Stoking Up The Woodstove: Winter’s First Ritual


From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

We try to wait until towards the end of November here in Ohio to start up the stove that keeps us warm through the cold weather already howling on our northern ramparts. The “first fire” has become a ritual along with bringing in the last rose of summer, literally, from the garden. The last rose is one of Carol’s miniatures which endures even after the first freezing frosts, and the sight of that brave little thing forlornly alone in a vase can almost bring tears to my eyes. I keep reminding myself that in only about two months, as February approaches, a thaw can bring the winter aconites out of the ground. I have only two months to endure without growing plants.

I stare at the flame of the first fire in that kind of mood. This too is part of the garden farming life: the fire is a harvest feast from our grove of trees. There is sadness in it, but contentment too. I have ranked wood around the walls of the attached garage, at least enough to last until the winter aconites bloom, and filled the woodbox with dry branch twigs to use for kindling. I am ready.

Heating effectively with wood requires that one become what I call a woodburning gourmet. To make a really good fire, the wood should be cut and split and allowed to dry for two years in the rick. Dry wood throws at least a third more heat than green wood, and if it burns with a good draft, it does not violate pollution codes and does not block the chimney with creosote. The species of wood makes a tremendous difference too. A cord of hickory, oak, or ash makes twice as much heat as a cord of light wood like poplar or white pine and one and half times more than most common hardwoods like American elm or wild cherry. It pays to study the lists commonly available that rate woods by their output of BTUs especially if you have to buy your wood. Until you have experience, it would be wise to buy only from a seller you trust or have an oldtimer with long experience on hand when a load is delivered. In general the heavier the wood when it is dry, the more heat per cord it will produce.

Woodburning gourmets like to mix woods in the stove or especially in a fireplace: perhaps a stick of apple or hackberry with its fruity smell alongside a stick of hickory for that delectable odor of hickory smoke; or a couple of thinner sticks of very dry wood with a couple of thicker and perhaps not so dry wood— the former burning quick and hot until the latter are dry enough to burn well into the night without smoldering. The more knowing wood gourmet will prefer ash to white oak or hickory even though it delivers a little less in BTUs because he will only have to take out the ashes once a week instead of twice. How the ash got its name mystifies me. It should be called less-ash. And remember the old refrain: “Ash wood wet or ash wood dry, a king shall warm his slippers by.”

Starting fires in a woodstove can be a real pain unless you want to spend money on various kindling sticks sold for that purpose. Your method will vary, I suppose, with your stove, but in my old Defiant from Vermont Castings which loads from the left end, I lay in two split sticks no more than two inches apart, side by side, some sixteen inches long of roughly five inch thickness, put a handful of kindling twigs between them, and then a third stick athwart and atop the first two, and perhaps a fourth stick tilted down on top of the third, slanted the other way. This allows plenty of space for air movement up through the wood, with the starting flames from the twigs licking against the sides of the two lower sticks and rising upwards into the third and fourth sticks. But not too much space. Two pieces of wood several inches apart will not burn as well as two pieces only an inch apart. And sticks love company: a lone piece of wood will not burn as well as two pieces close together. With a wad of newspaper positioned right inside the stove door and snug against the twigs, one match will get the fire started. With the door slightly ajar, the strong draft pulls the flame into the twigs and then up through the wood. As the wood burns, experience teaches you how much to open or close the draft to keep the temperature steady.

Too much draft and the fire will burn too hot. It is wise to have a thermometer on top of the stove and not let it get much beyond 600 degrees F. About 500 is best for us. Below 300 and either your wood is not dry, or not enough draft. Of course if you are cooking on the stove top, you will want a temperature around 300 for most situations.

Draft depends a lot on weather: with a high pressure front moving in, it will be stronger; low pressure, low draft. The chimney design is also important. When the stove chimney rises straight up from the stove about five feet, then angles about three or four feet into the wall to the outside chimney, the draft will be stronger than an inside chimney that exits the stove horizontally into a fireplace and then angles up into the outside chimney. But both will be satisfactory in most cases.

