The Dirty Little Secrets About Heating with Wood

A bunch of friends are stopping by today (Saturday) for a run, and whenever people pop in, particularly during savagely cold weather, I stoke the wood stoves as if they were blast furnaces, and also take extra pains to sweep up every ash and speck of sawdust.

I particularly enjoy the moment they scramble up the stairs, flapping arms and stomping feet to stay warm, and then enter what feels like a sauna.

“Whoa! Nice and toasty in here!” they exclaim, shedding parkas, hats and mittens.

That’s my cue to launch into a protracted dissertation extolling the joys of heating with wood, disingenuously omitting most of the dirty little secrets.

The dust alone would discourage most people from relying on firewood – not just from the stove, but from logs hauled in from woodsheds.

I use a canvas carrier and dump my fuel into a wood box, but inevitably pieces of bark and chips spill out. I have a separate box for newspaper and kindling, which generates its own dust.

The two stoves in separate rooms stand on large slabs of slate to prevent embers from spilling onto the wood floor, but they don’t deter drifting dust, particularly since I have to shovel ashes into a five-gallon galvanized bucket several times a day.

Here’s my system: First, I position the bucket as close to the stove door as possible, keeping it on the slate. Then I extract a shovelful of ashes, dump it in the bucket and instantly clomp on a lid to prevent dust from spreading.

When the stoves are going full bore, 24-7, as they have been these past frigid weeks, I have to dump the ash bucket several times a week, hauling it 100 yards to a big hole I dug near the garden.

I later use the ashes either as soil conditioner for the garden or to patch potholes in my network of paths. I often use these paths for walking and cross-country skiing, but mostly they serve as logging roads and must be smooth enough for a wheelbarrow, or sled when there’s snow on the ground.

Loyal readers are familiar with my wood-cutting adventures, so I won’t belabor the point other than to say it seems to consume as much time and energy as if I decided to heat instead with coal and had to dig my own mine. Not that I’m complaining – cutting and splitting wood truly is a labor of love, not to mention a good upper-body workout.

So far this relentlessly bone-chilling season I’ve already gone through about half of one woodshed, which holds six cords (a cord measures 8x8x4 feet, or 128 cubic feet). I just finished filling the adjoining shed but hope I don’t have to start burning that wood this season because I want it to dry for at least a year.

Burning green or unseasoned wood creates creosote – potentially dangerous if it builds up in a stone or brick chimney and suddenly ignites.

Our chimneys are metal stovepipes – insulated where they go through the ceiling and roof – and therefore are less inclined to experience chimney fires if you remember to bang the pipes every so often and shake the crud loose.

Creosote, which accumulates even when burning dry wood, particularly when you damp down the stove frequently, creates a separate problem for those with stovepipes: It clogs the louvers on the cap, limiting the draught.

Several times each heating season I have to climb onto the roof using a shaky ladder, remove the cap, climb down with it, poke the louvers with a screwdriver to remove crusted creosote, and then climb back up and reinstall the cap. It is without a doubt my least favorite task – but if I neglect this chore the whole house fills with smoke.

On a few occasions I’ve had to execute this hated ritual in the dark during snowstorms – but I’ve learned my lesson and now perform it prophylactically in more favorable conditions.

Finally, there’s the incessant stoking, stoking, stoking. I often feel like I’m working in the boiler room of a 19th century steamship. (Full disclosure: My long-suffering, wife, Lisa, shares this chore, and because I’m more tolerant of lower temperatures she’s usually the one who has to tend to the 2 a.m. “feeding.”)

Through it all, though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

As anyone who comes in from the cold knows, there’s no greater comfort than plopping down next to a toasty wood stove when an icy wind howls.

I’ll probably be running the stove into April, and the end of the heating season coincides neatly with the start of the planting season. This spring, as in past years, I’ll be planning a couple hundred seedlings to replace the trees I’ve cut down – an arboreal version of the circle of life.

Ooops, gotta stop writing. Time to stoke the stove.










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