Pin It

Firewood and Wood Stove Basics – Five Lessons for Heating with Wood

by Victoria Gazeley

Woodstove and Ecofan.

Originally published in October 2010 – updated November 30, 2013.

Firewood burned in a wood stove is our primary heat source – not just in winter, but year round.  We regularly have fires going in the evening here until the end of May.

When we first moved to our rural property, I had so many questions:  How much wood do we need for winterWhat kind of wood should we burnHow do I prepare itHow do I clean the wood stoveWon’t it make a lot of smoke?  As a city girl, I had no clue about building fires or how to use them for heat.  But I learned fast.  I had to.  We’d have been a little chilly otherwise.

The answers would come over the next year, as I learned the finer points of building and maintaining fires and the wood stove that keeps us cozy. I learned that there is no ‘right’ way to build a fire (no matter how many ‘experts’ try to tell you otherwise).  That wet wood is to be avoided at all costs.  That a hot, clean burn with little to no smoke is the goal.  That our loft can get roasting if the fire has been burning all day (and then, of course, that fans are necessary and required to push the warm air around).

I had so many questions about fire as a heat source, and I’m pretty sure lots of other people do too.  Especially those who are planning on moving to the country, or have just moved.  So I put together my top five lessons for using fire for heat – I hope it’s helpful!

The Top 5 Lessons I’ve Learned About Heating with Wood

1.  There is no ‘right’ way to build a fire.

The ‘experts’ will try to tell you otherwise.  Like how to plant vegetable seeds, everyone you ask will have a different opinion.  So I’ll make it easy for you – try a bunch of different ways and pick the one that’s the least hassle for you and gets the best results.  There are some pretty elaborate fire starting methods out there.  And some that I still don’t see how they actually get a fire going, let alone quickly.  I’m busy – my goal in building a fire is to get it burning fast and to get it burning hot so there’s little to no smoke coming out of the chimney.  Then I don’t want to have to think about it for awhile.  If you check YouTube, you’ll find all sorts of videos on fire building.  Or you can bookmark this fantastic resource: woodheat.org and save yourself the hassle!  Find a method that doesn’t look too complicated and try it out.  You’ll soon find your favorite.  Here’s one I’m going to try next:  the top-down fire starting method.  I tried it once before and it failed miserably (probably because our wood is cut a little chunky), but I’m willing to give it another try.

2.  Better to have too much firewood than not enough.

There are some complicated calculations around for figuring out how much wood you’ll need if you’re heating with with a wood stove.  Annoyingly, most articles will start with ‘it depends’.  Unfortunately, it really does – on where you live, the temperature that particular winter, how well insulated your house is, what kind of wood you’ll be burning, how efficient your wood stove is, whether or not you’re burning wood full time or just using it to augment your primary heating system during cold snaps… you get the picture.

But if this is any help, we have a 700 square foot house, medium insulated (heritage log cabin with single pane glass augmented with storm windows), burn wood exclusively for heat from October through April in an old, probably inefficient wood stove, and live on the West Coast where temperatures are usually quite mild but damp.  Also, I work from home so the fire is burning most of the day.  How much wood do we burn? About 2 cords per season (a ‘cord’ is a pile 4′ x 4′ x 8′, densely packed).  For us, that’s about 4 or 5 trees’ worth, all dead fall and windfall red alder, maple and hemlock from the previous winter.  So for a modest-sized, well insulated home with a new, efficient wood stove burning wood exclusively for heat (with no other major heat sources), most people in the northern States and Canada would be safe with 4 cords or so – but always better to have more, in case it’s a cold winter. (UPDATE November 30, 2013: After a renovation in 2012, we now have about 1000 square feet to heat, including an addition that is nice and open, but the far end being quite far away from the wood stove. The two new rooms have electric baseboard heaters (because the building code requires it), but we don’t use them unless it’s REALLY cold, which last year it wasn’t.  Also, the new building is SUPER insulated, so that’s helping with the heat retention.  In the 2012/2013 season, we used about 3 cords, from October to April.  That’s burning pretty much full time, since I work from home.  This year, 2013/2014, we started using the stove in mid-October, from mid-morning to a stoke-up at 10:00 pm or so, and have used about a cord so far).