Two important design features of a good chimney are seldom mentioned in “the literature.” If you notice on old houses, the chimney will often have a bend in it, perhaps ten or fifteen feet up before proceeding on to the top. That is not because the builder miscalculated. That bend helps to minimize downdraft. Secondly, on a house with more than one fireplace or stove, which is often the case, the two (or more) chimneys will be side by side going up the outer wall. Insist, no matter what your builder says, that one of the chimneys sticks up higher than the other by at least a foot, and better two feet. If you don’t do that, one chimney will suck smoke from the other down into the house unless both are in operation. I know because we had to add on to one of our chimneys and that ended the problem.

Another thing: put a rain cover over your chimneys, again no matter what your builder says. You don’t want water dripping down. The cover should also have screening to keep out wild animals or birds. If not, I can almost guarantee that some day you will hear faint rattlings and rufflings in your chimney. Raccoons or birds might do a good job of cleaning fly ash and creosote off your chimney walls before they die or get into the house but….You get the picture.

To bring wood into the house you can buy (or make) large wood carriers that hold about eight to ten sticks of cut, split wood in a completely closed bag that looks sort of like a suitcase. No more dribbling bark and pieces of dirt on the rug.

It pays to have a stove that will operate without electricity. The main reason to have a woodburning stove, it seems to me, is to keep the house warm and to cook food even when the power goes out. The security makes all the work worthwhile.
See also Gene’s Wood Is More Precious Than Gold
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credits: © Axel Drosta |
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Thanks for your comments Jennifer, Jan, Kerri and Tory. I remember articles I’ve read about Alaskan winters, where residents of log cabins enjoyed such roaring woodstove fires that the warmth drove them out into the 30 below weather for relief. Tory, those mid-70s OG dats at Rodale were the good old days for some of us. It was so much fun working there then. Now another generation is going back to the land, or as I say, forward to the land. The more things change the more they stay the same. Gene Logsdon

Thanks for posting this, Gene. I grew up with a woodstove always going in the winter in my parents house on the farm and I greatly miss it. It’s not practical for me to have one where i live now and I can’t wait to move somewhere where it will be. No other kind of heat ever makes me feel truly warm in the winter.

Also I wanted to mention that I recently bought a big box of mostly 1970s-era ‘Organic Gardening & Farming’ magazines at an auction. It’s amazing how almost every issue is a treasure trove of useful information and I’m especially enjoying reading all the great articles you wrote for them back then.

I recently had a fellow from the wood burning stove shop stop in and give me an estimate as to the cost of adding a woodstove to my apartment.

$5000. The stove was about $1000 of that.

Because I’m in a first floor unit with a unit above me, most of the costs were the chimney that had to be rather long. Inside it would rise maybe five feet, then bend out of the unit wall, then bend up for another 11 or 12 feet to get past the 2nd floor roof line. The fellow was not entirely sure how much draft could be gotten with so much chimney out in the cold and was cautious to even say that.

That project is on hold for the time being. I’m going to discuss with the owner (good friend) if it would be possible to frame in one corner of the upstairs living room to house a chimney. The folks upstairs (the owner’s daughter, her husband and baby and a roommate) don’t use that corner and it would be behind their enormous plasma screen tv anyway. I suspect that I’d halve the cost of the installation by being able to go up through the building and the draft issue would be substantially reduced.

Here in Alaska, the possibility of the electricity going out in the winter is very real. While I’ve been working piecemeal on the place to improve it’s insulative capacity, it still leaks like a sieve. I think I’d lose all heat within eight hours during an extended power outage. But five grand and no guarantee that the stove would draft properly is not making me itching to install a stove just yet.

On the other hand, all your comments on stove handling will come in very handy if and when I ever do find myself in that position. The local cooperative extension service has good literature specific to Alaska that I found useful as well. So I’m surrounded by much wisdom but with nothing to apply it to. Just yet.

Kerri in AK

Hi Gene! You didn’t go into the joy of getting wood — it warms you twice!

I know a city fella who loves splitting wood. As soon as I’d cut it down and buck it, he’d want to split it. “It drys faster,” he’d insist.

Perhaps I just don’t want to get that warm the first time, but I know that the wood dries primarily from the ends. It’s important to buck it into rounds, but then I let it sit under tarps until it checks before splitting it — and the splitting then goes MUCH easier than when it’s green.

In the past couple of days — with the first real snow settling in — I have noticed the smell of wood smoke in the neighborhood. How lovely it would be to enjoy a good fire in the evening! I am quite envious. Thanks, Gene, for the reminder of the joys of wood burning…

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