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Jake’s Woodburning FAQ
Jake’s Woodburning FAQ
Q. Why did you write this?
A. I’m a government employee and have lots of time at work . . . well that and it seems as though I keep seeing the same questions asked every year right about this time. I thought maybe I could combine some of the most frequently asked questions in one thread and some folks might not have to dig around as much to look for the answers to the most commonly asked questions . . . well that and you can only watch the Rollerblading Babies so many times before you need to do something productive.
Q. I’m thinking about heating with wood to save money on the heating bills next Winter. Do you think this is a good idea?
A. Uh . . . you’re asking this question in a wood-burning forum. D’oh! Most folks will tell you that burning wood is a great way to save money on heating costs . . . but they will also tell you that there are some drawbacks for some People. Heating with wood is more work than heating with oil or gas . . . even if you buy your wood you need to move the wood, fill the woodstove, clean out the ashes, etc. Heating with wood also can be messy with woodchips in the home. Finally, woodstoves are known as “space heaters” meaning that unlike Central Heating systems it is warmer near the woodstove and cooler the further away you get. There are ways to move the heat around and many folks heat exclusively or help supplement the heat in their house with a woodstove, but to be honest heating with wood does have some drawbacks. Best advice: If you can live with sweeping up woodchips, the occasional ash spill on to the hearth and don’t mind a bit of work, heating with wood can also pay you back in more than just cheap heat – great views of a fire, the sounds of a crackling fire and the smell of potpourri simmering on the stove top cannot be matched by any oil furnace.
Q. Which stove should I buy?
A. Which stove should you buy? Easy answer—the stove that will keep you warm, but not burn down your house. Really, it’s up to you. There are a dizzying amount of choices. New vs. used. Steel vs. cast iron vs. soapstone. Stoves with catalytic combustors vs. stoves that use secondary burning technology. Stoves that are look like flying airplanes, stoves built out of 55-gallon metal drums (I don’t personally recommend these) and stoves that have been built in the 24th century and sent back to our time (OK, I made that last part up – but there are some pretty modern and funky looking stoves.) There are pros- and cons- to what the stove is made out of and what technology it uses for clean burning, but here are the basics.
1) Get the right size stove for your house.
2) Check out the reviews at the stove ratings section found here at hearth.com.
3) Ask questions from the actual users. Honestly, at one time I was convinced that Stove ABC was the one and only stove for me . . . nowadays I am convinced that many stoves would work great . . . there are very few stoves I would not recommend or I would personally shy away from buying myself. Best advice: Size the stove to the size of your home and then start looking at some makes and models to see what you like . . . and ask questions . . . ask lots of questions.
Q. Will this stove (Model X) work for me? According to the manufacturer’s brochure this stove should heat Y amount of space.
A. We get asked this question a lot . . . to begin with you need to look at your square footage of your house, house lay-out (open floor plan vs. closed floor plan), home’s insulation, windows and your own climate. Manufacturers will provide information on how large a space the woodstove model should heat, but you need to keep in mind that these figures are based on laboratory tests and not actual test results in real homes. Here’s an example. Let’s take two equally sized homes. One person lives in a home in Florida with a newer, highly-insulated home with an open floor plan and they only burn occasionally and the other person is living in northern Maine in an 1860s vintage farmhouse with little to no insulation and 50-year-old windows — both these homes may have the same square footage but the folks living in these homes need very different stoves in terms of size. In general I personally suggest figuring out how much space you need to heat in your home . . . find the stove which is the right size to heat that space . . . and then go one size stove larger. We see more folks complain about their stove not being big enough to heat a home than we hear about folks complaining that their stove is too large and it’s too hot. Again, this advice doesn’t always ring true . . . you have to take into account your own situation. Best advice: I’ve heard it said and I believe in this mantra – when you don’t need so much heat out you can always build a smaller fire in a large stove, but when it gets really cold it’s hard to build a larger fire in a small stove when it’s already loaded to the gills with wood.
Q. I’ve been given a free woodstove. Should I use this stove?
A. It depends. Free is good, but not if the stove isn’t safe to use. If you post some pics here we have folks who can give you some idea as to whether the stove is safe to use or not and whether it may have been abused in its past life. In addition, you want to bear in mind that a free, older stove may not be as good as a new stove that you’ll have to pay for . . . older stoves can heat a home fine, but buying a new, EPA stove has its advantages: 1) more heat and burning less wood (which means more free time for you or less money spent working on wood), 2) cleaner burning technology (which is good for your health, the environment and it generally means less creosote build up in the chimney), 3) long burn times (although to be fair some of the old “smoke dragons” had good burn times once you choked them down . . . which of course produced lots of creosote at the same time) and 5) closer clearances to combustibles (which means they often take up less space than pre-EPA stoves.) Best advice: Our fearless-wood burning inventor and hero Benjamin Franklin once said a penny saved is a penny earned . . . which has nothing to do with the following advice . . . but it does tie in to the old saying about being penny-wise and pound-foolish. If you have limited funds and the stove is safe, use the free stove . . . but think long-term . . . even if you have unlimited amounts of wood after awhile having to buy or cut, split and stack a bazillion cords of wood every winter can get old and most of us like to do other things besides work on our wood.
Q. Should I get a stove with secondary burning technology or one with a catalytic combustor? Is there much difference in the way they work?
