Owning A Wood-Fueled Cookstove
Buying, Maintaining, and Using a Wood Cookstove
By Sue Robishaw
Steve and I knew we wanted a wood-fueled cookstove when planning our homestead so many years ago, it was in the drawings from the start. I grew up with one in the basement of our conventional house. Mostly it was just there and didn’t get used. But when we had ice-skating parties in the winter, we’d come in for hot chocolate made on the cookstove, thawing and heating ourselves by its warmth.
It doesn’t have to be -20°F to appreciate a wood-fueled cookstove — we enjoy it year-round. It’s a tool, a very important one, with a lot of soul. We live in the northwoods and burning wood for heat is common. Wood-fueled cookstoves used to be common, too. There are a few folks who make use of these wonderful appliances today and I’ve not met one who didn’t embrace theirs as enthusiastically as we do ours.
Finding and Buying
Finding an old wood-fueled cookstove is fairly easy, but finding one in good working condition and not priced high for the antique market—not quite so. Our first purchase, when we still lived in the city, taught us a lot. Friends assured us it was a great buy, worked, even came with extra grates. It was a large old beautiful dusty blue enameled Kalamazoo, well-used obviously, but it was stored inside when we saw it. We didn’t know much about what to look for then, and we took their word for it that it was usable. We bought it, moved it (heavy!), stored it, moved it, stored it, moved it, stored it, and when we tore down the storage building it was in, finally let it rest outside in the nearby woods which is where it could have gone in the beginning, and where it probably had been at one time.
The problems? Rusted out oven and burned out (as in gone) grates. The extra grates turned out to be for a different stove and didn’t fit. The cast iron top was pitted and cracked. We learned and kept looking.
We asked around, went to auctions, kept an eye open. We saw a number of nice-looking cookstoves, some priced higher than our budget, many sadly sitting outside in the weather with rusted out ovens, bad grates, bad tops. But on one trip north to visit our newly purchased property, we saw a sign for wood stoves, stopped to inquire, found out they were heating stoves, said we were looking for a cookstove. The owner sent us down the road to a neighbor’s place, said he was pretty sure he had one. Down we went to meet an interesting man who had been a saw sharpener during the logging days. We would have loved to spend the day just talking to him and looking through the many tools of his trade hanging on the walls, but we simply inquired about a wood-fueled cookstove. Yes, he had one. Off in a dark corner, buried under old tires and odds and ends, he unearthed an old cream enameled cookstove. He said it was from a nearby lighthouse and had been stored since it was moved from there. Dirty but sound, his price was low. Steve asked if we could pick it up on our way home, and we drove off, excited about our new purchase, dusty and rusty though it was. I was a bit dubious, but Steve had looked it over and was sure it was the cookstove for us.
Back in our city garage he worked on it through the winter, cleaning and sanding and polishing. The rust and dirt came away to reveal a nice cooking stove, a Eureka, obviously used but not abused and with a history besides. It had cooked and baked many a meal, and I couldn’t wait to add my own. A few years later we installed it in our small newly built cabin, then later in our house, and it has been in use in its second life for more than 30 years now.
One certainly can buy a new wood-fueled cookstove, and there are lovely ones as well as simple boxes available. I’m sure they work well, too. But if you want a previously seasoned article, think about what you want, look around, ask around, explore the used territory and find a stove that will be happy to go back to work. There are many makes and models but most operate similarly. Here are some things to look for and consider:
• Is the oven sound, including the top? Tap around inside and make sure it is a solid box. Take the cast iron pieces off the top of the stove and look down at the top of the oven. Be prepared—this is not a clean operation! The smoke and heat from the fire, when directed so, goes across, down and under the oven box thereby heating it. An oven box with holes won’t work. Although cast iron is pretty durable, the oven is most likely made of enameled sheet steel. A stove left outside in the rain collects moisture on the oven top and the resulting rust has disabled many a good cookstove.
• Is there an oven rack? If not, you might be able to make a replacement if you’re handy, or find something similar that would work. The original would be easiest though.
