How To Safely Heat With Wood, by W.S.

Let’s talk about how to safely heat with wood. I’ve been in the alternative heating business for more than 15 years. During that time, I’ve put heaters in remote tiny houses, large cabins, barns, and even a geodome!

Winter is Coming – Plan Now

Winter is coming. Please plan now, if you are not ready or if you need to make some revisions to your heating configuration. This year, most of the country was hammered with harsh winter storms. Make sure to plan now.

The Wood Stove

Just as the foundation of a home is what everything is built on, the same goes for the wood stove you are heating with. Choose a quality heater and the reward will be years of reliable off-grid heat with little maintenance.

Most freestanding heaters do not require electricity to heat a home sufficiently. Additionally, they can serve as your back up cooking surface as well. I highly recommend looking at a quality, used heater instead of buying an inexpensive one online, if you are needing to save money.

Purchase a stove with a long burn time. Most of the cheap, “made in China” heaters won’t be a good choice. You don’t want to be constantly tending to the firebox for reloading, and you certainly don’t need to waste firewood. The heater in my off grid cabin has a large firebox with more than an 8-hour burn time.

I made the mistake in the beginning of having a heater with a smaller firebox and it would not last through the night, which meant I woke up to a cold cabin a few too many nights. My new stove is a little larger than I need at the moment. However, I plan on adding to the overall footprint of the cabin soon, so keep that in mind if you plan on doing the same thing eventually.

Hearth Mat

Make sure the stove is sitting on a non combustible-surface or hearth mat for ember protection. It also serves as a radiant heat barrier. A good rule of thumb I often mention is that the hearth or floor protection should at least extend out the same as the front or side doors on the unit to protect in case hot embers fall from the loading door while fully opened.

You can use concrete backer board on a wall to reduce heat. However, just remember to keep an airspace to break the heat from radiating through to the wall you are trying to protect. If your wall or mantle feel too hot when the heater is running, then you need to somehow protect the surface from the heat or gain more clearance from the heater.

Cooking on Your Heater

Cast iron pots and pans are perfect for cooking on your heater as well. So, you’ll want to make sure to have an assortment of those ready for cooking on your wood stove.

Stove Piping

Single wall black stove pipe requires at least 18 inches of clearance to combustibles (wood or drywall). Stainless steel Insulated chimney pipe systems require only two inches of clearances. All these insulated Class A chimney systems should have at least a 304 Stainless steel inside pipe.

Chimney Configuration

The optimal chimney configuration is straight up vertical venting. Smoke wants to rise and not travel through several sets of elbows. Elbows can also cause premature build up and make the pipe harder to sweep and clean out. I love to get the question, “Can we just run the pipe out the window and through some metal?” to which I reply, “YOU can, but I won’t be able to do the install!”.

Remember that smoke wants to go up. Wall penetrations for insulated pipe is just fine, but make sure to watch your clearances to combustibles and only use factory-tested and approved components and also use all the insulated pipe components recommended. Sheet metal can be used as a heat barrier and provide airspace to reduce the amount of heat directed towards combustibles.

When the power goes out we will all be seeing some very unsafe chimney configurations get thrown together quickly to provide heat during hard times. Plan now and do it right. A rusty old heater might have lots of life still in it, but take the time to vent it properly.

Roof Sealants

I recommend several roof sealants to seal out the elements. NP1, geocel, and Lexel are solid choices. Some roof sealants can even be purchased in pint containers and applied with a brush or roller. Tar-based roof sealer is not acceptable. It ruins everything it touches and doesn’t last long. If it ever leaks, once the tar fails you, cannot start over again. Instead, you have to just put more roof tar over what’s there. Don’t do it.


Put back several cords of firewood at least six months ahead of burning season. Keep the wood covered in some type of shelter, where the wind can still air dry it, but the water stays off of it as well. Sunlight does not season firewood. Air and the movement of air is what seasons wood. Keep your wood covered. Keep your wood off the ground at least a few inches. Do not put tarps over firewood piles because they will absolutely cause that wood to rot and restrict airflow. Remember that airflow is vital. Most problems I find start with wood that is not dry.