3.  Wood stoves are really versatile – especially in a power outage.

I was just reading an article at Mother Earth News talking about eight different alternate power possibilities to use during power outages.  The consensus seemed to be that having a wood stove that could also be used for cooking is the ideal situation.  Obviously, if you live in the desert with no wood supply, that’s a bit of a challenge.  But for the rest of us, it would seem that having a reasonably efficient wood stove in a rural area is smart insurance.  Most winters we have a lot of power outages, and it’s the wood stove that allows us to still have tea, cook our food, and stay warm.  We could use our little Kelly Kettle (which is sort of a mini metal rocket stove), but it’s sort of a pain, as it needs to be used outside.  Or a camp stove, like some recommend, but during a prolonged power outage, propane and butane canisters sell out extremely quickly (provided the stores still have power!).  So a wood stove seems like a good investment.  We’ve used ours to boil water, cook eggs, make toast, and keep big meals warm in cast iron pots.  I can’t recommend enough having one that has a surface you can cook or heat water on.

4.  You NEED fans to push the warm air through your house.

Our old wood stove had a fan that gave up the ghost not long after we moved in.  Which was OK, because it was loud – too loud.  I wanted to replace it with something quiet, and preferably non-electrical.  The solution?  A stove-top Ecofan.  I got the Airplus model (in nickel) and I love it!  It does exactly what it says it does, and more.  It’s silent, starts turning as soon as it’s sensors reach a certain temperature, and uses no electricity.  Which is great, because in a power outage, you really want your wood stove to be performing at peak efficiency.

We also have a hard-wired ceiling fan at the top of our cathedral ceiling, which pushes the warm air back down into the living area and throughout the house.  Obviously, the bigger your house the more you’ll have to think about how the warm air will flow.  Last year we had an issue with our bathroom being freezing in the morning, because it’s furthest away from the wood stove.  So we used a plug-in oil heater, which kept the bathroom toasty, but racked up a rather large electrical bill.  Plus it didn’t work when the power was out (then again, neither does the ceiling fan).  Last year, I had the brilliant idea (!) to keep the bathroom door open (except when in use, of course) and voila!  The bathroom is warm in the morning.  Well, maybe not warm, but at least there are no icicles hanging from the shower head.  Problem solved.

5.  Good insulation is your friend.

This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people still have single paned windows and big air spaces around their doors.  Especially in old houses, which you’ll likely find on properties you might be considering for your modern homesteading adventure.  We live in an 80-plus year old log cabin, so spent quite a bit of energy ensuring all the cracks and crevices were filled with insulation and chinked.  It does still have single paned windows in the original building, though, so replacing them with triple-glazed wood windows is on our list of eventual renovations.  In the meantime, we’ve installed storm windows on all the lower windows.  Seems to do the trick.

Will You Heat with Wood this Winter?

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned about heating our home with wood.  I think even if we lived in my brand new timber frame dream house, I’d still consider wood as a primary heat source.  It’s versatile, renewable (at least in our part of the world), it’s been deemed ‘carbon-neutral‘, and for me, it provides a connection to all my ancestors, who had nothing but wood to heat with.

Your situation will be different, though.  Think about your options, and how willing you are to do the work required (sourcing wood, cutting, splitting, piling, hauling, cleaning chimneys, etc.).

If you do decide to heat with wood, chances are you’ll be very happy you did.

If you already heat with wood, do you have any tips to share?  Please do in the comments below – newbie homesteaders will thank you!

Related Posts:

Revised on December 1, 2013

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous October 23, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Victoria, FYI: As I have shared with you before I spent 2o years in the mountains of Vermont. My brother still lives there and is has been a logger for 25 years. He sells firewood for a living. (he also heats with wood of course) I shared your tips on heating and wood and he said you were absolutely dead on! He is a fan! Unfortunately he doesn’t do much on the internet so he has asked me to copy and send your articles to him!
Blessings~denny

Reply

Anonymous October 24, 2010 at 12:04 am

Thanks so much, Denny! That’s such a compliment coming from someone with that much experience. I very much appreciate your sharing that…

Reply

Susan McKenzie October 25, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Victoria, your articles are really giving me food for thought. We have a 2-acre rural property that someone just deeded us… and my husband and I are considering what type of house to put on it. Looking at your photos on Facebook makes me wonder…. how much work was it really, how long did it take, approximately what expense… and how do you feel living in smaller home, especially during winter. Our property is in the high desert but trees are only an hour away, so I’m sold on woodstove… I’m also considering solar power because we get a lot of sun all year long. I would love to see the “indoor” photos when you get a chance! I’m very much looking forward to your next article – you are a fabulous writer!!!

Reply

Anonymous October 25, 2010 at 5:45 pm

A new property – how exciting! As for the details of the cabin, I’m working on a series of articles explaining just those things. Hoping to roll them out over the next 4 weeks or so. As for living in a smaller home in winter, it’s definitely on the small side! But we’ve got a little family, so it works. And it’s only temporary, as we’re planning an addition next spring that will add another 500 square feet or so and two bedrooms. If we were a family of 4, it probably wouldn’t work. As it is, I do curse the kitchen sometimes, as I’ve got all these countertop appliance and hardly any counters! ;o) An expanded kitchen is on the books for 2012 (or next year if funds allow). It’s definitely an adventure! My ideal house size would be somewhere around 1800 square feet – that would provide room for a cold room for food storage, lots of other storage, 3 bedrooms and ample living space without it become so big that it becomes hard to look after. I can barely keep up with the cobwebs in our little 700 square feet! As for indoor pics, there are a few on Facebook under the album “Before and After”. I’ll be posting the renovation pics in another article in the next few weeks as well. Thanks for the feedback, Susan!

Reply

Maria Hidalgo-Ferretti October 31, 2010 at 2:43 am

Great article Victoria! Your advice is so useful, even for us who live in the suburbs and use our wood burning fireplace during winter. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

Reply

Victoria Gazeley November 1, 2010 at 1:48 am

There are so many nuances to burning wood, especially in suburban areas where there are more and more limitations being put on wood burning (for good reasons, often). Makes it more and more important to make sure we’re all burning clean! ;o)

Reply

Margie October 23, 2012 at 9:26 am

Thanks for this! Especially, your estimate for amount of wood. We’re about 700 sq ft too and work in town so we’re not constantly burning, but it is our main heat source. We currently have 2 cords but were thinking we might require more like 4. This put my mind at ease (it’s our first winter in the cabin). The fan – is on my xmas list! We have kept a thermometer in each room and I really think a fan would help regulate. As a back up, we do have an indoor propane heater. Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Victoria Gazeley October 26, 2012 at 10:04 am

You’re so welcome! I had no idea how much wood we’d use that first winter. So glad you found this helpful… :)

Reply

Victoria Gazeley October 29, 2012 at 6:40 pm

So glad it was helpful! It was a bit of a crapshoot the first year, but I think we’ve got it dialed now… :)

Reply

Kellie Dawn Griffin December 2, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Great tips! My husband and I have been using wood stove heating almost exclusively for close to 3 years now and have almost perfected keeping the house at just the right temp. Keeping doors open and judicious use of fans has helped keep the rooms all warm but not too hot–even the ones far away from the stove. Using the right wood (hardwoods and poplar) that is absolutely dry seems to be the best option for low-smoke, long burning fuel. Keeping the ash pan changed so there is proper air flow but still keeping a nice bed of ashes in the wood-burning area at all times helps also. My favorite thing about our stove is that when the power goes out I don’t have to worry about no heat or no hot food. I’ve cooked soup on it and I’ve even heated water on it overnight to take warm baths with the next morning when my hot water heater went out over a long weekend. The water was hot enough to use only one or two pots full in a tub of cold water! When the air is very dry I also place water on the stove to help humidify the air. You can also keep dishes/food warm when you are cooking a big meal and don’t have a lot of counter space, lol! Thanks for sharing!

Reply

Victoria Gazeley December 14, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with wood heat. It really does take a lot of ‘worry’ away… Unfortunately, our stove doesn’t have much room on the top, but there’s enough for a small fry pan and a mid-sized pot or kettle. Thanks for stopping by!

Reply

Gman4141 December 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Victoria, excellent write up! Thank you!

Reply

Victoria Gazeley December 14, 2013 at 3:50 pm

You’re so welcome! Thanks for stopping by… :)

Reply

Raymond E Anne December 9, 2013 at 4:07 pm

As to the power out/no fan problem, a car heater fan can run off of a 12Volt battery, that can be recharged with a solar panel. Time to consider a 12Volt system anyway. Lights, fans cooking.cooling and refridgeration all can be done with 12Volt units.

Reply

Sarah March 30, 2014 at 11:34 am

Victoria, Thanks for your terrific website! My husband and I own a small home (1300 sf) in the country and would like to add either a fireplace or a wood burning stove. I have read that new regulations were passed recently that greatly restrict the use of wood burning stoves. I’ve also looked at these stoves online and the ones I’ve seen are extremely expensive. Can you recommend any stoves that are reasonably priced and are compliant with the new regulations? Thank you, Sarah

Reply

Sarah March 30, 2014 at 11:53 am

Victoria, in reference to my questions above, I just remembered you are in Canada, so I wouldn’t think you would be familiar with US regulations regarding wood burning stoves! However, I would be interested to know whether you have any recommendations on brands/styles etc. that are reasonably priced. Thanks again, Sarah

Reply

Victoria Gazeley April 8, 2014 at 10:25 am

:) No worries! We purchased a US built stove from England’s Stove Works – one of their less expensive versions.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }