If you have a free or inexpensive source of firewood, a woodstove may be an efficient and practical source of heat for you. However, there are a few tricks to using one. Here are some guidelines to get you started:
Starting a Fire
Starting a fire in a fireplace or woodstove is a little trickier than pushing a button, and since you are doing this inside your house, you will not want to use butane. You will need:
- Logs: dry wood cut to fit into your stove easily
- Kindling: various thicknesses of very dry twigs and small branches or split wood.
- Fire starting materials: something that will catch immediately, like newspaper, junk mail, dry grass, leaves, or weeds.
Arrange two logs in a V shape with the point away from you. Crumple the paper or whatever fire starter you have between the two logs. Select the thinnest twigs you have, break them in short pieces, and place them over the paper like a teepee. As you add twigs, gradually go up in size. Once you have a few handfuls of kindling perched over the paper, carefully light it with a match or a lighter, being sure not to burn your fingers.
At this point you may need to encourage the fame with gentle blowing or fanning. Alternatively, if you have a good flame going, you may want to open the vents on the stove and close the door. As the fire sucks in oxygen and the heat goes up the chimney a draft will be created, encouraging the flame. Be sure not to let your kindling burn up, though, before you add thicker pieces of wood.
Since flame rises, and will be sucked backwards by the draft, you want to place wood on top and behind the flame, so it will catch. Once you have a few bits of kindling laid crossways across your V, and a good fire going, you can put a log on top of them and close the door.
Leave the vents fairly wide open until your fire has reached its desired heat, and then close them down to about a quarter inch. A very helpful and inexpensive device is a magnetic heat sensor which is placed on the stovepipe and will indicate when your stove is dangerously overheated or too cool and forming creosote.
Burning the Right Wood
The most important thing to remember is that wood should be dry. Wood that was alive recently, called green wood, will contain a lot of water, and will not only use up your heat evaporating the water if you can get it started, but will also cause your chimney to acquire a coat of creosote from the cooler burn. Not only does this mean you will need to have your chimney cleaned sooner, but it can actually cause a chimney fire, which is very dangerous unless you have a stainless steel insert in your chimney. Wood that feels very heavy and does not have radiating cracks may be green. Wood should dry for a year before burning.
The next thing to look for is BTUs (British Thermal Units) which means that there is more heat in some woods than others. Hardwoods are the best choice. Oak burns slow and hot, and Cherry and Maple burn hot. Locust and Osage Orange burn very slow and very hot. Softwoods like Poplar, Willow, Mulberry, and Hackberry don’t have too much heat, which is why they are a better choice for spring and fall. Pine burns fast and hot, but is gone quickly, makes soot, and is best in a mix.
One last precaution is that you should measure your stove and its opening so that you don’t buy or cut wood which will not fit into your stove.
Spreading the Warmth
Once you have a good fire going, everyone will want to sit around it and enjoy the warmth, but what about more remote rooms? Newer stoves often have built in fans. Otherwise, one clever trick is to place a fan behind the stove to blow the hot air out into the room. Various small fans can be purchased and attached in the top corners of doorways to move warm air around the house. There are also small stovetop fans which work without electricity. Make sure that you sweep ashes from in front of the stove before turning on the fan.
Keeping It Going All Night
By now you will have come to understand how to control the fire by controlling airflow with the vents. If you have a stainless steel chimney insert and are not worried about creosote buildup or chimney fires, you can fill up the stove with logs and cut the vents down to within a half-turn of totally shut, and the fire will burn slowly all night. If you get up early you should be able to start a fire from the coals. Simply rake the coals to a heap in the middle and lay logs alongside them. They should ignite the logs in ten or fifteen minutes. If you don’t have a chimney fire proof setup, you can still save your coals for an easier morning fire. By allowing some ashes to accumulate, covering the half-burned logs and coals with them, and cutting down the vents, you can “bank” the fire and keep the coals alive all night. Because there is no fire, there is no creosote.
Cleaning out the Ashes
Depending on various factors you will probably need to clean out your ashes about once a week to make room for the wood. If you have an ash grate this will be easier, otherwise you will need a garden trowel or small metal dustpan to transfer ashes into a metal bucket. There are special ash buckets and ash shovels available as well, some quite decorative. What is important is that you remember that the ashes may contain live coals, so you need to be extremely careful in disposing of them. Wood ashes have many uses. Since ashes are excellent fertilizer, you can scatter them on the lawn or into the garden, being sure to watch out for any smoke which would indicate a live coal getting ready to set your lawn on fire. To be safe, hose the ashes down after scattering. Wood ashes can also be mixed with water and used to make lye for soap making, or to remove hair from animal skins during processing, but it is hard to gauge the strength of the lye made in this way. However, this is not to say that it won’t be strong, so if you choose to try this, wear heavy gloves and eye protection.