Also, bugs and rodents love woodpiles, so do not store wood up against your house. To get a good size woodpile, you don’t need to own a splitter (and I don’t). However, you do need to plan ahead for your firewood needs.

What To Burn

I have an abundant amount of oak around my place, so that’s my favorite. I also use my leftover scrap pine from saw projects. It’s perfectly fine for starting the fire with, because it’s already kiln dried. Some places in the country do not have as much hardwood to burn, so the most important thing to remember is allowing your wood the proper time to season. Start this endeavor immediately and stay on it.

Sweep a Metal Chimney Pipe?

Do not sweep a metal chimney pipe with a metal brush! This is my biggest gripe by far. I see it all the time, and it causes damage to good chimneys.

If you are burning your stove hot enough and using seasoned wood, then you should be able to easily clean your metal flue system with a nylon or poly brush. Gunky and nasty buildup needs to be addressed and resolved before it causes major malfunction and damage. I like to run my stove a little hot a couple times a week during the winter time, in order to make sure that all the pipes are staying mostly clean and free of issues that arrive from burning the stove on low for too long.

Smoking Coming Out of Pipe Seams

If smoke is coming out of the pipe seams then you have a problem. You likely have a blockage or build up somewhere in the pipe. Do not try to seal the pipe seams with mortar or cement to fix the smoking problem. Most chimneys clog at the top/cap. When the cap begins to clog, it will lead to the whole system filling up with creosote from incomplete combustion.

I don’t have a birdscreen installed in my round top cap because I hate having to clean the creosote out of the top more than I dislike the occasional blue bird that flies in during the spring time.

Extra Things to Have On Hand for Your Wood Stove

There are some things it is good to have on hand for your wood stove. Put back some extra rope gasket and glue for your particular wood stove. It will need to be changed eventually, and you will be glad you had some replacement gasket on hand. I also like to put back a lot of matches and vacuum seal them. Extra roof sealant might not be bad to have, just in case, too.

Provide the Heater With Outside Air?

I’m asking, “Do you think I need to provide the heater with outside air?” My answer is, “Not normally”. It’s an airtight stove. It’s not an open fireplace pulling massive amounts of oxygen out of the room. Most houses have enough air for a party of people to not pass out and your wood stove as well. Most new spray foam houses I’m working with these days are being required to have an air refreshment system installed before they can pass final inspection anyways, so there is your answer to it being too tight. I’m not a fan of my ears popping just from closing an outside door.

For the Long Winter Approaching

We need to be safe and closely monitor how much heat is being transferred to unprotected surfaces. We need to start with a quality heater. Lastly, we need to have more than enough firewood put back for the long winter approaching.

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

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  1. I totally agree that purchasing a quality wood stove is more prudent than buying a new, inexpensive stove. The quality unit will provide many more years of service.

    I purchased a used Vermont Casting Defiant and have used it for forty winters and counting averaging about five cord per season.

  2. I have long been fascinated with the Russian TWIG Stove, also called Finland Twig Stove. Has been used since the late Middle Ages, and both countries have long, COLD winters. Uses TWIGS, small branches, and has a complex flue around which large mass of stone or bricks is erected and usually covered with tile. The fire heats the MASSIVE STOVE (which usually is built in one corner) and gently gives off heat. You do NOT see the flames, and the stove does NOT get so hot as to burn skin. There is on line information with pictures of how to build. There was a very old gentleman from Russia I believe who lived in Maine and sent out plans, but I believe he passed. However, there are a few in the USA who probably know how to build. These stoves are still used in the rural parts of Eastern European nations. For those unable for whatever reason to have cord wood, twigs are readily available. Usually, after every wind storm, there are trees down, and the smaller branches and twigs are ground up or burned. Much better to collect and use in a stove that keeps one warm for hours and hours and hours without adding more wood!

  3. This is the first I heard about not running a metal chimney brush down a metal chimney. I’ve owned my Country Wood stove for the last 18 years, the chimney has never accumulated much, but I’ve ran the brush down it a couple of times just for good measure. It never dawned on me that it could damage it..

