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How to Build a Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew Paperback – December 14, 2010

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Editorial Reviews


“Erin Bried can build a fire, thanks to grandpa.”—USA Today

“A step-by-step guide to (almost) everything the hard-working, self-sufficient Greatest Generation learned about life and living.”—Chicago Tribune

“Don’t pass up How to Build a Fire…it’s [full of] knowledge our grandfathers seem to possess in abundance – life skills that made them such stand-up guys.”—The Houston Chronicle

How To Build a Fire is fascinating, humbling and humorous.”—The Chicago Sun-Times

“Erin Bried can help you nail certain tasks.”—The New York Daily News

How to Build a Fire is a succinct life-skills book filled with humor and wisdom…useful for both men and women….It’s a quick, useful guide with a touch of nostalgia.”—Library Journal

How to Build a Fire takes readers back to basics by championing more than 100 practical life skills. All of them are guaranteed for life, but are especially valuable during an economic recession.”—Book Page

How to Build a Fire offers sound advice on manual jobs and also gives lessons on more subtle skills.”—Boston Globe

How to Build a Fire makes a lovely stocking stuffer by a roaring fire.”—SELF magazine

“Our elders could still teach us a lot—and you’ll find it all in How to Build a Fire by Erin Bried. It demystifies stuff like making ice cream (yay!) and playing dominoes. Your kids will think you’re the coolest.”—Parenting magazine

“Although her book touches on the sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation,” Bried’s How to Build a Fire is a companion piece to Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book. The former newscaster’s book lauds the efforts of the people who grew up during the Depression and saved the world by winning World War II. Bried’s book acknowledges those efforts – eight of the 10 grandfathers served in the war – but she lets them teach lessons big and small.”—Stockton Record

How to Build a Fire is a practical guide to all those things you always meant to learn, from breaking in a baseball mitt to writing a love letter — and being a role model for your kids.”—St Petersburg Times

“How many times have you wished your grandfather were still around to give you some priceless advice?”—Tulsa World

“…Fun to read. More importantly, it’s the perfect gift, birthday or otherwise, for grandchildren of any age, or even their parents! After all, you can only learn just so much on the Internet.”—Monterey County Herald

“If How to Build a Fire is anything like How to Sew a Button, then it will be a great gift for any young adult in your life, male or female. Because honestly, we should all know how to sew on a button and build a fire. Just in case…”—Frederick News Post

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.



Begin by knowing your way around your kingdom. That way, you'll always be warm, safe, happy, and well fed wherever you go.

Grow Up

"Talk to plants, and they will grow. Life without love, for all living things, is nothing. If you give love to something, it will reciprocate. That's how we are as humans, too."

-Angel Rodriguez

How to Plant a Tree

Step 1: Choose the right tree. Consider not only its size, speed of growth, shape, and looks, but also its hardiness. It should be native to your area and strong enough to weather the hottest and coldest temperatures, and all the sunshine and rain you may or may not get. Other things to think about: Will your tree lose its leaves every year (and do you really want to rake them)? Does it bear fruit (and if so, will you eat it or curse it when it's smushed on the bottom of your shoe)?

Step 2: Find a good spot. Look up, look down, look all around and make sure your tree will have plenty of space to thrive. Your tree may look small now, but it won't be for very long, and if you plant a soon-to- be-big sucker right next to your house or directly under utility lines, you'll be paying for that bad decision for years to come. Also, a no-brainer: Before digging any holes, call your local utility company to make sure you're clear of any underground cables.

Step 3: Dig a hole. A well-planted tree will grow faster and live longer than a poorly planted tree, so take care to do it right. Using a shovel, dig a big ol' bowl-shaped hole as deep as the tree's roots (or root-ball) and at least twice as wide. The hole will most certainly look bigger than you think it needs to be, but the roots need that extra room to grow. Don't slack on the digging.

Step 4: Measure up. Place your tree in the hole and see if it's deep enough. If it's just right, proceed to step 5. If it's too deep, put some soil back. If it's too shallow, go have a lemonade. Then come back and keep digging.

Step 5: Position your tree. It should stand upright in the center of the hole. If your tree comes in a container, tap the pot to gently remove it, being careful not to rip the trunk from the roots. If your tree comes with its roots wrapped in burlap, plunk the whole thing in the pit and carefully remove the burlap, along with any twine, wire, nails, or staples.

Step 6: Fill the hole. Replace the soil you removed, packing it down firmly around the roots. You'll want your tree pit to catch water, so make sure your tree grows from the pit's deepest point. Then look for a little bulge at the base of your tree's trunk. It's called the root collar, and you want your soil to snuggle its bottom only. If you can't see your tree's collar, it may be planted too deep.

