Our New Old House

1918 Bungalow

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Wood Burning Stoves: Sharing what we’ve learned, OR: “The Care and Feeding of Stoves”

When Brandon and I learned how much more efficiently a wood burning stove would heat our house than an open fireplace, we were very eager to try it out. Neither of us had any experience with a stove, though. Brandon had grown up with a fireplace, so he had that experience to go on, and I’m pretty good at building campfires outside and getting piles of wet leaves to burn, so we felt pretty confident that we could build a nice hot fire inside a stove. However, we had a few flops before we really got the stove hot enough to heat the house.

At first we were timid about letting the fire get too hot. We didn’t know how much heat the metal and glass could take. In addition to that, we didn’t quite know how to manage the damper and updraft in an enclosed stove as opposed to a fireplace or an outdoor fire. I kept building a nice crackling fire with the door open, then I’d close the door, and lose the fire. Before long, the embers would go out and I’d have to start all over again. I burned through a whole box of kindling wood this way, closing the door too soon, being too timid to add more wood, and generally just rushing the whole thing. Once I did learn how to get the fire going, I’d let it burn for a long time but it would never get hot enough to trigger the sensor on the automatic blower. Finally through a lot of trial and error, Brandon and I worked out how to have a roaring fire and let it get hot enough to kick on the blower within an hour. Once the fire got going that hot it was easy to maintain, burned less fuel, and heated the whole house comfortably all day and most of the night.

Today I had some time to clean out the stove. We had burned 9 or 10 fires in it over the past couple of weeks and it’d built up about three inches of ash and cinders.

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NEVER PUT ASHES FROM YOUR STOVE INTO A COMBUSTIBLE CONTAINER. Here’s why: Our fire had been out since about six o’clock this morning. It was about 8:30 this evening when I started cleaning out the stove. All the embers in the above photo look cold and burned out, right? No smoke curling up from the ashes? No glowing embers? Well, I stirred the ashes around a bit and here’s what it looked like:

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That’s right, red hot coals were smoldering just below the surface. They don’t give off smoke, they don’t even feel that warm if you hold your hand over them. But touch a piece of paper to them, or drop them into a plastic container and leave them on your front porch, and you’ll have an unexpected fire on your hands in no time.

The best type of container for your discarded ashes is a metal one. If you don’t have a metal one available, a plastic bucket with plenty of water in the bottom works too. That’s what I had to use, since all of our coffee cans these days are plastic.

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(The paper towels in there are from when I cleaned the outside of the stove. Seemed like a good place to discard my soggy dirty rags too.)

I scooped out the ashes and embers with a metal shovel (left behind by our previous owners) and dumped them into the bucket of water.

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With a wood burning stove you don’t want to clean the ashes out completely. Since you’re not burning the wood on a metal grate raised off the bottom of the firebox, you need the ashes to allow air circulation along the bottom of the logs. They give a nice cushioned base for your embers and logs to rest in. Here’s how much we left in ours:

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After a few fires, the glass on the door was pretty grimy too, so I washed it. The owner’s manual and the person who installed the stove for us recommend using only water and paper towels or cloth rags to clean the glass. It’s a special ceramic glass that can withstand high heat, but harsh cleaners and coarse scrubbing pads or brushes can etch the glass. Once there’s a weakness in the glass it’s vulnerable to cracking under the intense heat.

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Plain water and paper towels did a pretty good job!

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Once it was all clean it was time to start a new fire. Here’s the method I use to start a reliable fire that will be hot enough to build up into a roaring blaze that heats the whole house. If you have a method that works for you, share it with me, I’d love to find out what others have learned with their stoves!

First I make sure the damper is wide open to allow a full strong updraft.

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I roll up a single sheet of newspaper and make a V shape with it.

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Then I lay kindling across the open part of the V and light the newspaper on fire.

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The newspaper lights the kindling on fire, which then burns hot enough and long enough to catch the first log on fire.

