A campfire construction known as a Swedish torch or Canadian candle is one way to conserve wood and concentrate heat and light. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki

Living in the woods of Maine, my husband and I are constantly coming up with ways to entertain ourselves in our backyard. In the evening, that sometimes involves a good campfire and cooking over an open flame. So when we heard about a Swedish torch, also known as a Canadian candle, we had to see if we could build one for ourselves.

Basically, a Swedish torch is a log with a “chimney” or tunnel carved into the center and cracks for ventilation. A fire is lit in the chimney, burning the log from the inside out. Once the fire is well established, flames tend to shoot out of the top of the chimney, so the whole thing looks a bit like a torch or giant candle.

Getting started

First, be sure to check your local laws concerning open fires. You may need to obtain a fire permit from your town.

You’ll want to construct the Swedish torch in a safe area for a campfire, such as a fire pit that’s ringed with stones. While this is a fairly contained fire, the log will fall apart as it burns down. You’ll want to provide plenty of space around the log for this to happen.

Select a thick, dry log that’s sturdy when stood on one end. It can be softwood or hardwood. Softwood is generally easier to cut and will burn faster than hardwood, while hardwood typically burns hotter and slower.

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Constructing the torch

To create the chimney, stand the log up on one end and split it vertically several times, creating four to eight wedge-shaped sections that meet in the center. Pieced together, the top of the log should now look like a pizza with triangular slices.

A number of tools could be used to divide the log in this way. My husband Derek used a hatchet and mallet. And in several online tutorials, I’ve seen people use chainsaws.

Lay the wedges (or pieces of the log) out in order so you can easily piece them back together. Then carve away a bit of the inner wood on each wedge so that when you place them all back together, there’s a narrow tunnel running up the center of the log. Again, my husband did this with a hatchet.

This task may be more or less difficult depending on the type of wood you’re working with. In general hardwood is going to be more difficult to carve away than softwood.

Reassemble the wedges so they stand upright, then hold the log together by wrapping a wire around it. (If you use a rope, it will eventually burn away.) You may want to leave a little space so the wedges have room to breathe, with small cracks in between.

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Lighting the torch

To prepare the torch for being lit, stuff tinder down the chimney and into the cracks between the wedges. Leave enough space for air to get in.

For us, readily available tinder included shredded white birch bark, dry branches from our last Christmas tree and dry sticks of scrap wood from one of Derek’s building projects. Newspaper, dried cedar bark and or small, dry sticks would also make for good tinder.

You can light the torch from the bottom by reaching through a crack between two wedges. Or you can light the torch from the top of the chimney and let the fire burn down from there.

Because the tinder will catch flame long before the thick log, your torch will start to burn from the inside out. If the fire starts to go down, you may need to add some more tinder to keep it going.

For us, working with an oak log (hardwood) that was a bit damp, we had to light the torch twice and feed it extra tinder. It took about 30 minutes for the torch to really start to burn well and throw out a flame on top. It stayed burning for about 2 hours, then we had to douse it with water to put it out.

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What is a Swedish torch good for?

There’s some debate over the origin of the Swedish torch. Several online blogs and tutorials claim that Swedish torches may have been used by soldiers of northern European states while fighting in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). But given how long people have been building fires, it’s safe to say that someone created one long before that.

In addition to being a cool party trick, the Swedish torch is a good way to build a somewhat contained fire — though I still recommend building it within a fireproof ring. It’s also a great way of concentrating heat to one area for cooking. In fact, if you have open fire cookware, you can sometimes set a pot or skillet right on top of the torch. Or you could roast marshmallows, hotdogs or bread twists on a stick over the flame that shoots up from the chimney.

Not much heat is emitted from the sides of the torch until it really starts to burn down. Therefore, you can get pretty close to it for cooking without being uncomfortably hot. It’s a great source of light for balmy summer nights.

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The torch is also a good way to conserve wood. Depending on the type of wood, one log could burn for hours, whereas in a traditional campfire, the fire catches on all sides, burning the wood more quickly.

While creating a Swedish torch, feel free to get creative and improvise. People build these a variety of different ways. Some people use a saw but don’t slice all the way to the base of the log, which eliminates the need for a wire to bind it together. I’ve also seen a version in which small, skinny logs are bundled together with a wire, which eliminates the need to cut the wood at all.

Just have fun with it, and be safe.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.