Country Living Series

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Heating with wood

For some time now, a very patient reader named Ann has wanted more information on heating with a woodstove. (Ann, I apologize for taking so long to tackle this subject.)

As you may know, we heat virtually exclusively with wood. I say "virtually" because we do have a ventless propane wall heater, but we use that only under two circumstances: (a) it's 15 below zero and the woodstove isn't yet putting out much heat; and (b) we have visitors who aren't used to a house as chilly as ours.

Our house isn't small - it's about 2400 square feet - with two stories. The upstairs is entirely unheated. The downstairs is heated by our antique cast iron parlor stove, inconveniently placed in a far corner of one room (as opposed to more centrally located). The stovepipe and fireproof wall backing were in that corner when we moved in.  If we had installed the pipe ourselves, we would have put it more central.

This is our faithful old woodstove. It was literally given to us for free in 1997 when we still lived in Oregon. It was a rusted mess and had been sitting in someone's yard for who-knows how many years. Someone wanted to get rid of it and we happily took it.

At the time, we were heating our old house in Oregon with a pellet stove. It worked fine, though between the blower and the auger it was noisy. But we didn't like the idea that the pellet stove was entirely dependent on electricity. When the power went out, so did our heat.

The deciding moment came in December of 1997. Our youngest daughter was seven months old when we had a cold snap of 10F. By Idaho standards, that's laughably warm, but by Oregon standards - especially in an old and drafty house - it was devastating. We had the pellet stove on high day and night, burning through three bags of pellets per day, and the house never got warmer than 50F. For three days I could not put the baby down at all except in her crib to sleep - the floor was simply too cold.

So we knew we had to do something. Don took the rusted hulk of the parlor stove, wire-wheeled the rust off, and found some mica windows. We built a fireproof platform and installed triple-walled pipe through the roof. At last we were set up to try out the woodstove.

And we were stunned. The house stayed toasty warm - almost too warm (sometimes we had to crack a window to cool things down a bit) - and it was quiet as a mouse. We instantly fell in love with this woodstove, one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. We seldom used the pellet stove after that.

We loved our parlor stove so much that when we moved to Idaho, we took it with us. We dismantled the poorly-performing woodstove that was already in place in this house, and installed our trusty antique parlor stove instead.

Heating with wood is NOT like central heating. The heat distribution is uneven throughout the house. But here's the thing: we've grown to love it this way. The woodstove is a "point source" for heat. When we need to toast up, we go stand by the woodstove and defrost before going about our activities in the cooler parts of the house. When we get cold again, we go warm up by the woodstove.

These last couple days have been cold (zero degrees Fahrenheit in the mornings). When I got up yesterday and built a fire in the stove, it took a long, long time for the house to warm up. (Last night we kept the fire going all night and it was much more comfortable this morning.)

Yesterday morning the indoor temperature was 50F. I took this photo when things had (cough) warmed up to 52F.

During such times, we all dress warmly, drink lots of hot tea/cocoa/coffee, and stay as much as possible in the front room where the woodstove is located. When we did our schoolwork, it was too chilly in the kitchen to work on the kitchen table, so the kids sprawled on the floor while doing their math and stood by the stove to listen to their history lesson.

It's the price to pay when heating with wood. When we get our wood cookstove hooked up, we'll have a second heat source in a better, more central location which will help matters considerably.

The interesting thing is we're all so used to a cool house in the winter that a warmer house is stifling.  When we visit people with central heating, we're gasping and uncomfortable.  When we have visitors here and turn on the propane wall heater to make things more "normal," I gripe and complain about how durn hot it is, and can we please turn off the wall heater?  Meanwhile, friends have learned to wear extra layers when they visit.

So how does a woodstove work? Here's a basic lesson. I'll add that I have no experience with the newer, more airtight snazzy models, just our antique stove.

Our stove is probably sixty or seventy years old. The front has little windows of mica (which is crystalline and so won't burn). The inside has firebrick and a grate to allow air to circulate under the logs.

The stovepipe coming up from the stove is just single-walled and thin. But then it connects to a triple-walled pipe which carries it up through the ceiling...

...through Don's and my slope-sided bedroom upstairs...

...and up through the roof. The pipe needs to be elevated above the roof enough to get sufficient "draw" through the pipe.  Notice the warmer patch of roof around the pipe which melted the snow.

A triple-walled pipe is critical to keep things from catching on fire. As a result, though, the pipe going through our bedroom is not warm enough to heat the air. It's safer, though!

We keep a cast-iron kettle of water on the stove to humidify the air. We fill it daily.