A. I will not get into which stove technology is better – that’s a whole other debate. What I will say is that at one time I was biased towards secondary burn technology . . . nowadays I still like my stove with its secondary burn technology, but I’m not biased against stoves with catalytic combustors and would certainly not make the technology a deciding factor in choosing a stove. Here’s the basics in as simple terms as I can break it down . . . to get a clean burn in an EPA-approved stove you can use a catalytic combustor which “scrubs” the “bad stuff” in the smoke once the stove reaches a set temperature. While all stoves need seasoned wood, it is especially important to have good, seasoned wood with cat stoves. There is some maintenance associated with these stoves and the combustors need to be replaced over time, but most users say the maintenance is minimal and combustors tend to last for years. Secondary burning technology has a baffle and burn tubes which “collect” the smoke and when a set temperature is reached the combustible materials in that smoke is reburned resulting in the secondary burn. Best advice: Pick out the stove you like the best that suits your needs . . . regardless of the tech . . . and reap the benefits of more heat with less wood, cleaner emissions and the cool view of the fire.
Q. Do I need an OAK (Outside Air Kit)?
A. There are a few perennial debates here at hearth.com where there seems to be no definitive answer: cover the wood stacks or leave them uncovered?, steel, cast iron or soapstone stoves?, catalytic combustor or secondary combustion? . . . And then there is the Outside Air Kit (OAK) debate. An OAK hooks up to your stove and delivers outside air to your stove instead of relying on the air inside your home. I honestly don’t know if you need or want an OAK and as I said there are many, many threads on this topic. I will say this . . . if your stove manual says you need to have an OAK, my own take is that you should install one. If your house is super-insulated you may also want to consider an OAK . . . other than this . . . it’s really hard to say as to whether installing an OAK is crucially important, nice to have or doesn’t make much of a difference. Best advice: Search the threads and make your own decision.
Q. How do I build a hearth? Is it hard?
A. I’m what you would call a Mechanically Disinclined Idiot . . . I have a hard time using a screwdriver without directions and yet I can tell you that building a hearth for your woodstove is one of the easiest projects to do . . . and it will save you a lot of money vs. buying a pre-made hearth or contracting someone to do the job. First things first . . . you need to find out how large you need to build your hearth and if there are any specific requirements for the R-value (insulation) of the hearth. Many stoves only require ember protection which means if the material is non-combustible you should be good to go (although I tend to like to have some R-value included in my hearth). Other stove companies require a set R-value . . . which you can get by using a combination of materials such as Wonderboard, Micore, air space, etc. If you do a quick search you should be able to find a couple of tables which list hearth building materials and their R-values . . . which you can then mix and match to achieve the necessary R value. Most folks recommend starting with a good, solid base . . . and then building on to that with tile or stone – but the actual design will be up to you and your own specific needs. Best advice: Ask questions on your specific hearth needs before you start building . . . and if you get the chance and have the space build a bigger hearth than you need – the extra space is nice as it gives you a place to put your tools and you or your pets will appreciate it in the long run as it will provide a nice place to sit or lay down in front of the warm fire.
Q. I can purchase an optional blower with my stove. Do I need this?
A. As long as we’re not talking about a leaf blower you plan to duct tape to your woodstove . . . you may or may not need a blower. Inserts almost always work best with blowers. Free-standing woodstoves may or may not benefit from a blower. If you have any doubts save your money and try using the stove for a season without the blower . . . if you decide you want the blower you can usually install the blower on your stove fairly easily at a later date. Best advice: If you’re worried about moving heated air through your home try using floor fans pointed towards the stove as this establishes an artificial air current that can help move the heated air into cooler areas of the home.
Q. I’m looking at buying a used stove. How do I know if it has been over-fired or abused?
A. Some possible signs that could indicate over-firing or abuse would include warped baffles and/or doors or other parts, cracked metal in the stove body (especially in the corners) or cracked burn plates, broken parts and a whitish-colored discoloration in the metal. Broken glass and air controls that jam up or do not move freely may or may not also indicate abuse. Best advice: Buying used is a crap shoot . . . don’t be fooled by a stove that looks good and has perfect paint . . . it could be that someone painted the stove with fresh paint to cover up past signs of abuse.
Q. Do I need a Damper for my stove pipe?
A. Installing a Damper on your stove pipe may make it harder for Santa to get down the chimney. On a serious note, many folks, if not most folks, do not install dampers when using the new EPA stoves and the stoves run fine without a stovepipe Damper. Folks that do install dampers often install them when they have excessive drafts from particularly tall chimneys or as a means to help extinguish a chimney fire or because they grew up expecting and using the Damper on the stove pipe. Best advice: If you’re not sure if you need a Damper try running your woodstove for a few weeks without one . . . if you need one they’re cheap and relatively easy to install at a later date.
Q. I’m installing my woodstove, but I want to put it a little closer to the wall/mantel/etc. Would it be a problem if I was just an inch or two or three closer than what the manual says I should be at for clearances?
A. The short answer: yes. While the stove Manufacturers may err on the side of caution when it comes to clearances, the truth is today’s stoves have pretty tight clearances already . . . going any closer than the minimum clearance distance is not a good idea . . . unless you don’t value life or those living in the home. Maintaining clearance distances is one of those hard-and-fast rules which should never be broken . . . even if it means the stove juts out an inch or two extra into the living room. Best advice: The numbers in the manuals are not arbitrary – they’re there for a reason and the results of exact testing. Heed them.
Burn baby burn . . . questions about stove chow . . . aka wood
Q. I decided to get a woodstove last month . . . unfortunately I now realize that in another month I will be burning and I don’t have any seasoned wood. I have some wood that I cut up this past summer, but I don’t think that will be ready to burn. Any suggestions?
