If you've been heating with a wood stove for as long as I have, your faithful Blaze King or Upland Elk may be getting long enough in the tooth that it needs refurbishing or maybe even a replacement. Since some of the best designed stoves ever made were operating before I was, it would be a crime to consign them to the rubbish heap in the backyard just because they lack a little polish and care. Here's how to restore and operate those free-breathing good old wood stoves yourself.
While driving through central Vermont this fall, I was hit with déjà vu. I had glanced over at a country hardware store and was suddenly transported back to 1973. Not only was there a sign in the window reading CANNING JAR RUBBERS, but flanking it were two wood-burning stoves we used to see in the oil-crisis days: a long, low log burner and a "Fatso" (a narrow-waisted wood-and-coal-burning laundry stove). Both were designs that date from the mid-1800s, but they had the dusty gray look of new cast iron!
In last year's "Guide to Wood and Coal Stoves," though, didn't we tell MOTHER EARTH NEWS' readers that the Federal Clean Air Act and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlawed any serious new wood heater not equipped with a catalytic smoke combuster or designed with a high-tech firebox and draft system?
I nearly got rear-ended by a logging truck as I braked and pulled into the storefront parking lot. Inside, they did indeed have rubber sealing rings for old-style canning jars. And the design of both stoves proved to be good old-time lowtech — no smoke burners or fancy draft channels. There was just the same straightforward, low-tech designs that have heated laundry boilers, soap pots, and hog scalders, as well as warmed country kitchens, workshops, and woodland camps since the mid-19th century. Quality was good; castings were thick enough and smooth on the outside with crisply molded ornamentation; doors and cook lids in the tops of both fit snugly. The log burner was from Taiwan, but molded in back of the Fatso was "Made in USA." Tags on both read "Price: $250" — same as 20 years ago.
The folks behind the counter assured me that it was indeed 1993, not '73. They'd been selling old-style stoves (again) for almost a year now; the Feds hadn't raided them yet.
I recalled that a few el-cheapo box stoves (more suitable for planting geraniums than serious wood heat) had appeared in hardware stores last fall. But these new stoves looked as though they were meant to be used. My feeling of déjà vu was gone. Now I was just puzzled.
Back home, I got out my copy of the EPA regulations and solved my own puzzle. In the small print it reads that Federal wood-smoke emission controls apply only to airtight heating stoves. Specifically exempted are open-draft, fireplace-type stoves and kitchen ranges. This is presumably because they lack airtight doors and draft controls so they can't be closed down to burn the slow, oxygen-deprived fire that produces a cold smoke loaded with air pollutants. Aha, a loophole!
What's New In Wood Heat?
That's the primary development in the solid-fuel arena this year, folks. Marketers of traditional stoves are working loopholes in the EPA regulations to pry open what I view as Washington's bureaucratic grip over how we burn wood to heat and cook in our own homes. Newly made but old-style stoves have reappeared in country hardware stores (if not yet in the stove and fireplace boutiques). If small stoves such as the Fatso and the log burner sell, stove foundries may haul out the patterns for more elaborate models. Once again we could see new-cast Andes Parlor Brilliants and Kitchen Queens in all their black-iron and nickel-plated glory.
Many of us country wood burners are (just slightly) more attracted to $300+ hightech stoves that lack a draft-limiting catalytic combuster, so offering a more lively fire. But the technology of clean burning with an engineered air supply limits stove size, and high-techs remain tiny.
As emission controls come slowly into the marketplace, models are selling slowly, the stove makers are promoting EPA-control-exempt appliances: gas/log stoves (that burn fossil fuel), open fireplace stoves (that waste wood), and coal stoves (that produce fumes that may be free of the tiny particulates EPA measures but are unscrubbed of the sulfur that makes acid rain). Pellet-burning stoves are selling best of all as more million-dollar chip processors are built to manufacture fuel from logging trash or plantations of quick-growing trees such as aspen.
