right down to the baby, helps assemble them. Some families collect kittens or DVDs; mine collects toilet paper tubes and cotton rags—to each his own. Don’t let these ideas box you in. Be creative and look around your home and recycling bin for materials to use to make your own fire starters.
1. Junk Mail Rolls
This fire starter is so easy to make, but it’s best suited for outdoor fires because the dyes present in mailers can cause problems up the flue of your indoor fireplace or stove. Collect magazines, catalogs, scratch paper and advertisements and pile them about 1/4 thick. Roll them snuggly until you can put a toilet paper tube around them like a ring, holding them in place.
2. T-Shirts and Wax
Gather old, cotton T-shirts, and cut them into strips. Melt paraffin wax in a double boiler, and dip the strips, one by one, into the wax. Let the fire starters dry in a cool place, like a garage or shed, where little fingers won’t be tempted to touch the hot wax.
3. Herbal Branches and Twigs
If you have an herb garden, chances are you have one or two herbs that really took off this past season. Save whole branches of herbs as fragrant fire starters, and save the herbal twigs you’ve stripped of their leaves to use as kindling. They’ll burn quickly but should work wonderfully in combination with some of the other fire starters on this list. Bundle the herbs thickly and tightly with cotton string. The tighter and thicker they are, the longer they’ll burn.
4. Toilet Paper Tubes
Stack three toilet paper tubes on top of each other, and mash them down flat. Keeping them layered, curve them up until they’re rounded enough to fit inside a fourth tube. You can also wedge in a small bit of waxed T-shirt to act as a wick, if you’d like. These tubes, which you’d otherwise recycle, can burn for up to three solid minutes.
5. Dried Corn Cobs
If you can your own corn or grow feeder corn for piggies, you may have cobs laying around that end up in the compost bin. They cobs burn wonderfully when dried, but make sure they’re empty of corn. Loose combusting kernels can fly off and pop someone. (No pun intended.)
6. Dried Citrus Peel
Winter’s the season for citrus, and although you can make a killer citrus-infused vinegar with the peels, you can also dry them and toss them into the fire. The essential oils present in the skins make them smell good and catch fire easily.
7. Toilet Paper Tubes and Lint
Save your dryer lint or spent cotton rags (no polyester), and stuff them into toilet paper tubes. We’ve had these burn upwards of five minutes. Pack them loose enough that air can circulate—oxygen is a big part of a happy fire. Around the holidays, we gift wrap these by rolling them inside a nice piece of scrapbooking paper, tying raffia round them and attaching a small card.
8. Egg Carton and Wax
These fire starters are great for camping. Stuff each cell of a paper egg cell full of dryer lint. Melt loose wax in a double boiler, and pour it over the lint until it’s saturated and the cell is full. Let the wax cool, then cut apart each cell to use individually.
9. Pinecones “Candies”
My kids like these fire starters, especially because they say they look like candies by the time we’ve finished wrapping them. Gather medium-sized pinecones and your kids’ last doodle pages (or another piece of paper destined for the recycle bin). Wrap a piece of paper snugly around a pinecone, and tie with cotton string at each end. Dip the pinecone in wax before you wrap it for extra volatility.
Whoever is tasked with making a fire in your family, always keep fire safety in mind. (Being a mom, I had to get that in.) I’d love to know of more upcycle ideas for fire starters—do you have a favorite I missed?