    I appreciate the info..Metal Chimneys are crazy expensive.

  4. This is the first I heard about not running a metal chimney brush down a metal chimney. I’v owned my Country Wood stove for the last 18 years, the chimney has never accumulated much, but iv ran the brush down it a couple of times just for good measure.. It never dawned on me that it could damage it..

    I appreciate the info..Metal Chimneys are crazy expensive.

  5. Ok, tell which stoves are the best.
    No, really, you say buy a good stove. But, price is not a guarantee.

    What features to look for when buying a stove?

    1. Based on your location there is likely a wood stove shop with a seasoned specialist on hand. Hearthstone and Jotuls are fantastic and well worth the investment.
      They are also fairly simple to use and maintain.
      Those are my two personal favorites.
      I hope this helps.

    2. jotul 602 or 118. Look for the older models with the iron door. The newer ‘clean burn’ nonsense is much more sensitive to less-than-perfect wood, whereas the older ones will do alright even with cr**py wood. As much as we like to idealize about that perfectly stacked pile of split and cut stove wood, a reality is that we have a lot of wet wood, green wood from pruning trees, deadfall thats starting to rot, etcetera, and not always with the luxury of having enough wooded land to provide a supply of top quality wood.
      The 118 is pretty big. I heat my house with a 602. sometimes i wish i had a 118, those times, i put an extra blanket on the bed ..
      the other nice thing about the 118 is that it’ll burn wood two feet long. That’s a lot less cutting.

  6. re:
    Masonry or Metal?

    A couple years ago at a Home and Garden show at the fairgrounds, a European gent from Cottage Grove Oregon presented his stone wood-burning ‘stove’. It looked like it weighed tons.

    According to him, these were used in Scandinavia for centuries. His demo unit had a horizontal run downwind of the firebox, with a seating area or a place to dry boots.

    After all that stone stabilized at a comfy temperature, the residence or workplace stayed at a stable temperature for dozens of hours.

    The craftsmanship was exquisite, the visual impact was comforting and clean.

    I have no financial interest in his product or service. I merely offer this as one alternative to a little metal box.

    I’ll look around for his contact information.

    I was very impressed.

    He recommended an outside air source, regulated by a damper.

    1. I found his site:
      Oregon Firesides. His name is Uwe. Finnish.

      Options include ovens and cooktops, water heaters, whole-house hot-water circulation.

      And they are beautiful.

      (Because of the weight == substantial == they are probably better designed-in during new construction.)

  7. I do not agree with burning wood overnight. I have always allowed the stove to die down before going to bed. I would not sleep in a house with a wood stove stuffed with enough wood to keep it going all night. I might add that waking up to a cold cabin is no big deal. That’s what sweaters were made for. Perhaps I was toughened by growing up in a house where we never had overnight heat and the house had no insulation.

    The point is the risk of a fire is a serious enough issue to deal with when you are awake and paying attention it is deadly if you are asleep.

    1. One Guy…
      I understand your concern but I must ask, what region do you live in? I’ve lived in the interior of Alaska and now live in the No. Great Lakes and when its well below 0 with wind chill, I cant afford to have my plumbing freeze. (my house is 140+ years old). As an experienced woodstove installer, I can tell you, a quality wood burner and quality stove pipe / flue is made to fire 24/7. If your house is 40+-, yeah a sweater is fine when you get up but if its 15 or colder…not so much. Guess I’m soft

  8. When I retired from the Army, my wife and I bought an old farmhouse with some land out in the country. Inside the living room was a corn burning stove that was a POS, plain and simple. It cost us a bit, but we installed a Jotul wood burning stove (cast iron and solid as a rock) and had it vented straight up through the roof. Best money we ever spent. Great stove and we heat primarily with wood, though when the temps are mild it is a pain to keep the house from getting to hot. I am sold on Jotul stoves, so you might consider those as a good investment.

  9. As one who likes to be prepared for issues that arise at the worst of times I have laid in supplies to keep the old wood stove operational for a long time. I agree that one should have enough gasket material to re do the door seal a few times, but be sure that you have numerous tubes or small tubs of gasket cement to glue the new material in with. Why numerous containers of gasket cement? The stuff has an annoying habit of hardening after the container is opened. It cannot be rehydrated if it is water glass based. The high temp silicon doesn’t last all that long but will work. It also sets after it is opened. Sorry, but I cannot agree with not using the metal brush to clean the flue. Swabbing a good metal chimney a couple of times per year will not harm the stainless pipe. I have stainless single wall going from the stove to the insulated pipe. It cost a lot more but should be considered a bargain in the long run. Stainless pipe will withstand a lot more heat than regular steel pipe and flue fires are to be avoided at all costs.
    Another item I have prepared for future use is a repair for the glass, or mica windows that many stoves are equipped with. I suggest if you have a stove with window/windows you have a set of replacements. I also have a set that I cut to size that are 1/8 in steel plate to replace a broken door window when glass is no longer available.

  10. Great article!
    Three bits of experience after 20+ years of wood stove use:

    1. Do Not Buy recent model EPA compliant cheap steel stoves that uses a flimsy “fiberboard” baffle. It restricts smoke flow out of the woodbox combustion flue port, and clogs with ash and creosote resulting in the need to remove the stove pipe and clean the baffle: Monthly.
    $500 steel stoves are worth $hit.
    Buy a Jotul stove – they are Worth EVERY cent.

    2. Get a wood stove flue temperature Guage and use it to ensure you are burning at an optimal temperature, ie: not too cold or hot, to minimize creosote build up, and prevent stove damage.

    3. Do NOT use a stove flue heat reclaimer! No matter how careful you are with burn temperature, they present a dangerous flue “cold” spot for smoke to crystalize resulting excessive creosote to build up fast. They throw off neglectible heat and the blower makes a racket. Do Not Use.

    Be smart and safe.

  11. We are almost done building our new BOL home in the Redoubt! I have been looking for a kitchen wood stove for heat and for cooking to backup our propane stove. I have been doing a lot of research and the stove that I think will meet our needs is the Kitchen Queen stove. It has good reviews from customers, but I was wondering if any Survivalblog readers have had this stove and would recommend it.

  12. Thank you W.S. for the excellent article! I have my wood stored under a tarp and will be working on a better solution!

    I heated my first home with wood (1980 – 1981). I remember many cold mornings and a cold house upon returning from a couple of days away.

    The good Lord protected my family from my own ignorance regarding overheating that stove on more than one occasion.

  13. I have a Fisher wood stove which I have used the past 17 years. Prior to that my wife used it in her house for nine years. It was in the house when she bought it. Who knows how long it was there. Still going strong.
    To prevent the drywall behind the stove from absorbing the heat, I installed two sheets of stainless steel behind the stove. The stove is located in the cornet of the room. I attached the plates together with hinges so they are freestanding. The plates are several inches from the wall and from the stove. I ask guests to touch the plates when the stove is operating. Naturally they are reluctant to do so. When I touch it they are amazed that I don’t get burned. It reflects the heat so efficiently that it doesn’t get warm. Have a fabricator put a bend on the edges so you don’t get cut.

  14. This is not ideal but I have heated my un-insulated 1930’s cabin solely with wood for the past 8 years in heavy snow country with a marginal stove and burning soft woods mostly. I live in primarily pine/fir habitat. Consequently, it takes 5-6 cords per year as we burn from mid October through mid May.
    I live in an active logging town. Here is what some of the old saws around here taught me:

    -Never burn wet wood as this is what causes creosote build up. I try to cut next years wood and keep it in rounds over the winter to be split in the following spring/summer. That way I can still cut fresh blow downs (which is usually excellent wood, albeit heavy) and not worry about it having enough time to season.
    -Always stack rounds on their sides. Having end grain up will cause it soak up water over the winter.
    -Never let wood rest against the glass in your stove because wood expands and changes shape as it burns and could break the glass. Same goes for the roof of your firebox (which is usually fragile firebricks).
    -Check all of your fire bricks each summer and replace the broken ones. They do break after a while or when wood gets shoved into them!
    -They make a fireboard that I keep on hand (but I hate using it). In case of broken bricks you can tuck in some fireboard to cover the open spot if needed.
    -Find some fatwood in the woods and make a few buckets of good kindling. It is extremely easy to light and will burn even when wet. Better than cardboard or paper.
    -Do not use fatwood as cordwood as it will burn too hot and fast. Know how to identify pitch woods and only use as kindling.
    -Never buy a stove that uses old catalytic converter technology – the converters don’t last very long.
    -Fire is not what heats your house; coals heat your house. When starting a fresh fire, keep your stove airflow vent wide open, running hard flames until the first course of wood turns to coals. Reload with wood and shut the vent down enough to let the coals radiate heat and burn the new wood. This is the fastest way to heat your house and save wood.
    -Actually, the fastest way to heat your house is to never let it get too cold. As the walls of your house get warm their thermal mass is just as important as the stove in keeping temps comfortable and saving wood.
    -Keep an inch of ash on the bottom of your stove after cleaning. This will insulate and make the stove last longer.
    -If you burn good wood (at hot temps at least once every few days = 5-600 degrees) you should have very little chimney creosote at the years ends. I didn’t even bother to clean my chimney last year and this year it still only needed a quick brushing.
    -Keep water steaming on the stove top to create humidity during the winter.
    -In case of a flue fire quickly open the door and throw in a large cup of water and then quickly close the door (before you make a mess). The water will supposedly create enough steam to suffocate the fire. Don’t get water on hot glass or you’ll really have problems if the glass shatters!
    -If you get to the point of having a flue fire you were negligent about one or more safe burning practices in the first place. Take all necessary precautions seriously.
    -If burning all winter long and through the long nights, it would be unwise not to keep an alternate shelter of some kind (a trailer, camper, tent, shed, outbuilding, or whatever), fully stocked, and away from the house. This is in case of a house fire – you don’t want to have to evacuate in sub freezing temperatures in the middle of the night and have no shelter, nothing to eat and no way to survive while you watch all your hard earned work go up in flames. It happened to my friend once.
    -Don’t keep your wood pile too close to your house. Not only could it go up in flames, but will attract termites, mice, spiders and ants. And keep wood stored under cover and off the ground (I use pallets).
    -Cut extra wood and sell it for a premium in October to those fools who didn’t prepare when they had the time.
    This was way more long winded than I intended – sorry.

  15. There are standards and manufacturers requirements available to use instead of guesswork. Strongly recommended. Airtight doesn’t mean the room. Everything that burns needs a source of oxygen, no exceptions, this is simple physics. It’s got to come from somewhere. If you close up the intake on an airtight stove the fire will simply go out. If you leave it open as required there will be air taken from the room. If there is no source available you will soon have insufficient draft. There is real information available regarding wood stoves, and it is highly recommended that you find some.

  16. To GW in Tenns: For many years [before I could afford a nice woodshed] I used tarps over my woodpile successfully by stacking [free] wood pallets on top of the woodpile underneath the tarp, thus allowing the breezes the ventilate out the moisture. I also stacked the wood on pallets, and had pallets on the sides. Tired of plastic tarps tearing in Nov-Dec after 9 months of UV light aging, I invested in a roll of the cheapest roofing rubber I could locate. –No more tears in plastic tarps. Of course the rubber was over the pallets on top to allow ventilation. The cheapest roofing rubber is quite tough, and lasts indefinitely.

  17. I have been in many homes that have the wrong stove for either the region they live in or the size of house they live in… Too big of a stove and you wont be able to operate it at its peak efficiency because of the amount of heat it puts out in relation to the size of the house…also the location is a big factor. its always preferable to install on an inside wall, avoid installing in basements
    Also, if you live in a climate where you only have a couple of months of real winter months, it doesnt make sense to have a stove that is designed for prolonged winters… try to buy stoves manufactured in the region of the country you live in.