Step 7: Add water. Give the ground a good soak.

Step 8: Spread mulch (wood chips or bark) around your tree a couple of inches deep. It'll help keep the soil warm and moist, prevent weeds and erosion, and just make the whole thing look nice.

Step 9: Feel proud. Not only do trees help beautify the world, but they also help you save on energy costs, improve your water and air quality, give a home to songbirds, boost your property value, and fight global warming. Take good care of it by watering it once a week and pruning only dead or broken branches.

More Handy Tips:

To find the best trees for your area, enter your zip code at and get all the information you've ever dreamed of. Better yet, join the Arbor Day Foundation for ten dollars, and you'll receive ten free trees of your choice. Seriously.

If you're planting a sapling with naked roots, remove any packaging and soak the roots in a bucket of water for up to six hours before planting.

If you're planting a tree that came in a pot and the roots look tangled once they're free, use a utility knife and make an X on the bottom of the root-ball and a vertical line down each side.

Aim True

"By the time I was six, I was splitting wood. Make sure you've got it lined up right and then go from there. It's not about muscle. The ax will do the work for you, but you can help it a little bit. If you're lucky, you'll hit it and have two pieces of wood. Usually, it takes a few blows. And don't cut your feet!"

-Philip Spooner

How to Split Firewood

Step 1: Dress appropriately. Wear safety goggles, leather work gloves, steel-toed boots, and a plaid flannel shirt, if you've got one. The first three items will help protect you from harm, while the last one will make you look butch. You'll also need a maul, which is basically a fatter version of an ax built specifically for splitting wood vertically, as opposed to chopping across it. (Axes will work, too, but because they're slimmer, they tend to get stuck in the wood more often, and that's just frustrating.)

Step 2: Set a twelve- to eighteen-inch log on end on a raised, flat wooden surface about fourteen inches tall. The perfect chopping block: a sawed-off tree stump. Your second-best option: on the soft ground. You may have to wrest your maul from the depths of the dirt sometimes, but that'll only help you build stronger muscles. Never ever split wood on pavement, or you and anybody in your vicinity will get hurt. Flying shards of steel? Not fun.

Step 3: Get in position, and eyeball where you'd like to split the wood. Cracks are nature's way of helping you along, so take advantage of them. Once you've focused on your target, place the sharp edge of your maul on it and, with your arms fully extended, grip the end of the handle with both hands. Step back a few inches so you're slightly reaching, and plant your feet shoulder-width apart.

Step 4: Prepare to strike. Pick up your maul and hold it parallel to the ground, across the front of your body, blade facing away from you. Place your weak hand at the base of the handle, palm facing down, and your dominant hand closer to the head, palm facing up. Grunt for good measure.

Step 5: Swing deep. Slightly bend your knees, and then raise your maul overhead with your arms extended, allowing your dominant hand to slide to the base of the handle. Keeping your eye on your target, swing your maul in a downward motion to meet the wood. Find the grace in the movement. Every woodsman knows that technique (and gravity) counts more than brute strength.

Step 6: Repeat as necessary. Maybe it'll take one good crack, maybe more. Just keep hitting your log in the same place until it splits. Then keep going until you have your desired amount of splits. Save the little pieces, too. They make great kindling.

Step 7: Stack 'em up and let 'em dry. If it's new wood, it'll be ready to burn in about nine months. If it's already seasoned, it's ready to burn now.

More Handy Tips

Knotty, gnarly, or curvy wood can be tough to split. Save those pieces for last or, better yet, just use them for decoration.

To gain more momentum in your swing, rise up on your toes before dropping your maul.

If your maul does get stuck, keep a few steel wedges nearby and tap them into the wood with a little sledgehammer. That'll usually be enough to split the log into pieces and free your tool.

Always remember, the best cure for a hot head and a cold house: splitting wood. Do it as often as necessary.

Stay Warm

"We used to go camping when I was a boy. We'd put a lean-to in our packs and head out and live off the country for three or four days. If you spend a night in the woods and you don't know how to build a fire, you're going to be cold."

-Bill Holloman

How to Build a Fire

Step 1: Find a good spot. Look for a clearing, one that's far away from houses, trees, roots, and overhanging branches and also sheltered from the wind. Then clear a circle about three feet across, brush or dig out the center so it's slightly concave, and place big, dry rocks around the edge.

Step 2: Gather your supplies: matches, tinder (twigs, dried grasses and leaves, newspaper, and so on), kindling (sticks smaller than your wrist), two or three dry, split, seasoned logs about twelve to eighteen inches long, and a pail of water (or sand or dirt) for safety.

