Q: What’s the best way to clean soot off the front of a fireplace?

A: Smoke and soot can build up, causing black stains on your fireplace over time. But with proper care, you can prevent unsightly smudges.

The first step toward maintaining it is to clear away any debris, says Sophie Hudson, cleaning merchant at Home Depot. So sweep around your fireplace.

Next, spot-clean the soot marks. Whether you have a granite, brick or stone hearth, you never want to use water-based solutions — these will only spread the greasy soot around. Instead, use a dry cleaning soot sponge (usually sold at hardware stores). The trick is to swipe it firmly in one direction. (These sponges are made of nontoxic natural rubber, so you don’t have to worry about inhaling potentially harmful chemicals.

Hudson recommends cleaning the soot off at least once a month, more if you use the fireplace frequently. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and make sure the fireplace is properly ventilated.

Hire a chimney sweep at least once a year for a professional cleaning of your firebox and chimney. Schedule an appointment now for spring.

Fire-building tips

Q: I just moved to a home with a fireplace. What’s the best way to build a fire?

A: First, open the damper all the way to ensure sufficient air circulation, says Home Depot district manager Don Manderville. If the chimney is cold, prime the flue by lighting newspaper and holding it up in the damper.

Before you get started, you’ll need tinder, kindling and logs. Tinder is small, light and quick to catch a spark. Kindling should be about 1 foot long; it helps the fire progress. Split logs keep the flames burning.

• Tinder: balled-up black-and-white newspaper, or light cardboard ripped into small pieces. Place tinder under the grate or beneath andirons.

• Kindling: small pieces of softwood and hardwood, or the resin-saturated heart of pine, called fatwood. Arrange pieces of kindling in a crosshatch pattern. Then use a long match to ignite the tinder in several places.

• Logs: softwood, such as pine or cedar, and hardwood, such as birch or oak. Add two split wood logs across the top of the burning kindling. Place a third log on top.

Make sure whatever you use is dry; wet wood will put the fire out, says John Crouch, director of public affairs at the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.