A. Short of finding a dealer who has actual, seasoned wood (and many believe they are selling seasoned wood, when in fact it doesn’t meet most hearth.com member’s definition of “seasoned wood”) or trading someone your unseasoned wood for some seasoned wood (usually with more wood going to the person who has the seasoned wood) . . . perhaps your best chances of still using the semi-seasoned wood is to find some pallets, break these pallets up and use this wood to help start the fire and “dry” the moisture out of your semi-seasoned wood. You can also use slab wood (the wood not used by lumber mills and wood processing plants) to help burn your marginal wood. Some folks have some luck finding and burning standing dead trees — although this is a hit and miss proposition — sometimes the standing dead wood is good to burn that day and sometimes it will take several months to season before it truly is good to go. A final option is to buy some of the processed wood products which is compressed sawdust in a brick or log-like form. Best advice: Many of us were in the same proverbial boat as you in our first year. Start cutting now to avoid this problem next year . . . and in the meantime whatever method you use to get you by this year do yourself one favor and check your chimney frequently since burning marginal wood can result in more creosote build up.
Q. Will my wood be seasoned by _____ (insert month and year)?
A. I don’t know. Send me the wood and I’ll burn it in __ (number) of months and let you know if it’s good to go. You’ll get a lot of answers here ranging from Species A will be seasoned in __ (insert number) months, but Species B will take __ (insert number) months. There are some species of wood that seem to season faster (i.e. white ash or cherry), but in reality the only true way to tell if your wood is seasoned and will burn is with a moisture meter . That said, being the simple, country boy you can also do what I do and go low-tech . . . which means cutting, splitting and stacking the wood for at least a year . . . which is about the amount of time it takes most wood to fully season (the exception being denser woods like oak.) Best advice: A lot of dealers say the wood is seasoned . . . and it is . . . at least to their definition which may or may not mean it is truly seasoned and ready to burn. Once you burn truly seasoned wood you will never want to go back to burning semi-seasoned wood.
Q. What wood species is this?
A. Ah, the rarely seen Treeus Specificus. For best results post a picture showing the bark, inner wood, rings and leaves . . . and let us know where you live. Trying to describe a piece of wood as brown with bark and green leaves is not very helpful. Best advice: We like pictures.
Q. What is the best way to get firewood?
A. From your father-in-law who has been cutting, splitting and stacking wood for years since he knew at some point he would need to give his future son-in-law a dowry . . . and here it is – 12 cords of fully seasoned oak. Reality check . . . it depends. If you’re talking about the most inexpensive way to buy wood and you have the space and equipment (i.e. chainsaw) the best way in terms of price is to order your wood in tree-length. If you’re talking about the best way to get free wood by scrounging many folks would say checking Craigslist, checking in with tree service companies, talking to friends, family and co-workers so they know you are looking for wood and just asking folks if you see a cut tree on their property. If you’re talking about the best way to get seasoned wood from a dealer perhaps the best advice is to ask questions, get referrals from folks and check the wood yourself with a moisture meter (remembering to split the wood) before they dump it off at your house to see if it is truly seasoned . . . realizing that in fact most dealers may think their wood is seasoned enough when it may not be . . . many folks buy this wood realizing they will have to season it themselves for several more months. Best advice: Free wood is good wood . . . no matter what the species. I never pass up free wood, even if I have access to wood on my family land . . . especially if it is close and has been bucked up. That said, I also believe there is no such thing as “free wood” since even wood on your own woodlot requires equipment and the cost of gas to cut, split and move the wood from the great outdoors to your home.
Q. Can I burn _______ (fill in species of wood)?
A. Please send this wood to me first class, postage-paid and I’ll do a scientific test to see if you can burn it . . . which will basically consist of me putting it into my woodstove and setting it on fire. If it’s wood and it’s seasoned you can pretty much burn any wood species . . . there are few wood species that will not or cannot be burned in a woodstove. It may or may not go without saying that many Manufacturers do not recommend burning driftwood in the stove (due to the salt content) and treated wood (i.e. pressure treated, painted, stained, etc.) are not a good fuel source due to the contaminants released into the air. Best advice: Yes . . . you can burn pine. No . . . it will not burn down your house, cause a chimney fire or result in baldness – it’s just a sad coincidence that I am going bald and burn pine. See next question.
Q. Can I burn pine in my woodstove?
A. Oh no. Pine? In a woodstove? Run for the hills. Hide the women and children! Burning pine will summon the Apocalyptic Four Horsemen. Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Any wood that is seasoned will burn . . . even softwood, although here in the East folks typically burn hardwood since it results in higher BTUs than the white pine we have here in Maine. Pine will not cause a chimney fire . . . many folks have been burning softwood, including pine, for years . . . including folks who only have access to softwood. Best advice: Make sure you season the pine just like any other wood – just because it feels lighter in weight doesn’t mean it is seasoned two months after it has been cut and split.
Q. What is a cord of wood?
A. A cord of wood = pure bliss and happiness in middle of January. A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet, although many folks measure out a cord and define it as wood measuring 4 feet high x 4 feet wide x 8 feet long. A face cord is wood of shorter length that is stacked 4 feet high by 8 feet long but it typically comes in 16 -20 inch widths (or similar sizes). Best advice: A “chord” is a musical term . . . a cord is a term used in cutting and selling wood . . . make sure when you are comparing prices at dealers they are talking about a full cord of wood or face cords – in some states it is not legal to sell face cords of wood.
