How to Start a Coal Fire in an Old-Fashioned Potbelly Stove

Updated March 23, 2017

Old-fashioned potbelly stoves elicit a certain amount of charm along with producing a warming heat. Once the mainstay of general stores and railroad cars, potbelly stoves now provide a rustic touch to modern living rooms and cabins. Designed to burn both wood fuel and coal, these stoves are user-friendly and won't require too much fussing to get an even-burning, heat-producing coal fire to burn. If you've purchased a new stove, check the manufacturer's guidelines before lighting your first coal fire.

Clean the burn chamber and ash pit before starting a new fire. Ash that has built up in excess can restrict airflow and, over time, may cause the grates of the stove to warp due to overheating.

Open the damper on the stovepipe and slide open the draft slide on the ash door, allowing air to come into the firebox. A good draft is necessary to get the fire started.

Place crumpled-up newspaper into the centre of the burn chamber, over the stove grates. Give yourself as much surface area as you can on top of the newspaper to lay small twigs and needles. Coal fires do best when built upon a wood fire foundation, according to some manufacturer recommendations.

Light the newspaper and twigs, add small amounts of hardwood kindling such as oak, maple, birch or ash, and feed until a solid fire is burning.

Add coal pieces onto the wood fire carefully, one small shovelful at a time. Do not heap coal on so quickly that the flame extinguishes. Start with a thin layer of coal and wait for the pieces to ignite and burn to a yellow-orange intensity before adding a second layer. When this second layer is burning at a similar intensity, add additional layers until the coal bed is about 3 inches thick and burning well.

Close the slide draft approximately three-quarters of the way and adjust the stove pipe damper to the desired burn rate. The more air allowed into the potbelly stove, the faster the burn rate. For a slow-burning coal fire, keep the damper nearly all the way shut.


Manufacturers recommend the use of bituminous coal for coal fires.


Never leave the door open to a potbelly stove while the a fire is lit unless you are tending to the fire. Always keep the door closed to prevent sparks from leaping out of the firebox and igniting in the home. Keep children and pets away from the stove when it is burning. The metal of the stove can be hot enough to burn when touched.

Things You'll Need

  • Newspaper
  • Hardwood kindling
  • Matches or lighter
  • Small coal shovel
  • 1 3/4- to 4-inch pieces of coal
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About the Author

Nikki Jardin began freelance writing in 2009 and focuses on food and travel articles. She has been a professional cook and caterer for more than 20 years. She holds a degree in environmental science from Humboldt State University.