How to Choose the Right Woodstove

Follow this step-by-step advice to find the woodstove of your dreams.


Why not heat with wood? It's a green heating option that also makes you more self-reliant.


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Have you considered heating with wood? In many parts of North America, firewood is cheap and plentiful, so wood heat could potentially save you money. Not only does a woodstove give you a re­liable source of heat even when the power goes out, it’s also a green option, because wood is a renewable resource when har­vested sustainably.

Deciding which woodstove to buy can be tough, however, even if you’ve been heating with wood for years and are simply looking for a replacement stove. You’ll find a huge range of options in sizes, shapes, materials and technologies. Also, there are few recognized woodstove experts and no reliable ratings that use consistent criteria to fairly judge all the options. So how do you choose the best woodstove for you?

Woodstove Dealers and Brands

I recommend finding a good dealer first, then selecting from that store’s stock. Working for more than 30 years in the wood heating business has taught me that no one can tell you exactly what stove to buy, because all kinds of personal prefer­ences influence the final choice. However, a good dealer can be a great resource. Look for one who has been in the business for a number of years, heats his or her home with wood, and has burning models in the showroom. Keep in mind that only people who burn wood regularly can give you reli­able advice about woodstoves.

Next, pay attention to woodstove brands. In my opinion, the ideal stove is built by a company with at least 20 years’ experience in wood heating because it’s more likely to honor the warranty and continue to carry replacement parts.

For example, the stove in my house is a Super 27 built by Pacific Energy. The model has been on the market more than 20 years, and its combustion system has been revised at least twice during that pe­riod, mostly to make it more durable. I’ve rebuilt three older versions of the Super 27, one of my own and two for friends who own them. The current parts found in new stoves fit perfectly in older stoves that were originally sold with quite differ­ent internal parts. You can certainly find other stove manufacturers that follow the same thoughtful approach when they up­grade their products.

In fact, a sizable group of North American stove manufacturers has been around long enough to learn what makes people happy with their products. These are the makers of mid-priced steel stoves, a category that dominates the market. Over the years, I’ve watched these com­panies and been impressed with their corporate stability and product consis­tency. These brands include Quadrafire, Lopi and Avalon (both made by Travis Industries), Regency, Pacific Energy, and some regionally popular brands including Buck, Harman and Blaze King. In addi­tion to this group of mainly steel stove manufacturers, the Jøtul brand of cast-iron stoves merits a mention because this company’s products seem to consistently satisfy people’s needs.

Of course, this is just a sample of the many good brands you can choose from, and even among these brands there may be stoves that do not meet expectations. The brands I am most familiar with have all, at one time or another, produced a dud stove that didn’t perform well or that had features people didn’t like. I have also heard users complain about stoves that I think are among the best, which just goes to show that tastes differ widely.

Woodstove Features

To choose a woodstove you’ll be truly happy with, you should also review some com­mon features of woodstoves and consider how they will affect you during your day-to-day use of the stove.

Materials. Most woodstoves are made from either welded steel or cast iron, and with today’s stoves, there’s no difference between the two in performance or du­rability. The choice is strictly one of per­sonal preference.

Soapstone stoves are a special case. The stone on the stove absorbs heat and re­leases it slowly, thereby evening out the normal fluctuations in woodstove output. While this has some advantages, it also tends to mean that soapstone stoves are slow to respond when heat is needed. If you’ll be running your woodstove con­stantly all winter, and will rarely need to start it cold, a soapstone stove may be a good fit for you — or maybe you just love the look of a soapstone stove. In any case, you’ll want to be aware of its particular characteristics before buying one.

Combustion System. Some stoves use a catalyst to clean up smoky exhaust, and others use special firebox features to do the same job. The basic trade-off is that catalytic stoves can burn cleaner on aver­age than “non-cats” and can be more ef­ficient under some conditions, but “cats” are also more complicated to operate and their maintenance costs can be higher.

An experienced dealer of catalytic stoves once said that cats work well for techni­cal types — the kind of people who tinker with antique sports cars. But for users with little mechanical aptitude, a non-cat may be a better choice. Non-cats normally have only one operational control, and they’re more tolerant of various firing techniques.

Heating Capacity. Selecting the right size of woodstove for the heating load is a challenge, because manufacturers’ perfor­mance specifications are not standardized and can be misleading. For example, one common measurement is the maximum heat output rating, but knowing this number is about as meaningless as know­ing the top speed of a car — you should never use it. Heating capacity in dwelling square footage can also be misleading, be­cause regional differences in climate and home construction make for a wide range of heating loads per square foot. This is where an experienced dealer can be a big help. Dealers learn how each stove be­haves and know how satisfied customers have been with various models.

Log Length. Some manufactur­ers’ specification sheets imply a firebox that takes long pieces is an advantage, but you’re unlikely to need this feature. Commercial firewood dealers usually cut wood to a standard length of 16 inch­es — with good reason. Most people find pieces longer than 16 inches too awk­ward and heavy to handle comfortably.

Handling Coals and Ash. Look for a stove in which the firebox floor is at least 3 inches below the doorsill. This drop will help keep live coals inside the fire­box — and off your floor — while you’re doing normal fire management.

Ash pans are a common optional fea­ture, but many stove shoppers demand an ash pan on the assumption that it will make ash removal easier and neater. This may be true in some cases, but many of the ash pans I’ve seen and used are worse than not having one. Some are so shallow they can’t hold more than a day or two of ash production. Some involve removing a plug from the firebox floor, which can be a fussy, time-consuming job. Others are designed so poorly that when they’re removed for emptying, ashes are likely to spill all over the hearth. Compared with dealing with badly designed internal ash pans, the regular use of a small bucket and shovel isn’t so bad — I haven’t used an internal ash pan for many years and am a happier woodburner for it.

Woodstove Shape and Door Features. Manufacturers like to offer stoves that are wider than they are deep. These stoves project less into the room compared with other shapes, and they offer a wide ex­panse of glass for a panoramic view of the fire. Both of these advantages may seem attractive in the showroom, but they can have unfortunate consequences when you start using the stove. For example, a wide loading door can be awkward be­cause you have to move back from the stove to allow it to swing open.

Also, the wide but shallow firebox gives a so-called east-west firebox ori­entation, meaning that when looking through the glass door, you see the sides of the logs. East-west loading limits the amount of wood per load because logs can fall against the glass if you fill the stove more than about half full. North-south loading, in contrast, tends to be best for full-time winter heating because more wood can be loaded for the coldest nights, and there is no risk of logs roll­ing against the glass. The best of both worlds is a firebox with a roughly square floor so you can choose which way to load logs.

Top Loading. This can seem like a great feature when inspecting stoves on the showroom floor, but top loaders can be messy to maintain. Also, the chim­ney must produce strong draft to keep smoke from rising out of the open top. If you have an outside chimney or must have elbows in the flue pipe, a top load­er could contribute to poor indoor air quality by spilling exhaust whenever it is loaded. Finally, top loading does not allow for precise log placement, which can lead to serious frustration when try­ing to load firewood.

Final Thoughts for Choosing the Best Woodstove

Here’s a three-step process to go through when determining how to choose a woodstove that is right for you. These steps virtually guarantee your new stove will meet your needs.

1. Go through the discussion of fea­tures in this article and rule out the woodstoves that don’t make sense for you and your family.
2. Of those left, match the stove’s heat output and features to your needs based on your climate zone, house size and house configuration (using advice from a trusted dealer).
3. Of all the stoves that meet the first two criteria, choose the one most attractive to you.

Follow these steps, and you can’t go wrong.

Read more: To get more advice from John Gulland, check out some of his previous MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles on energy efficiency and safety.

John Gulland is a wood heat consultant and educator who has been working with woodstoves since 1974. Visit Wood HeatJohn's online organization, to learn more.  

5/5/2016 3:59:46 PM

Look at Jotul stoves. They come from Norway and have been making them for + years. I have 3, large to small and have been heating with wood for 40 + years. Best stove on market as far as I'm concerned. I have looked at them all.

11/25/2015 10:28:51 AM

I have three homes in distinctly different locals, and use wood for my primary source of heat in all three. I installed a Pacific Energy steel stove in an 800 sf cabin back in the 90s and it has gotten a lot of use-excellent product and on the lower end of the cost scale. The other houses have inserts in fireplaces. I have also installed higher end woodstoves in two other houses that I have owned over the past two decades. My suggestions would be: Buy a good quality stove-up front cost will have a payback over the years. The cheaper steel stoves heat up quicker but lose heat quicker when the fire burns out, than cast iron or soapstone clad stoves. The fireplace inserts were a GREAT improvement-if you have a fireplace, put an insert in it-you'll never (after you have paid it off:{))regret the purchase. I agree with the article; find a retailer and do appropriate research on line, but stick with the brands that have a good reputation. Wood stoves can be easily installed by someone with moderate skills (be sure to get a permit) but I would recommend that inserts be installed by professionals. Pellet stoves do not provide the ambiance of a wood fire, but are efficient and carrying in a bucket of pellets is easier than chopping wood. Oh, get a stove with the bigger glass door, you'll enjoy the fire more!

10/9/2013 2:23:29 PM

If I knew how to find a good dealer, I might not be reading this article.