Q. What should I do if my wood gets wet from the rain or covered in snow?
A. Don’t worry. Be happy. Now that you’ve got that Bobby Brown song in your head, here’s the best advice. If the wood is seasoned already, it’s not a big deal. Bring the wood inside and in a few hours in front of the stove (but not too close) that wood will be dry . . . snow and rain is only surface moisture and unless you’re burning sponges in your stove instead of wood you’ll be OK. Best advice: Bring it inside . . . no need to try drying it out in the oven . . . or microwave.
Q. Should I cover my wood pile or not?
A. There are a few topics which invariably have two diametrically opposing sides . . . each side will vehemently argue that their way is the right way. This is another one of those types of debates. Some folks will not cover their stacks at all . . . some will leave them uncovered for a year or so and then cover them . . . some folks will leave them uncovered, but cover them in the Fall. For me personally . . . I leave them uncovered for a year to season . . . and then put the wood in a woodshed . . . but that’s what works for me. Best advice: Most folks that cover their stacks – either for a short time or all the time – agree on one point. If you’re going to cover your wood just cover the top part . . . do not drape the cover all the way down to the ground . . . doing so impedes the air flow which of course is what helps season the wood.
Q. Should I worry about termites/ants/mice/chucabras in my woodpiles?
A. There are many, many threads on this topic. Some folks say don’t worry . . . if you have bugs in your wood when you’re splitting it up there’s a pretty good chance they’ll leave their home after you buzz through their home with a chainsaw and then whack it apart with a maul . . . if you have bugs in the woodpile and are worried about them spreading to your home some folks use insecticides, some use DE (the stuff used in many pool filters), some folks just keep their stacks far away from the home and some folks don’t stay awake at night worrying about unseen bugs eating up their home . . . if you have bugs in the wood and are worried about the hibernating critters coming alive and flying around your home, well . . . I suppose it could happen, but you don’t hear of too many People with massive ant infestations in middle of the winter. As for the mice . . . cats work well . . . some People use poison or traps . . . some folks like the idea of snakes being in their stacks . . . and again some People do nothing as they figure the mice will not be coming inside with them. Best advice: If you find a chucabra in your woodpiles you may be in serious trouble.
Hmmm . . . didn’t see this in any pictures in the brochures . . . Help
Q. I fired up my stove last night and now my stove glass is all black. What is the best way to clean this?
A. The best answer is to not rent a sandblaster and attempt to sandblast this clean. Instead, burn at hotter temps and make sure you’re burning seasoned wood. Usually blackened glass is the result of one of three things: 1) You are burning unseasoned wood, 2) You are not burning the stove hot enough or 3) A split or round has rested against the glass during the burning process. The short term answer is many-fold. You can spend your money on fancy chemicals and cleaning agents, but being a simple, country boy (i.e. cheap) you can do what I do and use a moist paper towel or rag and dip it in the ash to clean off the glass. Try it, you’ll like it. Cheap and easy. Best advice: Burn hot, burn seasoned and try the wet paper towels if needed . . . really . . . try it. Low-tech I know, but it really does work.
Q. I can’t get a fire started in my woodstove. What am I doing wrong?
A. There is no wrong way to start a fire in the woodstove . . . well check that . . . attempting to start a fire in your woodstove by using a 5-gallon can of gasoline would be a wrong (and unsafe) way . . . and don’t laugh, folks have actually tried using gasoline to start a fire. There are two, maybe three, basic ways (although many folks have their own spin on these start up techniques.)
The teepee: This type of fire is often used when lighting an outdoor camp fire and is rarely used in lighting a woodstove. As a variation you can have a larger teepee made up of small to medium splits over a smaller teepee made up of the kindling and newspaper.
1) Crumple up newspaper and place in the firebox.
2) Lay kindling in a teepee shape around the newspaper.
3) Light the newspaper on fire.
4) As the fire burns add more and progressively larger wood to the fire, maintaining a rough teepee shape.
The log cabin: This is perhaps how most of us learned to start a fire in a woodstove.
1) Crumple up newspaper and place in the firebox.
2) Lay some small kindling around the crumpled newspaper in a rough, square.
3) On top of this wood add more kindling or slightly larger splits so that it starts to look like a miniature log cabin with gaps between each layer of wood.
4) Continue to add additional layers of wood with the wood getting progressively larger.
5) Light the newspaper on fire.
6) As the fire burns add more and progressively larger wood to the fire.
Top down: This method works really well for some folks . . . other folks resist using this method, thinking it is just too crazy to work and too new-fangled. In my case I found the first few times it didn’t work so well, but now it’s the easiest and fastest way for me to get a fire going in the woodstove . . . plus it establishes the draft quickly and you don’t have to babysit the fire and continually add larger splits or worry about the whole mess of wood collapsing on itself and suffocating the fire like you do with the other two methods.
1) Place three large to medium sized splits in the firebox.
2) Place some kindling on top of the splits, leaving plenty of air gaps.
3) Ball up newspaper or make paper newspaper “bows” and place on top.
4) Light the newspaper . . . if everything works the newspaper should ignite the kindling which will then ignite the wood underneath and you shouldn’t have to fiddle around with adding more wood for a bit.
Tunnel of Love: For stoves that are deep enough to place splits in a north/south (parallel to the sides) orientation. This technique works great on stoves that also have an air feed in the front bottom center of the firebox.
1) Put two medium-sized (~3-4”), dry splits about 2” apart in the center of the firebox with their length parallel to the sides of the stove (N/S).
2) Put your favorite starter (crumpled newspaper + kindling, wax starter, etc.) in the gap between the splits. Or, a quarter chunk or two of SuperCedars works great here.
3) Then put another 3-4” split on top of the gap. I like to put it on a slight diagonal for better air circulation as the fire gets started.
