This Is What You Need To Know About a Wood Stove

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OP Readers, we’re going to cover some basics pertaining to wood stoves (aka “wood burners”) and some facts about the fuel you’ll use in them. As with everything to do with the human race, there’s always controversy about wood stoves, from the number of pollutants discharged into the air to ever-present regulations.

What’s the best wood for your wood stove?

If you’re cutting your own supply of wood, you’ll want to take either dead standing or fallen dead timber. Contrary to popular misconception, taking these will help prevent fires, as well as preserve the live trees. Anyone familiar with fire-season states (Montana is one of them) knows that the removal of some of the live trees helps to create firebreaks. These are strips of cleared land that help to prevent forest fires from spreading.

As far as pollutants are concerned, large cities, such as Los Angeles and New York, throw millions of tons of pollutants into the air from auto traffic and industry. All of the wood stoves combined in the United States do not even constitute a fraction of a percentage point compared to industry and vehicular traffic.

When the power disappears, and the ruling regime sprouts fangs, your only recourse for heat, hot water, and cooking your food may very well be the wood stove. It’s a “prepper”/survival issue and also one of common sense. It’s one thing to grasp the concept and another thing to employ it.

So, as a rule, most will recommend burning hardwoods (such as oak) and only starting a fire with softwoods (like pine). If you live in one of the western states, you’ll find this is next to impossible, as pine is the wood that is readily available.

British Thermal Units, or BTUs, are used to categorize wood heat. The BTU factor utilized is with the burning of a cord of wood as per the type. An article entitled 16 Best Firewood to Burn Charts by Chris Hunt delves into some types of wood and more information regarding grades and BTUs.

Bottom Line: You’ll burn what is available and what you can afford or cut on your own.

Here are a few tips to help you make even better wood selections for your wood stove:

That’s the practical end of the measuring stick. The most important factors regarding the wood you select are simple, and you can keep these basic precepts in mind:

  1. Never use rotting or molded wood. This will place substances such as molds and bacteria into the air for you to breathe. If you don’t want to breathe it, then don’t burn it.
  2. Ensure your wood is cured properly. This requires a 6- to 8-month waiting period if you’re cutting live trees. Curing allows for the wood to dry out, and it takes the humidity out of the burn, allowing your fire to be more efficient and produce more heat.
  3. Allow for airflow and safeguard against moisture when storing wood. This is simple. You don’t have to build a structure, although a woodshed is optimal. Don’t pile it up on the ground. Try and keep it off the ground, and stack your cut logs with the ends running in the same direction and stacked horizontally. With airspace between the logs, it allows for faster drying after the stack takes a heavy rain. That being said, the shed is best.

What do you need to know about wood stove maintenance?

wood stove

Wood stove maintenance is one of the most sorely-overlooked areas, and it’s a major factor in both the efficiency of your fires and the safety of your home. One of the overlooked areas is the firebricks. These bricks are what your logs rest upon, and they need to be intact and without any cracks. This allows for banking of the fire at night and increased efficiency to prevent heat loss and enable maximum output of the fuel.

Another “biggie” is keeping that chimney clean. Those that have a brick chimney with a wood stove nestled within the fireplace can still self-clean their stove pipe. When you live in the “sticks” the way I do, you have to do it on your own. There are square and round brushes to “rout out” your stove pipe, and you can pick up Fiberglass rods to push/pull your brush through the pipe.

Rutland makes brushes and Fiberglass rods. They’re your “biggie” firm for wood stove cleaning products. Schaeffer makes cheaper brushes (same quality) that are interchangeable with the rods. You need to make sure that you have brushes that are designed for the diameter/area of your pipe/chimney, either round or square brushes, respectively.

The fit is necessary for proper friction. The shorter your house height, the easier it will be for you. This is the optimal way for a straight stove pipe with no bends or angles. Most of your fires are due to either a creosote buildup due to lack of cleaning, an angled bend in the pipe, or both. The fire is no laughing matter. A friend of mine had a couple of ninety-degree-angle bends to his pipe, and his chimney fire burned the whole roof of his house…total loss.

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You need to know a thing or two about creosote.

Creosote is a black substance, almost like tar, that forms and builds up in your chimney from burning wood fires. It accumulates because all of the smoke doesn’t leave the chimney. There are (technically) three stages of creosote buildup.

Stage 1 is the beginning phase, with dusty or greasy soot akin to a thick powder. Stage 2 is when it congeals and forms more, like a combination of flakes and tar, needing more work to remove. Stage 3 looks just like tar, and this phase is really dangerous, causing a lot of fires.

The creosote closes or shrinks the diameter of the pipe, and this restricts the amount of smoke and heat allowed to pass through your pipe/chimney. If your pipe reaches Stage 3, then you’re way behind the power curve. I highly recommend that if you’re emplacing your wood stove, make a hole in the roof that allows you to run a straight stove pipe with no bends. Just by doing this, you remove factors that contribute significantly to chimney/stove pipe fires.

That being mentioned, it’s best to run the brush through the pipe in the spring, after the winter is over. For the in-between, you can use fire logs (Rutland makes these) that are specifically designed to burn creosote in your chimney. They don’t cost very much, and I find it’s helpful to burn one in the wood stove every month during the winter.

If you have a cabin, your best bet is to locate the wood stove centrally in your abode. This will allow that baby to heat up all of your home quite efficiently and quickly. Good tip: keep a pot full of water on top of the stove, and this will keep the air moist as it boils off so that you won’t feel like a desiccated mummy or a piece of beef jerky at the end of the night. A good stove will quickly dry out the air, and this measure will prevent that, as well as provide you with hot water for instant coffee anytime you wish it.

Banking a fire with the wood stove is simple.

When your fire is down to embers, place a nice big log piece that takes up about two-thirds of the stove’s interior over top of those embers. Help the log out with a couple of “spacers,” – small pieces of wood jammed under the log to give a little bit of space between the edge/outside of the log and the embers. This will help airflow and allow the embers to do their thing, igniting the outside of the log. You can aid it by giving it a little air (with the lungs or with bellows) until the exterior starts to take. Then close your door(s), and let the log do its job.

There’s no hard and fast rule to this, and you’ll eventually develop a “feel” for it. You can use this at night, before you go to bed, or before you leave home so that the fire will continue until you return. Always have supplies of fire starting material, tinder, and kindling, along with your wood supply.

Another thing you’ll want to practice is making food on your wood stove.

wood stove

This is where a good Dutch oven is indispensable. You want the kind with the flat bottom, a nice four or five-quart one at a minimum, depending on how many mouths you’ll be feeding. You can start out with a whole bunch of vegetables, such as carrots, celery, onions, potatoes…whatever you prefer, along with some meat. Season it down. Leave in the morning with the Dutch oven covered and the fire banked with a big log. Come back in the afternoon/evening, and dinner will be waiting.

Take notes. Really, take notes. Keep records of your times to cook something and how much food you made. Eventually, it’ll become second nature, but it’s not just for you. How about for the other members of your family? You’ll want them to be able to duplicate what you’ve done. The notes will also come in handy when you have to can food and have large quantities that need to be cooked beforehand.

The wood stove can be far more than just a conversation piece.

It can be an integral and indeed, crucial piece of equipment that enables you to make it through where others either struggle or fail completely. Keeping it well-maintained and knowing how to maximize its potential are the keys to success for you. We welcome your comments and for you to share your own experiences with wood stoves, knowing that, in the end, the procedures that work best are specific to you. You’ll find them out on your own, and then you’ll be able to recommend them to others, as well. J. J. out!

Do you use a wood stove? Do you have any stories or tips to share with us? Tell us your experiences with wood stoves in the comments.

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About Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson is the nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the U.S. Army Special Forces.  Mr. Johnson is also a Gunsmith and a Master Herbalist.  He graduated from the Special Forces course at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) School, and is an expert in small unit tactics, survival, and disaster-preparedness.  He lives in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana. 


Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson is the nom de plume of a retired Green Beret of the U.S. Army Special Forces.  Mr. Johnson is also a Gunsmith and a Master Herbalist.  He graduated from the Special Forces course at SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) School, and is an expert in small unit tactics, survival, and disaster-preparedness.  He lives in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains of Western Montana.

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  • My folks heated eith wood when I was a kid. Once every week or two my dad would get a good bed of coals and put a handfull of rocksalt on it to dry out the creosote in the chimeny so it would dry out and peel, like old paint. One of my jobs was to run the brush up and down ther stove pipe once s month, then shovel out the ash snd flakes. We would collect it in tubs and spread over garden beds before we tilled it in.

