Written By Tom Foulkrod.

Posted on November 28th, 2016.

Tagged with Wood Products.

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The bark of white birch (also called paper birch) is very flammable. Even wet, it ignites and burns brightly. If you've never put flame to a piece of it, I promise it will surprise you!

There’s a scene from the movie The Great Outdoors starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd where the two actors debate the "correct" way to start a fire with newspaper. Sound familiar? Dan scolds John for crumpling the newspaper, saying that instead “you twist it, twist it, lengthwise, to simulate kindling.” The concept made sense to me at the time, and from 1988 on, I was a newspaper twister.

That is, until I installed my current woodstove. Since then, I’ve stopped using newspaper and now use white birch bark instead.

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The bark of white birch (also called paper birch) is very flammable. Even wet, it ignites and burns brightly. If you've never put flame to a piece of it, I promise it will surprise you!

I first learned about white birch bark’s fire-starting prowess as a child from my Boy Scout older brothers. The Boy Scouts (as I observed at that age) would teach you all about things that ended with a spanking and bed without dinner: knives, bows, fires, knots... Little wonder I chose not to be a scout.

Anyway, the reason I switched from newspaper to white birch bark has to do with my chimney. My woodstove’s chimney is 30 feet long with two hard elbows. That’s a long distance for smoke to navigate out of the house. When the woodstove was cold and started with only newspaper, it often made for smoky conditions. When I first lit the newspaper, the smoke would start up the chimney, but it often stalled and would sometimes come back into the fire chamber. Eventually the wood did catch fire and the draft would establish, but this correcting of the situation did nothing about the smoke that was initially "burped" back in the house.

In comparison, using birch bark to start the fire overcomes the stalling out because it burns so much hotter and faster. I have a lot fewer problems with smoke coming back into the firebox since I started using birch bark.

Now when I tell people I use white birch bark to start my woodstove, I get two common questions:

Question 1: How much do you use?
Answer: It varies, but I estimate about 2 square feet per cold start. Because my woodstove is my primary heat, it rarely goes out during winter. In fact, I estimated only twelve cold starts through the long winter of 2014-2015. If you’re a winter homebody and can keep the fire going, that really helps limit the amount of birch bark you need.

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Question 2: Where do you get it?
Answer: I forage in my woodlot! There are white birches in a few areas on my property. I gather the bark in summer or fall using a pack basket, then store it for the winter. I don’t use enough that I would need to do any chainsaw cutting, and I never peel bark off my living trees (it’s bad for them; don’t do it!). Instead I gather all the birch bark I need off of what’s already on the ground or by peeling it from standing dead trees.

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