We can also cook on the surface.  Here I'm simmering a pot of pinto beans.

This particular model has both a front and a side door.

We seldom open the front.  We load all the wood through the side. (You can see the grate below the burning logs.)

The stove pipe has a built-in damper, which regulates air flow. When the fire is getting started or when the woodstove door is open (while loading wood), the damper is open.

When the fire is nice and established and we want the wood to burn slower (and hotter), we close the damper about three-quarters closed.

At the bottom front of the stove is a grate which is usually open for additional air flow:

But on cold nights (or if we're away from home for a couple of hours), we load the stove with wood and close the grate so the fire will burn slowly for a longer period of time.

Helpful accouterments include bellows (the white plastic buckets hold kindling and newspapers for firestarter)...

...a set of fireplace tools...

...and heavy leather blacksmith's gauntlets.

A typical scene on a cold night: crumbled newspapers, kindling sticks, and larger logs for starting the fire the next morning. One of their before-bedtime chores for the girls is to crumble newspapers for the next morning's fire.

Woodstoves are not clean. Ash happens. But to my way of thinking, it's a small price to pay. You see, with a woodstove you are guaranteed heat no matter what the electricity situation may be. In a place like rural north Idaho, that can be a life-or-death situation.  During power outages when our electricity-dependent neighbors are shivering in the dark, we're toasty warm. It's our responsibility to make sure we have wood to last through the winter. We're not dependent on a distant power company to provide us with heat.

What's not to love?

UPDATE: A reader's comment reminded me to mention cleaning the stovepipe. About twice a year, we clean the stovepipe to remove any creosote that has built up. (Failure to do this on a regular basis can result in a chimney fire.)

In mid-September, before the season of using the woodstove started, we remove the lower section of pipe. We poke a hole in a plastic trash bag and insert the rod of the stove brush through the plastic.

I hold the bag firmly around the base of the pipe to keep ash from falling everywhere, and Don scrubs the pipe thoroughly, up and down and up and down, but gradually up. He keeps working his way upward, attaching screw-on rods to make the pipe cleaner longer and longer until it reaches the pipe cap.

It's messy work!

Here's Younger Daughter and her friend Miss Calamity peering into the cleaned pipe with a flashlight.

We usually clean the stovepipe again in mid-Spring just to avoid trouble.

By the way, our neighbors told us how to put out a chimney fire: saturate a thick wad of folded newspaper with water and throw the soaked wad into the woodstove. The hissing steam will put out the fire. Ironically we had a chimney fire a mere week after learning this technique, and Don quickly took the dishpan, filled it with water, ran sloshing into the front room, dumped a load of newspapers into the pan until they were soaked, then threw them on the fire. Worked perfectly.

Wanna know WHY we had that chimney fire? We used one of those stupid "chimney cleaning" blocks you can buy, where you light it and it burns hot enough to burn off the creosite. NOT. Instead it burned hot enough to start a chimney fire. No thanks, from now on we'll clean the stovepipe by hand rather than using one of those newfangled cleaning blocks.


  1. Patrice, you did a great job of explaining life with a woodstove. I have no idea where to get blacksmith gloves, but I used welder's gloves when I had a woodstove and they were great! They may be the same thing - only they're called blacksmith's gloves in Idaho and welder's gloves in California. :)

    My previous home had a small woodstove. Since moving from that house, I miss the woodstove every winter. Now it is too problematic to install a woodstove, so I go without.

    One thing that I recommend to anybody who can do so is to grow your own trees. The price of firewood is going up (like everything else), and it may come to pass someday that buying firewood is either too expensive or deemed illegal by the EPA. Grow your own trees, but do your homework first.

    One thing I always loved about my little woodstove, besides the flickering flames and the warmth, was the aroma from the logs. Sweet!

    Anonymous Patriot

  2. It all sounds good to me, Patrice! Very sensible, too. I have a friend who lives in the boonies in n/e Wyoming. She and her husband bought a pellet-burning stove and she was quite pleased with it. I told her I wanted to have a wood-burning stove installed in my home and she couldn't understand why I didn't go for a pellet burner. "What if the bleep hits the fan and you can't get any more pellets?" I asked her. (Also, I've noticed pellets keep going UP in price... of course!) Her pellet stove burns ONLY pellets, nothing else. I want a stove that will burn any kind of wood, in case we should lose power and our regular firewood source. If worse comes to worse, we can always chop up the many juniper and pine branches that are strewn everywhere on our 20 acres. Now we just need to scrape up the cash for the stove and its installation. (We can't put it in ourselves per our fire insurance regulations.)