Cleaning and Maintaining
High temperature flat black paint is available to refinish woodstoves. Use the same paint used to paint grills. You will get a smoother finish with the spray can than a brush. On a warm day when you can leave doors and windows open, prepare the surface with sandpaper or steel wool, removing any loose paint or rust. Place drop cloths or paper around the stove to protect surfaces and spray evenly. You will probably need to go over it at least twice, but the flat paint is quite forgiving. Let the paint dry a few days if you can before starting a fire. The first time you have a fire in a newly painted stove, it will smell awful and you will want ventilation.
Most stoves are lined with firebricks, which are yellow, and protect the stove while holding heat. These will eventually crack and need to be replaced.
You should get to know your local chimney sweep. For a very moderate cost, chimney maintenance companies will clean out your chimney (without getting soot in your house), which will make your wood burning safer and more efficient. Until you see how you and your stove work, plan on calling your chimney sweep once a year, preferably before they get very busy in October. Creosote can actually block your chimney, so if you are noticing a drastic decrease in your draft, that may be the problem. There are also sprays and “fireplace cleaning logs“ known as Creosote Sweep Logs which can help to decrease creosote buildup. People used to throw an aluminum can in the stove, but I have no opinion on that. If you are a real DIYer you can buy chimney sweep tools and creosote removing chemicals on the internet. I haven’t tried those but will let you know if I do.
Do I Have to Buy a Catalytic Stove?
Catalytic stoves are a response to 1988 EPA regulations, and include a ceramic honeycomb which burns uncombusted particles in smoke. They are supposedly longer burning and more efficient, but they are more expensive and many customers complain about maintenance costs and the need to babysit the stove until it gets hot enough to reburn the smoke. Consult with your local dealer, as there are now many non-catalytic low emission stoves available. That being said, many people are perfectly happy with their catalytic stoves. Is it the law? Yes, if you are buying a new stove from a dealer, your stove will need to conform to EPA emissions standards.
Can You Cook on a Woodstove?
Before there were gas and electric stoves, there were wood stoves, and everyone cooked on them. You can cook on a woodstove, even if it is not designed for this purpose, and not just during a power outage. The even heat of the top of your woodstove spreads very well to kettles, pots and pans, but be careful not to spill food onto the surface, as it will ruin the appearance of the stove, smell, and be difficult to clean while the stove is hot. Be careful not to fill the pot too full. Cast iron cookware is ideal, and there are some items for sale which enable one to bake inside the stove, on a bed of coals. However, a pot of soup simmering gently on the stove, perfuming the house while you relax in the warmth, occasionally adding a stick or firewood or adding hot water to your tea, is pretty hard to beat. Here is an easy recipe:
Universal Bean Soup
Soak a pound of beans overnight- two days if you can, since this decreases the flatulance factor. Different beans need different spicing and cook up differently. This is for basic red beans. Lentils are faster and work well without meat. White beans turn to cream almost like split peas, but then scorch easily. Black beans need a little cumin, garlic, and red wine!
2 onions, chopped
1 -2 bay leaves
5-10 whole black peppercorns
1 ham bone, smoked ham hock, or turkey wing
(if you are vegetarian substitute a parmesan cheese rind or a vegetable boullion product of some kind.)
1-2 celery stalks, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon oil or saved fat. A. handful of diced ham fat is easy.
1 teaspoon dried oregano and/or thyme.
Sea salt to taste
Add the fat/oil and vegetables to a heavy pot with a lid. Add a pinch of salt so the vegetables will caramelize faster. If your woodstove is blasting, go ahead and do this on the stovetop, but as mine is generally humming softly, I start the soup on my regular cookstove and let it finish on the woodstove. Also I avoid getting drips on the woodstove. Once the vegetables are starting to soften and brown, add the oregano and/or thyme and stir briefly so their fragrance comes into the oil. Drain the beans, dump into the pot, and fill to within an inch of the top with new water. Add the ham hock or whatever you are using, and the bay leaf and peppercorns. Let simmer closed until beans are nice and soft, about 2 hours. If your stove is going hard you might have to crack the lid. Also check occasionally to see if you need to add water. Be careful not to scorch the beans!
While using a woodstove requires a little skill and getting used to, it is a dependable and deeply satisfying way to heat.