Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Wood cookstove update

A number of you have asked for an update on our Baker's Choice wood cookstove. I'm pleased to report we love it, absolutely flippin' love it.

We've been using the stove exclusively for heat (and almost exclusively for cooking) since December 4. Through trial and effort, as well as a few mistakes, we've been learning the art of wood stove usage and cookery.

One of the most immediately apparent thing is the stove's sheer efficiency. We've heated with wood for almost 20 years, and never has our wood usage been so low nor the house so warm. Part of this is the stove's more central location (compared to our old parlor stove), and part of it is the stove's airtight construction.

(This is our old antique parlor stove. We love it, but we have to admit it can't hold a candle to the cookstove for airtight efficiency.)

With the cookstove, we nearly got smoked out once or twice in the beginning until we learned which dampers to open, and when; but ever since then, we haven't had any problems. The performance of the stove (at least, in our case) is partially dependent on weather. The stove pipe draws better in breezy or windy conditions; during thermal inversions (which sometimes accompany dead-calm days), the stove doesn't draw as well, but we can make up for it by adjusting the dampers accordingly. (Incidentally, if our stovepipe were higher, i.e. over the roof line, these problems would probably be reduced.)

One of the biggest advantages is being able to come down to a warm house in the morning. Prior to this with our old parlor stove and especially during cold snaps, it was not unusual for the house to drop to 50F in the morning, and no matter how much wood we stoked it with, it took hours to warm the house up (and seldom much higher than 60F; we're all used to a cool house).

But now, the stove keeps the downstairs very comfortable, sometimes even too warm (since, as I said, we're all used to a cool house). I no longer have to start a fire from scratch every morning. Instead, all I do is crack open the ash cleanout door (for added venting), add a couple of logs, and let the stove do its job.

At night, Don screws closed the back damper knob and leaves the front knob a bit loose. This closes down the air flow sufficiently that the logs inside simmer all night, burning very slowly and releasing heat evenly over many hours.

On the rare occasions we're all away from home, we do the same thing; it's pleasant to come home to a warm house instead of a cold one.

Because of the stove's sheer efficiency, we estimate we're using 1/2 to 1/3 of the wood we used before. This is a tremendous savings of time, energy, and expense. Imagine cutting your heating bill to 1/3 of what it is now, and you'll understand how tickled we are.

Since we're also using the stove for cooking, our propane usage has also decreased significantly. Twice Don has gone out to check the propane tanks to see if we need to call the gas company to refill them; and twice he's come back, shaking his head and smiling with pleasure, and noting we don't have to call them yet.

One thing we've had to learn is to "time" things differently. Take the kettle, for instance. Usually at night I'll fill it and put it on the warming shelf.

This way in the morning, the water is warmer than room temperature and takes less time to heat to boiling.

I get up early and like to have two mugs of tea, spaced a couple hours apart. I'll open the damper and get the fire going hot, heat the water to boiling, and pour my tea. Then I'll close the damper and put the kettle back on the stove, on the cooler side, to keep warm until I'm ready to re-boil it for my second cup.

If we have guests over but I don't need hot water right away -- say, for our weekly potluck, when coffee is served with dessert -- I put the kettle on early and let it slowly heat up until people are ready for coffee. If I need hot water quicker, I open the damper, fire up the logs, and the kettle will heat just about as quickly as it does on the propane stove.

Cooking is not a problem. I simply treat the stove top as, well, a stove top.

What's nice about a cookstove is since there aren't any "burners," I can crowd many things together.

Things that need to cook more slowly simply get moved to the cooler side of the stove. If something is cooked but needs to stay warm, I put it on the warming shelf.

Baking is a bit more challenging, in part because this model of stove has a small oven.

To bake, I push this back lever in, which reroutes hot air to circulate around the oven box before going up the flue.

While the oven has a thermometer, I don't pay it any attention. I simply keep an eye on whatever is baking. I thought I would have to rotate the food -- since the fire is one one side of the stove box -- but since the heat circulates around the box so evenly, I've found this to be unnecessary.

I have, however, burned things when I let the fire get too hot. It's not an exact science, and I'm still learning the details. However pies and such come out beautifully brown, far nicer than my propane range.

However, times when I need to bake larger volumes of food than the cookstove will hold, I still use the propane range.

We purchased the water reservoir for this model, but have not used it.

One thing we've learned to watch is to not get the fire roaring too hot and too fast. A couple of times we've had what is essentially a chimney fire, where the creosote in the pipe presumably catches fire and sends sparks shooting out the stove cap. We are also careful about cleaning out the pipe about every six weeks.

About every three or four days, we empty the ash tray. This is a simple matter of removing the tray (which has a handle at one end and no lip at the other end) and tipping the ash into a metal bucket. Takes about one minute.

So is there a downside to this stove? Yes. The biggest flaw we've found is the firebrick cracks too easily. They're not really bricks; they appear to be refractory cement which has been cast and shaped. It's more fragile than brick would be.

The cookstove has two possible ways to load the firebox: through the top (by lifting aside one of the round lids), or through the side (apparently only available in the Baker's Choice model). Since we're used to years of loading a woodstove through a side door, we continued to do so with the cookstove.

This means logs sometimes get slammed into the back wall of the stove, hitting the firebrick pretty hard. It's not surprising the back brick cracked in fairly short order.

Because the bricks that came with the stove are specially cut (or cast) to fit the stove, we couldn't just slip in a new firebrick; they have to be special-ordered. Ordering replacement bricks is not only expensive, but people have said the bricks often arrive cracked. They are, after all, quite brittle.

So we looked for alternative ways to repair the crack, and Don came up with the idea of getting refractory cement in a tube.

This comes in goo form, so we let the fire go out, cleaned out the stove, and then Don pushed the goo into the crack. Then we lit a fire to "cure" the goo. We did that about two weeks ago, and so far it's holding up beautifully (and we're trying to be careful not to "slam" logs into the stove).

This stove's efficiency is hard to improve upon. In fact, if you're in the market for a cookstove, I might go so far as to recommend foregoing the prettier or more elaborate antique-style stoves and opt for one of these air-tight stoves (there are three in the line: smallest is Baker's Choice, followed by Pioneer Maid, then Pioneer Princess).

So that's the skinny on our cookstove so far. I'm pleased to report it has exceeded all our expectations and is a wonderful addition to our homestead.


  1. A comment on fire bricks: this is my third winter with a wood stove; the fire brick across the back crack within the first month of using it. After I got a within warranty replacement, I went looking for a scrap piece of expanded metal grating. I put it across the bricks that take a pounding when I top load my stove and have had no more problems with the fire bricks.
    The grating is getting very rusted and worn from the fire, so it is time to get a new one, but that is much easier than replacing firebrick.

    1. I was going to suggest a row of standard fire brick set in front of those in the back to take the punishment. Might be easier to just replace a brick or two of those every so often as opposed to finding a metal grating as the above commentor suggests (but I think he has the right idea here trying to protect the back bricks).

      I don't think another row of standard fire brick would change the heating dynamics of the stove.

  2. Thank you very much for the update. I will be getting one in the near future. Do you have plans to cook/bake with this stove during the summer? I am wondering about the heat factor when the season is warm.

  3. The type of wood you use has an effect on the likelihood of a stack fire. Softer woods tend to deposit creosote and so does lower temperatures. Using harder wood types will help. Then, make sure you bring the stack temperature to over 400 degrees at least once a day to melt your creosote. I had one stack fire the first year had our Pioneer Princess. Since then we have used better wood and I make a point of getting the temp up at least once each day we use it. Now, when cleaning it -- only once a year before the season starts -- the creosote is found to be "light and fluffy," which we were told is the way it should be: less likely to burn long and hard.