Pelletizers solve early difficulties in maintaining fuel uniformity. These highly engineered, automated stoves are expensive at $2,000 (when installed) but are cleanest and most efficient of all. A scoop or two of dry, dust-free fuel will heat a home all day, the powdery ash need be removed but once a week, and exhaust is so clean and cool it needs nothing but a tin pipe for a flue.
I, for one, hope that the stoves I saw in that store window signify a beginning to the end of federal meddling in wood heat. If winter-recreation center Vail, Colorado, has a wood smog problem, by all means let them legislate local restrictions; vacationing skiers can afford electric heat for their slope-side condos. But a lot of us who are toughing out hard times in the country can't. I predict we'll see a growing demand for old-style wood and coal stoves — originals and reproductions of 19th-century no-tech/low-tech designs as well as free-breathing airtights — by country and small-town wood burners concerned with staying warm at a reasonable cost.
Reviving Your Wood Stove
When lining the firebox in many stoves (steel as well as older iron models), you'll often find firebrick — a yellowish, brittle, stone-like covering. It is often eaten out from years of holding hot coal fires. You don't need the brick for a wood fire so long as the stove body is sound beneath it, but brick can be repaired easily.
Other iron stoves — coal-burning ranges especially — were made with removable cast-iron liner plates. These are often missing or cracked and it is nigh impossible to find replacements. If the stove body is sound, you may be able to line the firebox with firebrick and keep a wood fire just fine.
You may find a "tin" or "airtight" stove with cast-iron firebox, doors, and top but with the body made of two cylinders of sheet metal. The tin heats up faster than iron or steel, and these stoves were used to remove the chill from the parlor or workshop quickly. Typically, the outer shell is intact, the inner one burnt out. Be sure the outer shell is sound. It will be stamped or rolled of gray-blue or pinkish "Russian" iron that's been annealed and handworked. I know of no one who makes replacements today.
You can disassemble the stove easily, as the inner shell was meant to be replaced. Iron top and bottom castings — as well as the housings holding doors and drafts — will have double flanges to bolt to both sheet-metal shells. A sheet-metal shop can fabricate a copy of the original inner liner. Or make your own; they are simple tubes, though often pressed into an oval shape.
Cut the old inner shell apart and use it as a pattern on the thickest galvanized steel sheet you can cut with tin snips. Leave an inch on each end to overlap; have it brazed together or join it yourself with steel pop rivets and seal with stove cement. You'll have to do a lot of snipping and drilling to fit the new liner to the flanges around the iron castings. But stove cement can cover minor gaps. Reassemble the stove with new bolts.
All the caveats listed above apply to old ranges. But there's more. The fire in a range is kept in a small firebox on the left hand side that is exhausted into channels. These channels carry hot gases around the oven and under a cooking surface pierced by potholes covered by removable boiling plates. It will have small versions of the coal grates, ash pan, doors, and draft controls found in any stove. But to heat the oven and exhaust smoke safely, a range contains a battery of baffles and smoke diverters that must all be in operating condition.
Typically, draft is opened direct from firebox to flue to get the fire going — usually with a single damper that's operated by a lever on the stove top just below the smoke outlet. When the flue is drawing well, the lever is thrown again and hot smoke is diverted around the range. The mechanisms that the old-time stove designers dreamed up to eke the most heat from smoke are many and ingenious — you will have to figure out how smoke is diverted and assure yourself that the controls function.
Open all doors, remove cook lids and ash drawer, and check soundness of grates and firebox. With a small flashlight, look into smoke channels under cook top as well as you can. Check soundness of interior oven liner and the exterior body that boxes in the smoke channels around the oven. Triple-check boot and the draft controls located just inside it. All metal must be sound. Main castings are too involved to be recast, so a serious crack in the stove body is terminal. Sheet-metal parts can be remade if you can get the originals out and to a metal shop. They are mighty costly, though.
All ranges have clean-out ports to let you remove fly ash from the smoke channels around the range. These must be intact, removable, and replaceable — which means plates must be unrusted and stove bolt holes sound. If a range has been sitting outdoors, or even in a damp barn for decades, the draft mechanisms and cleanouts may be rusted to uselessness. Look for another range.
Many old ranges were "modernized" in the early 20th century by having gas burners set into one side of the cook top. And the firebox may have been fitted with tall concentric-tube burners to use kerosene. Making these rigs function safely is beyond the scope of this article (and making them fire-code legal is beyond the realm of possibility in most jurisdictions). If the range comes with a cardboard box full of old coal grates, smoke lids, and other original parts, you may be able to reconvert it to wood only. Few do, and replacement parts are nigh impossible to locate. Again, find another stove.
On the right-hand side of many old ranges you'll find a water reservoir — a rectangular iron tank with an opening top and a soldered copper or zinc sheet liner to hold the water. The reservoir's left side backs to the smoke channels circulating around the oven, and it served to heat water for washing dishes. Don't trust any original liner to hold water; if a 100-year-old solder joint bursts, water can gush onto hot iron and cause a catastrophic split.
Also, don't use water from any old liner to cook with or to drink. The small amount of water-exposed lead in sweat-soldered copper plumbing pipes has been implicated in human health problems including child brain damage. Well, there's more exposed lead in the seams of an old zinc or copper water-font liner than in several housefuls of plumbing pipe. Remove the old liner and have a replacement made of galvanized steel brazed together with non-lead rod.
Before using any old stove, test the integrity of the seams (indeed, you should test your own stove periodically). First, close doors and draft openings and seal with duct tape. Then build a small, smoky fire and close the smoke damper in toe boot or stove pipe. If any smoke leaks out between seams, seal them up.
A welded-steel stove with warped plates or large gaps between plates should be discarded (or not purchased in the first place). But if only a single seam has parted a small bit, or if a boot or hinge is loose, it can be fixed. First, "proof" the stove by overheating it to force any further splits. Haul it outdoors, set it on a level spot of ground, attach a length of old stovepipe, and fire it up with dry wood, a closed door, and a full-open, high-velocity draft till the back of the stove begins to glow. Open the door and let it air cool as fast as it heated up; if the stove is going to warp or crack any more it will do so. With a steel-wire brush on an electric drill, clean metal around the fault. Then call in an experienced welder with a traveling oxygen-acetylene welding rig and let him at it. If you don't overfire the stove again, the welds should hold.
Seams between plates in iron stoves are sealed with pyroclastic stove cement (from any country hardware store) that stays plastic for a reasonable period of storage and doesn't harden till the stove is heated. With time and use, the cement will dry out and become brittle — especially when a stove is moved. It can also crack and create leaks. It's best to reseal an old stove where it will be working, just before putting it into service.
Minor leaks in bolted-plate stoves can be caulked with stove cement. Caulking multiple, major leaks won't help for long; you should tear the stove down and rebuild it with new sealant and new stove bolts. Indeed, 100 years ago, stoves were kept going full tilt to heat cold and drafty homes all winter long. With constant expansion and contraction they would get loose in the seams. Our forebears tore down their heavy iron stoves, hauled them in relatively easy-to-carry pieces from the parlor to the barn every spring (then cleaned house when spring cleaning meant something). Each fall the stoves were refastened in place with new stove bolts and new cement.
Removing Stove Bolts
Stove bolts are intentionally made of soft metal. If you can't unscrew nut from bolt, you can twist the nut or bolt head off. If that won't work, you can chisel or grind the nut or head off. If that won't work, you can drill the bolt out with a conventional high-speed drill bit without harming the hard iron. Here is the sequence of operations to get out rusted and seized stove bolts.
You will need:
A non-spray can of penetrating oil Standard slot-end screwdrivers with square or hex shanks and bit ends to fill slots in heads of your stove bolts. (Get top quality screwdrivers; the bit ends of cheap, soft-steel tools will lose their sharp edge after just a few bolts.) A small adjustable wrench to fit on screwdriver shank Box wrench and ratchet wrench with extension and socket to fit your stove's square or hex nuts A wire brush Small steel-cutting chisel Small hammer
For hard cases you may need:
A propane torch
For even harder cases you may need:
An electric drill with a small steel-wire brush and high-speed drill bits 1/32" or 1/64" smaller than bolts (7/32" and 15/32") and a small, Carborundum grinding wheel Small pointed-end steel punch A set of vice grips
First, be sure the bolt can and should be removed. Both the slotted-head and square or hexagonal nut must be accessible on either side of the joint between plates. If only the head shows, the bolt goes into a close-ended, threaded hole in the casting — which usually means it is meant to stay put and the stove can be disassembled without removing it. If you break off the head without getting the threads unstuck, you'll have to hire an experienced auto mechanic to come out and drill out the bolt, grind out the hole, and install a helicoil — so don't do it.
If bolts and nuts are rusted together and to the stove iron (a pretty common occurrence in a century-old appliance), use a wire brush to remove rust from both sides of bolts. Then wire-brush bolts and surrounding iron to bare metal. Squirt plenty of penetrating oil onto both sides of bolts and let sit overnight so that it soaks into the rust. Apply more in the morning, and let sit till afternoon. Tap both ends of bolt lightly with a small hammer. Now, using screwdriver and wrench, try to unscrew nut from bolt. Many 100-year-old, formerly rust-encrusted fittings will surprise you and come off after a sharp twist to break the locked threads.
To remove stuck but expendable bolts, you can break them. Fasten socket of wrench securely over nut, push screwdriver hard into slot of wire-brushed bolt head, and twist both in opposite directions, counter-clockwise. The bolt will snap — usually at the nut end. Punch head and shank out of the hole with hammer and punch (or nails).
If bolts are nickel plated, ornamented, or off size, you'll want to save them. Light the propane torch and heat alternate ends of bolt till penetrating oil smokes, but not so hot that the steel begins to glow. Let cool completely and try again — gently, so as not to snap the bolt. Repeat oil and torch treatment till they come loose. (They usually will if you are patient and persistent and they're not totally gone to rust.)
If all the above measures fail, use the chisel or drill and grinding wheel to remove the most accessible end of the bolt. If the nut end is impossible to reach, use the grinding wheel to mill out as much of the bolt head as you can without scarring the surrounding iron. Use the pointed punch to make a center pit in the middle of the ground-down bolt. Then drill out the shank of the bolt with a high-speed bit, You won't harm the hard iron.
Disassembling an iron stove is a three-dimensional puzzle. The simplest box stoves are made of six castings that meet in interlocking flanges and are held together with four bolts at top and bottom. They come apart just as they went together — usually from the top down. Seams between castings are not hard to discern even in the most elegant stoves; they are revealed by fine but distinct lines that are mirrored both inside and outside the stove.
In some stoves, the top casting will lift right off once the bolts holding it to the castings below are removed. This will expose the bolts holding the main body castings, which also part with ease. Other stoves — often the more ornate and sophisticated models — were made to appear seamless. Seams may be there but camouflaged by enameling or by ornate decoration, hidden under plated ornamentation or under stove-cement caps.
I saw an ornate little boudoir stove once that contained only a single bolt, and that was hidden under a stove-cement plug inside the smoke boot. All the other parts were interlocking — each plate holding the plates before it in place — like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. So be sure you have the stove figured out before you start tearing it down. If in doubt, don't experiment. You may have a one-of-a-kind antique that deserves to be restored by an expert.
Remove all bolts holding the uppermost section of the stove and scrape out stove cement in seams. Then, alternately pry with a thin putty knife or screwdriver, tap lightly with a small hammer, and work with your hands till the cement bonding the plates together begins to give. You may have to remove all bolts and wobble the stove sharply before the first plates will part. Judicious use of a propane torch may be indicated; warm casting along one side of the seam (overheating may split iron).
When all necessary castings are removed, wire-brush seams to bare metal. Repair grates and internals as needed and line with firebrick if you can. Then reassemble with new stove cement in seams and new soft-steel stove bolts of appropriate size. You may need a helper to hold plates in place while you put bolts in. The old iron plate you have balanced and held in place with a broom handle can fall and shatter. When stove is refastened, let the new cement dry for 24 hours. Then, cure it slowly by keeping a low fire for a day.
