Nothing is as cozy as basking in wood stove’s warmth on blustery January nights, but planning efficient and safe stove operation is a year round activity. Well before the first frost we have our chimney cleaned and check the stove for safe operation.

August’s humid heat is a great time to anticipate plunging fall temperatures. Cool air is only a month away to be followed by frigid winter blasts. Now is the time to check the wood stove and clean the chimney. When few other people are thinking about winter.

Chimney fires are one of the great dangers of burning wood. These happen when creosote builds up on the inside of the chimney walls. This crusty stuff is flammable and can be ignited from a hot burning stove. Flames roaring up the chimney are terrifying and often set the house on fire.

At Winding Pathways we do these things to reduce the odds that our chimney will catch fire:

CLEAN AND CHECK:   In late summer we hire a professional sweep to clean and inspect our stove and chimney. A chimney sweep will remove creosote and inspect the stove and chimney to make sure they are safe. So, we start the cool season with a whistle clean chimney.

BURN CLEAN, SEASONED WOOD:    Creosote buildup is most frequently caused by burning wet or dirty wood. Wood from most pines and some other species burns with much smoke that creates creosote. Except to use a little pine for kindling we avoid burning it and other wood from coniferous trees. In general wood from trees that drop their leaves each fall, called deciduous trees, burns cleaner than pine, spruce, and fir, but it must be well seasoned.

A living trees’ wood contains an amazing amount of water needed for tree health. Wood from a recently cut live tree doesn’t burn well. It hisses as hidden water evaporates from the fire’s heat. Boiling water out of wet wood consumes energy that doesn’t end up as heat in the home and creates a cool fire that’s likely to deposit creosote in the chimney.

Wood needs to be properly seasoned. To make sure we burn dry seasoned wood we do these things:

  • Split all firewood.  Wood dries from the cut surface, rather than through the bark.  Splitting exposes much more wood to the air than unsplit pieces, so it dries quicker and more thoroughly. Generally the smaller the piece of wood the faster it will season.
  • Keep firewood off the ground and under cover. We season firewood on pallets to allow air to circulate underneath. Most of our wood is stored in a woodshed with excellent side ventilation and a solid roof to keep off rain. The rest is stored under a tarp in a breezy place.
  • Give it plenty of time.  Six inch diameter pieces of unsplit firewood could take up to two years to thoroughly cure, even when stacked in a dry place. If split and if stacked in a dry breezy place seasoning can take as little as four to six months. Seasoning usually means cutting wood this year for burning the next year’s winter. Not the on-coming winter.
  • Pay attention to species. We’ve learned to identify species by looking at cut wood and also the tree. The amount of energy held in a piece of wood varies greatly by species. For example a chunk of hickory contains about twice the heat as the same sized piece of cottonwood or aspen. We don’t turn our noses up at woods that yield less heat. Plenty of cottonwood, silver maple, box elder and aspen have kept us warm. These species may hold lower amounts of energy than oak or hickory but their wood burns cleanly if properly seasoned. Of course, we prefer oak, hickory, locust, or sugar maple but if other species are convenient and available we cut, season and burn it.

OPERATE THE STOVE CAREFULLY:   Most creosote forms when stoves are allowed to burn at cool temperatures. This normally happens when fueled with unseasoned wood or when the stove’s air intake is reduced. Choking down the air intake so a fire smolders all night is a recipe for creosote buildup. We run our stove with a brisk hot fire all day and never choke down the air intake. If our fire goes out overnight we simply light a new one the next morning.


To find a certified chimney sweep check Certified Chimney Professional.

A good chart of wood energy content by species is at Chimney Sweeps Online.

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