A Question on Cold-Starting a Fully Loaded Stove

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High Desert Dennis

New Member
Nov 10, 2023
15
Yucca Valley, CA
Hey there.

I'm new to running a wood stove, and tonight I had one of those *holy chit* moments that I don't want to repeat, which is why I'm posting for advice. Kinda wordy, but bear with me please. 🙏

I can usually start a fire just fine using the top-down method. I put bigger hardwood splits/logs on the bottom (North-South), medium splits in the middle, fatwood sticks &/or paper knots on top. I use a propane torch to start it. I start with the door open a few inches to get a draft going, and have the air controller all the way open, then I shut the door and eventually ease it down to half-closed, mostly closed, even fully closed. Works like charm.

Thing is, I end up raking coals and adding splits/logs all night. I've read lots of posts on here where guys say they pack it full as they can (quote: "If I could put the stove on its back and pour the wood in, I would"). So I thought yeah, let's do that.


First time out it was fine because the stove was already somewhat warm, and I was conservative with how much I put in. Tonight, however, I filled the stove floor-to-ceiling (again, N/S orientation) and left-to-right, though I still left an inch or so in the front and back to allow clearance for the air intake at the front, and the tube at the back.

So I'm looking at this wall of wood in a cold stove and have no idea how to get it lit fast. I jammed some fat sticks in some of the holes, as well as some paper. I torched the crap out of it to get it going, but when I went outside it was pouring out smoke, and the temps on both the stove and the flue pipe were all cold. I don't want to be that neighbor, or accumulate creosote by running a cool stove, so I opened the glass door and blew on the fire to get her going. And that worked, BUT.....

👉👉👉 ....after about 10 mins when I went outside to see what was coming out of the chimney, there were glowing red embers rising up and sparking against the mesh of the spark arrestor, some crackling noises, and a faint red glow reflecting off the underneath of the metal chimney cap (it was dark out, so it looked pretty dramatic). Further, when I took temp readings with the infrared gun, the exterior pipe was up over 400ºF where it's usually about 200-250ºF (it's about 40-45ºF outside right now), and the flue pipe right where it comes off the stove maxed the thermo-gun out (OL=over the limit) where it's usually 500-600ºF.

This scared the chit out of me, so I closed the glass door, and immediately when I did the embers, sparks, etc all stopped and the pipe temps went back down to normal.

So what I'm thinking must've happened is that the open door created such a strong draft that it pulled gases, flames and sparks up into the flue pipe. I doubt that I had an actual fire going in the pipe, but either way, not a good thing.... and we are definitely not doing that BS again.


Right now the fire's going great. The air controller is nearly closed (but not fully), giving it enough air to burn at a steady pace, but not at such a low burn that it smolders. The stove-top temp seems to be maintaining right around 500-550ºF.

So my question is: How would you suggest I start a fire in my fully-loaded cold stove so that it warms up quickly, doesn't pour billows of thick grey smoke into the neighborhood, but also doesn't overfire? When it's packed in like that there isn't enough room to do the top-down method, so I'm kinda stumped.

I'm thinking for starters that I have to close that glass door, and only rely on the air intake. In fact, there's a classic video from Environment Canada that shows the lady lighting a top-down fire on my model of stove, and she pretty immediately closes the door. But then what about all the smoke? Is that just something to be expected in the first 10-20 minutes of getting her going?

Really appreciate your help on this one.

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the open door created such a strong draft that it pulled gases, flames and sparks up into the flue pipe
You nailed it.

How would you suggest I start a fire in my fully-loaded cold stove so that it warms up quickly,
You don't. Of course, with that method, there isn't enough room for a top down.
Do your normal top down, with an attended door gapped open for the first couple minutes. This will establish your base fire while quickly heating the flue.

After your base fire is goin good, add the rest of your splits and slow the air intake. Most will only load a stove to the gills for long burn times on cold days/nights.
 
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I can never get the firebox as packed on a cold start. If I’m looking to do a dense pack, I’ll start a small fire first and let it burn down to embers, then load up the stove as much as I want.

Also, while the top down method works, it’s not my favorite. I feel like it focuses too much fire energy straight up the stove pipe/chimney.

I usually do the sleeper method. Starting with two N/S splits, placed about 6” apart with paper in between. Then kindling on top of the paper, and more splits on top of that. All wood loaded N/S except the kindling.
 
I know I'm in a minority here but I never do top down. On a full load it just drags everything out way too long until I can fully turn the air down. I don't have the same stove but a similar one, the PE T5. My recommendation is don't keep the door open at all during start up, use more kindling and a firestarter never hurts, like a chunk of super cedar or something similar. I make my own out of chainsaw chips, egg cartons and wax.

I've had a similar chimney fire in mine with a full load of honey locust. It wasn't due to creosote igniting but rather when that load took off, flames basically just shot up my chimney and I saw the same type of orange ball in the chimney that you did. I cut the air all the way down, saw a big plume of smoke puff out, and it was done.

Basically you either are going to have to deal with the smoke pouring out more at a cold start up with a full load or you gotta start smaller then reload the full load onto a hotter bed of coals. Sometimes when i get home from work I'll have enough coal to relight a small fire onto it at say 4:30 or 5pm. I'll keep it small because I don't need a ton of heat at that time but more so I just need a good bed of coals to light my overnight burn at 9:30-10pm, because I hate starting a full load with a cold stove.
 
You are trying to "reengineer" the top down by stuffing the holes and adding starters to low. Good airflow is the key to fast starts. Stay with true Top down just light the Top. When u light below the top after you light the top it snuffs out the top flames. This is where people get it wrong. They can't let go of the bottom up mentality so they light the middle or worse the bottom and top. Your set up should look similar to this.

 
Hmmm. Lots to think about here. What I'm hearing more than anything else is:
  1. If I do use the top-down method (which some do, others don't) it obviously isn't gonna work with a packed stove.
  2. Do a smaller fire first to get the stove warm, then pack in after that.
  3. If the door is open to get it started, it's only a gap and for a short period of time.
 
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I just figure on cold starts or reloads I’m going to get some heavy smoke out of the chimney for about 15 minutes. After that it’s smoke free. Better off that most of my neighbors who have smoke coming out whenever the stove is running.

Also I almost never start or reload with the door cracked. It takes off way too fast on me. I have my Auber alarm set to go off, but if the door is cracked the flue temp will have shot up a couple hundred degrees by the time I get to the door to close it.
 
I'll share my perspective on this for you to consider. Been building fires in wood stoves and fireplaces for over 50 years now and have used a woodstove as primary heat for the past 21.

I never fully load a cold stove. Aim is to get a brisk hot fire going quickly and warm up the stove and flue, get a good draft established. So I usually just lay down a little birch bark or crumpled newspaper, 4-5 pieces of kindling, and 3-4 small splits. If the wood is dry (that's key!) there's usually no need to open the door, just have the air intake and damper open.

It'll produce visible smoke for a few minutes until things heat up. Once the fire is well established, 15-30 minutes or so typically, I'll load in some bigger splits. When those are burning and the stovetop temperature reaches 450-500, I close the damper and turn the air intake down 2/3. My Encore will stabilize at about 600 degrees STT.

These days I don't cram the firebox full of wood, even before bed. The key to having embers in the morning is putting some nice fat splits of dense hardwood like oak in there before turning in. And having the damper closed and air inlet dialed down appropriately, of course!

I used to sometimes experiment with fully loading the box but it's easy to overfire that way, especially if your wood is very dry, and also to overheat the house.

As far as top-down, I know a lot of people here like that method and more power to them but I'll stick with what works for me. Heat rises, so igniting a fire at the bottom quickly heats up the fuel above it and before long everything's aflame (if dry!).

Just my 2 cents. Enjoy your stove! I'm sure as you gain experience and familiarity with your particular setup you'll come up with a system that works for you.
 
Hey guys. Appreciate all the insights here. Unsurprisingly, lots of different ways to skin a cat, but some consistency on things NOT to do that I think will be valuable. Thanks for your in-depth responses.
 
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Hmmm. Lots to think about here. What I'm hearing more than anything else is:
  1. If I do use the top-down method (which some do, others don't) it obviously isn't gonna work with a packed stove.
  2. Do a smaller fire first to get the stove warm, then pack in after that.
  3. If the door is open to get it started, it's only a gap and for a short period of time.
It's a learning experience. We've all been there, even the "pros". Your summary is correct. When starting the fire, leave the door slightly ajar, I leave the latch on the hasp, but not clamped down. Then, stay with the fire! It is so easy to get distracted during this time of waiting for the fire to build up strength. In the least, set a persistent timer to 5 or 10 minutes. A cellphone is good for this. Or, get a digital flue thermometer with an alarm and set the alarm to around 800 or 900º. That has saved my bacon more than once as I get distracted posting here!
 
Welcome to the forums!

My goal from a cold start is to work on the coal bed first. Paper, kindling, then smaller uglies, then add bigger splits.

I also have been known to use Super Cedars, when I don't have a lot of time to get the coal bed going.

It's a learning curve, for sure!
 
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Hmmm. Lots to think about here. What I'm hearing more than anything else is:
  1. If I do use the top-down method (which some do, others don't) it obviously isn't gonna work with a packed stove.
  2. Do a smaller fire first to get the stove warm, then pack in after that.
  3. If the door is open to get it started, it's only a gap and for a short period of time.
Not really.
1. You can clearly see from the youtube that packing the stove (to a certain point) With Air Gaps works and for me is preferred.
2. No need for just a smaller fire first. The smaller fire is on top of the log splits with the top down.
3. My stove lets me close the door almost immediately. Yours could be different. And Yes it's open for as short as possible.

Keep trying, the light bulb will go on if you do.
 
tried top down this season,not really impressed but that's me could work for you.
Yeah some guys here can't seem to do it well. Has to be your stove set up. I've done it so many times in different style woodstoves and open firepits too. Always been far superior for me vs smoke laden bottom up.

I wish i lived near u to try it in your set up to see what the issue is.
 
I get less Smoke with top down. If you think about it, with a bottom up you are heating the stuff above to a point where it smokes first before it ignites. The top down there is noting above to heat to the smoke point, and as the embers fall through and heat the wood below, there is fire above to burn off the smoke as it rises.
Like Begreen, I close the door but do not clamp down on the handle. The draw from around the edge of the door eliminates smoke into the room. And yes, getting distracted with the door not fully shut can lead to an overfire quickly. I was lucky and caught it in time but I could have easily burned off the entire load with it open.
 
I do full load cold starts all the time. No top down kindling needed, I just pack the splits in and set a fire starter in the middle front of the load and close the door with the air set on high. This method may be more effective with N/S loaders than E/W loaders due to the way the primary air hits the load.
 
I tried top down a few years ago and my flue didn't get up to temp any sooner than using the traditional method. Either way, I don't pack a cold stove. My goal for a cold start fire to heat the flue quickly and get a hot bed of coals to build the bigger sustained fire going. I use a little newspaper, kindling and smaller hot burning splits like birch or cedar to get it hot fast. I leave the door cracked which gets up stack up to a temp within about 10 minutes. It's a small fire, so I really let it rip. As soon as it starts to break down to coals, then I load the bigger stuff and close the door as soon as it ignites. I can usually shut the air down within a few minutes and then I have a nice hours long fire going.
 
I tried top down a few years ago and my flue didn't get up to temp any sooner than using the traditional method. Either way, I don't pack a cold stove. My goal for a cold start fire to heat the flue quickly and get a hot bed of coals to build the bigger sustained fire going. I use a little newspaper, kindling and smaller hot burning splits like birch or cedar to get it hot fast. I leave the door cracked which gets up stack up to a temp within about 10 minutes. It's a small fire, so I really let it rip. As soon as it starts to break down to coals, then I load the bigger stuff and close the door as soon as it ignites. I can usually shut the air down within a few minutes and then I have a nice hours long fire going.
If you set up the top down right there is no need for your 2 step process.
I do it every day in 1 step no problem.
And that's without fire starters or newspaper.
 
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I'm in the learning curve of my new Drolet escape 1800 stove but here is my 2 cents.

On cold starts and even some reloads you have to expect some smoke to happen.
I found that the stove burns its cleanest when it's fully heated to a good operating temp. This means getting it all going as fast as you can, safely. But even on a reload with a hot stove you will still get some smoke until the splits get going. I have the convenience of being only a few steps away from seeing my chimney top so I am learning in real time what does and doesn't cause smoke for me.

Every stove and situation is unique to itself so you need to learn from what you are doing be it a good thing or bad thing. My set up has a very low draft so I run my stove completely different, but the basics are the same.

From what you described in your OP sounds like you are figuring things out. (ie...how strong your draft, when to start closing off air supply, etc)

Hope this helps

ps. the answers and techniques are all over the place because everyone's set up is different
 
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Every cold start I do is top down. Works best for me. Stove is usually hot enough to have secondaries firing in 10-15 minutes. Then depending on how hot and long I want the stove to burn determines the way I load the stove next. A lot has to do with wood quality. Trying to restart with a small coal bed and a cool box packed N/S requires good dry wood. Anytime you start a fire there is going to be smoke. I leave the door closed but not latched on cold starts let the draft pull the door closed same with reloads if its basically a cold box. Fatwood also smokes like a choo choo train.
 
Oooh, I like top down threads. Just stumbled on this one. The bee’s knees.
To compliment bigealta’s video post, I’ll show a smaller version. He has his box packed to the burn tubes. Sometimes I do, mostly I don’t fill mine that full. I used to keep a can of small twigs and splinters to start the fire, and I still do like to keep some real fat wood in a metal tin for certain circumstances, but for the most part my kindling box is full of pine splits. I take some pine logs every so often and cut a couple in half, and spend 5 minutes with the splitter and fill the box with kindling ranging from 1/2”x1/4” to 1”x1-1/2” all about 8” long.

I place a few splits in, and make a jumbled mess of the small pine starters. Smaller in top, larger on the bottom.

This video is time lapsed. I think the video was about 1.5-1.75 hrs in real time compressed into 5 minutes. Even though the video stops about 1.5 or so hrs into the burn, the reload on this was probably 3 hours or better after start up.

This one ran pretty good. Reached bout 635 on the Auber. The kindling died about the same time the bottom splits really got going, which let the temps settle 150 degrees and it hovered around 400-450 until the bottom started to coal up.

 
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