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This next part is crucial and was one of the things we were doing wrong when we first started. Before you close the door on the stove you’re supposed to make sure the log has really caught on fire and started to burn steadily. I was closing the door right away and that deprived the fire of the extra oxygen it needed to really catch the log on fire. Once the kindling fire has started, it creates a very strong updraft that draws air into the stove and out through the top of the chimney. I found that by closing the door to about a half inch from being fully closed, I created a sort of bellows effect, funneling the air into the fire faster, thus blowing it hotter and hotter like the bellows on a blacksmith’s furnace. I usually let the fire burn with the door slightly open for at least five or ten minutes, or as long as it takes to really have the log burning on its own.

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I’m still fighting with my impatience and this time I tried to add a second piece of wood before it was really ready for one. I sort of broke apart the flames and the fire started going out. When this happens, I wad up a ball of newspaper and set it in between the logs on top of the glowing embers and let that get the fire started again. Often this takes a little blowing and some more time leaving the door open, but before long it catches the wood back on fire and starts heating up.

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Once the fire is going strong I close the door completely and slowly start closing the damper little by little. Eventually I can close the damper almost all the way down, which allows the fire to burn very hot but very slowly, thus using less wood to put out a lot of heat. Here’s what the stove looks like when the damper’s closed down and the automatic blower is circulating hot air into the room:

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We turn the ceiling fan on in the living room to the lowest setting and that helps move the hot air from the top of the room out into the rest of the dining room and down the hall into our bedroom.

It’s been pretty efficient so far. We keep our gas furnace set to 65 degrees and with the fire burning the thermostat never kicks it on. Our bedroom, which is the furthest room from the stove stays comfortably warm through the night.

The last thing we’re figuring out how to manage is controlling the damper and the amount of fuel well enough to add a couple of logs before going to bed and have the fire keep burning all through the night until we get up in the morning to add more wood. As it is, the fire usually burns out by five or six o’clock in the morning and the house gets kind of chilly around the time we have to get up. We’re still experimenting with that. But all in all we’re super happy with the comfort, the ease, and the potential for reducing our gas bills this winter. We love how it makes the neighborhood smell all toasty, and we love how homey it makes the rest of the house feel having a fire on the hearth. Our whole house is still in shambles as we work on it piece by piece, but I can forget all the work I have to do and all the aches and pains from the day’s work that’s behind me when I sit down in front of my cozy fire to write my blog posts.

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7 Responses to “Wood Burning Stoves: Sharing what we’ve learned, OR: “The Care and Feeding of Stoves””

  1. November 26th, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    Jennifer says:

    What a great “how-to”! I hope to have a wood stove some day to use this info in. Very cool!

  2. November 29th, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Jason says:

    Growing up, we would use one of those large popcorn tins for the ashes. They seem to be all over now and pretty cheap. They look nice, have a tight fitting lid and you get to eat the popcorn!

  3. November 29th, 2007 at 6:05 pm

    ournewoldhouse1 says:

    You read my mind, Jason! I eagerly anticipate the arrival of my tri-flavor popcorn tin adorned with cute little Christmas puppies or brilliant poinsettias every year from Grandma! Now when I’m done with the cheesey-buttery-caramelly goodness, I’ll have an ash can!
    Thanks for reading!
    -Kelli

  4. December 16th, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Paul says:

    Hello, I use a coal/wood burner(as a main source)heat with the benefits of a glass front. Everybody has their own way of keeping a fire going, here is my sugestion: get a small reserve of coal, catch enough little pieces coal on fire and the wood will surely catch as long as the wood is seasoned and there is enough air getting under the fire. Good luck!

  5. April 17th, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Woodburning Stoves says:

    Nice blog. i enjoyed it while reading, it is more interesting than others as it’s pictures elaborating everything .Thanks for sharing.

  6. October 16th, 2012 at 9:34 am

    lisa says:

    And…you just made homemade lye! mixing wood ash with water creates lye…just like the old timers used to do to make soap….be very careful not to dump that anywhere you want something to grow and be very careful not to touch it without protective equipment such as gloves and goggles if you have let it sit for any length of time…my home is solely heated with wood and I also cook with wood…wonderful source of heat…and cheap too!

  7. October 16th, 2012 at 9:44 am

    Kelli says:

    Gosh! Don’t give me ideas! Incidentally, I dumped the mixture in the gravel of the alley behind my house. Would you call that natural weed killer? 🙂

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