4) Light the newspaper or starter(s) and leave the air wide open and let it start. The air feed from the airwash will head up the tunnel of love and fuel the fire.
Also see: http://woodheat.org/videos.htm [/Begreen]
In all cases the air control should be open all the way and in many cases it helps to keep the door ajar (about an inch or so) to allow the fire to get going by establishing a good draft. Problems in getting the wood to catch on fire often involve wood/kindling that is not seasoned enough and in some cases problems with the draft either from a plugged chimney, too short of a chimney or too large of a chimney. I also find it helps to have stove top and flue thermometers . . . thermometers allow me to know when I can start to close down the air. Best advice: Try different methods and see what works for you . . . also many folks have success using commercially available fire starters such as SuperCedars.
Q. What do most folks here use to start the fire?
A. This question will result in a wide range of opinions and materials. Folks have used dryer lint, small, dead twigs and branches, purpose-made kindling, cedar shingles split down, old lumber split down, Super Cedars and similar commercial products, melted wax/sawdust in the shape of cupcakes or brownies and a whole host of other materials. Best advice: There are only a few items I would not use to start that initial small fire — wood that is painted or pressure-treated, flammable fuels and uranium . . . definitely not uranium.
Moving the heat
Q. My master bedroom located a few rooms over from the woodstove is frigid, but it’s nice and warm in the room with the stove . . . what can I do to fix this problem?
A. Well Dr. Ruth may have some suggestions for you . . . barring these sort of problems with heat in the bedroom or any other room in the house for that matter you might try using fans to circulate the heat throughout the house. Many members report great success in having fans at floor level pointing back towards the room with the woodstove. This sets up a “current” of air with the cold air blown towards the stove – the air is heated by the stove, rises and moves out or is pushed out to the cooler areas of the house. Other folks report success with blowers and using ceiling fans. Using a gas or oil furnace fan to move the air generally doesn’t seem to get as good results. Best advice: Yeah. We’re all about cheap and easy here and using a common fan you can get at Wally World may really warm the rest of the house up . . . crazy simple, but it works for many of us.
Q. Help! I have a roaring fire, but it still is freezing in here. What am I doing wrong?
A. This may sound stupid to ask, but I’ll ask anyways. I assume you have a thermometer to tell you exactly how hot your stove is . . . sometimes a fire may look like it’s hot and should be pumping out heat, but looks can be deceiving. Also, some stoves may take awhile to really warm up and start producing meaningful heat . . . in my own case the cast iron stove I own takes a bit to warm up the room. Other questions that need answering include how much wood you have in the firebox (more wood usually equals more heat, less wood equals less heat), how seasoned is the wood (less seasoned wood that is green or semi-seasoned which you may hear or see by the hissing sound and spitting of moisture out the ends = more of the potential heat energy is being used to drive out the moisture rather than heating up your stove) and how open or closed your air control lever is (generally an air control lever left wide open produces a lot of flames, but a good portion of this heat is being directed up the chimney whereas a partially closed or nearly fully closed air control will result in more heat being “trapped” in the stove. Best advice: Start with the basics . . . seasoned wood . . . it often seems that folks who complain about not getting a lot of heat from their woodstove don’t have good fuel . . . to coin an old phrase, garbage in – garbage out.
Q. My brother in Maine used to have a device called a Magic Heat that supposedly extracts extra heat from the flue. Does anyone use these?
A. All hail the magical mysteries of the most maligned Magic Heat . . . bow in its presence. Most members here do not encourage folks to purchase a Magic Heat or similar device for modern EPA stoves as the general feeling is that these devices cool down the gases in the chimney . . . and cool gases results in creosote. Some folks have used them in the past and report a lot of creosote build up. That said, there have been a select few members who have or continue to use these devices with few problems – especially on pre-EPA stoves where a lot of the heat continues to go up the chimney. Best advice: From a safety standpoint I would rather lose a bit of heat out of the chimney and have it clean and creosote-free . . . and if you really want to get some heat off your stovepipe and have the clearances use single-wall stove pipe instead of double wall stove pipe if you can do so and meet the clearance requirements. If you use one of these devices, clean the flue frequently and thoroughly, especially the device itself.
Q. I have a fire going and it’s burning hot, but I’m not seeing the Bowels of Hell, Propane Blue Gas Jets or Northern Lights that you folks say indicates secondary combustion. How do I get secondary combustion?
A. Well, first of all . . . in order to see the effects of secondary combustion you need to have a modern stove that utilizes secondary burning combustion technology . Assuming that you do not have a stove with a catalytic combustor or an older, non-EPA stove, the next question to ask is how hot is your stove. I mean to say, you do have a thermometer on the stove right . . . I mean there is a difference in a “hot” fire and a “very hot” fire . . . but this difference may not be as noticeable to you or me standing right next to the fire. Secondary burning most typically occurs when the fire is pretty hot . . . generally around 400-450 degrees or more . . . if your stove isn’t hot enough you may not get things hot enough to have a sustained secondary burn. Next, secondary burning works best in the presence of well seasoned wood and a decent load of wood . Finally, secondary burns work best when you get the stove nice and hot (i.e. up to temp) and then the air is cut back . . . with my own stove I get the best results when the air is cut back to a quarter mark or less . . . and when the well seasoned wood has brought the stove top temp up to 450-500 degrees. Best advice: If you see the famous Bowels of Hell, Northern Lights or Propane BBQ Blue Jets of Flame for just a bit and then nothing, try opening the air control, getting things good and hot and see if they re-appear . . . it may be that you turned down the air a little too much and a little too soon. It also helps to slowly dial back the air a little bit at a time over time . . . try dialing back the air in quarter mark increments after every 5 minutes.
