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Update: This page was written a number of years ago and like many things, you learn and you adapt how you do things. This page is all about building a fire in the firebox using actual wood splits or sticks.
Nowadays, I tend to start my wood burning smokers with about 5-7 lbs of charcoal (depending on the size of the smoker) and just add wood stick and/or splits for smoke.
This gives me better control of the heat.
You can of course do it the old school way and here's how you do that:
In “How to build a fire” we will discuss how to build a fire in your wood smoker using wood.
I grew up building fires since we always warmed our house in the winter with wood and one of my chores was to build a fire in the den each morning.
The same techniques are used when building a fire in your smoker however you may not need to use kindling if you have a propane starter like me… (is that cheating?)
I am going to assume that you do not have the propane starter in your firebox to get your wood going on this tutorial.
You want to chop some kindling from the driest, most seasoned wood you have available. Make sure it is of the non-coniferous varieties such as hard woods, fruit woods and nut woods.
You want the kindling to be long slivers about the diameter of a match.. these can be carefully slivered from a wedge of wood using a sharp axe.. do be careful!
When you have a good handful simply make a sort of teepee with the long slivers and place some small pieces of thin cardboard or rolled up paper under the teepee.
Light the paper under the teepee and blow gently on the kindling to get it going… as the kindling begins to burn add some small diameter (1-inch dia.) pieces on top also in a teepee like fashion.
As your small fire gets going you can begin to add some of your larger (2-3 inch dia.) pieces of seasoned, dry wood.. this is what will create the bed of coals that will sustain the heat for the long smoke.
You will need to add about 4 pieces of wood to sustain a nice 225 degree fire depending, of course, on the individual size of your smoker, and you will want to add a piece of wood onto the fire approximately every hour or so to maintain a constant temperature.
Just to make sure there is no confusion.. seasoned wood is that which has been allowed to dry in the open air for 6 or more months.. wood that has been sitting out for more than 2 years will probably be deficient in flavor and may work fine as a base wood but you will need to add some less seasoned wood to get that really smoky flavor into the meat.
I do want to mention smoke stack and firebox intake settings.. the intake should start out at about half open and the stack should be 3/4 to full open. As you learn your smoker you may find that you need more smoke and you can close the smoke stack cover (also known as the rain cover) a little.
You make fine adjustments to the heat by using the intake on the firebox.. opening the intake lets in more oxygen and therefore it will burn better and create more heat. Closing the intake some will have the reverse reaction.
This is my expert advice on how to build a fire in your wood burning firebox.. if you have comments or questions feel free to contact me.
I just wrote a brand new page specifically on how to build a fire with charcoal for those of you who do not use straight wood in your smoker. Check it out here.