Sunday, November 22, 2009

Using A Wood Stove

Burning wood for heat is gaining in popularity. For awhile wood heat was only remembered as a staple of a lifestyle long past and only used for the odd campfire to roast marshmallows. With the cost of fossel fuel and electricity soaring, wood is coming back as an inexpensive and renewable heat source, especially for those with their own woodland.

A wood fire is so soothing and cozy! A wood stove can be used for boiling water and some cooking chores while it is heating the house, thereby saving more energy costs. I also make soap on our wood stove. There is something very rewarding about using a wood stove. I keep a tea kettle on mine so I always have simmering water for tea or instant soup in the cold weather. It also helps humidify the house. Wood heat is very dry so you will need to keep a container of water on the wood stove that will continuously put steam into the air.

Using a non-electric tea kettle for this not only adds moisture to the air but looks good in an old fashioned rustic way and gives you boiling water on tap. Mine is copper, but stainless and cast iron will work just as well. If you are at all intolerant of constant and irritating noise, do not buy a kettle for your wood stove that whistles.

In order to work at its most efficient, a wood stove has to be installed properly and safely. The exhaust pipe or chimney is a very important part of the entire wood heating system. It must be installed as straight as possible up through the warmth of the house. This helps to draw the smoke out and fresh air in through the vent on the front of the stove so the fire will burn well. It will also to heat the upstairs and attic areas. Safety dictates that all materials coming in contact with the stovepipe be made of safe and inflammable materials. If you want more heat from the chimney in the upstairs rooms, do not cover the pipe as it goes through the air in the room. It will be hot enough to burn small hands, or anyone's hands for that matter, so make sure safety precautions are taken to keep people and pets away from it.

In addition to this, you should have the floor and closely surrounding walls made of fireproof materials and mortar made for use with woodstoves and fireplaces. It also helps to heat the house if these materials are stone or brick, which will absorb the heat from the fire and release it slowly. If you have the space and want to make better us of the heat from the fire, you can build a heat sink, a one foot thick fieldstone wall around the three sides and top of the wood stove to absorb the heat. Make sure the structure and floor of your home can support the weight at that location.

Use the air vents at the front of the stove to regulate the heat, to slow down or speed up the fire. The fire needs to suck in air in order to burn. The more oxygen the fire has, the hotter and faster it burns. A big fire with lots of oxygen will burn fast and furious and get very hot quickly, but will not last very long. Slow down the intake of oxygen to the fire by closing the vents somewhat and the fire will burn more slowly, thereby lessening the amount of wood used over the winter in wasted and unnecessary heat. If your fire is so hot you are going around the house in short sleeves in the middle of a cold winter, your fire is too hot and you are wasting wood.

Wood is a renewable resource if managed responsibly. Responsible wood management dictates that you plant a tree for everyone that you cut down and only cut down what you need, using fallen timbers first. Dead trees that have fallen and leaned against one another, off the ground for years, are usually dry enough to burn well.

It is important that the wood you burn be dry to be healthy, for you and your wood stove. It is also a lot easier to get a good fire going with dry wood. By 'dry' I mean dead and cut, sitting in the wind long enough to remove most of the moisture and aged enough to remove the green sap. The best way to dry the wood is to cut and split it, then stack it so the ends are exposed to the wind. The bottom rows should be off the ground, sitting on a scrap pallet or cement blocks. Cut wood should dry like this for at least six months or longer. This means when winter comes you can burn what has been drying since early spring or, better yet, the previous fall. Whatever you use will have to be dry when winter comes, so you won't be able to go out in late winter when you run out of wood and just cut another tree down to burn. Using only wood for heat takes some planning ahead.

Using a wood stove for heat also takes time, work and a small investment in tools. Moving large logs, as yet uncut, takes muscle (yours and that of a michine or large working animal). It also takes work to move cut wood from the spot where it is drying in the sun, to the permanent home out of the weather. Stacking it to dry is work and bringing it into the house when needed several times a day is work. Even split logs are heavy. Wood is dirty and will leave little bits of bark and ash around the wood stove which will need to be swept constantly. All of this to say that is takes time and effort, which most people today are not willing to invest, but if you can do it, it is definately worth it. Even buying all of your wood will save you quite a bit in heating costs and supplementing it with your own free wood is even cheaper. Cost aside, a wood stove is a lovely thing to have burning on a cold and blustery winter night!

You will need a place to keep your dry and cut wood for use that is out of the weather. A rain soaked log will not burn well. In older times, people had a wood shed where they kept their cut wood for burning. Usually this was adjacent, or very close to the house for convenience. We keep much of our wood on our large enclosed front porch. Some people stack it against the house, under the overhang. This keeps the cut wood fairly dry and helps to insulate the house in winter. We also keep some in the garage with the tractors, other equipment and tools.

Splitting logs by hand not only takes work but some practice too. Old tires make a great holder for the logs as you split them. It is much safer to stand 2-3 logs inside a tire than it is to hold a log with your hands while your hit it with an axe. It will also keep pieces of split logs from flying in all directions and hitting you or someone nearby in the head. It will not, however, prevent the axe head from flying if you hit the logs at an angle.

When you are splitting logs, it is important to take a full swing so you are using the momentum of the axe to swing into the log and not pushing it into the log with your arm. This means that you keep your elbow fairly straight while swinging the axe, making sure you have the room for a full range-of-motion swing and that no one is behind you.

Aim to hit the logs straight on with the axe. Your aim will improve with practice.

If you hit the log with the axe aiming back at yourself, it could cut through the log quickly, and your leg with the same swing.

If you hit the log with the axe aiming up too far you can break the head off the axe and it will go flying. These pictures were taken specifically for this article. DO NOT CUT WOOD ON YOUR CEMENT FLOOR! Always put the log onto something the axe can cut into, like a large, flat tree stump or the ground. Cutting into the dirt with your axe will soon make it very dull, however, so it is best to use some kind of cutting block, like a tree stump.

I know this probably goes without saying, but you should make sure that the logs you are cutting will fit inside your wood stove. Perhaps measuring and marking them is a good idea for some. If you are buying your logs already split, they will come in standard sizes. Make sure you ask for the right size for your wood stove. There's not much you can do with split logs that are just too long for the stove. It is a tremendous amount of work to cut a few inches off of every log with the saw. Its actually more work that I would be willing to do. I would probably resell the longer logs to someone who can use them and repurchase the correct size.

Do I split the logs on our farm? No, hubby does that, but I did spend an entire school year in college, working with a consumate professional who paid his way through college by cutting wood. I was hit in the head a few times by flying pieces of log while stacking. I also got fairly good at splitting, something I would not do now. I have far too many other and easier things that have to be done. We buy most of our wood already split now and am considering a mechanical splitter.

Buying an axe with a bright handle will save you countless hours of looking for it where you think you left it the last time. Buying neon coloured handles on all of your outdoor wood splitting and garden tools is a good idea. You can always add the colour with neon hocky tape later.

In addition to split, dry logs to burn you will also need kindling and paper. Use only paper that is not glossy as it is healthier with less chemicals burning. Remove all the tape, lables and plastic from the paper and cardboard that you burn.

Lots of dry kindling is more important to getting a fire going than anything else. After you light the paper you will need to add lots of kindling. Kindling is the name for any small stick or piece of bark or tender that is dry and lights easily from paper. It is an intermediary between the paper and the logs. You will not be able to catch a log on fire with just paper unless you spend a very long time continuously adding paper as it burns until the logs light. This will waste a lot of your time and give you a very large amount of ash to clean up. It is much easier to start a fire from one setting of paper if you use enough kindling.

I spend some of the summer season making a kindling pile of sticks that I pick up here and there. As they fall off the old oak or pine trees in the forest or are cut from the trees, they are added to the pile by the shed. Anytime I find sticks I pick them up and toss them on the pile. When fall finally comes around and the gardens are no longer productive, its time to start thinking about preparing for winter. At this time I make a concerted effort to increase our kindling resources. Pinecones make great kindling, by themselves or dipped in a little extra candle wax and set on waxed paper to harden. Dryer lint also makes good kindling, by itself or made into balls dipped in wax.

To start a fire you will need paper and I like to use plain corrugated cardboard as a second layer on top of the paper. First I put tightly twisted pieces of newspaper in the bottom of the clean stove. Do yourself a favour and clean out the ashes first. You will get better air circulation that way and, so, have an easier time starting the fire. You will also need something for the log edge to sit on. Some people use a grate to keep the logs up off the kindling and paper. I have firebricks along one side that I use for that.

On top of the newspaper I add cardboard pieces bent into small tents so the air can get under them, then I light the paper. When the cardboard is starting to burn it is time to slowly add the kindling.

Use lots of dry kindling. It is the true secret to getting a good fire going quickly.

Only after the kindling is burning well do you add the logs. If you add the logs too soon, you will put out the fire.

You will need at least two logs placed closely together but not completely against each other. Leave about a 1/2" space between them so they can create more heat between themselves and keep each other burning. One lonely log will soon go out. If you put another smaller log or heavy kindling on top of the two logs it will help to draw the fire up over the logs and get them burning. Do not use plain paper for this, as it could float while burning up the chimney and cause a chimney fire. Cardboard can be used for this but doesn't last very long.

A few good hard blows of air from the lungs will go a long way towards getting a fire burning or rekindling one that has died down. If you can find a bellows you are indeed fortunate and should use it often on the fire. As it burns down you will need to add more logs to keep it burning. Our wood stove will need to be checked and, at least, stirred about every hour. Logs are added as needed. Sometimes stirring the logs and blowing on them will get them burning again if they have died down further than you would like.

Everything considered, I think we are going to continue using wood for our primary source of heat and sometimes for cooking, as well. I would like to buy an actual wood stove one day and learn how to really cook with wood. I know there is a lot more to it than simply turning on the oven or a burner, but there are books avialble on the subject and I can read and follow directions.

Our kettle is boiling now and it is time for another cup of tea with the boiling water I have always on tap.