Q. The brochure and website says my stove should have a burn time of 8-10 hours, but I’m only getting a burn time of 4-6 hours. What am I doing wrong?
A. Well . . . it’s like this. Everyone, and I mean everyone, goes into the woodstove shop or checks out the glossy brochures and slick websites and see that the stove they like has a burn time of X hours and think “Ah ha . . . that sounds great. I can load up the stove at 9 p.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. and the fire will still be burning.” And then you get the stove . . . load up the stove at 9 p.m. and wake up at 7 a.m. to find just a few glowing coals instead of the roaring fire that you expected. Here’s the problem. We all read the numbers with the burn time, but no one ever thinks to ask the manufacturer what their definition of burn time is or how they achieve these numbers. Is the definition of “burn time” the time when the wood is first lit to when the final coal goes dark . . . or is it when the stove is producing X degrees of heat until it falls below that level . . . or maybe it’s when the stove reaches secondary combustion to when there are no visible flames . . . and that’s the problem . . . no one really knows what the definition is. Moreover, how did the manufacturer come up with that number – did they stuff the firebox to the gills with prime oak and locust . . . or were they using white birch and silver maple like you may be using? So that’s the bad news if you would . . . but here’s the good news. These stoves do have long burn times and while you may never wake up 12 hours later to a roaring fire, truthfully many of the larger stoves will keep the house warm overnight and have enough coals and embers to allow you to easily get the fire re-ignited after a long, overnight burn . . . without you or your spouse getting up in middle of the night to reload the stove like many folks did in the “old days.” Best advice: Sure, you may not get up in the morning to find the fire still roaring and as lively as it was when you loaded it up at 10 p.m. (unless your spouse woke up before you and reloaded the stove), but most of these stoves will allow you to keep the house and you warm all through the night.
Q. How can I get a long overnight burn?
A. There are several techniques and tips. Some folks use larger splits or rounds. Most folks say you want to use your prime wood – the oak, locust and sugar maple . . . and nearly everyone says that unlike the old advice of putting in some green, unseasoned wood to make the fire last longer, you want to use your best, seasoned wood to have a nice, long, clean burn. Having a good bed of ash also helps insulate the coals. Of course, size also matters . . . generally stoves with larger fireboxes do better with long, overnight burns. For the ultimate in long, overnight burns having a stove with a catalytic combustor is perhaps the true cat’s meow. Best advice: Many folks report success by having a small to medium split near where the air enters the firebox with the larger splits or rounds behind and on top of the smaller split . . . the idea being the smaller split gets the fire going and then catches the larger wood on fire which burns slower.
Hot, bothered and oh so dirty . . . cleaning your stove, chimney and dealing with the ashes
Q. What should I do with the ash from the woodstove?
A. If burning wood makes you nostalgic for those simpler days of yesteryear you can always reenact a scene straight out of Little House on the Prairie and make soap from the ashes . . . but most folks simply spread the ash on their garden or lawn (although it’s a good idea to make sure your soil could use the ash before doing so), driveway (good for snow and ice removal) or simply toss it into the nearby woods (after the ash has cooled) or dispose in the trash (again – only after the ash has cooled for several days.) Best advice: Whatever way you dispose of your ash, make sure it is disposed of properly . . . I see many fires caused by folks tossing their ash into a cardboard box or plastic bucket and then leaving it on the hearth, front porch, garage, etc. Treat all ash as if there is a hot coal hidden in the mess.
Q.How will I know if I have a chimney fire?
A. Well . . . when the fire department is busting down your front door with an ax and carrying your wife or girlfriend (or husband) out of the house on their back in the classic firefighter rescue carry you might realize that you have a chimney fire. Other signs of a chimney fire include embers and flames shooting out of the chimney, smoke in the house and the classic sign or rather sound of a locomotive or Boeing 757 about to take off in your chimney . . . that said a chimney fire can also be a quiet affair . . . you may not notice anything askew until you look out on your front lawn one morning and see black burnt “popcorn” or you may hear what sounds like corn flakes falling through your chimney or stove pipe. Best advice: Skip the drama . . . burn at the proper temps, burn seasoned wood, check the chimney and clean when necessary.
Q. What is the best way to put out a chimney fire?
A. You’ll get lots of opinions here ranging from using a dry chemical extinguisher, wet newspapers in a plastic bag, baking soda and just calling 911. Here’s my take . . . as a firefighter and a woodstove owner. 1) Burn seasoned wood. 2) Burn the seasoned wood at the proper temps – we’re talking Goldilocks temps here – not too hot so you overfire the stove, but not so cold that you’re causing creosote to build up and form in the chimney. 3) Burn seasoned wood . . . yeah, I know I mentioned that already . . . but it’s really that important. 4) Check your chimney frequently and clean it when necessary (for me this is every month, but this is only because I’m the kind of geek who wears a belt and suspenders . . . plus it would be wicked embarrassing for me to have a chimney fire due to my profession. If you follow the advice above you should be golden and never need to know how to fight a chimney fire because you’ll never have enough creosote build up to have a fire . . . and a fire prevented is the easiest fire to fight.
That said, let’s say you have a chimney fire. The professional firefighter in me says to get out and call 911 and let the professionals handle it . . . and truthfully that’s good advice. However, here’s some more advice.
1. Close off the air to the stove. This means not only shutting down the air lever control . . . but also shutting off the incoming air to the stove . . . you can do this by blocking the incoming air inlet with aluminum foil if you know where it is on the stove. If you have a stove pipe Damper you can also close this which can help kill the fire. Some folks also keep road flares or similar flare type devices which supposedly help suffocate the fire by consuming the oxygen when lit and put into the firebox.
2. If you have a masonry chimney with a clean out and you do not have a direct connection to the stove (which is admittedly rare with most folks these days) you can open the cleanout and either fire off an ABC extinguisher up the chimney (the draft should take the powder up to the area of the fire) or if there are hot coals you can drop a small amount of water (half a cup) on the coals and let the water turn to steam which will then go up the chimney and put the fire out.
3. If you go to the roof you can attempt to fire an extinguisher down the chimney or drop Ziplock baggies full of ABC dry powder down the chimney.
Personally, I think you will find that if you follow my first bit of advice you will never, ever have to worry about fighting a chimney fire . . . the number of folks here who have had chimney fires with the new EPA stoves . . . and who are following good burning practices . . . are slim to none . . . this is not the case with folks who continue to burn unseasoned wood, burn too cool and never check their chimneys. Best advice: sleep with a firefighter for maximum fire safety.
Q. How do I clean my chimney?
A. Cleaning your own chimney can save you money. Since no chimney and stove is exactly the same – inserts, free-standing stoves, straight shot vs. angled, etc. – there is no one definitive answer as to how to clean your chimney. However, most folks buy a chimney brush (poly or steel) and fiberglass rods from either the stove shop, hardware store or on-line . . . although you can also make your own rods. After removing the chimney cap you only need to push the brush down and scrub up and down in a repetitive motion, adding lengths as you go down the chimney. At the end you need to remove the scrubbed creosote from the stove or base of the chimney. Some folks also clean their chimney from the base by removing a T-cap or the stove pipe connection and adding lengths as they scrub upwards . . . if inside it may be a good idea to have a plastic bag taped around the pipe to collect the falling creosote. Some members also report good luck using Soot-Eaters – a device that attaches to your drill with a whip cord on the end similar to the cord on a weedbeater. Best advice: No matter how you do it, be safe . . . if you fall off your roof any potential savings by doing this job yourself and not hiring a professional chimney sweep may be ate up in a visit to the hospital Emergency Room.
Q. When should I clean my chimney?
A. A good rule of thumb is to check your chimney monthly . . . especially in the first year of burning since you are unfamiliar with your stove and since many folks sadly have to deal with semi-seasoned firewood. If you have a quarter inch or more of creosote built up in the chimney it’s a good idea to sweep the chimney. That said . . . this is the old, stand-by chestnut . . . by burning well-seasoned wood and burning at the proper temps many folks only need to clean their chimney once or twice a year . . . but I personally recommend at least a quick check every month or two during the heating system. Best advice: In my career as a firefighter I have yet to meet a homeowner who has regretted the fact that they have cleaned their chimney too frequently . . . I have however met many a homeowner who wishes they had cleaned their chimney a little more often.
Q. Does that chimney powder they sell in stores really clean your chimney?
A. Yes . . . and no. The general consensus is that the powder may help with some types of creosote . . . to help loosen it up and change its composition so it may more easily be swept out with a chimney brush. However, most everyone agrees that there is no substitute for sweeping a chimney with a chimney brush or similar product. Best advice: Save your money and buy your own chimney brush and rods if you are able to physically go up to your roof to sweep your own chimney. It’s easy to do and will save you a lot of money in the long run.
Q. I need to hire a chimney sweep. Any recommendations in the _____________area?
A. You can ask around here, ask friends, family and co-workers or make sure you get a trained and certified sweep by going to the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s website (www.csia.org) where you can plug in your zip code and find several professional chimney sweeps at the click of a button. Best advice: Sweeping a chimney is pretty easy and if you really don’t want to do this (and save yourself some money) you need to know that just about any Tom, Dick or Harry with a ladder and brush can do the job . . . but whether they know what to look out for and know how to do the job properly . . . well that sometimes can be a whole other story. References help . . . and knowing they’ve been trained.
Q. I’ve decided to buy my own chimney brush and sweep my own chimney . . . now I just need to know where to buy the equipment.
A. You can buy the equipment at your local stove shop, hardware stores or on-line. I’ll give these folks a plug because I’ve been pretty happy with their service . . . and they’re a hearth.com sponsor — www.northlineexpress.com had several brushes and rods to pick from and the prices were decent. Best advice: If you do a search you’ll find that you can save a bit of money by making your own chimney rods.
Q. I have a stainless steel Class A chimney. Should I get a polyester or steel wire brush?
A. There was quite a bit of debate on this topic at one time. However, it now seems as though most folks would recommend going with the poly brush if you have a Class A chimney or a liner . . . the idea being that the poly is a bit easier on the metal over time. Best advice: If you buy a poly brush (or metal wire brush for that matter) and find the brush is a really tight squeeze you can always trim down the bristles a bit with some snips.
Boys and their toys . . . so you thought you would save money by burning wood . . . now all you need are the toys
Q. Which chainsaw should I buy?
A. You probably should pass on the Tonka I’m-A-Big-Boy Now Chainsaw. The big three makers that most folks prefer here are Husquvarna, Stihl and Dolmar. They all make good saws. You can also buy cheaper saws . . . and they may work well for your needs. If you find yourself cutting 12 cords every year you may want a better saw vs. someone who cuts up a cord or two every year. Best advice: Buy from a local dealer that you trust . . . the difference is having a dealer who throws in the occasional free file and who can stop on a busy Saturday to fix your saw . . . and having to drive an hour away to a dealer who sold you a saw $20 cheaper.