If you have split cast-iron plates, if door hinges are broken off or stove legs are broken at the knee, you can try to have the parts brazed together. But cast iron is a brittle, crystalline substance that doesn't melt and flow together in a plastic bond as does steel or wrought iron. Repaired splits in the firebox and broken hinges especially will not last. You can reinforce cracks in ornamental heating stove parts, or in the skirt or shelves of a range (parts that never get real hot) by fastening a length of strap iron across splits. This is done by putting bolts through holes that have been ground through the hard iron with a diamond bit. But the best and only permanent solution is to have the part cast anew.
Small metal-molding shops are more common than you may realize. Look in the yellow pages under "Foundries." Iron is best, but few small foundries maintain the equipment to cast it any more. Any local foundry can direct you to an iron molder; however, you may find that a brass or aluminum part will do you fine. Stoveblack can cover a myriad of sins. Take the part to the foundry boss ask him which alloy he recommends.
As your auto's aluminum engine will attest, it isn't just cast iron or steel that can withstand high temperatures and stress. The face of the casting can be dressed as smooth as you can afford. Steel hinge pins or latch blades can be molded into a pot metal casting, and your new door, draft lever, or handle will be sturdier than the original. Soft metals can be buffed, filed, and drilled more easily than iron or steel. You can have a broken door recast in a sand mold. Then you or a metal-working shop can mill the blank as needed to replace the old oven temperature gauge or nameplate. Or drill it to bolt or rivet on newly made wrought-iron hinge pins.
I had an old stove once that was useless because its complex, form-cast, one-piece L-shaped smoke boot was hopelessly fractured. I fastened it together with epoxy cement hoping it could be used as a molding pattern, but the nearest foundry couldn't reproduce it without making a "lost wax" mold. This was possible but ridiculously expensive.
They did show me how to split the boot, however, so it could be easily sand cast in two pieces. I went back to the shop and made a rough wooden pattern using circles cut from soft basswood. Then I chiseled and carved till it fit the stove and the stovepipe fit it. I cut it in half, glued small slotted wood flanges on top and bottom of both sides to hold fastening bolts, and sanded and sealed it smooth. I had the halves cast from aluminum for a bit less than $100. I had to do some grinding and filing, but the pieces bolted together with the help of a little stove cement, and a once useless stove is still heating.
Warning: Tearing down old stoves may (no, will ) expose you to asbestos. This naturally occurring mineral is not the virulent poison implied by some. But it cannot be broken down by the human body and may cause long-term health problems if inhaled. Asbestos was used as filler in stove cement from the 1800s through the 1970s. You may also find it as a gray-white kind of dusty looking material woven into coarse matting, rope, or paper, and used as insulation or gasketing inside stoves. It was also compacted into a stiff board and used as insulation or liner in ovens. Any that is exposed during disassembly should be removed.
Old stove cement can make dust, and antique asbestos mat or sheet will be dry and brittle and prone to break up and fly. Wear a dust mask when disassembling any old stove, and wet any sheet asbestos before removing it. Collect and pack old cement and asbestos in plastic sacks. You don't want it buried in your backyard or flying around the landfill so take the material to an approved asbestos-disposal facility (see "Asbestos Abatement & Removal Services" in the yellow pages). They shouldn't charge you for adding it to the refuse to be hauled away and reburied in the mines it came from originally.
Modern furnace and stove cements no longer contain asbestos but do contain caustic alkali silicates that can damage eyes and skin. Wear safety goggles and gloves when using them. If you need to replace asbestos insulation — say inside a range door — fire-resistant fiberglass drapery material will do for oven temperatures. Nearer the firebox, use benign fireproof material. High-temperature auto-gasket material will work. Or, see what fireproof fabrics and insulators your local heating contractor keeps in stock.
Burnt-out firebrick firebox liners can be replaced and creaky old stoves salvaged with firebrick, even if not so equipped originally. Go to any building supply outlet and ask for K-26 firebrick that's used to make fireboxes of built-in fireplaces. Get some tan-colored refractory cement that's used to mortar it in place as well. Then use a brick chisel to remove any old, crumbly firebrick down to sound brick or bare metal. (Wear safety glasses; old firebrick shards can be sharp as glass and will fly when hit.) If damage is minor, get firebrick repair-mortar in tubs. Scratch old surface and, with a small trowel or putty knife, smooth on new material in thin layers up to an inch in total thickness.
If an old iron firebox is cracked but still sound, you can cut a snug-fitting liner from galvanized steel, braze, or pop-rivet and stove-cement it together into an open-topped box. Bolt and stove-cement it in place and then line it with firebrick.
Firebrick is soft and you can saw or chip it to any shape you like. Whittle edges of brick as needed to form a snug-fitting, interlocking firebox bottom and liner. A hacksaw with a carbide blade will cut it like butter. Cement firebrick to metal with a thin layer of stove cement. Mix dry-powder refractory cement into a thin paste, and mortar bricks together with a very thin bead. Both brick and cement will cure and harden when stove is fired the first time. You really should consider lining the firebox of any old stove with firebrick. It needn't even be cemented if cut to fit snugly. A firebrick liner will reduce the coal bed area, but will give the stove renewed life while increasing firebox temperature. This produces a hotter, cleaner burn.
Nothing sets off a well-blacked iron or steel stove like a judicious amount of nickel plate. Some of the more elegant 19th-century parlor stoves overdid it by modern taste — with nickel plate on every protuberance, from the ornate finials on top to the foot rests and legs on bottom. Nickel was also used for decorative trim and to protect handles, oven-lip plates, and other wearing parts on premium-grade kitchen ranges — even the late-model enameled-steel models.
Economy-model restraint ranges and heating stoves made for factories or stores came with little or no nickel plating. Fancy lawyers' offices or parlor versions would've had a door with a nickel-trimmed isinglass window in a central cutout, plus nickel plate on the legs or bottom skirt and legs, and on draft plates, handles, and knobs. Columnar or potbelly stoves usually had separate ornamental nickel-plated rings bolted on around the top and the bottom skirt, and perhaps a pair of plated "wings" that extended down from the bottom as foot rests. Sometimes the primary castings were plated; often castings or part of them — such as the "knees" of the legs — were clad in separate iron castings or plated sheet metal.
Today many people gussy up eroded nickel plate or high points of economy models with silver fireproof enamel, which makes a fairly good approximation of nickel plate. But for the original deep burnished look, have removable decorative parts of your stove nickel plated. Look in the yellow pages under "Plating" or ask at any auto garage for a metal-plater who refurbishes chrome bumpers. Most chrome platers also do nickel or at least know someone who does. For about $25 a piece they can nickel-plate any parts that you can remove and replace easily. Don't be tempted to use chrome plate. It is too expensive and doesn't even offer an authentic look.
Firing Up An Older Style Stove
If your stove lacks a grate, don't build a fire directly on the steel or iron bottom plate. In the '70s, we were advised to put in two inches of sand, then maintain a thick layer of ash to protect the bottom of a stove box. I prefer to set loose firebrick on the bottom where it will absorb the heat of the coal bed and reflect it back for a hotter, cleaner burn. A course of firebrick set on end around the sides and back of any firebox, held in place by brick on the stove bottom, will reduce the fire area a little. However, this will make for a still hotter, cleaner burning firebox. Ash will infiltrate into cracks and hold brick in place so you needn't mortar it in.
If your newer airtight stove has rope gaskets around the doors, it's probably long past time to replace them. Scrape old gasket and cement out of the channels (treat as asbestos). Get some kid's clay (plasticene) from a toy store, roll it into a rope, and press a good bead in the gasket channel around the door. Close the door and latch it. The bead of clay formed by the closed door is the final compressed shape of the gasket.