Step 3: Build a tepee-shaped blaze. Just toss your tinder into the center, leaving space for oxygen to circulate around it. Stand your smallest pieces of kindling on end to form a pyramid over your tinder. Repeat with three or four larger pieces of kindling. Then, without knocking the whole thing over, hold your breath and very gently lean a couple of logs on top. Exhale.

Step 4: Strike a match, light your tinder, and watch it all go up in flames, just as you'd hoped. Once the fire really gets roaring, the logs will topple over the hot coals to keep burning. Add more logs as needed, being careful you don't smother the flames.

Step 5: Get out your s'more fixin's and let the ghost stories begin. Did you hear the one about the guy with a hook for a hand? What about the girl with the ribbon around her neck? Come to think of it, who is that standing behind that tree?

More Handy Tips

If there's not a lot of tinder around, you might have to get creative. Try dried pine needles, pieces of papery birch bark, a fallen bird's nest (pulled apart), or even the fluff from a cattail (ahem, the kind that grows in wetlands, not the kind that is connected to your neighbor's kitty). Pine pitch (or sap) will always light, even on wet days. So will a cotton ball swabbed with Vaseline.

To identify good fire logs, knock two together. If you hear a clunk, they're ready to burn. If you hear a thud, they're probably still too wet to do anything but smoke you out.

Never build your fire on top of rocks, and never toss rocks into it, either. Hot rocks can explode, possibly causing harm to anyone nearby.

Never leave an unattended fire burning. Always, always put it out, using water, sand, or dirt.

To prevent your matches from getting wet, dip their tips in wax and store them in an empty film canister.

No matches? Build a fire plow. Find a piece of soft wood about a foot or two long and a very hard, pointy stick, about a foot long. Rub the point of your stick along the grain of the soft wood until you form a groove. When you see saw dust collecting, rub faster; you'll eventually get a tiny burning ember. Touch it to your tinder, and ignite your blaze. It may not be the quickest way to start a fire, but it sure beats freezing your you-know-what off.

Stay Afloat

"We had tin boat races in the basin, and they were thrilling. You'd fold up a piece of corrugated iron, about three feet wide and eight feet long, and fasten it together on the ends with screws and tar. I had one that I called the Orchid, which I painted lavender. I was doing real well in the race, but then I got too exuberant and I capsized it and it sank. Of course, I swam down and brought it back up again!"

-Buck Buchanan

How to Paddle a Canoe

Step 1: Climb aboard. This is the hardest thing you'll do all day, but if you can get in a canoe without tipping it, then you'll be golden on the pond. Just stay low in a crouched position, step as close to the centerline as possible, and slide both hands along the sides to steady yourself as you walk toward your seat. If you're alone, sit in the back of the boat.

Step 2: Grab your paddle. If you're right-handed, grip the paddle with your left hand on top of the handle and your right hand on the shaft, closer to the blade. To check your grip, hold the paddle in front of you, parallel to the water. Your arms should be just slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

Step 3: Use the simple J-stroke, so you don't have to be bothered switching sides with every paddle. While keeping your chin up and back straight, reach high with your paddle and then dive it into the water just ahead of your knees. The blade should be perpendicular to the boat and fully submerged. Then draw your paddle alongside the boat, and when your left hand is extended across your body and your right hand is even with your hips, turn the blade parallel to the boat and use it as a rudder; push it gently away from you to scoop out a gentle J-shaped hook. (On the right side of the boat, it's actually a backward J.) Repeat the stroke from the start.

Step 4: Check your course. If you're paddling properly, you should be going in a straight line.

More Handy Tips

Always wear a life preserver and sunscreen when boating. Both can save your life.

When your arm gets tired, switch sides (and grips), and use the J- stroke on the other side. Remember, your J should always hook away from the boat.

Keep your boat straight in rapids and waves. If you approach either sideways, you'll swamp your boat, and it'll sink.

If you plan on paddling for a long time, bring water with you. A snack couldn't hurt, either. And toss a change of clothes in a dry bag, in case you happen to get wet.

Get Hooked

"When I was two and a half years old, my grandfather got an alder limb, a piece of twine, and a fishhook. He put an angleworm on the hook and set me loose at the creek behind our house. I caught a trout about four inches long! I came back and showed my mother. She didn't know I was fishin'! She looked at my grandfather and said, "You left him all alone?" My grandfather said, "He's old enough to go fishin'. See? He caught one!"?"

-Philip Spooner

How to Catch a Freshwater Fish

Step 1: Gather your equipment: a spinning rod and reel (with hook, line, and sinker attached); some bait; an ice-filled cooler for your catch; a sandwich, drink, and chips (for you, not the fish); and your fishing license. (Get one at your local bait shop before you go, or you may be hit with a very large fine. What's worse, you won't get to keep your catch or possibly even your equipment.)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; Original edition (December 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345525094
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345525093
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #65,683 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Erin Bried is a Senior Staff Writer at SELF magazine and author of How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew, How to Build a Fire: And Other Handy Things Your Grandfather Knew and How to Rock Your Baby: And Other Timeless Tips for Modern Moms. She's appeared on The Today Show, Better TV and National Public Radio and in magazines and newspapers nationwide. She lives with her baby daughter and her better half in Brooklyn, New York, where she plays peek-a-boo, sings off-key lullabies, and reads bedtime stories every night.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 38 people found the following review helpful By motherblogger on December 14, 2010
Format: Paperback
This wonderful guide is the grandfather companion to Bried's heartwarming How to Sew a Button, a book that was filled with homespun wisdom from savvy grandmas. How to Sew a Button covered all things home-economics-ish, How to Build a Fire offers a fair dose of boy scouting skills for men and women, but where it really shines is the lessons it offers in being a grown up. My favorite tips include:

How to leave work at home

How to say you're sorry

How to handle bad news

How to keep a secret

How to think about politics

How to buy flowers

How to ask for help

How to comfort a loved one

Plus other useful stuff such as how to build a fire, how to make a good cup of coffee, how to buy a car and how to make toast.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Bubbette on January 10, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I ordered one of these, thumbed through it and ordered 2 more. This is a fun little reference book for men and women alike. Great, short how-to explanations on topics that you might talk with your grandfather about as you are growing up or as an adult. They are simple and presented in steps that are concise, informative, and entertaining. If you only have one reference book on your book shelf, I highly recommend this one and its companion "How to Sew on a Button". I also recommend it for those of us who have more books than sense, and those who have forgotten how satisfying it is to deal with things directly and efficiently. I gave this as gifts to 3 different types of people and found all 3 reading it. It isn't just for those fellows in your life; the ladies will love it too.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By doc peterson VINE VOICE on June 18, 2012
Format: Paperback
I've been accused of being a "Luddite" because of my "old fashioned" ways: I don't own a cell phone (I don't see the need for one), I shave with a straight razor (I like a close, tight shave), I don't take my clothes to the cleaners preferring to iron them myself - in spite of the fact that I am a Gen Xer many for whom this is not de rigueur. That said, I couldn't believe that so much of what the authors present here is somethng that (apparently) most young adults are unfamiliar with how to do: smoke a pipe, make an old fashioned, split firewood, and so forth. Of course, I could be just too earnest about what is otherwise a fun little book.

There is a tone of playfulness and nostalgia to the book when, for example, it has advice on how to be a gentleman (really?!) or how to grow a beard. Taking it in the spirit it was written, _How to Build a Fire_ is cut from the same cloth as The Dangerous Book for Boys or The Daring Book for Girls, but for adults. Fun and somewhat whimsical, I still can't quite get my mind around the fact that so many of the pointers would need to be explained. But then again, maybe I'm just being a cantankerous old man.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Gary H. on March 25, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As an old timer, much in the book is common knowledge or common sense. However, I did not purchase the book for myself, but for my grandkids. Much of the stuff we took for granted or learned at a young age, my grandkids have no concept. Although the book is not overly detailed, it gives the person sufficient information to get started and maybe even experiment on his own and that is the intention. I would recommend this for our younger generation.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By B. Rivera on March 2, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this as a gift for my son, which was a mistake since men think they know everything---however it's an outstanding book that any woman will appreciate receiving/reading.
I glowingly recommend it!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By juanomatic on November 13, 2013
Format: Paperback
Spoiler alert: The instructions on "How to build a fire..." are instructions on how to build a fire -using matches-. If there is anyone on this planet who does not know how to build a fire using matches, God help them. There are instructions on how to change a flat tire. These are not words of wisdom from a grandfather, they are words of wisdom from your car's maintenance manual.
The impression I got from the title of this book was that I would gain little pearls of advice on things forgotten. Something along the lines of "Hints from Heloise" from a male perspective. This was just drivel.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Evan the Dweezil on July 31, 2013
Format: Paperback
Quite honestly, this book should have been about the great men who were briefly profiled at the beginning as the Grandfathers. The concept of this book is interesting, but it just wasn't as good as the tease the introduction made it out to be. The cutesy chapter headings and other fluffy bits were of a turnoff as well.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Northern SW on December 15, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Review and revive useful "old fashioned" skills by reading this instructional paperback. It is simply, plainly written, with clearly identified topics. The information is presented cheerfully, in a down-to-earth manner. "Memory lane" may seem like "just yesterday" to Baby Boomers on up : )
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