  18. As a journeyman woodstove installer (w/ over 2500 installs and no homes burned down) I can agree w/ most of what WS has stated but a few statements he was ‘light’ on. (my experience was over 25 years ago so some regs and codes may have changed). If you get a used name brand stove w/no owners or installation manual, most are available on line

    Re: Hearthmat / front and side clearance… there are very strict codes and requirements for such, I suggest following them and then adding an extra inch when possible.

    We’ve all seen interior stove pipe with rust running down the pipe, this is because the pipe was installed incorrectly. When installing the pipe it is female up / male down so that any moisture / gunk / creosote runs down the inside of the pipe.

    Outside air is only required in mobile homes and FYI: not all woodburning heaters are permitted in mobile homes. check your local building codes for safety sake.

    Other than those 3 things he was pretty much spot on.

    I agree with the steel brush on metal / stainless steel pipe. Use Poly on metal, steel on brick / tile.
    Keeping a few extra firebricks under the workbench or in the corner of the shed is good.
    And keeping a layer of ash on the bottom after cleaning is always good too.
    And stay away from newer EPA / Catalytic stoves, just too sensitive and costly to replace the catalytic.
    Running your pipe straight up through the ceiling / roof can be 50% or more cheaper than through a wall installation (interior pipe is much cheaper per foot than exterior stainless steel. There is galvanized that is less inexpensive but not near as durable. Your choice)

    Lastly, I prefer cast iron over steel plate, less warping / burnout. (but steel plate is easier to repair if you’re a welder). Cast is a much more gentle and constant heat. I have 3 cast iron stoves, a Vermont Castings Intrepid (small Parlor size), a medium size Jotul (can’t remember model #) and an old 1950’s Sears Roebuck small Pot Belly stove (perfect for a bedroom) it eats 2×4 ends and other clean scraps very well to take the chill off the room a few hours before bed time.
    My old install partner (who taught me the ropes) who lives in the redoubt has a Hearthstone brand stove and at night has taken the top soapstone(s) off of the stove and put it at the foot of their bed(s). Pretty good thinkin’

    1. Good note on the pipe direction and stains on pipe from being upside down.
      Also good advice on hearth size and going bigger to be extra safe.
      Good stuff.

  19. Good sensible article.

    We live in NE Pennsylvania and have used a Jotul F 500 Oslo as a our primary heat source since 2010. This stove is a little big for our cabin (1,400 sf) but I am so glade we went one step larger.

    Typically, we go through five to seven cords of wood between October to May. This year was a seven cord year while last year we used 5 1/2 cords. We buy a ‘tri-axle’ of logs (10-12 cords when processed) every other year in June/July. The load costs us between $600-$650- a year depending of distance for delivery from where the wood is being logged. Try to buy logs that were NOT dragged through the forest to the road as they get covered with dirt which leads to extra time sharpening your chainsaws chain. I also process wind blown down trees that are on our property.

    I have two top end 20″ chainsaws which I only burn non ethanol gas in. DuckDuckgo search will let you know what stations sell non ethanol gas in your AO. Some gas stations call it racing gas. We split our logs using a log splitter and of course use the same non ethanol gas to run them.

    Of the seven cords I split yearly, I split a special cord for my wife. The logs are a bit smaller and make it easier for her to handle when I am not around to load the stove. This cord is stacked just a few steps from our front door on the porch. This makes the exterminator crazy if he comes by and see’s it mid winter. However, a happy wife is a happy life.

    June/July is a good time of year to have someone clean your chimney (My wife does not allow me to go on the roof anymore although I do sneak up to put up or repair a HF/VHF antenna on occasion). Our Chimney Sweep gives us a 10% discount for June/July work Vs. top dollar starting in October.

    In closing, everybody who comes to our cabin during the wood burning months love the even, warm, and dry heat that the wood stove gives out.


  20. good info ,when I put my stove in house 5 years ago,I did a lot of research on it has info from people who use stoves and the people are helpful to most people who need help or have questions.

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