From a stove shop or heating contractor, obtain modern gasket rope that is about 1/3 thicker than the clay bead. Test to be sure it will compress enough to let the door close. Then coat the channel with cement and insert rope. Smear a good coating of petroleum jelly over the lip of stove so door isn't cemented shut. Close the door overnight to let the cement set.
Burning Wood Efficiently
In your own antique stove, modern log burner, or older airtight you can achieve much of the efficiency and clean burn of an EPA stove with a little care, equipment, and common sense.
First, burn only super-dried hardwood. When cut and seasoned in the woods for a year, logs dry to about 25% moisture content. If you buy wood, know whether it is seasoned or green (not all cordwood sellers make the distinction). If seasoned, woods-cut log ends will be darker than new cut and will be cracked or checked from shrinkage. Not every end will appear aged, as loggers traditionally section trunks to eight-foot lengths and stack them in 4 x 4 x 8-foot cords; these are sectioned in the cordwood dealer's log yard.
Larger dealers usually cut cordwood to customer's stove length just before delivery. So if you order 24" wood, one out of every eight logs should show aging. With 16" wood, one out of 12 should show age. If all cut ends are bright and fresh-cut looking, and logs appear heavy and have a fresh, live odor, you are buying green wood that needs at least six months' air drying before going into the firebox. If all ends are weathered and checked, then the wood was cut to length before aging — common among part-time dealers.
To super-dry wood, order early in the spring, split all rounds, and resection large splits and stack loosely under cover in the sun over summer. Black plastic mulch over a well-ventilated stack (held off the ground by pallets) will sun warm and heat the wood for better drying. From late summer on, keep a revolving month or more supply in the cellar or back room and several days' supply near (but not too near) the stove so it will surface dry and help humidify dry, winter-heated house air.
Before we knew of smoke dangers, we'd cram an airtight full, a few times a day, close it up, and forget everything but the steady glow of warmth. These days you should tend your fire actively. Start with a small, hot blaze of kindling. In a quarter hour or so, break up partly burned sticks to establish a deep live coal bed over a fresh charge of small splits. Maintain the coal bed. Once the fire is going, close door and dampers but maintain an active airflow and add fuel frequently rather than loading up the stove and forgetting it.
An old-time trick is to super-dry and preheat logs by placing them on a hot stove top for an hour or so — but not if you plan to leave the stove for any length of time. For a night-long burn, preheat a stove load of especially well-dried quarter splits.
Break up the old load to make a coal bed, then open it up till coals are white hot. Load the stove, leaving air spaces between logs; close door and open draft and dampers to admit high-velocity draft air till the fire is roaring. Let it roar for a minute or two so that all surface moisture is driven off. (You'll also burn any creosote out of the stovepipe.) Only then should you close down for the night.
Check fire codes for up to date clearances between stove, pipe, and flammable materials. Be sure your hearth and backboard are fireproof (of steel boiler plate or cemented brick or stone, extending 18 inches around and one yard in front of stove). Disassemble old pipe and replace any that show rust. Reinstall into a metal or ceramic thimble cemented in the flue opening. Be sure all joints are snuggly mated and fastened with three metal screws through holes drilled around joint.
Assessing a Wood Stove
Some of you may be wondering whether you have a second-generation airtight. The best way to check is to look through the ads in summer and fall issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS dating from the late '70s to early '80s. You may see a 20-year-old photo of your new wood burner. But don't bother calling the company: few of the old U.S. and Canadian firms survived the fall in oil prices of the late '70s and the government emission controls of the '80s
Most second-generation stoves were made of mild steel boiler plate. In judging quality, thickness of the metal isn't as important as integrity of welds. Steel is a tough but forgiving alloy of iron that can be welded to withstand the expansion and contraction of a wood or coal fire almost forever. In welding, adjoining surfaces of plates are melted briefly and joined as one with a rod of flux-metal. A good weld is stronger than the plates it joins, but it takes a pro to do it right.
Make sure your steel stove is square, that all four feet rest squarely on the same plane, and that all plates are flat and sound. Seams should chow no cracks and welds should form a uniform, wavy filet between plates, with no hair-crack between junctures of weld and metal. Check the boot closely.