How to Start a Coal Fire With One Sheet of Newspaper

Last Revised: June 18, 2014


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The question:

(from the alt.crafts.blacksmithing newsgroup)

> > I am fairly new to blacksmithing, been doing it for about a year now and have a real basic question. Does anyone start a fire with a single piece of newspaper wadded up tightly? I have tried to do this and it never works. The only way I can start my forge is by building a small wood fire over my air grate. If you can do it with a single piece of paper, please let me know how. Thanks ----

The Answer:

I'm not sure that I could start a fire with only one sheet of newspaper. We teach a lot of basic blacksmithing in the Minnesota/western Wisconsin area and we teach fire starting with 3 or 4 sheets of newspaper. It works every time, once you learn to do the right things right. If my life depended upon starting a fire with just one sheet, here's how I'd go about it:

Here's the setup I'd have:

1. I'd have a forge with a deep firepot, deep enough so that the balled up paper would, once placed over the clinker breaker, all fit below the top of the firepot

2. I'd have available at least 2 gallons of a 5 gallon pail full of coke that I made in yesterday's fire, very dry. I would have it piled on the forge table right by the firepot, so I could quickly use it to cover the paper. None of the pieces of coke would be any bigger than about 1" in diameter, and some almost-dust-size stuff is okay.

3. I'd have the capability to run or crank my blower VERY slowly.

4. I'd have another bucket of dry coal to add to the coke.

5. I'd find a newspaper with the biggest sheets of paper you can find. Out in the country where I live, the sheets are only 17" X 22", but one big town paper has sheets that are 22" X 27", 60% more fuel value! Remember, my life DEPENDS on it so every little bit of fuel counts.

6. Then, I'd have a 5 gallon pail of wet coal ready to add to the fire once it got going, because that's the way to keep a mature fire under control and to be assured of making enough coke to start it again tomorrow.

Okay, so now we are ready to go.

1. Make a TIGHT ball out of the paper, folding the loose ends inward and down as you crunch it up. Make it tight enough so that when you let go of it, it doesn't open up much. The object is to make the ball so tight that it WON'T burn very quickly. You want every bit of energy in that paper to go into coke, heating IT to the point where it starts fire, too.

2. Hold the ball by THE TOP (any loose ends down) and light the very bottom of the ball, in two or three places. Immediately lower the gently burning ball in the firepot.

3. VERY gently give it some air. JUST a LITTLE!!! All you want to do is to keep the fire in the paper from going out at this point.

4. QUICKLY start covering the paper with the coke. Your goal is to get the paper covered COMPLETELY ASAP so that ALL the energy in the burning paper is used to heat the coke. Remember to keep the blower going VERY slowly. If you blow too fast, all that happens at this critical point, is that you blow the heat right past the coke into the air above the firepot.

5. Still blowing very slowly, GENTLY, with your BARE FINGER, push a little of the coke down into the area where the paper has burned away. This step keeps the coke a little closer to the burning paper. If your finger gets too hot, you are blowing too fast.

6. Look for any areas where you can see fire and gently place pieces of coke over them to again help to contain all the heat.

7. When is it started? As you repeat steps 5 and 6, you should look down into the heart of the fire to see if any of the pieces of coke have begun to glow on their own. When it is clear that this IS the case, you have a fire! Don't ruin it quite yet--- keep blowing slowly

8. All the above actions take place in a matter of 3 or 4 minutes. If you run out of coke before a healthy fire is going, add a little dry dusty green coal to the top of the fire. It will smoke yellow or green, but it will add easy to start fuel to the fire.

9. Once the fire is going enough that you can clearly see that the coke is glowing and that flames are starting to shoot through the coke, you can begin to mound wet coal around the fire.


Finally, if my life didn't depend on it, I'd use 3 sheets of big city newspaper or 4 sheets of the small town stuff, but I'd do the rest in exactly the same way.