10/9/2013 2:22:10 PM

If I knew how to find a good dealer, I might not be reading this article.

ryan carpenter
1/19/2012 7:43:00 PM

That is a Vermont Castings Encore with Side shelves

ryan carpenter
1/19/2012 7:41:42 PM

It is a Vermont Castings Encore

ryan carpenter
1/19/2012 7:40:56 PM

That is a Vermont Castings Encore with Side shelves

samantha jane dings
1/19/2012 1:32:52 AM

To those wondering what stove is in the picture on page one... it looks an awful lot like the one that is heating my family room right now, a Vermont Castings Intrepid II.

willnot answer
1/18/2012 8:32:23 PM

I shopped around and purchased a Lopi Endeavor with the glass front. It's a medium size stove with a cook top and it has a catalyst burn. I have used this stove for 10 years and it's one of the BEST purchases I have ever made. The glass front allows us to see the fire on those quiet evenings, and the blower pushes the heat through the entire house. It's a simple stove to use and has paid for itself twice over. So far I have not even had to replace the seal. The quality is top notch! One note of warning to folks who burn a lot of wood though....For 5 years I cleaned my pipes myself...I NEVER had a single issue Then we tried the "sticks" they sell that burn different colors and keep the flue clean. NEVER AGAIN!!! Since using it I can't keep the smaller particles it creates from clogging up the screen on my spark catcher. There is NOTHING worse than having to climb on the roof in freezing rain to clean that darned screen!! I will NEVER try to save THAT pain again! I am now HAPPY to climb up and clean my pipes!!

t jonez
12/12/2011 10:44:52 AM

I too like the stove on the fist page of this post and would love to know what kind it is. Please Mother Earth help by giving us that info. Thanks

maria zielinski
12/9/2011 7:55:53 PM

Would you please give some comparisons between wood, coal and pellet stoves? I am physically not able to handle the wood preparation any more, so the cost of wood heat goes up when you have split and stacked added to the purchase. I used to have a Harman dual furnace in which I burned wood and coal....loved the heat it produced. Am very interested in quality, price of operation and overall longevity.....

elizabeth pepper
12/9/2011 6:45:03 PM

Thanks Eric. It's about what I figured. We live in the Piedmont of NC and there are a lot of days in the winter when our heat doesn't even come on. Our home is a double wide and when the temp is above 50 and the sun is out our home stays warm. At night it usually drops down to near freezing and then the heat runs. Then of course there are days when it is cold enough to run the heat all day. All I can envision is a nightmare of deciding when to start the wood heat going and letting it burn down and then the worry of getting it started in time so we all aren't sitting around in our long-johns and coats waiting for it to get warm. LOL

eric moore
12/9/2011 6:15:51 PM

Elizabeth, you have to be care with efficiencies, the rated efficiency that many publish is the EPA's calculated efficiency and I'm not sure it is a real number. I think it may be a "category". Somebody more knowledgeable can correct me. I'll give my opinion - I have been used a Woodstock Soapstone stove for 5 years. I run it 24/7 from October - March. I load wood in this stove 3-4 times a day and the burn time is betrween 8-12 hours as they say it is. Their customer service is second to none. The stove puts off gentle heat and will not run you out of the room. The stoves are expensive, but it is also a lifetime type purchase as it is very well made.

elizabeth pepper
12/9/2011 5:27:57 PM

I don't see anything in the article about efficiency of different wood stoves? Or is that a fallacy that is in the advertising of the different manufacturers?

jennifer andersen
12/9/2011 5:05:32 PM

I like the wood stove shown on the first page of this article. Does anyone know the model and manufacturer?

brenda barton
12/9/2011 3:53:49 PM

We inherited a Pacific Energy Super Series 27 stove with our new house, and we really like it but it needs refurbishing. Does anyone have any recommendations for parts suppliers?

deeann downing
12/9/2011 2:59:11 PM

I can recommend what stove NOT to buy. RAIS stoves does not back up their products. Per the US distributor's recommendations, I have added $600 in modifications (pipe extension & fresh air draw) to make the stove burn properly. My old stove burned strong for years, but lacked the emissions standards claimed by Rais. Funny thing is that I often have black smoke coming out my chimney whether burning fir, pine or pinyon (yes dry). The manufacturer hasn't made right on their claims, guarantees, nor even offered to reimburse me for the $600 of "fixes" that didn't work. Funny thing is that I spent all this money to heat with wood responsibly when all I'm doing is polluting the air for the little heat I get.

tim sefton
11/17/2011 3:33:08 PM

We working on a project developing and building a low cost stirling engine for electrical generation that would work well with wood stoves - We are targeting a building cost of $110 for a 1KW output -