  3. I love my wood stove! That is all we heat with. The only downside to it is, if we want to go somewhere overnight. We have to make sure someone will go over to the house and put wood in the stove. Or, our water pipes will freeze.

  4. We are in our first winter with a wood stove. We really enjoy the stove and our living room has never been as comfortable. The rest of the house is cool, but we are learning to cope. We have a natural gas heating system, but I want to be independent of gas prices, and losing electrical power in the winter has happened before. There is a fair amount of work with a wood stove, but it is worth it!

  5. We love our woodstove. We have forced air heating, but don't use it because no matter how high the thermostat was set, it never felt warm. I like a point of heat to stand by. Now, our house is warm not matter what. The wood is donated by a man in our church. We split it and stack it. Such a blessing.

  6. You are dredging up old memories of wood burning stoves for me. I would like to mention that a nearly closed damper will cause more creosote buildup (depending on the quality of wood you are burning). Be sure to check your vent pipe every so often to avoid problems. I have some funny stories (now) but I think you had to be there. I still love the smell of good quality wood burning.

  7. Save the Canning JarsJanuary 11, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    We have central heat and air (geothermal...very energy efficient). We needed something energy efficient since our house is 105 years old and they did not insulate the walls back then. So the place got new windows (28) and all the insulation we could stuff into the house without tearing out plaster and lathe.

    We put a pellet stove in the living room fireplace. This room faces North and there are 8 windows in this room PLUS the front door, and as students come in and out to be tutored, the north winds whips in. The pellet stove has made the north end of the house toasty warm and we just love it. We stock pellets...just like we stock everything else. We are extremely satisfied with our pellet stove.

    But we are a total electric house and we realized we were vulnerable. So we installed a wood stove (made in Australia) that will heat 4 saucepans on top, and has an oven for bread baking. This was installed in the back of the house. Then we bought a second wood stove, a soapstone wood burning. If we lose electricity, we can pull the pellet stove, lay down the special order heavy duty brick hearth pad, and hook up the soapstone wood stove. We ran it all by our professional installer...all the way down to the screws. We're set to swap out if necessary!

    Both traditional wood burning and pellet stoves are special and it is very nice to have both.

  8. Save the Canning JarsJanuary 11, 2011 at 7:07 PM

    Ohhhhh...Chimney fire? Thanks for that info on water soaked newspapers. Our chimney professional told us to throw in a box of baking soda (just throw the whole thing in, box and all).
    Hope I never have to try any of these techniques.

  9. Patrice,

    I'm curious about the kind of wood you burn. Pine? Here in Central CA we get "trimmings" of fruit trees. I grew up using walnut as my grandfather worked for a man with walnuts. Plum burns hot, but fast. Olive is my favorite or oak when I can afford it or find a tree down.


  10. I've heated with wood for most my life in both Northern MN and now NW Montana and wouldn't heat any other way. Just so there is no misunderstanding, you can indeed have a house warmer than 52 degrees in a cold area of the country. I have a 32x60 house with two stories that I heat with one wood stove (not furnace) except on the below 0 days I use an additional stove upstairs (also wood). I use around 12 cords per year and it is work but well worth it. I also have 5 kids to help. My wife would not be happy with only 50 degrees! ;-} Most people come into my house and comment how nice and warm it is. Great post!

  11. We burn conifers - no choice here in north Idaho, where deciduous trees are scarce. But pine burns fine. Not great, but fine. Tamarack has a btu output comparable to hardwoods, so we burn tamarack when we can get it.

    And yes, our house gets warmer than 50F! A comfortable average in the winter is 60F. When it's warmer than that, I'm roasting (wink).

    - Patrice

  12. Patrice - we also have a wood burning stove (only installed in August last year and the method you use to clean your chimney is very clever LOL

    Thanks for sharing that info.

  13. Nothing keeps you as warm as wood - except maybe coal :-)
    Do you have coal in Idaho?

    I love fruit tree trimmings too.
    Apple wood is my favorite for the cook stove and I ration it out through out the winter. Nothing gets a pot of water boiling faster.

  14. Thanks for such good information! We are in the process of getting a woodstove installed and I can't wait. We are having to finish out the room where it is going, but it's coming slowly but surely. The info on how to put out a chimney fire is great!! Saving this post to refer to when ours gets in.

