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September 21, 2014

Mastering My Wood Stove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting with my first winter in Montana, I have used wood to heat my homes.  Wood is cheap here.  This year I paid $150 a cord for my load, and that was split and stacked.  I go through about 4.5 cords each winter.  I use some electric heat, probably the equivalent of $20 a month.    With this, my annual heating bill is about $800.  That’s for a house that has okay, but not great, insulation, a season where the average low drops to freezing on September 30 and doesn’t rise to 33F until May 9, and keeping the temperature above 60 F overnight and 65 F during the day. 

During the winter, my first task is to get the fire going.  If I’ve added wood during the night, there might be a good sized piece that’s smoldering.  More often, there are just coals and these are in the ash.  If that’s the case, I scoop out ash and coal with a straining spoon.  This has a ½” screen.  Balancing the throat on the edge of a small metal trash can, I shake it back and forth.  With this movement, the ash falls through and the coals remain.  These, I dump into the center of the box.  This done, I choose a few medium sized pieces of wood and a few pieces of kindling.  I lay out three of the former, the middle one on the coal pile with the lengths running from the front of box to the back.  I lay out the kindling on top of these and with their lengths parallel to the front of the stove.  This done, I grab the bellows, aim them at the coals and start pumping.  Assuming I had enough hot coals---that usually is the case---I am able to ignite the middle piece of wood.  Once there’s enough of a flame to ignite the kindling, I close the door of the stove almost, but not quite totally.  With it just ajar, even a small flame creates a whirlwind inside of the stove that gets everything going.  Assuming I’ve done all this and see a good whirlwind spreading the fire, I just wait.  Five minutes later, I close the door entirely.  I can start thinking about breakfast.

The routine is now very efficient and very effective, but it didn’t start this way.  Every year, I’ve learned something new about my wood stove.  My first year in Montana, I learned the basics.  This included avoiding green wood, using a chainsaw, and splitting wood.  My second year, my first in Seeley Lake, I figured out the trick of leaving the door ajar and letting the stove create a whirlwind.  The person who I bought the house from taught me to stack the wood with its length running from front to back rather than parallel to the door.  Last year, I added a rectangular metal piece to support the ceiling of bricks inside my box.  Initially, these had been supported entirely by the inlet pipes.  Over time and with some very hot fires, these bent.  I subsequently used non-hardened steel rods to help support the top.  Mid winter, it only took three or four weeks for these to develop a significant bend.  At best, this simply limited the volume in my stove.  At worst, bricks would fall into the fire.  I’d then have to put out the fire and let the stove cool, pull the bricks out, and either replace the bent rod or run the stove without the bricks that help make it efficient.  The rectangular piece had two big advantages over the rods.  First, it was hardened steel and consequently bent much slower.  Even better, however, was because it was a good sized rectangle, once it bent, all I had to do was flip it so that the arch was opposite of gravity’s pull.  The bending was slow enough that there were lots of times when the stove was cool enough for me to do this without interrupting my normal routines. 

After a cool end of August and start of September, we’ve had two very warm weeks.  Not Santa Ana warm like I grew up with during fall in Los Angeles, but in the mid and upper eighties.  Actually, even though this has meant my winter has been delayed, it’s pleased me.  I had hesitated on getting my wood in and finished that up just a week and a half into September.  Warm temperatures speed drying up a lot.  While my wood was all beetle kill and pretty dry to begin with, with these two warm weeks, I got some extra seasoning in I didn’t expect. 

The forecast is for one more warm day, then the cold hits again, not winter cold but certainly cool enough that I’ll be running the wood stove every night and many of the days as well. 

It’s said that we never lose our enjoyment of sex, that the psychological and physical stimulation of the pleasure centers of our brain remains strong throughout our lives.  While I’m not going to argue with that, at least for me, the joy of learning is right up there.  It’s less intense and over longer times, but overall very strong.  And, as I’ve grown older, this too hasn’t diminished in the least.  I don’t know what I’m going to learn about using the wood stove this winter, but I’m sure it will be something.

   
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