• Is the cast iron top whole, not cracked, warped or pitted? Surface rust, grease and dirt can be cleaned off, but pits mean a bad past and would make it hard to keep clean. If pieces are missing you might find a replacement part if you can find a discarded stove of the same make and model, but I’d find the pieces before buying the stove. If the top is cracked or warped look elsewhere.
• Are the grates in the firebox whole and in working order? These grates allow ashes to sift down into the ash box below. Ours are two pieces of molded cast iron that can be rotated with a removable handle (rather like a spark-plug wrench and often at the other end of a lid lifter). Turned one way it makes a solid platform for burning wood, or the other way a more open grate to burn coal, though I prefer the coal side for wood, too. The handle also allows you to wriggle the grates to help knock the ashes down. Your grates don’t need to rotate, of course. A small poker can help knock ashes down.
• Does the firebox have liners in place? Ours are cast iron and had one piece missing but Steve was able to fashion an adequate replacement from heavy sheet steel.
• Is there an ash pan below the firebox? If not, this wouldn’t be that hard to form out of metal.
• Does the draft mechanism on the side and/or front of the firebox work?
• In the back center of the top of the stove is a knob that slides back and forth—if it works—operating a door that directs the heat up the chimney (when the oven is “off”), or around the oven (when it is “on”). If this is broken, doesn’t slide or isn’t repairable keep looking.
• Does the oven door work? Does it stay closed? This seems to be a weak link in these old stoves and I’ve seen many solutions from a screen door toggle closure to a poker or stick run through the handle of the adjacent door. This latter was ours for many years until Steve took the door off and repaired the hinges. After they broke again when the door unexpectedly opened and slammed down, he re-repaired them and added a safety wire from bicycle brake cable that catches the door before it hits that break-open spot. He also adjusted the closing latch so it doesn’t let loose unexpectedly.
• Is there a good thimble on the back of the stove that connects to a regular chimney pipe? This is important as it would be very hard to retrofit, and probably difficult to find a replacement, though certainly not impossible.
• Does the stove include a water reservoir? Ours did but the box leaked so we simply took it out. One could make a new one but a kettle of water on top of the stove works as well so we’ve never bothered. This leaves an intriguing small warm space accessible from above or the front that could have any number of uses.
• Do you want enclosed warming ovens above the stove, or just a shelf, or nothing? Ours has an open shelf which is perfect for my uses and very handy.
• Soot cleaner? A small rectangle of metal attached to a long handle allows you to clean the soot out of the bottom, between oven floor and stove bottom—a necessary chore and a necessary tool that is easily made if it is missing.
• Is there a lid lifter to fit the eyes on the stove? Our stove has two round eyes over the firebox, with flat panels over the oven and a hinged lid over the water reservoir. One of the eyes is obviously a replacement as they require different sized lifters. Lifters can often be found in antique stores and at old farm auctions. Taking an eye out and setting your pot directly over the flame is hotter faster but it also blackens your pot.
• Is the stand the stove sits on in good shape?
• Is the enamel (if the stove is enameled which most I’ve seen are) in reasonable condition? Does it please you? You’ll be looking at it a lot so might as well get something you like.
This is a woodburning stove so use common sense in installing it into your abode no matter how humble or palaceous. We have a pad of cement under our stove and it backs onto mostly masonry. There is a large wooden post near the firebox side so we put a heat barrier made of foil glued to sheetrock, spaced an inch out from the beam. This makes a handy spot to store the soot cleaner and poker.
Stovepipe runs should be as simple as possible, installed with the usual safety considerations. Our cookstove and heating stove both go into the same chimney but they come in at different levels. Steve custom fit the stovepipes of both so they attach at an upward slope, not a 90-degree right angle. This arrangement has worked well and makes a rather interesting looking sculpture. The main pipe is thick walled 6″ well pipe. This piece will probably still be standing long after our house has rotted into the ground! The pipe from stoves to main is 6″ regular black metal stove pipe, fitted and screwed together.
Both dampers (rotating plates in the stovepipes) have been modified so they are solid and can be used to isolate whichever stove is not in use. This gives us a better draft in the stove we are using and is a safety factor in the event of a chimney fire.
