Wood heat remains the most carbon-neutral and least expensive ways of heating a home, even for those in many urban areas. Living with wood fuel has a learning curve, but it’s worth the effort in money savings and more.
The problem is that, unless you grew up in a wood-heated home and learned to manage your wood stove from experienced parents (and grandparents), wood stoves are not as easy to figure out and use as electric or gas stoves. You can’t simply flip a switch and have heat.
The good news, though, is that learning to live with a wood-fueled stove is not really that difficult.
Getting a Wood Pile
Most of us know that green wood (that is, freshly cut wood) does not burn well. Forget any ideas you have read, or seen in movies, where people wander into the woods and collect firewood for the night. Especially if they are cutting down little trees and burning them.
The main problem with green or wet firewood is that it is inefficient.
Add a piece of wet firewood to the wood stove and much of the energy in the firewood will be used in drying it out before it can burn. Because of this, it will burn slowly and a slowly smoldering fire is a major contributor to creosote build up.
Trees must be cut into chunks (appropriately called “chunking” and sometimes, mis-called “junking”) and then split into proper sized firewood. At any step along the way (as logs, chunks or split firewood), it needs to be aged. We have seen wood aged as logs, chunks and split firewood.
Firewood is properly seasoned when there are cracks running all through the cut wood (chunks or split firewood). Once you learn to recognize it, it is easy to see. Properly seasoned wood has less than 25% moisture.
How much wood should you store?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule on that. Certainly, you want to have more on hand than you think you’ll need even if the entire winter is miserable and cold. Remember the Ingalls burning hay in The Long Winter? Running out of firewood part way through the winter is a miserable thing.
Always cut or buy firewood at least one year ahead of time.
In the spring and fall, cut next year’s firewood. This presents a problem for those just beginning to burn firewood. In our case, we suffered through our first winter and learned first hand why not to burn green wood. In the spring, we ordered eight cord of wood in order to develop a backlog of cut and dried wood on hand.
How To Start A Fire
This is where I am supposed to tell you the one definitive, never fails on a cold morning, success guaranteed method of starting a fire.
And this is where I’ll disappoint you, because there isn’t such a thing.
It is easier to keep a fire going than it is to start one.
I have often joked that, if houses were made of firewood, we would have no need for firefighters. Usually I say that on cold mornings when the fire just will not start for me.
The most important lesson you will ever learn, if relying on wood heat, is how to keep a layer of hot embers burning around the clock. Keeping a fire going is easy, but the mister and I will argue over who has to sit and coax a fire into starting in a cold stove.
But before you keep it going, you’ll have to get it started.
The main thing to remember is that your fire needs oxygen.
At our house, we stack the fire wood “log cabin style”, with two pieces of firewood at the bottom, parallel to each other and a few inches apart. These should not be extremely large pieces, and they should definitely be split wood.
The tinder (your firestarter, crumpled paper, pieces of bark and/or split kindling) goes in there. The next layer of firewood goes perpendicular to that layer, but parallel to each other. If you have room for another layer, it should be in the same direction as the first layer.
Light the tinder, and keep feeding it more tinder until you hear a cracking sound from the split firewood.
And Keep It Going
Visiting my friend Mathilda, an elderly Old Order Mennonite lady, I was once asked to check the wood stove to see if it needed wood.
Simple question, right? I stared at her, completely baffled. How was I to know if it needed wood? The house was warm, so perhaps the answer was that it did not. However, if that were the case, why was she asking me?
The answer was this – the wood in the stove was almost gone, so it was time to add one or two more sticks, just enough to keep the fire going. If I had left it alone until the house starting cooling off, the fire would have gone out and it would have taken a long time to bring the heat back up.
Once we moved to the cabin, we learned that the hard way.
Only add one or two pieces of wood at a time to keep the fire going. If too much wood is added at once, the temperature will drop too quickly and the fire may actually go out.
How To Bank A Fire For The Night
In the beginning, the scene is the same everywhere. You wake and take a deep breath of very cold air. The fire died while you were sleeping and the temperature in the house has plummeted.
You stumble out to the stove, glancing at the outside thermometer as you go. Minus something awful out there, and not much warmer in here. The ashes in the wood stove are stone cold. The wood stacked by the stove is cool to the touch.
The combination of matches, crumpled paper, cool wood and cold stove will eventually light and produce a fire, but it is not enjoyable when you are bleary eyed. Chances are, you would rather be making coffee (or breakfast) than building a fire.
Eventually it occurs to you – there has got to be a better way! After all, Great-grandmother can’t have spent an hour getting a fire started before she made breakfast? Did she?
Actually, she did. (Or her husband or a maid.) We should be very grateful for the convenience and efficiency of modern air-tight stoves.
According to my father
They didn’t have an airtight stove. No one did back then. Those are new. If they filled the stove up good at ten before going to bed, they’d be lucky if there were embers by two. If you got up at four, the house would be as cold as outdoors. Just maybe a little less windy. Dad would get up first, get the fire going and put the kettle on, then he’d go to the barn. By the time Mom got up to start breakfast, the kitchen would have warmed up a bit. But yea, he started every morning with a stone cold stove. They would have loved a stove that held heat for hours.
With a modern wood stove, it is now possible to bank it well and have hot embers, and sometimes even charred pieces of wood, in the early morning.
The process is incredibly easy.
In the evening, build up a good fire so that the bottom of the stove is filled with a thick layer of red hot embers. The important words here are: thick layer and red hot. This won’t work if you’ve let the fire slowly die down to nothing over the evening.
Fill the firebox up as much as you can (that may be as high as the firebricks – be sure to comply with your wood stove’s instructions), slipping thin firewood pieces in between the larger ones, if necessary. The idea is to completely cover the layer of red hot embers with as much wood as possible. Forget about the fire needing to breathe. This is not the time to criss-cross the wood for maximum air exchange. Cover those embers with wood.
You are NOT supposed to fill it up as much as I did in the picture. *blush* Only fill up to the top of the fire bricks.
Here is an optional step – keep an ash bucket filled with cold ashes beside the stove. After covering the embers tightly and thickly with wood, sprinkle a thin layer of cold ashes over top. It does not take lots, just enough to help hold the heat under there. This is rarely necessary with modern stoves, but it was one trick that people did to try and keep a few embers alive.
Now close down the dampers tight.
Shut that stove down.
The goal is maximum fuel and minimum oxygen.
Starting The Fire In The Morning
This depends on how well you have banked it.
Ideal situation: last night’s wood is well charred but fairly intact. Simply open the dampers and go put the kettle on. The fire should ignite on its own. Add wood as needed to keep the fire going. This is a happy morning. I read in Sharon Astyck’s book (affiliate link) Depletion and Abundance that a good morning is when you have a “one match fire. I prefer a “no match fire”.
By the way, in case you haven’t read it, that is a really good book!
Less than ideal situation: last night’s firewood is reduced to a pile of hot embers.
Use the ash shovel to push hot embers into a ridge in the center of the stove, running from front to back. Place a fairly large piece of wood on either side of that ridge. Place several smaller pieces across the two large pieces. Adding pieces of crumpled paper, very dry bark or moss, or wood shavings in between the wood will help it to ignite faster. This rarely needs assistance with a match.
In fact, if you have hot embers and are trying to get the fire going, be extremely cautious with matches. The paper or other firestarters can ignite without warning. I have been surprised at times when my fire suddenly flares up after several minutes of sitting there looking innocent.
Other Tips To Know About Wood Heating
Clean your chimney. The top part of the chimney is the coldest and therefore the most likely area to develop creosote. Creosote is something to be avoided because it is combustible. We want to keep our fire inside the stove, not inside the chimney!
Do not store wood in the basement. This is from our local Wood Energy Technician. Basements are always too damp to store wood. The best place is outside in a covered but not entirely closed wood shed. Bring in enough for a week or so at a time and store it near the wood stove.
Preventing creosote build up. Burning potato peels does not actually work, nor do any of the other tricks. To minimize creosote build up, burn only completely seasoned, dry wood, and burn it very hot at least once a day. That’s the whole trick. And clean the chimney.
Softwood versus hardwood. Softwood catches fire more easily. It also burns hotter and faster. This makes it great for cooking biscuits, or burning in a quick fire on a cool spring morning. At least around here, a fire in the morning takes the chill out of the air but is not needed all day. Softwood quickly burns away, and if you are relying on it to warm the house, you will be adding sticks constantly. Softwood will not work for banking the fire at night.
Hardwood is slower to catch fire. It burns slower and longer. It is a necessity for keeping the house warm during the coldest parts of winter. Neither softwood nor firewood are more prone to creating creosote.