  15. I am still in the burbs of a big city for job reasons and unable to really find a place to put a woodstove, but my grandfather used wood burning stoves often in my native Lousiana when I was a young gent. My wife doesn't really like the smell of wood burning like I do, but his wood stove would make you sweat! Perhaps you should take the ash from the wood stove and make soap...perhaps a second source of income! All you need is some fat and time.

  16. I'm glad you are comfortable at 60 degrees Patrice. You are one unusual woman if that be true. I am sorry to say that I cannot bite on that. I work in bitter conditions all winter long and I will be dambed to death if I will have to be chilly when I get home from that. If my house is not up to 65 degrees then I will do what it takes to get there in a hurry.

  17. As long as they burn fairly clean they are ALL good Steve. Breaking it up to the size to fit your stove is another matter. I don't want to spoil the suprise. Happy Heating !

  18. We, too, heat exclusively with wood. What we have found is that a couple of carefully placed fans can circulate the warm air to other parts of the house.

    So far this winter, the coldest night has been 12 degrees -- not that cold by Idaho standards, I know, but pretty chilly for us spoiled Californian's.

    What I do every night is put on one big "nighttime" log, and close the air intake to almost nothing. In the morning, that big log is gone, but there are still some coals, and some warmth to the woodstove. It rarely takes a match or very much tinder to get a fire going again.

    With this "nighttime log" practice, even during our average nights of low 20s, it is 58 to 62 degrees in the house most mornings.

    Our wood of choice is oak, which we have in plenty on our property -- always enough downed trees every year to keep us busy cutting, splitting and stacking. However, we always stack up some well-seasoned pine for splitting into kindling.

    For kindling I highly, highly recommend a hand maul. It is the size of a hatchet, but has a maul head. That's just about the most useful tool I have acquired in a long time. Once you get one, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it.

    We haven't found that creosote is a problem. Maybe it has something to do with burning primarily oak instead of pine.

    Just some unconnected thoughts to share about heating with wood.


  19. thanks Patrice for posting this! I found it very informative. We found a wood stove used and we are picking up the chimney parts needed to hook it up tomorrow. Can't wait! I hope you get your wood cookstove hooked up soon! 50 degrees in the house is way too chilly! Liked the way to put the fire out in case of a chimney fire! I did not know that!

  20. I had the luxury of building my own house. I built everything except the bedrooms and bath open all the way up to the second story which puts the center of the gable roof about 20 feet high. Main part is earth sheltered. I was able to put a brick pad and a brick wall in the center of the whole thing, then found a good airtight stove on close out for $400 (in 1983), and have used it ever since. Plenty of wood on my 48 acres. I knew that I would never heat any other way and built accordingly.

    It's really a solar heater, sun shines on trees, I cut them and burn to get the heat. House stays as warm as I like, usually 65 or so except when we get -20, which we do from time to time. Would not haul a pellet stove home if it was free. Why add all the hassle?

    A fire is like a small pet, requires constant attention, but very satisfying. We are currently burning what some of the Indians called the "long fire". That's the one that starts usually late November and doesn't go out until early April.

  21. Wanna know about wood and stoves and such?


    Its been my go-to reference site for many years now. BTUs per types of wood, "how-to" videos and texts, storage, stacking etc...

    Steve Davis
    Anchorage, Alaska

  22. Great site and good tips!

    I too only burn a wood stove in the winter. We have an oil furnace as a backup but it rarely is used, beginning and end of season times. This is the 3rd season of “wood only” since we filled up our oil tank and we still have about a quarter left. With a 275 gallon tank and the price at about $3.50/gal it’s about $962.50 per fill up. Too expensive especially if we use 4-5 tanks per year, $3850-$4812. That’s a lot of food on the table. 3rd season…$11,550 in savings!!! I pay for gas for the splitter and chainsaw which is a lot cheaper than oil.

    I used to buy fire wood from people and I always questioned the amount for the price. After the last “so-called cord” was delivered I decided to never buy again. It was a “what I could throw in the back of my truck cord” and paid $165 for it with no stacking, dumped in a pile. So now I cut and split wood for our stove by finding down trees. I also sell firewood to help put food on the table.

    Here in Maryland I have seen cords of wood go for up to $400. Crazy! I sell it for $150/cord. I don’t have it in me to sell it for any more than that. My cords are off the rack which is the true way of measuring (4’x4’x8’ 128sqft0. It’s just wood and my time. I also deliver and stack for free. With 5 kids stacking doesn’t take long and a wife to keep everyone moving is a blessing.

    **Remember, buy wood off the rack or from a stacked 8' truck bed to the top of the truck cab. Wood thrown in the back of a pickup truck DOES NOT EQUAL A CORD. Have them stack it and you will see that you will be missing about 1/4 of the cord.

