The scent of woodsmoke, the coziness of curling up by a crackling fire, the opportunity to eat s’mores in your living room – that’s the allure of a wood stove. In the Hudson Valley and Catskills region, wood stoves are sometimes at the center of our homes, and they are not just ornamental – a good stove can also help you save on fueling costs through the winter months.
Here’s what you need to know to keep the home fires burning!
Chimney Sweeping - They don’t wear little hats or have faces smudged with soot, but having a professional chimney sweep pay a visit to your house on an annual basis is essential. The most important piece of chimney sweeping is ensuring that the creosote build up in the chimney is cleaned out. Creosote is a by-product of using a wood stove that builds up on the inside of your chimney, and excessive buildup is the major cause of chimney fires. Not only will a chimney sweep clean out your chimney of creosote, but they will also check for the ongoing safety of your stove. Stoves have “bricks” inside them (which are usually gray and not the red rectangles you immediately think of) that help convey heat, and they need to be replaced every few years. Your chimney sweep should lay floor coverings down around the stove and they will also climb up on the roof to clean out the chimney.
Wood – You can’t just chop down random trees in your yard and burn them in your stove the same day. Instead, you need to plan ahead to accumulate appropriately seasoned wood. “Seasoning” means the wood is not green (freshly cut and with sap running) but dried out. Seasoning can take 1-3 years, which is why you might see wood piles in people’s yards throughout the year. Many folks start buying firewood in the spring for the following winter or beyond, but if you don’t get wood until the fall you just have to ask for seasoned wood. Seasoned wood burns more easily and safely – unseasoned wood leaves behind more creosote. If your wood isn’t well seasoned, its harder to get burning, and the sap will make a fizz and popping sounds. The best woods to burn are hardwoods like oak, ash, and cherry – you shouldn’t burn softwoods (evergreen trees produce softwoods) because they burn very quickly and produce a lot of creosote.
The unit measure for wood is a cord – which is a 4 x 4 x 8 stack, and cords generally run around $200 delivered (and note that delivered means “dumped in a pile in your yard”). How much wood you’ll need depends on the size of your house, the severity of the winter, and how often you’ll burn it. If you’re a weekender who wants to sit by a pretty fire, you could probably do one or two cords; if you’re relying on the stove as a major source of heat you might need as many as four to six (or more). The joke about wood stoves is that its “heat so nice, it warms you twice” – once when you haul and stack the wood, and again when you burn it. When you plan your wood pile(s), make sure it is close enough to the house that its accessible once there’s snow. And know that critters will likely hide out in it – at the very least you can expect chipmunks and squirrels to store food in it.
Lighting a Fire - You need a variety of materials to get your fire started and keep it going, and you essentially need to build a layered tent of materials and light it from the bottom. For starters, you definitely need to have kindling, and wadded up newspaper or other paper scraps (just don’t use magazine or full color pages). You can collect twigs from your yard as kindling. As long as the twigs snap easily they’re fine to use, kindling doesn’t need the same kind of seasoning as larger pieces of wood. You should start with a few smaller logs from your pile in addition to the kindling materials. You can add bigger logs later, once the fire is stable. Here’s a great written tutorial, but its also a good idea to search for videos about lighting wood stoves on Youtube to see it in action. Keep in mind that this will take some practice, and people’s techniques vary. You can leave the stove door a little ajar for the first 10 minutes to get the air flowing and fire roaring, but never leave it unattended. Once you close and latch the stove door, make sure the flue is open so the fire can breath and smoke can escape through the chimney.
Bonus: the ash from your wood stove is excellent for your garden. You can put it in with the rest of your compost or just put it aside to mix into your soil in the spring. Just make sure its totally cool before you add it to compost or another storage container – and totally cool means 24 hours of cooling. Treat ashes with respect – they can reignite for many hours after they appear to have gone dormant.