Between local minds and the farmer’s almanac, rumor has it the winter of 2016-2017 will be a particularly cold and wet one in our little slice of the inland northwest. To wit, we rallied early this year to keep the home fires burning in our wood stove come what may: kindling is split and logs are cured and stacked, presto logs from recycled wood scraps have been procured, and recycled newspaper is crumpled and ready to go. The only thing missing? Fire starters!
PINE CONE FIRE STARTERS
I first discovered pine cone fire starters when I moved into a home with a kiva fireplace in Santa Fe. While the cozy warmth of an open fireplace never lost its romance for me, I did come to dread making a fire when I was short on time, stuck with wet wood, or chilled to the bone. Pine cone fire starters were an inspired natural solution.
When we ultimately moved to a home where we relied on a wood stove for heat, my enthusiasm for reliable fire starters grew exponentially.
If you’ve never come home to a cold house and struggled to get an uncooperative log started, bully for you. For the rest of us, there’s pine cone fire starters.
In their simplest iteration, pine cone fire starters are just pine cones dipped in a flammable wax. You can use paraffin, soy, palm, or bees’ wax–there are advantages and disadvantages to each. (For a lovely little primer on each as they relate to candle-making, click here.) I personally prefer beeswax as it is natural, sweet-smelling, and clean burning. I also find I need to use far less beeswax than other types of wax: it coats so well (and so thickly!) that you sometimes don’t even need to dip the whole cone!
Honestly, I would discourage you from working with paraffin, particularly if you’re planning on using your fire starters in an open fireplace. Paraffin is a petroleum by-product that produces nasty toxic fumes when burned. It’s not the most environmentally-friendly choice. Palm wax is associated with deforestation and human rights concerns so palm wax, too, is out of scope for me.
You may be lucky enough to have pine cones volunteering for this project. (One grandfather tree at our wee homestead offers enough pine cones for even a cold winter’s worth of fires for us!) If you have cones to gather, be sure to collect them with gratitude both for their generosity and the warmth they’ll be bringing to your home. If you’re collecting pine cones from somewhere other than your own home, be conscientious about etiquette and ecology.
YOUR BASIC PINE CONE FIRE STARTER
The best pine cone fire starter begins with large, dry, bug- and debris-free pine cones.
LOOK FOR MATURE, “CRUNCHY” PINE CONES THAT OPENED COMPLETELY.
We let our pine cones “rest” in a large plastic tub in our garage for at least a month before using them. That gives critters a chance to move on and moisture a chance to evaporate. Shake out remaining debris and pull trapped needles before bringing your cones in for dipping.
Things you’re going to need for the most basic fire starters include:
- pine cones
- newspaper, waxed paper, and/or aluminum foil
- barbecue tongs safe for use in hot wax or metal wire
- thick, disposable, wax- and heat-proof material to prevent drips (i.e, a piece of stiff cardboard)
Create a double boiler using a heatproof container inside a larger pot of boiling water. You can use a Pyrex dish inside a wider pot. Do watch that your outer container has a wide and low enough lip tat you aren’t apt to burn yourself on the edge as you work.
Place your wax(es) of choice in the heatproof container and allow them to melt over medium-to-low heat. Note that soy has one of the lower melting points among the waxes; beeswax has the highest. Keep your eye on the wax as it melts!
On a nearby work surface, lay out thick newspaper or wax paper upon which the cones can rest and dry. (You DON’T want to get wax all over your kitchen! Cover. That. Surface, y’all.) Keep your eye on the wax as it melts! Turn off the heat to the double-boiler as soon as the wax is melted through. The wax should be completely clear and melted through before you begin dipping.
When the wax is sufficiently melted, remove the pot with the wax(es), take it to your newspaper workspace, and place it on a trivet covered in a wide piece of tin foil. (The foil around the bottom of your wax container helps prevent wax from spilling on your workspace!)
I have metal kitchen tongs dedicated to candle making and other wax adventures, so I use those to grab, dip, and remove cones. If you don’t have similar tools you’re willing to cover in wax, you might want to fashion a Macgyver-style holder out of strong wire so you can easily submerge and retrieve your dipped pine cones. (Y’all are familiar with the shape of the traditional PAAS egg-dipper, yes? A larger version of that would do nicely…) Have a piece of cardboard, tin foil with paper towel, or other disposable/washable wax-proof material ready to catch drips as you transfer from wax pot to paper.