  4. You sure have this stove mastered. Good job. I would suggest that you get some refractory cement [fire clay] and make a wooden mold and make your own bricks. I've done it and there is nothing to it. As for creosote the guy at the hardware store who is also on the local volunteer fire department suggested I use Rutland Creosote Remover. I have done so and when I take my pipes apart there is a significant difference. He is definitely an expert on chimney fires as most houses here burn wood. Anyway well done article and I am glad to hear that you have mastered the stove.--ken

  5. Hey Patrice... Use a few of these every so often and you can skip the chimney fires:

    1. AtomicSpud, be careful. This sounds to good to be true. The Washington Public Fire Educators Association agrees. PLEASE read this before discontinuing regular mechanical chimney cleaning.


      Montana Guy

    2. I Didnt say Skip the Manuel Cleaning... I Said Skip the Fires. and If it was too good to be true the wount still be on sale for the last 30 years. I remember the Commercials from when I Was about 9 years old.
      At Scouts , everytime we got a cabin that hadn't been serviced in "He knows How Long" the first burn was one of these so we wouldn't have to worry about Chimney Fires while we were there.

  6. Burning a mix of mostly pine and some aspen, we would need to clean the pipe about ever 6 weeks. Now we use about 2+ cords of aspen only and no longer clean the pipe. Use to go up every fall and run the brush up and down because of habit. No longer even do that since going to only aspen.

  7. Awww....the joys of a wood cookstove. Sure didn't learn how to use mine in home ec! So happy to hear that you are loving it.

  8. We have 2 tea kettles on our wood cook stove at all times. We put them on a horse shoe so they are not so whistling hot even on the "cool" side. When you want hot tea move one off and onto the "hot zone" till she whistles.

    Pampered Chef has stoneware that works awesome in the wood cook stove btw.

  9. stovepipe an fireplace chimmly need to be 3 foot higher than anything within 8 feet to get the best draw this was the way I was taught 40 years ago when I was building fireplaces

  10. I've heated and cooked with wood for decades. I started with a sheet metal sheep herders stove in the Colorado mountains then to a Woodstock soap stone stove and now to a Morso 2B here in Wisconsin. I use it without any other source of heat. I picked the Morso because my cabin now is small and the most important thing about wood stove is picking the right size stove. The other is installing the stove and chimney exactly to code. The wood stove is probably the most dangerous thing on any property. They're great but will bite you if given the chance.
    If I had the room, I'd have gotten an Elmira cook stove made in Canada. It's air tight and very beautiful, unlike the Bakers Choice. My Morso has a reburner just under the top that heats up the top of the stove enough that it makes a good cook stove. Not as good as a proper one but still good enough that I cook almost exclusively with it in winter. A dutch oven provides some baking ability. I would say the best bet for using a wood stove is to surround it with lots and lots of masonry. Once the walls and floors get heated they stay that way. My cabin stays nice and warm even in -25F and that little stove only uses an armful of wood a day.

  11. I have both the plain-Jane Baker's Choice and an expensive Irish Waterford wood cook stove.

    The Baker's Choice is in the front of my house where it has been our only heat source for years.

    While the Waterford has been relegated to the back addition and only gets used a couple times a year on really cold nights.

    The Baker's Choice may be plain and simple but it is a joy to use.

    ETA -- we just added an extra fire brick in front of the back brick that we bought at the hardware store. This takes the brunt of any logs just thrown in. It does mean that your wood needs to be cut an inch shorter, though.

    Idaho Homesteader

  12. Your stove pipe outside, should be at LEAST 1 foot above peak of roof.

  13. Does anyone know of a coal burning cookstove?

    1. We have a very old combination wood coal cookstove. A lot of the older stoves operated on both. However I would imagine any stove that is lined with fire brick should be ok. If it is on the bottom of firebox. Only problem might be frequent cleaning. As I am sure You know , coal will burn up wood burning grates...

  14. Patrice--Does the stove have a fresh air supply from outside or does it pull its combustion air from the house?

  15. Firebrick commonly come in two sizes, "full" and "split". A "full" brick would be used in a site-built fireplace. Your picture looks a lot like a standard "split" size. Take a look at your local brickyard.