    Heating by wood is now part of our normal living routine. Happy heating!!!

    John Gorman
    La Plata, Maryland

  23. Do you know of ANY WAY to fix a hole in the bottom of a cast iron rendering pot? Pot is about 24" across and had some 1/4" holes drilled in the bottom to use as a flower pot.

    Is there a way, or am I outta luck?

  24. BonnBlu, the only thing I can recommend is to look through the Yellow Pages of your phone book, and call every metal worker listed. Cast iron is a specialized metallurgical skill, so not all metalworkers can do it. But when you find someone with that skill, he should be able to patch your rendering pot without much difficulty.

    - Patrice

  25. Thank you, Patrice; I'll give it a try.
    This gives me HOPE.


  26. Hi Patrice, congratulation. You have a very nice wood stove. Are you Interested to see pictures of our wood stove? If Yes, I'll be Happy to send it to you.

    Thank You


  27. Nassy, at the risk of sounding rude, I'll pass. I so tragically behind on my emails that I couldn't do justice to your stove. However I congratulate you on heating with wood -- it's such a lovely secure feeling, isn't it?

    - Patrice

  28. We have a wood stove! That is all we heat with. The only downside to it is, if we want to go somewhere overnight. We have to make sure someone will go over to the house and put wood in the stove. Or, our water pipes will freeze.

  29. I have (and love) my small, epa approved, wood burning stove. This means is is air tight and excellent at burning the all the combustibles, expecially when hot and dampened correctly. If you can afford it, this is the way to go as you can get in excess of 30% more BTUs out of each burn, especially if you plumb the intake to draw air from outside the house. You'd be suprised how much hot air you lose when you draw indoor air into the stove and thru the stove pipe.
    Wood stoves work signficantly better when you use a fan to move heat off the stove to the rest of the room. There are thermal-electric fans that can be bought that use stove heat to generate electricty, which in turns moves the fan blades.
    To avoid creosote built-up don't dampen the stove while burning full wood load. Only dampen when about 50% of the wood is burned to hot coals. Also, never pull heat off the stove pipe, only the stove body.
    Lastly, maintain a 2" ash bed, but not much more. Anything more will reduce your draw, expecially if your stove draws from the bottom.
    Trick for inducing draw on a cold stove (to keep smoke out of your house on initial fire up):
    Use a smokeless fuel source such as a small propane torch to heat up the inside of the stove for a couple minutes. Then start a small fire with well seasoned, split wood with little bark (reduces smoke). Use the propane torch to assist the initial burn. Stop using the torch when red flames go yellow and/or white. The whiter the flame, the cleaner and hotter it is burning. Usually this means a good draw.

    Good luck.

  30. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  31. My husband and I just bought a new house, and have the same stove...however ours did not have a grate or any firebricks in it. I am looking into getting firebricks but was wondering if you could tell me where they have them laid out in the stove, or how you lay them out.

  32. My Husband and I just moved into our new home and we have the same exact stove. Ours doesn't have a grate or firebricks. I am picking some up but was wondering how you have them laid out inside (ie just the floor or the walls too.) since I don't have the originals to go by.

  33. Wow! Thanks for posting this. You guys are great role models for rural living to its fullest! I wish we had a wood stove in our home, but I guess our old house is newer than we thought! You've got a great blog, keep up the good work!

  34. I use a magic heat re-claimer on my pipe above my damper, it moves heat and also warms up the house faster.

  35. What kind of wood stove is that? Do you know the brand or model?

    1. It's an antique parlor stove made by Washington Stove Works in Everett, WA (Model #24). I have no idea what year it was made, though.

      - Patrice

    2. 1980 to 1989. Sold by sears.

  36. I heat with free wood a 3600 square foot ranch house in georgia, two wood burning epa stoves and it's the best heat I have ever experienced.
    I will never go back to any other heat source, there is a lot to be said for being independent and able to take care of your own self.

  37. You wood stove was sold in the Sears catalogue in 1981. I have one, many are marked "made in Taiwan". I purchased mine new from the catalogue in Canada that year. You are missing the top nickle piece the filial, and foot rest. It was also sold with a fire screen. I have replaced the mica twice. Still going strong although relegated to the shop now. According to Sears around 8,000 sold in Canada in the 10 years they sold them and probably twice as many in the US. Great stoves. I upgraded to a Wood Chief a few years ago. Ugly stove but very efficient. Also NOT air tight so insurance is cheap.