Here we are, a third of the way through January and well into very cold weather, and I still haven’t fired up the furnace this winter. I don’t know if I will.
Instead, heat for the whole house has come from the woodstove I restored and revived a few years ago. In that time, I’ve learned a little lore about heating the house with wood, Here’s a little of what I’ve found.
The first things have to do with safety. It is of course absolutely essential that woodstove users have at least one, preferably more than one, smoke and carbon monoxide detector. Likewise, fire extinguishers — two varieties are needed. One is a regular dry chemical extinguisher. The second is a thing called a Chimfex stick — actually, two of them, though they’re expensive. In case of that terror of the woodburner, the chimney fire, you light the Chimfex in the fashion of a road flare, toss it in the firebox, and seal the whole thing as tightly as you can. The second is needed in case the fire rekindles after the first.
(Chimfex sticks were hard to get for several years because, ironically, the factory had burned down.)
Absolutely essential, in my view, is a pair of good, long-cuff welder’s gloves. They protect from firewood splinters, keep skin from getting singed when wood is added, and are just right for quickly grabbing and tossing back into the fire the occasional stray coal that comes rolling out onto the hearth when adding a split or two of wood.
There are small windows of heat-resistant glass in the doors of my stove; I have cast-iron inserts that could be used instead, but I prefer the glass for two reasons. The first, I knew about when I started using the stove: It gives the asthetic effect of a fireplace with the efficiency of a woodstove. The second I have come to learn over the years: if I can’t see the fire, the fire is burning poorly. That black soot covering the windows is creosote, which is also being deposited in my chimney therefore at too high a rate. A good, hot fire that is burning all the wood and its off-gases will not only keep the window clean, it will burn away any previous buildup on the glass. A proper fire will prevent that soot entirely.
Actually, there’s a third benefit to the little windows: if the wood has shifted and a flaming log is now resting against the doors, I’m spared a hot surprise when I open them.
Wood heat is dry heat, and humidity in the winter is already low. It is traditional to put a kettle or somesuch atop a woodstove, and this can be a pleasing touch — but it won’t do much to get moisture into the air. An additional humidifier is necessary. This is especially true if you have wooden furniture or, Heaven help us, guitars. (Someday I will find a way to harness the warmth and humidity that the clothes dryer vents outside. As it is, I’ve been known to string clotheslines in my office, where the stove lives, and dry the clothes while humidifying the air. Smells good, too.)
The most important part of operating a woodstove, of course, is the fuel. There’s a general sense that anything that will burn is good to put in a woodstove. The general sense — as general senses usually are — is wrong. Good, dry wood, seasoned to the point that it’s only about 25 percent water content, is the only acceptable fuel. Anything else will fill your chimney with soot and goo and creosote and you’ll need one of those Chemfix sticks — if you’re lucky. Use the wrong fuel and you’ll warm the neighborhood, when your house burns down. By the way, pine when properly seasoned — it takes twice as long as hardwood does — is safe to burn in a woodstove, though it isn’t as efficient as good, dense hardwood.
I’ve recently tested some of the store-bought wood bundles, which are okay, as well as the logs made of compressed sawdust. (I’m not talking about “firelogs,” which are full of wax and are death to woodstoves.) These work pretty well, but are wont to come apart, and there’s little excitement that matches a flaming disc of compressed sawdust coming at you and trying to roll across the hearth and floor, spewing embers like a pinwheel. Fortunately, I’m decked out like a hockey goalie when I open the stove door, so my experience of this phenomenon was harmless.
I inherited from my father the important tip that the ash can should always be metal and should always have a tight-fitting lid — there’s nothing fun about dashing toward the door with a plastic wastebasket that’s on fire.
And I’ve learned that it’s better to have a fire that’s too hot than it is to have one that’s not hot enough.
I don’t know if I’ll make it through the winter on wood alone. Many people do. But for now I’m giving it a try and though there’s a lot of work involved it’s entirely satisfying.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at email@example.com.