Wood-Burning Tips

Gathering around the fire is a favorite winter pastime in upstate New York. With a few precautions, you can make sure your wood-burning season is safe, warm and efficient.

Store your wood naked – uncovered, that is. Contrary to popular belief, covering firewood with a tarp, storing it in a shed, or tucking it against the house under low eaves, will keep your wood wet, not dry. Split wood acts just like a sponge; it draws in humidity and soaks up rain. Covering firewood impedes the natural evaporation process and yields damper, moldier wood. For stone dry wood that burns hot and clean, store it right outside in the rain and snow, out from under trees and roof eaves, preferably facing south or east, where the sun will hit it for a good part of the day.

The early bird catches the updraft. The earlier in a winter day you light your fire, the easier it will start. With air warmed by the sun and rising from the earth you’ll catch an updraft in your chimney flue more quickly than later in the day when the cooling air is falling back to earth. If you get a down draft, day or night, twist two pages of newspaper together, light them and hold the flames up to your flue opening inside your stove or fireplace to warm the air and get it moving up and out. Then light your kindling.

Don’t cheat when installing your wood stove. I bought my first one just out of college for $12.50 at a garage sale. I was darned if I was going to pay hundreds of dollars for just a few feet of that tres-expensive tri-walled stovepipe. I had student loans. Most municipalities have laws prohibiting the single-layer stovepipe I used. I wound up setting the roof of my one-and-one-half story cabin on fire. The cause was the single-layer stovepipe, which appeared benign enough as it made its way up through the open spaces in the kitchen and loft, but was actually glowing red hot where it touched the rafters and shingles as it passed through the roof. The wind – magically – allowed the smoke to escape, while trapping in the heat from the stove. It’s tempting to cut costs, but don’t take the apple.

A wood stove is like a gun. Hunter safety courses teach us to treat every gun as loaded and therefore deadly. Wood stoves and fireplaces should be treated as loaded, too – with hot coals – and therefore potentially deadly. Even if you haven’t had a fire in days, don’t put old ashes into anything other than a metal or other fireproof container. “Cold” ashes discarded in paper shopping bags and cardboard boxes are the cause of many fires.

Only the chimney sweep knows – what’s inside your flue. And it may not be what you think. Seldom-used fireplaces and wood stoves can have as much flue build-up as a regularly used stove. There is a cleaning process of sorts that takes place in more frequently used, hotter burning stoves, than in occasional, less intense fires. Plus, birds and animals have a better chance of building nests inside your flue – it’s their job! – if you only use it on special occasions. Eliminate the guesswork and have your flue cleaned at least once a year.


by Rich Gardner
Rich Gardner has been published in the US and Canada.