  • Daisy,
    One book that I found that has a TON of useful and hard-to-find information about self-sufficiency in regards to wood fuel is the long out-of-print classic “One Man’s Forest” by Stephen P. Rockwell. You can find the book on EBay and here is a link to a site that has it, although I’ve never purchased from there:
    If you can lay your hands on a good copy, you’ll never regret it. It’s just too bad that you can’t find it in an e-book version.

    Off-topic – I shared one of your articles on a social media site called SafeChat. You’ll find a lot of like-minded people there. I’m pretty sure you’d find a wide audience there.

  • Get the right size wood stove!! Don’t think that you can get a big one and operate it at a lower temperature so you don’t overheat the house. This only promotes creosote in the flue pipe. Keep the flue pipe as short as possible and as vertical as possible. Use a triple wall pipe if you go through a ceiling or roof.

  • I have the smallest model stove that Lopi makes and use it for heat even though I live in town – typical winter temps are 38° day and 10° night. Forced air freezes me to death – as soon as it kicks off, it’s cold again, but wood heat permeates everything – floors, walls – nothing is really cold which is the best part to me. I burn about 2 1/2 cords of premium pine over a normal winter and get the stove pipe cleaned annually. Since the stove is small it doesn’t take any finesse to have a fire as the damper is wide open 80% of the time. This helps keep creosote to a minimum and I think is a trade off with a bigger stove needing to be dampered down to keep from overheating my 1100 sf house. The fire does burn down overnight, but I’m lazy and just let the furnace come on if it gets colder than 58! The extent of my cooking on it is keeping a kettle of water going to add humidity.

  • First thing we did when we bought this house was remove the old insert and replace the pipe. The previous owner burned all kinds of no-no’s (like Styrofoam meat trays, painted wood, newspaper slicks) and cracked the chimney lining. We dealt with creosote “chunks” post cleaning for a short amount of time.Quite the fire hazard and a novice wood burner would likely had a house fire. Matter of fact we found evidence of an almost disaster.
    Cleaning the pipe on a regular basis is a must. But you can’t beat wood heat and for those who heat with natural gas/propane/electric (yikes), the wood stove is a huge money saver. Just ensure your plumbing pipes are insulated and aren’t allowed to freeze. We do run the furnace every day to ensure no frozen pipes.

  • Having heated two homes with firewood for more than 50 years – I believe I can speak from experience.
    First you missed one wood – black walnut – that rates higher in heat output than 2/3 of those listed.
    And while I prefer black locust, the odor of the smoke can be rather obnoxious.
    In our region popular woods are tamarack, pines (careful these really produce creosote) but we have few available hardwoods.
    All that aside, there are other fuels that can work well in wood stoves. The black walnuts themselves, once they are dried, produce a tremendous amount of heat. Again be careful as they burn real hot and the temptation to stoke up a fire with them can result in dangerous situations… use sparingly!
    Also other nuts and seeds if you can find quantities work well but again, use them sparingly as most also tend to burn hot.
    Suggestion: A small fan on a stand set up properly, will distribute heat if your fireplace does not have a built in fan.
    A word about creosote, as this is a major concern. Burning rolled up newsprint with a couple tablespoons of TSP added (rolled into the paper) over a low fire helps alleviate the buildup of creosote. If you read the label on chimney cleaning logs you will find the main ingredient is TSP. Doing this every couple weeks (or so) will keep you off the roof for most of a season.
    In our area a box of TSP (not the fake stuff) is about the same price as a couple of the logs.
    Having owned/tried several fireplaces, I’ve found is the newer (EPA approved*) ones are generally less efficient if they are operated as per instructions.
    *In my state (the Peoples Republic of Washington) these are the only type available.
    Wood stacking, seasoning and storage also have issues. Insects like ants, spiders wasps and yellow jackets need consideration. Bringing too much wood into the home (wood box) can result in these critters crawling or buzzing around the house.
    Suggestion: When you are not using the fireplace to cook or heat water, place a couple sizeable rocks on top (at night). When the fire burns low, the heat absorbed by the rocks will dissipate gradually, extending the warmth.
    About the chimney, I highly recommend a double (or even triple) wall pipe. Having been on a fire department for 24 years, I saw quite a number of chimney fires. These can be quite scary and dangerous but, I never saw one that got out of hand with triple wall pipe. And when they are over the pipe is clean.
    There are now fire extinguishers designed for chimney fires. I’ve never had the occasion to use one but, having one and not needing it is better than needing one and not having. Any “A” rated fire extinguisher is a good idea.
    Final thought: It is best to buy or procure wood as close to your home as possible. That way you are not taking a chance of importing insects, diseases or other problems.