Q. Which splitter should I buy?
A. Any splitter that keeps you from getting tennis elbow. You first need to decide if you need a gas-powered splitter or an electric-powered splitter. There are a few different types of splitters out there, but some of the most popular models use hydraulics to move a ram to split the wood. There are also several Manufacturers, but for most home owners the end choice often comes down to Huskee/Speeco splitters or MTD splitters (and their clones – White, Cub Cadet, Yardman, etc.) Members here report good luck with both brands and most feel that a 22-ton splitter is more than capable for most wood. There are a lot of choices in terms of size splitter (most folks feel that a 22-ton splitter or so will handle most everything a home owner would run across), engine type (often it comes down to Honda vs. Briggs & Stratton), whether the splitter can be used vertically (to me this was one “must have” feature) and different optional attachments like four-way splitting heads, cradles and log lifts. Best advice: Just about any hydraulic splitter beats out whacking wood with a maul or an ax.
Q. What tools do I need for my woodstove?
A. There is no absolute answer here. What works for one person may not work for another. I would guess that most folks at a bare minimum want a decent pair of leather gloves (either welding gloves or stove gloves which have a thicker insulation layer) to keep from being burned and most want a small shovel to shovel out ashes, stir the coals, etc. Some folks like to have a poker . . . others would give up their own dog before they would let you take their coal hoe or ash rake or even tongs. Folks without an ash pan say having a decent ash bucket or ash caddy is a must-have tool . . . others would say having an infrared heat thermometer is pretty darn handy. As I said, there is no absolute answer except to say get what you think you may need or want. Best advice: You can buy these tools at local hardware stores, the stove shop or even through on-line retailers . . . many of whom advertise right here at hearth.com.
Q. My chainsaw doesn’t seem to be cutting as well any more. How do I sharpen the saw?
A. Ah, this could be a lengthy discussion . . . for some folks sharpening by hand with a file comes naturally . . . for others it really helps to have a pro show you how to do it . . . and for others the answer is to pick up a grinder, Dremel-type attachment, one of the attachments that fits on to the bar of the saw to sharpen it (i.e. Grandberg) or to simply drop off the chains at a dealer. If you do a search here on sharpening a saw you should find lots of threads on the technique . . . or you can search You Tube. Best advice: For me personally learning how to sharpen from a pro is the best way . . . and then practicing . . . keep praticing the technique . . . and learn from your mistakes.
Q. What is the best way to split wood with a hydraulic splitter?
A. There is no question here – horizontally. Well, OK, maybe some folks think the best way is to split sitting down and split vertically. Truth be told, it’s whichever way works best for you and is most comfortable. Best advice: Vertical or horizontal? Honestly, it doesn’t matter too much since either way is easier than splitting 6 cords of wood with a splitting maul. [BG] If the rounds are very large, vertical splitting is the best way to break the round down into manageable chunks. [/BG]
Q. How important is it to have a stove top thermometer?
A. Thermometers on your stove pipe and stove are a lot like having a gas gauge and speedometer on your car . . . sure you can run the stove and car without them, but it sure is a lot easier and safer to know how hot your flue is to reduce the amount of creosote you are producing, how hot the stove is to keep it from being over-fired, how much fuel you have to keep you from running out in middle of the willy wags and to know how fast you are going so you don’t get stopped by the police. Stove thermometers are notorious for not being exact, but they can be used to give you a general guide as to whether you’re running too cool or too hot . . . and when you can start to cut back your air to achieve secondary combustion. Best advice: Thermometers are inexpensive and give you some good feedback as to what your stove is doing or is going to do . . . if you’re the type of person who would drive a car without a working fuel gauge and speedometer, it’s probably not a big deal . . . but if you’re like me it’s nice to have an idea of how hot is too hot.
Q. Do I need a moisture meter to burn wood?
A. Some folks love their moisture meter and believe it is quite useful. Others have never and will never use one. It’s entirely up to you. The nice thing about a moisture meter is it gives you an idea of how the wood is seasoning and if the wood will be ready to burn vs. just guessing and basing the decision as to what to burn and when to burn by the amount of time the wood has been seasoning. You can buy moisture meters in hardware stores or on-line. Best advice: While I do not use a moisture meter I think it could be a useful tool — especially in the first year of burning or when a person does not have the ability or space to store more than one year’s worth of wood on their property.
Q. What is this vaunted Fiskars that I keep reading about here?
A. Well it depends. Here at hearth.com we have two vaunted and legendary Fiskars. The first is the Fiskars splitting ax which many members have said works as well, if not better than a splitting maul. The second Fiskars is our very own Archibald Fiskars (aka Quads) – a true legend who works as hard and as efficient as any Fiskars splitting ax. Best advice: If you’re interested in learning more about the Fiskars splitting ax just do a search . . . there are a lot of threads. If you’re interested in learning more about Archibald Fiskars you’ll have to fly around Wisconsin in an ultra-light until you spot a guy with a huge pile of wood near his farm.
Final question . . . OK, Questions . . . plural **
Q. What is this shoulder season some of you talk about here?
A. The Shoulder Season is considered the time of year — generally Fall and Spring — when folks are not burning steady or are burning smaller fires. With cool nights and warm days, many folks who usually burn 24/7 scale back their burning to just doing smaller fires or only one or two fires every day. Best advice: Well, I guess there really isn’t any great advice I have to offer here . . . I think I answered the question and there isn’t much more to elaborate.
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