Wood Cookstoves – Tips and Tricks

Given a wood cookstove is the only appliance we’ve ever had in our off-grid kitchen for the last 42 years, we’ve learned lots of tips and tricks that a novice may find useful beginning with the selection of a stove, installing the stove and finally using it. Let’s talk wood cookstoves – tips and tricks.

Antique Woodstove in Maine

Antique Woodstove in Maine

Stove Selection

Old wood cookstoves are still kicking around as these things were built to last for generations unlike the modern appliances of today. The cookstove at our Maine homestead was an antique Ron found at a second hand store and rescued from oblivion. I have no doubt that if we were still living there we’d still be using this old stove.

If you’re considering resurrecting an old stove give it a thorough inspection looking for any cracks or rust both inside and out. Be sure all the parts and pieces are present and intact and be sure any moving parts move as they should. Look in the firebox and confirm the firebox liner isn’t cracked or warped. Are all the firebricks intact? Check all the stove’s seams to insure they are tight fitting. If the stove has a water reservoir, look inside to see if the liner is there.

But new stoves are still being manufactured and when we moved to the bush of northern Saskatchewan we purchased a brand new stove with the features we wanted. Each manufacturer offers various “extras”, features that can be added to the base models so you can customize the stove to fit your anticipated needs, and our manufacturer, Margin Stoves, was no exception.

We ordered our first stove from them with a warming oven, a water reservoir and a water jacket so we could set up a thermosiphon loopWe could have ordered butter/plate warmers, a warming shelf instead of a warming oven, an extra oven shelf or a different color other than black. Be aware though there will be extra charges for each feature you add to the base model.

Our Nova Scotia Stove

Our Nova Scotia Stove

For our homestead in Nova Scotia, because we were so pleased with the cookstove performance at the Saskatchewan homestead, we ordered a new stove from the same manufacturer but we eliminated the water reservoir. With the thermosiphon loop, I rarely used the hot water in the reservoir so we were able to save a few hundred dollars on the purchase price by eliminating it.

Stove Installation

The first thing to understand is that any wood cookstove must have proper clearances all around (front, back, bottom, top and both sides) to be safe. Every manufacture will give specs pertaining to these clearances. In fact our stove has a metal decal attached to the appliance spelling out these clearances. Adherence to these is not only imperative for your own safety so you don’t burn your house down but also because you don’t stand a chance of getting home owners insurance without following the manufacturer’s guidelines. It is quite likely an inspector or insurance representative will take a tape measure and measure off every dimension insuring the stove meets the specified clearances.

Typical Manufacturer's Spec Decal

Typical Manufacturer’s Spec Decal

To that end NO countertops, walls or furniture can be butted right up against the stove. This is a major difference as compared to any electric or gas stove which typically has countertops that abut it.

Nova Scotia Stove and Hot Water Tank

Nova Scotia Stove and Hot Water Tank

While this may seem strange at first, it’s easy to get used to if you think of the wood cookstove as the kitchen’s “island” and arrange the remainder of the kitchen around it.

Once placement of the cookstove is determined, begin installation from the floor up by beefing up floor joists. Wood cookstoves are heavy and if you plan to set up a thermosiphon loop, the nearby hot water holding tank will add even more weight over a small footprint. Next install ceramic tile or other flame resistant material on the floor so if any sparks or embers fly out (yes this does happen) your flooring doesn’t get scorched or worse start a fire.

Installing Fireproof Tile

Installing Fireproof Tile

As far as the chimney goes, we’ll save that topic for another day as there’s lots to address regarding that subject.

Operational Tips and Tricks

Many view woodstove cookery as an inconvenience as it takes more time than cooking with an electric or gas stove. While it’s true it takes time to build the fire and for the metal to heat up, this isn’t the disadvantage you may think if you employ the following suggestions.

Before doing anything else, get the stove going so the cooktop and oven can be heating up while you do the meal prep. At the same time, put your cast iron cooking vessels  atop the stove as soon as you light it so they can start preheating.

Now scrub the vegetables, peel/chop them, mix up the batter for baked goods, squish up the meatloaf ingredients etc etc. By the time you get stuff ready you should be able to start cooking, although in reality the oven may need a bit more time to get up to baking temperature.

Once heated up though, cooking times are virtually the same as with any other stove.

Want to speed up the process even more? If you know you will need to boil water to either cook potatoes, pasta, blanch some just picked garden veggies for the freezer or process a canner load of jars via boiling water bath, draw the water ahead of time so it has time to come up to room temperature. It will take a lot longer to bring 40°F water up to boiling than water at 70°F. In fact you’ll be amazed at how much time you save and consequently wood you save by doing this one simple thing.

Not only do I do this as a matter of routine year round but during the winter when the stove is going all day, I set the pot/pan/kettle of water off to the side on the cooktop so it’s preheated and will come up to a boil in no time flat. I use the same principal for the tea kettle of water but I keep it on a cast iron trivet so it doesn’t boil dry yet the water is warm to hot all day long.

Next ALWAYS use lids on pots. Water will come up to a boil MUCH faster if a lid is on the pot. Incidentally this is true no matter what type of stove you use.

Be efficient with the use of your stove by planning meals that use both the oven and cooktop. For example when I’m baking a pot of homemade baked beans I will make steamed brown bread on the cooktop. Or If I’m roasting a chicken I may cook a batch of homemade pudding on the cooktop or make apple slump, a dessert that’s prepared on the stove top. This approach ensures you take advantage of all the heated areas of your stove (both oven and the cooktop) and means you’re getting the most out of every piece of wood you burn. It also means less juggling of pots, pans, skillets, etc as items are distributed throughout all areas of the stove as opposed to all in one place (either the oven or the stove top)

Also be sure your stove, particularly the oven top is kept clean of ash and debris as this material effectively insulates the metal and retards its heating. Each morning before lighting the fire I’ll use the scraper tool that came with the stove to clear away ash from the oven’s top that accumulated from the day before. Once a month I give the innards of the cookstove a good scraping and twice a year Ron cleans the chimney followed by a thorough cleaning by me of the stove’s internal surfaces. All this means the cooktop and oven will heat up as fast as possible saving you time, thus increasing efficiency.

Know Your Wood and its Properties

For simplicity sake I classify wood in to 2 basic types: softwood such as pine, spruce and fir and hardwood such as birch, maple and oak. Each has its own uses and unique properties but regardless any and all wood should be properly aged and seasoned before use to minimize the risk of creosote production and chimney fires.

Cutting Firewood

Cutting Firewood

Soft woods burn hot and quick but are not long lasting. They are perfect to use as kindling to get a fire going, to burn a fire hot when you need a lot of heat such as when trying to get a boiling water bath canner filled with 7 quarts to a rapid, vigorous boil. But soft wood doesn’t have much staying power. In other words it doesn’t last long.

Hard woods burn slower and generally not as hot as soft woods, but will last longer so are perfect for items requiring long times of steady heat such as baking bread, roasting the Thanksgiving turkey and such.

Also be aware split pieces of any wood will burn faster than whole pieces and gnarly pieces with lots of knots and rough grain will burn longer than smoothed grained pieces. As such they are perfect for what I call “overnighters” for when we have a really cold night.

The point of all this is to know your wood and match it to the task at hand. Doing so will save you time and frustration.

The Economics of Wood Cookstoves

We haven’t priced new electric or gas stoves but my guess is they aren’t cheap. Neither is a new wood cookstove but when you consider our cookstove does triple duty and is built to last a lifetime we think it’s a bargain despite its high initial cost. We don’t have to purchase a separate device to heat our home nor the fuel to power it, we don’t have to pay for fuel to heat our hot water and we never have to worry about replacing a burned out element or component for either the cooktop or oven. And of course I use it for all cooking, baking and preserving.

At all 3 of our homesteads we’ve always had an unlimited supply of firewood free for the taking other than what it takes to cut it and yard it. But even if you have to buy some or all of your wood I’d seriously consider a wood cookstove. When the grid goes down you’ll be able to cook, bake, preserve, have hot water, as well as heat while the rest are without any means to do so.

Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!

Ron and Johanna

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2 Responses to Wood Cookstoves – Tips and Tricks

  1. Carolyn Perkons says:

    This is how we grew up. The wood stove not only cooked and baked our food but heated our entire home. Someone (probably my grandfather) had a square cut out of the kitchen ceiling and that was for heat upstairs. When we left to spend Christmas with my sister in Cooks Cove and returned the house was freezing cold. Mum would send us up to Elsie Calvin’s until she got the fire going and at least the kitchen warmed. In later years we also used coal and they banked the stove with coal for the night time. A coal skuttle sat beside the stove. I have voted for you but will try to do so again.

    • Ron & Johanna Melchiore says:

      Hello Carolyn. Your story brings back fond??? ( well not really fond) memories of returning home from visits with family when we lived out in the bush. The float plane would land, then we trudged through thigh high snow to get to a house that was beyond cold. We’d arrive with temps 20 below F and the house around 0 F. Before leaving, we had the stove all ready to light, not just for convenience but it might be life saving depending on situation, since once that plane flew away, we were on our own.

      As you can imagine, it took the rest of the day and night to bring that stone cold house up to something reasonable, even with the stove going full bore. A lot of mass in that house needed to be heated up. Thanks for sharing your memories.

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