  • We upgraded to a cast iron wood stove this year, over the plate steel one.
    This one has more controls for airflow, a purpose built cook top, and I got the optional grilling insert. I also got the catalytic element to improve efficiency.

    One thing about wood stoves or furnaces, you learn real quick how to light a fire with limited access, or a small fire box. I have found using a modified lean to like method works well.
    Things that help start a fire fast, brown paper grocery bags, unlaminated (or untreated with chemicals) cardboard boxes, and the wife makes fire starters using cardboard egg cartons, dryer lint, and spent candle wax. Makes the house smell good too.
    Small sticks, branches that have been well dried.

    We start getting cord wood as early in the season as possible. Usually May, but sometimes April. We have a meter that measures the moisture in the wood. I have heard a few different things on moisture levels. Some say to get it as dry as possible. The current users manual to the new stove says less than 20%, but no lower than 15%. Right now, most of the wood in the wood shed is around 15-16%, with a few larger logs at 20% or greater. We still have a few months for them to continue to dry out.

    I have tried cooking on the old stove once. Made mac and cheese, one pot style. It turned out well.
    This year, I may try a few other things on the new stove.

    • Could you suggest a brand to look for? A small wood stove is the one most important item on my list of ‘must haves’ but I dont know much about them. At this point, I dont even have my cabin built but it certainly wont be more than approximately 600 square feet

      • Hello Alex,
        Take a look at Vermont Castings and Regency wood stoves.
        Our recent purchase was the Vermont Castings Dauntless.
        Their smaller Aspen might be what you are looking for.

        I hope others can chime in.

      • Vermont Castings, all the way. I have the older Vigilant model. Like firstmarinejarhead, I too got rid of the steel stove and went to cast iron.

        I found mine on CL four years ago for free. A couple bought a house and the woman didn’t want the wood stove, she wanted a new lp gas log stove.

      • I’ve had a Jotul for years and have been very pleased with it. I have a VC in the guest house. They’re both high quality stoves. Another suggestion is to maintenance the seals between the perimeter of the door as it closes onto the body of the stove. I replaced mine several years ago and will do so soon too.

  • We currently have a propane fireplace that we installed upon buying our house. The reasoning at the time was, we worked quite far from home and were gone a minimum of 14 hours a day. But, now I’m not working and can look after a fire. We bought an old wood cookstove that needs a whole lot of tlc, but we’re hoping to replace the propane one with that, which would nicely double for cooking on. The other thing we’ve considered, although the house isn’t really the right shape/size for one, is a rocket mass heater.
    One thing not mentioned is….have a bunch of fire extinguishers easily accessible and know how to use them!

  • An interesting tidbit.
    As heating costs go up, more and more jurisdictions are banning wood stoves.
    Go figure.

  • What else do you need to know? How much TIME is involved in getting, curing, cutting, stacking, moving that wood……and that’s before you get the fire started which requires monitoring….and more wood. It’s mind boggling if, like me, you’d never even had a fireplace before. Now, I’d never have a home without one!

    • Neighbor down the road will have a load of seasoned, raw logs delivered to his home in May.
      Then that weekend, he has family and friends over. 3-4 guys blocking up the logs. 2 people running a big pull behind log splitter. Then, they stack the pile. All done in one day. It is a small single wide, so it is only 4-5 face cords.
      SHTF, what I am saving fuel for is the chainsaws.

  • All the Left Coast states are trying to ban/phase out wood burning stoves. Another reason we’re escaping WA.

  • Most new steel or cast iron wood stoves, have a fairly good efficiency for burning wood in the 75 to 80% range. That means most or the smoke is burned before exiting the chimney. That doesn’t mean that 75 to 80% of the hear is captured before the exhaust leaves the chimney. These types of stoves have a lower overall level of efficiency. If you want great efficiency of burn and great efficiency of heat capture, you will want a rocket mass heater system, or a masonry heater that has a highly efficient burn with a highly efficient heat capture, so that flue gasses leaving the chimney are about 150 deg. That means most of the heat is captured and released over time into the heated massof the heater and then into the dwelling, rather than exiting up the flue as a normal wood burner does.

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