The Care and Feeding of a Woodstove

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Here, at the Rawles Ranch, we heat our house with a masonry wood stove. Because of the thermal mass of its masonry construction, the stove holds heat and, therefore, provides a much more consistent heating effect; well, that is the case for at least three-fourths of our house. Our stove’s wood box is large, so there is the risk of overheating the living room, especially in the fall and spring, when the afternoons warm up outdoors. In those seasons, we have to be careful to keep the stove’s air vent nearly closed almost all of the time. (However, we are careful to let the stove burn “full rip” for a short time each day, to prevent an accumulation of creosote in the chimney. This is of course no substitute for proper chimney cleaning, which is a lengthy annual chore each spring. I usually do so after the roof is clear of snow and dry for the first time in the spring.) A daily brief hot burn keeps a stove safe in snowy climes where you can’t safely get up on the roof for five or six months of the year.

Our house is one story, which greatly simplifies things for wood heat. (Two story houses tend to be too hot upstairs and too cold downstairs.) We typically stoke the stove three times a day– around 5:30 AM, at mid-day, and just before we retire for the night.

I prefer to burn Red Fir and Western Larch woods. (The latter is commonly but erroneously called “Tamarack”, locally.) Last year we burned an odd assortment of wood, because we had just manually cleared two wooded acres of our property in order to make room to expand our orchard. (We have about a dozen varieties of trees on the ranch, including one sizable stand of Western Larch.) Most of this wood was a mix of various types of fir and a bit of pine. Even though the wood was well-seasoned, this Duke’s Mixture made for more erratic heating and more creosote build-up than we experience in a typical year. (In contrast, Red Fir and Western Larch both consistently burn hot and clean.) To heat our house, which is well insulated and around 3,000 square feet, we burn between five and eight cords each winter, depending on the weather and how much we travel each year.

All in all, we enjoy heating with wood. It is nice being able to keep the house at 75 to 80 degrees and not feel guilty about it. (To do the same with electricity or propane would be prohibitively expensive for a house of our size.)

I typically get 60 to 80% of our annual wood supply split and stacked before winter each year. The remainder is kept tarped and is split gradually, to provide some winter exercise on sunny days. We recently had a clear but unseasonably cold week. This was perfect weather for wood splitting. When a piece of wood is frozen at 10 degrees Fahrenheit, it doesn’t just split; it fairly well explodes, when the splitting maul hits it. What fun!

For kindling, I typically burn cedar. I specially cut these rounds just 8″ in height, to make for easy splitting. I split them either with a short-handled mine axe or with a shingle froe.

I’m presently fine tuning my wood splitting tools and techniques. I long ago discovered the trick of using a discarded car or truck tire to keep a round together, while splitting. BTW, I should mention that Wranglerstar showed me a new twist on that method.

I already have as large assortment of wedges and mauls, but I’m now shopping for a Vipukirves “Leveraxe”. Thankfully, their price has dropped dramatically in the past year. (They were formerly ridiculously expensive, but now they are just very expensive. At that price, I certainly hope they are built to last a generation, as advertised.) – JWR

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