Interested in wood burning stoves? If you want to make sure you’re operating your wood burning stove safely, these tips will help.
Wood Burning Stove Tips | How To Start A Fire & Keep It Burning Safely
Aah, the alluring glow of a warm wood fire! It is an appealing image – snuggling in front of a cozy stove with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book on a cold winter evening, with the cat curled up on the hearth. As one who lives with wood heat, I could not agree more. However, like most things, operating a wood stove requires a little basic know-how in order to be successful and stay safe.
Please let me say that I am not a professional firefighter or stove expert or even a scientist. If you have any doubts about your ability to control a wood stove, trust your gut. Fire is potentially dangerous enough that proper training by a professional is nothing to scoff at. Managing a fire in a wood stove incorrectly can cause damage to your stove or your home, or even cost lives.
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All of that said, millions of people heat their home with wood every year, and people have been burning combustible materials indoors for centuries. If you are in a situation where you have the opportunity to give it a try, keep a few safety basics in mind first and venture forth!
Make sure your stove, installation, and chimney are safe, clean and up to code. Many people clean their own chimneys, but we prefer to have a professional clean and inspect ours every summer. It is not cheap, but when he walks out the door with my check in hand, I have complete peace of mind.
Fire is hot, and stoves are hot. That sounds like a DUH, but it’s easy to forget. Modern wood stoves can burn so efficiently and quietly that it is possible to not realize they are in operation. Teach children and advise guests not to touch the stove.
Keep a pair of heavy leather gloves and fireplace tools near the stove. Always. Sooner or later you will need them – an ember will roll out, or a stick of wood will shift itself into a position that won’t allow the door to close.
The tools need not be fancy. At the very least, you will need some kind of heavy-duty fireproof stick with a pointed end to move wood around inside the stove, and a small metal shovel or dustpan.
If specialized fireplace gloves are hard to find, try a pair of welding gloves from a big box store. They are inexpensive and readily available.
Keep combustibles away from the stove. Furniture, clothing, paper, and carpet all need to be kept at a safe distance. I admit that I hang wet clothing near the stove to dry, but never leave them unattended.
Don’t lean over the stove wearing loose baggy accessories. A fluffy scarf or a dangling tie is a potential disaster in the making. One spark, or one stitch caught in the door handle, and you could be in real trouble.
Remember the fire needs fuel, air, and heat. The more of those elements are available, the bigger the fire – and the less elements, the smaller. Fuel and air are the two that you can easily control.
In a wood-burning stove, the fuel is wood. You will want a nice assortment of clean, dry firewood. The pieces need to be cut short enough to fit into the firebox of your stove, and split into a variety of diameters.
Most wood stoves are designed to regulate air flow. Your owner’s manual is the best way to learn about the way your stove does this. Otherwise, look for a valve or lever attached the firebox itself or on the side of the stove, or a damper on the side of the stovepipe that draws smoke from the stove to the chimney. One direction will open it and allow more air to flow through, and the opposite will close it.
When building a fire, never use an accelerant of any kind. No matter how frustrated you are, don’t do it. It’s a great way to burn down your house and risk your life, and not useful for much else.
How to Start a Fire
Step 1 – Place Wood Base
To get a fire started – assuming you have already familiarized yourself with all the components of your stove and its setup, have your safety equipment handy, and are properly devoid of clothing accessories – first set a couple of medium-sized pieces of wood in the bottom of the stove, on opposite sides of the firebox. These act as a sort of cradle for the fire-starter and tinder, and help circulate the air.
Step 2 – Add Firestarter
Next, a handful of loose crumpled newspaper.
You can use a purchased starter if you like, but if you build more than a few fires in a season, these can get expensive. Cardboard egg cartons work great as a transitional material between paper and kindling as well.
Step 3 – Add Kindling
Then add a few sticks of kindling. Kindling is very dry wood that is cut up small and is of a super lightweight variety. Our kindling of choice is cedar, chopped up into sticks smaller around than a broom handle.
I like to put a few more pieces of newspaper on top. This isn’t crucial, but it’s a little extra assurance that my fire will catch nicely. It’s important to avoid stuffing the firebox too full of paper, which will cause the stove to smoke. Next, another medium-sized piece of wood, about the size of a loaf of French bread.
Step 4 – Let Air In
Next, make sure all the levers and dampers are wide open. This is the time for maximum air flow. Old-fashioned home heating setups sometimes used gadgets called bellows that blew air into a fledgling fire, but it is easier to use to stove’s own design for this task.
Step 5 – Light The Fire
Light the fire. I use wooden matches. They burn longer than paper ones so that I can light the paper in a couple of different spots, and give a nice big flame. I never use a lighter, not even one of those long ones designed for propane camp stoves and grills.
Step 6 – Close The Door
Close the door. Wait. Watch. Listen. If your stove has a glass window, you will be able to monitor the fire’s progress visually. If not, you will hear it when the fire intensifies. You can also use a chimney thermometer if you have one.
There is such a thing as too hot. You can damage your stove, start a chimney fire, and even your house could be at risk. The time to start closing up your air controls is well before you get to that point. As soon as the fire gets to a point where it is burning steadily, begin easing the air controls back.
WARNING – Always dispose of your embers or ash in a Metal Ash Tin. Do this even if they haven’t been burning for hours, or you could end up burning your whole house down! DO THIS, so you won’t end up LIKE THIS!
Never throw water into a wood stove. At worst, it could cause the metal workings inside to explode when the cold water hits it, or it could crack the grates and incur expensive repairs. At best, it will smoke and make a gooey mess in the stove.
It is not safe to spray a fire extinguisher into the firebox either.
If you fire seems out of control, shut it up as tight as you can, using every available air control. If you are still concerned, call 911. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
There is such a thing as burning too cool, too. It is fine to burn slow fire some of the time, but an occasional hot fire is necessary to keep the creosote from building up in the chimney. Our cleaning professional always compliments our burn habits, and I always deflect the praise to my husband. I keep the wood stove just barely burning all day and my husband burns a brief hot fire every evening. We make a good team.
Presently, the fire will consume the wood and it will be time to add more. Just as an oil furnace burns more oil when it is cold, a wood stove will go through more wood in lover temperatures. With many stoves, it is a good idea to open the damper before opening the firebox in order to minimize smoke.
Open the air control, open the door, chuck a piece of wood in. Close the door, let the fire catch onto the new piece of wood, and partly close the air control. If it is burning too hot, give it less fuel and less air. Burning too cool, give it more.
It might sound complicated, but it is no more so than many tasks that people do routinely. Just think of all the micro-tasks involved in driving a car – ease up on the gas, cover the brake, check the rear view mirror, flip on the blinker, turn the wheel just enough but not too much – it is a lot of things to juggle for a novice, but it gets easier with practice.
Also like driving, heating with wood is potentially dangerous but hugely rewarding. Wood heat is a renewable resource, often cheaper than conventional fuel, and works in a power outage. For those reasons and more, I encourage you to try it if you can. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, stay safe, and enjoy the warm homey glow of wood burning.
Always dispose of your ashes or embers in a metal trash bin so the hot ashes don’t accidently burn your house down (like this).
Interested now in having your own wood burning stove? Here are some tips on choosing and installing a wood burning stove from TheRestorationCouple:
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