Rob's Blog Archive

September 25, 2011

Fire in the Hole: My Affair with Wood Stoves










The high today was 58 F.  Right now, it’s 45 F or so.  I built my first fire of the season yesterday.  I’m thinking number two will be tonight, which is just fine by me.  I love my wood stove.

My affair with wood stoves started in 1979, in Seattle.  One of the houses we rented had a big Franklin.  Franklin stoves are inefficient to begin with, and we didn’t even use it to its full potential.  Being poor students we often used rolled newspaper rather than wood.  But it did drop our heating bill and at least kept the living room cozy.

My second significant encounter with wood stoves was at the Sonora Chateau, the house Jacques Porter and I owned in the heart of the mother lode country.  Jacques had spent several winters in the Canadian bush and she knew well the art of working a wood stove.  There were a bunch of winter nights I spent in Sonora visiting from Silicon Valley.   Being male, I took over the stove in spite of Jacques’ superior acumen.  I could start a fire, had the basic principles down, maybe, but that was it.  I’m sure Jacques was quietly amused.

It was 2003 when I ventured out of the cloistered engineering and science temples of Silicon Valley and into Montana.  I moved here with a plan to learn the art of running sled dogs.  Unlike mushing, running wood stoves was simple, something I already understood.  At least, that’s what I thought.

It took only a week to find a place to rent, a house in Huson, about fifteen minutes out of Missoula.  It was a Montana style suburb---houses were hundreds of yards apart and they were all in ponderosa forest looking over cleared pastures. 

I relied on the wood stove in that house for heat during my first Montana winter.  Being forced to heat a large house during a winter that saw several nights in the -35 F range taught me many lessons.  By my second winter here, I was still a novice, but at least I knew something. 

My home now, Silly Lake, has a great wood stove.  It’s a modern, efficient, box and it’s big enough to hold 5-8 hours of wood while putting out a lot of heat.  If I cut it back, it can stay hot for 12-24 hours.  It took me several years to learn the tricks for controlling these, but after eight winters in Montana, I do think I have a bit of honest expertise.

Of course, my wood stove apprenticeship had a few glitches too.  The guy I rented the Huson house from sold me green wood he had just cleared off of his land for $200 a cord.  He delivered 4 foot logs.  Right now, I generally pay a little more than $100 a cord for seasoned wood that is cut and split.  Of course, I suspect my first firewood dealer had to cope with at least some of the consequences of his ‘great deal.’  Green wood meant a hefty creosote build up.  I know I started a chimney fire on more than one occasion, and expect that he as a landlord had to deal with the results of these, but discovered those results only after I was long gone.

This house, too, gave me a couple of stories.  The person I bought this house from insisted that the faux rock paneling that covered the chimney was fire retardant rather than the plain fiber board the house inspector claimed.  Observationally verifying the house inspector’s claim was at least an awkward moment.  I had to tell my boss, “Got to go, the house is on fire,” and then hang up.  Of course, the faux rock was almost as tacky as the wood shingles on one of the indoor walls, so peeling it from the chimney didn’t hurt my feelings at all. 

Using the stove in Huson that first winter here not only taught me more about wood stove operation than any other box, it had a feature I had not seen before, a glass window.   My stove now also has a window through which I can watch the fire.   

There is something in us that attracts our eyes to random motions like those of falling snowflakes or a fire’s flames.  It is an urban legend among physicists that Donald Glaser came up with the idea for the bubble chamber while watching the random motion of bubbles in beer.  Not a bad thing as he won the Nobel Prize in physics for that invention. 

I have an old beat up Walmart special easy chair that sits right in front of my wood stove.  For years I’ve been planning on spending long spells in that chair enjoying the warmth radiating from the stove and reading.  I have read a little while sitting there, but usually I just end up watching the fire. 

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