Moving carefully, grab a cone with your tongs or wire holder and submerge the cone in the melted wax; turn the cone to pour off excess.
Place your wax-proof material below each cone as you move it from the wax pot to the paper to set; the wax-proof material will prevent drips from your cone to your work space! Let your cones cool and set for at least 15 minutes before dipping a second time, if desired.
Make sure to bring your wax(es) up to temperature again if you plan to dip a second round. Avoid creating additional layers with wax that’s too hot: instead of creating a new layer, the super-hot wax will actually melt the original layers off!
Since we use a fire starter almost every day through cold winters, I make a basic Winter Workhorse Fire Starter for day-to-day use.
Our WINTER WORKHORSE fire starters are straightforward: pine cones + soy/beeswax + essential oils.
The Workhorses are no frills–a single layer of wax with up to one ounce of essential oil per pound of wax used. I personally wouldn’t go out and buy essential oils to make these everyday fire starters–that feels both cost prohibitive and unsustainable to me. Plus, it would be hard to watch newly purchased essential oils literally go up in flames! That said, I have a handy-dandy pro tip for you:
Homemade winter workhorse pine cone fire starters are the perfect way to use up CANDLE REMNANTS AND old or oxidized essential oils!!
That’s right, this MYO/DIY project perfectly re-purposes candles AND essential oils! If you’re lucky enough to have volunteer pine cones, too, this project is also now officially FREE to make. (What?! You’re a genius!!)
How do you do it? Collect your old candle stumps/tea light remnants in a sealed bag or plastic container throughout the year. (Also, let your friends know you’re crazy this way. They will bring you their candle stumps. Sound weird? Happens to me all the time…) At the point you are ready to use the combined candle remnants, melt them in a double boiler and either fish out remaining wicks/debris or pour the hot wax through a (never to be used again!) cheesecloth.
Meanwhile, when essential oils age out of your inventory, add them to a larger bottle labeled as your “fire starter essential oils.” Save the resulting blend to use as fragrance and fuel for your fire starters.
Conveniently, clearing out old (and possibly sensitizing) oils like clove bud, cinnamon bark, and citrus oils can yield a SCRUMPTIOUS smelling WINTER blend!
The bottle I am currently using as my Winter Workhorse fire starter blend includes quite a few oils that were “gifted” to me–oils for which I had no distillation/use by dates or blend details. Since there were many among them that were much darker and thicker than they should have been <cough cough cough> I didn’t dare use them in any products intended for topical use! Instead, I poured them all together in my fire starter essential oil bottle and hoped for the best. Y’all, even that goofy hodgepodge of aromatics smells amazing–and it beats the heck out of synthetic fragrance!
To make this year’s batch of Workhorse fire starters, we used a Rubbermaid tub full of cones collected at the bases of evergreen trees on our property, about three (3) pounds of white beeswax left over from making custom wedding favors, and three (3) ounces from my bottle of aged-out essential oils. (My bottle looks disturbingly like whiskey. It most assuredly is not whiskey. And we make sure it can’t be confused for whiskey! DO NOT leave this bottle where ANYone, ESPECIALLY a CHILD, might get into it. DON’T. Just, NO. Anyway, I was saying…) Three pounds of wax in a single layer made about 50 large pine cones for us.
These basic, everyday fire starters are wonderful and they’ll get the job done. But they are only the beginning….
GETTING JIGGY WITH IT
There are fire starters and then there are FIRE STARTERS! If you’re looking to create special holiday hostess gifts, fancy stocking stuffers and ornaments, or spectacular aromatic fire starters for your own special evening in, you can take your fire starters to a whole other level…
There are a heap of ways to spruce up your fire starters: custom aromatic blends, wax dyes, dried herbs & flowers, wicks, glitter, and, yes, even flame colorants can be combined to make some CRAZE-MAZING fire starters.
INTOXICATING AROMATIC BLENDS
Every now and again, life warrants a special, more thoughtful, and profoundly inspired iteration of the basic fire starter. Maybe you want a romantic fire on Valentine’s Day or need a unique housewarming gift for friends who just got their first wood-burning fireplace. Either way, essential oils have you covered–and the possibilities are endless…
Consider a winter evergreen theme–Douglas fir and Siberian fir are each amazing as are blends from multiple pines and conifers.
For our winter open house, I have sprinkled newly dipped fire starter cones with ground frankincense, myrrh, and opoponax resins to make a “three king’s” holiday blend that smells divine.
Cinnamon, clove, sweet orange, and patchouli make an amazing holiday blend, too.
When blending with deliberate oils, you’ll likely want to make smaller batches for cost’s sake.I recommend staying well below 1 ounce per pound for specialty starters. Note that paraffin, palm, and soy don’t always lend favorable fragrance to the mix–for fancy, fragrant fire starters, I recommend sticking with sweet, redolent beeswax.
COLORFUL WAX DYES
Wax dyes are available from most candle supply outlets and many craft stores–just be sure to buy a dye that works with the wax you’re using. Here are some fun color associations to inspire you:
DRIED HERBS & FLOWERS
Want these things to be not just aromatic, but also bee-yoo-tee-full? Bust out your dried herbs and flowers, y’all! After dipping each pine cone starter for the last time, sprinkle with dried lavender flowers, rosemary, rose petals, pine needles, or other dried flowers and herbs of your choosing. (You know that dust that collects at the bottom of your box of incense? You can save it and use that, too! (We keep our nag champa in an old, upright bon-bon container and repurpose the dust on the bottom for craft projects. Best fire starter I ever made involved cones dipped in beeswax with a small amount of rose absolute, sprinkled with nag champa dust!)
SUPER-EASY WICKS & STUPID SMART HOOKS
Our everyday pine cone fire starters sit in a wee bucket next to our wood stove. We wrap them in a piece of newspaper, set them in the stove, light them on fire, and VOILA: fi-yah. The fancier fire starters may benefit from a wick, hook, loop, or tie, though. If you’re planning on using these as ornaments or gift tags or in other decorative ways, you’re going to want a wick/loop.
To add a wick, you’ll need a ball of twine or similar string. Beginning at the bottom of your cone, wrap the string around the pine cone at the center building your way toward the top. At the top, leave a two-inch piece for a wick (leave a six-inch piece for a tied loop). Cut the string using sharp scissors. Tie or knot the string, if desired.
SOMETIMES YOU JUST NEED GLITTAH
I try not to overindulge in indulgent things, but sometimes you just, well…
Some things require sparkles.
Sometimes I need glitter. Sparkly, sprinkle-toes funkytown glitter. A new year’s eve fire starter goes to another level with fancy glitter, for example. And, you know, sometimes we merely want to feel fancypants on a Tuesday. (Because Monday, y’all.) It’s easy (though sometimes messy…) to add…. Over a drip- and glitter-proof tray, sprinkle your cones with glitter as they come out of the hot wax, turning as you shake to coat. Let them cool and rest as usual.
EASY-PEASY FLAME COLORANTS
Apparently, you can create a color theme by adding various salts to your fire starters: just sprinkle the required salt on your pine cone immediately after your last wax dipping. Salt substitute reputedly burns purple, Epsom salts burn white, and table salt burns yellow. I haven’t tried this myself, but I’m told it works…. (If you try it, will you let me know?)
SAFETY CONSIDERATIONS, CAUTIONS, & PLAIN COMMON SENSE
If you’re planning on making and/or sharing your fire starters, there are some cautions and common sense notes. First and foremost, some thoughts on safety…
Unsurprisingly, fire starters BURN. Don’t use more than you need or you’ll overwhelm your fireplace or wood stove! We use ONE at a time to get kindling cranking in our wood stove. When starting a campfire in a protected fire pit outdoors, we’ll use two or three–at home, they would be waaay too much.
CREATE FIRE STARTERS THOUGHTFULLY. USE THEM AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Make sure you use a fireplace screen when using fire starters in your fireplace (or close the wood stove door in your wood stove!). Pine cones like to crackle and pop in the fireplace, sending sparks and scattering live fire about!
Check with your wood stove manufacturer or other professional before going high wide and handsome burning fire starters in your stove–they may not pair well with your set-up. Be sure before you try!!
I would hope this would go without saying, but, just in case: don’t use fire starters with gas or fake fireplaces.
If you’re sharing these beauties with others, please be sure to provide directions for use, cautions, and other empowering details.
(HINT: Pine cone fire starters are lovely when given with crafty gift tags that provide directions and cautions–the tags can be tied to the cone or wick, where applicable, and used to light them!)
enjoy these fire starters at warm hearths, in good health, with good company.
Bless and blessed be,
xoxo Kristina, The Untamed Alchemist