The heart of the stove is the fuel that you put into it, and it is up to you whether it starts, burns and heats well, or not. There are ideal woods, and not-so-ideal woods, favorites depending on availability in your area, but the number one characteristic for me is that it be dry—not green or wet. The harder hardwoods make the hottest fires, but when we were building our cabin and house we had a lot of pine cutoffs and scrap so that is what we used in the cookstove. It worked. But I prefer maple or ironwood. Cherry and birch are okay. When we have poplar it goes to the heating stove—it just doesn’t burn long enough or hot enough to bother for the cookstove.
We live in the midst of a beautiful mixed hardwood forest so getting good wood isn’t that hard. When we cut wood for heating, Steve saws one- to four-inch diameter branches and dead saplings into trailer length pieces to be hauled back to the sawbuck. There they are stacked until he has time to saw them into cookstove lengths (14″ in our case) with the electric (solar-powered!) chainsaw. Having a good supply of dry wood in the woodshed is top priority. Burning green wood is futile—you might as well go into town for a pizza.
Good kindling is valuable way beyond the inches of wood it is made of. If you are building, those scraps and ends and pieces of pine take on a worth almost equal to the piece they are sawn from. Anything suitable for kindling is piled by the shop and split as needed into a box near the stoves. Kindling large and small is important. I’ve broken branches off dead fir trees into boxes for small kindling, and we often collect dry pine cones for starters. When (mostly Steve now) is carving, wood shavings are our usual firestarter. You might get by with not-so-dry main wood, but you’ll have a hard time getting even dry wood going without good kindling.
Operating the Cookstove
I still remember the excitement and fun of starting the first fires in our cookstove. It is a simple process but one that lets you know, usually with a roomful of smoke, when you’ve messed up a step. Each stove has its quirks and idiosyncrasies which you’ll soon discover, but I think they are similar in operation. This is how we get a fire going in ours:
Open the damper in the chimney pipe (you did remember to install one didn’t you?), the draft on the side of the firebox, and the oven lever (that sliding knob on the top of the stove which directs the fire/heat around the oven when shut or directly up the chimney when open). Layer into the firebox crumpled newspaper or scrap paper (not glossy if you’re going to use the ashes in your garden); starter (pine cones, wood shavings, dry bark, small sticks); kindling; small wood pieces. Don’t jam it all in tight; it needs air, so stack accordingly. Light the paper and make sure things get burning before closing the firebox door. When the fire is going well, add some larger wood. When it is all burning, damper down by sliding the oven lever to “shut,” then close the damper and draft some or a lot, depending on your fire and needs.
There is no hard and fast rule for how to set the various dampers and drafts; it’s something you’ll learn by trial and error. If the smoke is coming out of the stove into the room and not up the chimney, open drafts and dampers and oven slide. If the fire is roaring, close them. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it. Keep an eye on the fire. If you don’t put wood in, the fire will go out, and you’ll have no heat to cook with.
Cleaning the Cookstove
If the stove seems not to be drawing so well when you shut the oven lever then it is probably time to clean the soot out from under the oven. Spread out a generous supply of newspaper in front of the stove, open the little door that is in the center bottom (or side). (Ours is behind an enameled strip that snaps out.) With a flashlight look in and you will probably find the area full of soft light soot. Take your long-handled soot cleaner tool (the metal scraper just fits through this access opening) and pull the soot out onto your newspapers. Keep scraping, don’t forget to do the ceiling and sides, until it is clear. Soot is incredibly light, and black, so best do this when there is no traffic around, and don’t sneeze.
Ashes also build up on the top of the oven box but not nearly so much as the soot accumulates below. Once in a while take the top pieces off the stove and gently scrape some of the ashes off, but leave a thin layer to help even the heat in the oven. Also, check down the side of the oven box and scrape that clean, then clean out the bottom as above.
A smallish poker can be handy, as is a small metal ash shovel. Normally, I take the ash pan out to empty it but there are times when I discover the ash pan is overfull. I’m in a hurry, the snow is deep and cold and I don’t want to put on boots to go out, so I simply shovel some of the ashes into a metal bucket to empty later. A soot clean-out tool is necessary, as is the lid lifter (which also doubles as fire box door opener on our stove).
