Letter Re: Wood Stove Selection, Operation, and Safety

You’ve had two good letters on woodstoves recently. I’d like to add a few thoughts based of heating and cooking with wood for a couple of decades in the Colorado mountains. I have never been more contented than when there’s a blizzard raging outside and I’m inside next to a nice warm woodstove. That being said, woodstoves and chainsaws account for the vast majority of domestic emergencies in many rural areas and a constant source of amusement for EMTs.

As has been written, the importance of a properly installed chimney cannot overemphasized. Do get a quote for a good professionally installed chimney and then source the woodstove based on how much money you have left, not the other way around. A semi-okay chimney may not be a problem for years, but eventually that rafter up in the ceiling crawl space that’s been getting too warm all those years will eventually cook off one cold winter night when the woodstove is nice and hot. Also get the chimney top nice and high and serviceable. Downdrafts will occur even if they are built to the 2’/10′ rule if you have a higher addition near by and the wind is in the right direction. Smoke will also condense on the chimney top spark arrester and clog it up so figure out a way to brush that clean in a safe way. Best to do that as regular maintenance and not in the middle of the night when you find your chimney won’t draw and the room is filling with smoke. Lightning will also find the chimney one day. Get a lightning rod installed before you’re hit. Do attach a magnetic chimney pyrometer to the chimney. It will tell you how the stove is doing by just glancing at the meter and will also alert you if things are getting too hot. My house did survive my youthful learning curve, but only just. Hopefully, some of your readers will profit from my experiences.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the area around the stove. I’ve seen red hot coals from resinous pine fly through a small slot in the air intake and all the way across the room. You’ll never get a good night sleep if you just have a small fireproof pad around your stove. Woodstoves and carpet don’t mix well. If nothing else the dirt tracked in from carrying wood will drive the wife crazy. If you do have carpet, pull it up and put down tile or stone flooring. If you have a modern springy framed plywood floor, a couple of layers of 1/4″ plywood glued and screwed in alternating directions to the existing ply will stiffen it enough for tile.

Also, the wall behind the stove is equally important. Unless you’re several feet away from a framed wall do something like this:
Cover the wall behind the stove with fire stop drywall a couple of feet above the top of the stove (or chimney if it exits through the wall). Install a steel lintel at floor level using large bolts screwed into the studs. Leave an inch air gap between the lintel and drywall using spacers. Lay up a brick wall on the lintel and tile over that. The air gap behind the brick wall allows a cooling draft. The brick also provides a good source of thermal mass which leads to a final point.

There’s nothing much worse than getting out of a warm bed in the morning to start up a cold, dead woodstove. The stove that I owned when I lived in Colorado was made of Soapstone by a company in Woodstock, Vermont. They aren’t cheap to buy but they are worth ever cent they cost. Once that stone gets warm, it stays warm for hours, even if the stove runs out of wood. I used to load my stove in the evening with whatever wood I had, generally pine, aspen or even hem/fir framing offcuts, not oak or hickory by any means and yet that great little stove heated the entire second floor of my house and the stove was still toasty warm well into the next day. Although I had been told this, I still was amazed at how a small properly built stove could heat such a large space and still not cook me out of the room it was in.

I cannot recommend highly enough the use of thermal mass over cast iron in a stove. There are other manufacturers of soapstone woodstoves but if and when I move back to a cold climate, I’ll be getting another Woodstock Soapstone Stove. Thanks again for the interesting blog. – LRM, Perth, Western Australia