The space under the cookstove is handy for storing the wood, but a separate box for kindling and starter is nice. And a pile of good potholders is important. Everything on the cookstove is usually hot so grab a potholder before a handle. They tend to get grungy fast so if that bothers you look for dark-colored potholders or cover what you have with dark material. I just figure that’s the nature of the beast; wash them now and then, and toss them when they get too bad. A small broom helps to keep the wood crumbs and ashes under control around the stove.
Water and rags keep the enamel clean. A bit of baking soda will help with difficult spots. The top maintains itself pretty well. An occasional wipe with a damp rag when the stove is warm is about all I do, unless there is a spill. Depending on where it is, what it is, or how bad it is, it may just burn off. Sandpaper works well on burned-on remnants. An occasional wipe with vegetable oil helps keep the cast iron looking good, just as it does on cast iron cookware. The only major disaster I’ve had is when I turned my back on boiling maple syrup once. It took just a few seconds for it to boil over and my, what a mess (and smell)! I grabbed a metal scraper, quickly pushed as much as I could off the top, let the fire go down and started in with rags and lots of water. It cleaned, as did the floor and me. Never did that again.
Special cookware isn’t necessary and you’ll soon learn what you like. Cast iron pans and cast iron woodstoves seem made for each other though. But I like cooking in cast iron on any stove. Wood spoons fit in great; plastic doesn’t. We always have kettles of water on whichever stove is going.
Cooking on the wood-fueled stove is in many ways no different than cooking on any other heat source. You don’t need special recipes though as some things lend themselves particularly well to a wood-fueled cookstove. And I suppose fussy desserts and such may not be so easy, but I avoid anything fussy. I have baked a few cakes and pies over the years with success and very little experience so it isn’t that hard. But the temperature is definitely more variable than in a gas or electric range. It goes up and down with the fire, but you can learn to build and maintain a steady fire if it is needed. Or simply don’t bake anything that is that picky and just strive to keep the fire going at a moderate pace.
I love the range of temperatures on the stove top, moving things a little or a lot to fine-tune the cooking. You get more involved than with a gas/electric stove—you do have to keep putting wood in. What I cook is much more dependent on the seasons than the fact that I cook on a woodstove. But then, I also cook in the solar oven, on the wood heating stove, and on a two-burner gas stove (for quick heats when nothing else is going). I’ve found I cook as much with my ear as with my eye, listening for the subtle sounds of boiling or not, fire burning or not, hissing or spitting or silence. And your nose will certainly tell you when the cookies are burning, hopefully a few minutes before they are completely charred.
Canning is easier in some ways, a little more challenging in others. The large variable temperature cooktop outweighs the difficulties for me. And it’s much easier to scooch and pull a big heavy canner full of hot whatever across the top than to lift it. You can adjust the temperature by moving to a hotter or cooler spot, but you do need to keep a fairly constant eye/ear on it because the temperature fluctuates with the fire. And don’t forget to keep putting wood in. The pressure canner is a bit trickier because of the fluctuation and it takes more attention than with a gas or electric range, but it is certainly doable.
I sometimes set my jars along the side opposite the firebox to warm, and the lids are ready in hot water in an out-of-the-way spot. Fruit juice is easily ladled from hot stockpot to jars right on the stove. Canning time is when the wood cookstove really shows its stripes.
We use our wood-fueled cookstove as much for heat as for cooking. There is only maybe one month in the year that we don’t appreciate a little extra heat in our house, and I seldom need to use the cookstove in the middle of summer anyway. The heat is fast compared to our soapstone heating stove and we’ll often get a fire going in the cookstove first to take the chill off then transfer the coals to the heating stove for a longer heat. Many times the cookstove fire is all we need, it will last surprising long with large chunks of good wood. It’s great to get up on a chilly morning, quickly fire up the cookstove, open the oven door, and sit down to breakfast next to its comforting heat. It’s a warmth you just can’t get from a furnace. Even better is when you wake up to the sounds of your mate getting the stove going before you get up! Many a cool morning finds us playing music in front of the cookstove before heading off to the chores of the day. The day can’t help but be good when started in that fashion. Our wood-fueled cookstove is truly an appreciated companion on our homestead.
What advice do you have on buying, maintaining, and cooking on a wood-fueled cookstove?
Originally published in the January/February 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal.