Cooking and Heating with Wood
Cooking and Heating with Wood
A Pioneer Princess seated in the Livingston’s small kitchen.

Cooking and Heating with Wood

by Khoke and Ida Livingston
illustrations by Stephanie Smith

The warm radiating heat that comes from a wood cookstove just cannot be duplicated by gas or electric heat. But we all know that thermometers can only gauge what a temperature is, not what it feels like. Another benefit to wood heat is that it warms you twice. Once while you are cutting the wood and then again when you burn it.

My house is small and so my wood cookstove is dual purpose. I cook on it but it also heats our house sufficiently. But this dual “heats our house sufficiently” part becomes a problem in the summer and so I don’t. Meaning, I clean out and close down my Pioneer Princess in May and she waits until late September to be fired up again.

Summertime still finds me cooking with wood, only outside in my summer kitchen. Most of the summer kitchens I have seen were usually on a porch near a kitchen door, often but not always screened in. My summer kitchen is not attached to my house and is a sort of outdoor pavilion with a rusty little Vogelzang stove to cook on and a couple stainless cauldrons to do the bulk of my canning in plus plenty of counter space to work on. We call it our cookshack but it is more like a Hang-Out shack where people gravitate to talk, eat and distract me from my work. But then, I can distract myself from my work without any help at all…

Anatomy of a Stove

Stoves have evolved to where they now come equipped to operate well in the capacity of their design. Some are designed to maximize the BTU’s burned within them to heat a space efficiently. Others are designed to shift the heat to different parts of the stove for an efficient cooking experience by redirecting the airflow with the knobs and valves there to do so. On a side note, BTU’s are British Thermal Units, a measure of heat or energy in a fuel source. One BTU is the equivalent of the heat generated by one burning match.


Most wood cookstove tops are a thick plate steel that serves as a surface conductor for the energy transfer between the firebox and the tea kettle. This stovetop radiates heat and you can move your pans around to find the hotter or cooler temperatures you need. Although I never have, I have seen people toast bread and other things directly on the wood cookstove top. This requires a very clean surface and it can raise the chance of grease fire. I would just rather clean the skillet that I can take off the stove.

Although my stove has a door for front-loading firewood, it also has a removable eye on the stovetop that one could technically load wood into as well. My stovetop has two 11-inch diameter cut outs that can be removed with an eye-lifter to expose either the firebox or the top of my oven. There may be stoves with no eyes but a lot of the ones I have seen usually have 2 or 4 eyes. They help make all parts of the stove interior accessible for cleaning.


Everyone likes a nice big oven because you never know when it is going to have to roast a 55 lb turkey. Actually I did that once. She was a homegrown meat turkey named Big Bill because in the mixed turkey chicks we got from the hatchery she was so big that we thought she was a he. Big Bill was a sweet girl and we loved her. She lived longer than most of her contemporaries for this reason. When she could hardly walk, literally could hardly walk because she was too heavy, we butchered and baked her. For many, many hours. That turkey filled up an entire large oven.

Back in the rest of our life, the oven usually has 2 racks with several levels you can choose from to adjust them to. Set too low can burn the bottom of your cookies, set too high and you can brown them before they really bake. But nowhere in the oven is safe when it is that last pan of cookies that you forgot. In the meantime, we try to find that sweet spot somewhere near the middle for ideal baking.

Cleaning Panels

Most wood cookstoves have cleaning panels behind and/or in front of the oven. My main one is just below the oven door. This can be unscrewed and removed to pull out ash and creosote.

If I procrastinate too long and don’t clean out around my oven in a timely manner it can block airflow and smoke just comes out the dampers. This forces me to open the valve that allows the air to just go out the chimney instead of circling the oven first. This effectively disables my oven.

To clean out the ash and creosote buildup, I let my stove die down to embers and then I take out the stovetop eye that is over the oven. Using the long handled push/pull tool that came with the stove, I push the ash blanket over the edges of the oven box. Then I open the bottom cleaning panel and pull the ash and creosote out through it, scraping the far corners as well as I can to get it all out.

Once my stove is completely cleaned out, I am bound to burn half the things I try to bake for the next few days. That ash blanket insulates and once removed the oven temperatures can spike faster than I am used to.

Often heating stoves don’t have these cleaning panels as they don’t have an oven to try to clean around. However a good commercial wood heating stove will have a panel in the back that you can remove to clean out creosote back by the stovepipe.

It is not a good idea to shovel hot coals out of your firebox with a spade or regular outdoor shovel, use your coal shovel, it is designed for this. If you use your garden shovel it can change the temper of the steel, softening it and then it will not hold an edge as well.

Warming Rack or Warming Oven

My stove has a warming rack, just a metal shelf above the stove where I lay my spatula or set a bowl of bread dough to rise. Some stoves have a warming oven which is an enclosed shelf with a door. This keeps the shelf warmer.

My great-grandfather, William Mars, was a tiny preemie baby who was saved in one of these warming ovens. He was about two pounds when he was born. They wrapped him in soft cloth and laid him in a shoebox which was kept in the warming oven to stay warm enough. They had to monitor the stove carefully so the warming oven did not get too warm or too cool. When he was born he lost both his parents during the Influenza outbreak in the 1918, yet he managed to survive. He was incubated post-birth in a wood cook stove warming oven.


A water reservoir is an accessory available to most wood cookstoves. Some sit across the back of the stove below the warming rack. Others, like mine, sit beside the oven and under the last stretch of stovetop. This is the coolest side of the stove but it too can get hot. I have steamed fingers trying to get that reservoir lid open. Internally there is an air gap between the oven and the reservoir so that hot air can circulate around the oven to heat it evenly. This hot air is indeed hot and it also heats the reservoir.

My reservoir heats my dishwater and bathing water. Khoke dips warm water out of it and into a bucket on cold winter days. Neither he nor the cow want her udder washed with cold water. I have stuck reeds and weaving willows in my reservoir water when basket making. I broke a jar of ghee on my stovetop once and had most of it run into my reservoir. It is always a pain to have something go wrong when you don’t even have time for everything to go right.

A reservoir should not be dry unless the stove is cold. The water level should not be less than 2 inches at any time. Ideally it should be full of hot water, it also helps absorb extra heat and can have a moderating effect on the stovetop and oven temperatures. But if hot and empty it can warp the reservoir and I know someone whose dry reservoir cracked.


The stove door usually opens from the front. A few stoves are top loading: opening for wood from the top but these are not the best design (my personal opinion of course). Whatever you have going on on your stovetop must be moved every time you need to add wood.

Some of these stove doors have a heat resistant glass pane in them. It is tough but not unbreakable. Care must be taken to not break the glass as it will render the stove unusable until replaced. Those of us who shove wood in with the stove door should not have a glass pane in that door. The glass will also blacken from the smoke. This glass can be cleaned relatively easily with a scrub made from moistened ash and then wiping it clean.


Most stove fireboxes are lined with firebrick to protect the metal in your stove. They also insulate, helping to keep and direct the heat to where it needs to go. Firebrick can degrade with much use and if they start to fall apart, they will need to be replaced or you can eventually permanently damage your stove. Cracks in the brick are not usually a problem, but crumbling and falling firebrick is.

Ash Drawer

Speaking of ash, some stoves come with an ash drawer that ash is shook down into for ease of removal. This is common for most wood cookstoves. Often the heating stoves lack this feature and one simply shovels it out of the firebox as necessary.

Air Flow Valves

My cookstove (as most cookstoves will), has a lever that adjusts the airflow within the stove. When I slide the lever in, the airflow circles around the oven before exiting into the stovepipe; heating the oven for baking. When I slide the lever out the airflow rises and exits the top back of the stove creating more emphasis on the stovetop heat.

Stove Pipe/Chimney

Smoke rises in the firebox and either goes on out the chimney or circles the oven before finding the exit. The stovepipe needs to be the right diameter for the stove design or it can negatively impact your draft. This can leave you with a smoky stove or a sluggish fire.

Your stovepipe also needs to have as little horizontal pipe as possible. Even if it is horizontal, it shouldn’t be level, it needs to tip just a little to allow the smoke to rise. Smoke wants to rise like water wants to fall and they both need grade to do so.

Keep an eye on creosote buildup. Creosote is highly flammable and can and does ignite into chimney fires. Cleaning out your stovepipe as necessary helps prevent this.

Cooking and Heating with Wood
Abigail Edwards cooking on a wood cookstove with her mother Lydia Edwards.

The Wood Cookstove

As quaint and old-fashioned as wood cook and heating stoves are these days, they have not been around forever. The first woodstove was patented in the mid 1500’s but it wasn’t until much later, like over 200 years later, that they started to really take off. Ben Franklin is credited with helping this happen with his Franklin stove, but his personal design was flawed and not successful. What was successful however was his idea and the fact that he did not patent it. He publicized it but refused to patent it because he wanted the idea to be publicly available for others to use. And people did. Others used his idea and created better stoves than his and have continued to do so ever since.

I have used many different types of wood cookstoves, some belonging to me and some I have used at other homes, Pioneer Maid, Ashland and Bakers Choice, are among them. The stove we have now is a Pioneer Princess and it is a very practical, efficient stove that is easy to use. It has a nice big stovetop surface, mine has a side reservoir, a nice big oven and a warming rack.

What I love about wood cookstoves is the large flat cooking surface with variable surface temperatures. Something that needs high immediate heat is positioned over the firebox but the pasta now boiling can get slid to the right onto a slightly cooler surface over the oven. The closer I slide it toward the side reservoir, the cooler the stovetop surface. Sometimes if I am canning and my canner is taking its sweet time to get up temperature, I will pull out the eye of the stovetop and put the canner directly on open flame. If one does this it requires more attention to the canner.

The biggest learning curve with wood stove cooking, is learning how to manage the stove in a way to maintain the heat consistently. Part of this is managing the fuel going into the stove and the other is managing the dampers. This isn’t even talking about pan placement on the stovetop. It can be easy to forget to keep adding wood. As I learned the delicate cookstove fuel-and-damper dance while cooking, I can remember my brothers commenting that they “didn’t like the food burned or doughy, but please not both”.

Like anything it just takes practice. When I asked my dad what it took to be a good driver, all he said was “Miles.” This is true for most things in life.

My stove does much more than cook my food. Wet rainy weather finds laundry draped inside near the stove to help it dry. I have stove top irons that I will heat to iron my clothes when I wish. The brace under the stove is a convenient place for us to dry trays of garlic or other food. The reservoir warms the water that I use for washing dishes. The tea kettle sits at the back of the stove for tea water when I take those moments to put my feet up and pretend for a few minutes that I don’t have too many things to do. I have hatched late chicks on the warming rack, that egg that is peeping but the hen is off the nest and gone. I wrap them in a slightly moist warm cloth and set them up there to stay warm. I have had bummer lambs bedded down near the stove to stay warm and even saved a calf from hypothermia by wrapping it in a towel and holding it on my open oven door.

Cooking On It

In the highly specialized world that we live in , one may think that the only stove we can cook or bake with is on stoves designed to do so. While it is true that wood cookstoves make this much easier and efficient, one can, in a pinch, cook on heating stoves. Who is to say that you can’t set a teapot or skillet on your flat top heating stove? I have seen furnaces where this was not possible but most wood stoves have ample space for a skillet or pot of some kind.

Now for a novel thought, you can cook on a barrel stove too. I am not talking about the upright barrel stoves. My mother’s barrel stove had a grate that straddled the curve of the barrel with the ends crimped at 90 degrees to make it stand level. Sitting astride the barrel stove it easily held a kettle or pan.

Stovetop Baking

To bake without an oven, one can use a stovetop oven. It is a metal box with racks in it that sits on your stovetop. This may or may not get as hot as a standard oven but certainly is not as efficient.

The best stovetop baking that I have done is by steaming. This is taking, usually the largest pot you can find and steaming bread, muffins or cakes in it. This does not work well for pastries as they really do need the dry heat of an oven.

Meanwhile, steamed bread is amazing. Any bread recipe should work, I usually shape mine into rolls as this steam-bakes better and faster than something as thick as a traditional loaf. These rolls go into a pan (usually pie pans) that fit in my pot. While they rise I put about 1 inch of water in the bottom of the pot and put some sort of spacer that will keep my pan out of the water, a canning insert or short colander works. When the water is boiling I lower the plate of rolls to sit on the space, then I lay a towel over the top of the pot and put the lid on. The towel collects condensation from off the lid and keeps it from dripping on the bread.

I let the rolls steam for 20-30 minutes, until they spring back with confidence when I tap them. They will not brown like oven baked rolls. They come out of the steam bake the same color they went in. Always have the water boiling before you put your pan in. Waiting to bring it to a boil after the pan is seated never ends well, at least not for me.

Cooking and Heating with Wood
A small cob fireplace in the Livingston home.


Stoves are not the only place fire cooks and heats for us. Fireplaces can too. One winter, Khoke and I were determined to find ways to use our small fireplace. Khoke split a pile of kindling for it because it puts out better light with smaller wood and we arranged some cushions on the floor near it to do our evening reading of choice. That fireplace puts out more heat than you would think! We’d find ourselves scooting farther and farther away.

In the winter when I am processing the chickens Khoke butchers, I get a fire going in the fireplace and don some leather gloves. In the blazing flames I singed the hair off the chickens. A formerly tedious job now gets done with just a few seconds per bird.

I have never actually cooked in a fireplace but my husband’s mother, Jenia Livingston, has. Her fireplace where she would do this had a grate with legs that stood several inches tall. This gave enough space to build a fire underneath and had a platform upon which to set her skillet or pot.


Do know that anytime one cooks over a direct wood flame it will coat the bottom and sides with what we call potblack. A film of black soot that happily stains your hands or clothes if you happen to brush against it. This is a common problem with campfire or fireplace cooking.

There are a number of ways to deal with potblack. The first is to simply leave it on since it is on the outside of the pot and will return as soon as you cook on an open flame again. The other is to remove it. There are a couple ways to do so that do not involve excessive scrubbing and too much soap and water. One way is to spray it thoroughly with oven cleaner and put it in a trash bag for a few hours. This may damage the finish on the pot, but if you are using the pot on an open flame you probably aren’t too worried about the finish on the pot. The trash bag keeps the cleaner from drying out. Then you take it out and wash it, the potblack will usually come all the way off, even if it has built up.

The best way to remove potblack in my personal opinion and experience is to use ash. Take any regular hardwood ash, add enough water to make a paste. Spread the paste all over the potblackened pan, set in a plastic bag for an hour or two and then wash it off. Sometimes I will take the ash paste with some small charcoal chunks and scrub the pot with this paste to clean it.


My mother is one of the best that I have ever seen at maintaining a stove. All the stoves that she has ever had maintain a fresh from the factory look whether she has had them 10 years or twenty. Normally a standard barrel stove will not last 10 years. The metal is too thin and will rust holes into it. My mother kept hers in good shape for well over twenty.

Every spring she would completely clean the ash out of the stove, leaving no ash whatsoever and then she would oil the whole stove. Ash is extremely alkaline and can pit metal. Metal stoves can also become pitted with rust. There is minimal danger of rust when the stove is being used and hot. But when the stove sits idle over the summer, rust can appear on metal simply with the moisture from summer humidity. Oiling the stove gives it a protective barrier.

Likewise her wood cookstove in the house is thoroughly cleaned and then the top is oiled when it will be sitting unused over the summer. Once oiled, she has a ¾ inch plywood cut to fit the top and her cookstove becomes a summer counter in the house.

Ash needs to be cleaned out not only from the wood cookstove firebox but also above and below the oven. Your stovepipe should be cleaned out once or twice a year depending upon the rate at which creosote builds up. Using a flexible chimney brush of some kind makes this much easier. Ours looks like a giant drain snake with a round wire brush at the end. This dislodges the creosote and drops it down to where you can disconnect a lower section of stovepipe and dump it in a bucket.

Cooking and Heating with Wood
Illustration A: A short chimney with the wind swirling down the pipe. Illustration B: A chimney tall enough to stand above the tumbling wind curl.


Most stoves are designed to have either a 6, 7, or 8 inch diameter stove pipe. Having the correct diameter stovepipe is important as this regulates, at least in part, the draw the stove will have. If the stovepipe is not large enough you may have trouble with a sluggish fire.

Our Pioneer Princess stove is designed to need a 7-inch diameter stove pipe. A lot of simple wood heating stoves need only a 6” diameter stove pipe.

My father always preferred an outside chimney. The stovepipe went up a couple feet from the stove and then turned and went out the wall into a block chimney lined with clay tile. He felt that this outdoor chimney had less fire risk than a stovepipe that went through the house. This is probably true.

My husband however has our stovepipe running up through our second story floor and up and out the roof. He does this to allow the warm stovepipe to help heat the house. Insulated pipe where it passed through the floor or roof can help reduce fire risk.

The height of your stovepipe is important. You want it at least a couple feet above the ridge of your roof. If the top of your stovepipe is below your ridge you may have trouble with downdrafts bringing smoke down into your home.

Let’s say that your roof ridge runs north and south and your short stovepipe is on the western slope of your roof. If you have prevailing westerly winds, you won’t have much trouble with the downdraft. Your north, south and western winds won’t cause you a problem but when the wind blows from the east it will likely cause you grief. This is because the wind hitting the lower part of the roof ramps up the roof and then rolls over the top to tumble in the chimney. This pushes the smoke back down the chimney and back into the stove and it exits out through all the air intake openings.

This happened to an elderly neighbor of ours a couple Decembers ago. She had one of those short chimneys and since it was on the south side of her roof, it rarely gave her trouble as most of the year our prevailing winds come from the south and west.

Well, on this occasion we had a wind storm blow in from the north with 80-90 mph straight line winds. It curled the tin up on the north side of our barn. Our bran looked like it had curlers onits head. Our neighbor summoned us rather desperately as she was being smoked out of her house, a very serious dense choking smoke.

We went over and assessed it. When Khoke went up on her roof (Yes, in 80 mph winds! Crazy man!) I went in to tell her that if she heard something on the roof, it wasn’t Santa. Then I went back out to keep his ladder from blowing over and to hand him things. It was all he could do not to blow off that roof.

The chimney had a spark arrester. At first Khoke thought it might be blocked with creosote and blocking the draft. But upon examination this was not the case and the problem was coming from wind swirling violently down her chimney. Without extra stovepipe on hand or any way to really fix it in the storm, he just rigged it as well as he could to get by. He wrapped the north side of the pipe with tin, drilling a couple holes and wiring it in place. This raised the north side of the pipe just high enough to block the swirl of the wind and got her through the storm.


The principle of draft is that hot air is light and rises and the denser cold air falls. This rising hot air, especially if there is a lot of it, causes a pressure change and creates a vacuum that pulls (draws) air through the stove vents, through your combustion chamber where you are burning the wood and pulls it on up the pipe. This is similar to a siphon only with air.

The taller the chimney the better the draw. Ideally you want your chimney at least 15 ft tall, not less if you can help it. The hotter the smoke and air in the chimney in contrast with the colder the air outside the pipe creates a pressure change that speeds up the air flow. The better the contrasting factors the better the draft airflow, which equals less smoke in your living space and a more enthusiastic fire. It makes me think of gravity only in reverse. I picture a kid on a playground slide. The sharper the contrasts the faster the ride. The heavier the child is, and the steeper and longer the slide is, the faster they can go.

There are occasions in extreme cold where you can have a pocket of cold chimney air blocking the rising hot air. But usually the smokiness of starting a fire is due to not enough hot air to initiate the draft that then pulls the smoke up the chimney. So the quicker you can get a blazing hot fire the quicker your draft can begin and pull the smoke up and out of your house.

There are other factors that can affect draw and draft but they are more technical for unique situations.

Chimney Fires

Chimney fires are caused by creosote buildup in the chimney. Creosote is made when warm smoke meets cold air creating condensation on the side of the cold pipe. This mixture of water vapor and smoke bonds to create creosote. Low fires do not heat the stovepipe well enough and can build creosote faster than hot fires.

Creosote can also come from burning wet wood. If there is too much moisture in the wood it can cause a number of problems, one of which is creosote. It causes creosote because burning the wood has to evaporate the water as it burns and this water vapor bonds with the smoke and this sticky combination sticks to the stovepipe much lower than the condensation creosote that is made with dry wood, this is usually up near where the pipe exits the roof.

After a while this builds up and one day when the stove is running hotter than normal, Fwhoof! All of a sudden the stove and chimney are chugging a low roar and the stovepipe starts to turn red. To stop this, all you need to do is close all the dampers and close the stove down all the way. By choking down its air, the runaway fire goes out quickly.

When I was a child and there was a chimney fire, Dad and us kids would go outside to watch the flames shoot 6-8 feet out of the top of the chimney. This was quite the sight after dark. Not so easily entertained, Mom would just shut the stove down and choke out the fire. Dad wasn’t particularly concerned about chimney fires as 90% of his stovepipe was outside and he had a tin roof which would be difficult to ignite from sparks.

In the meantime, chimney fires should be taken more seriously than we did. It is possible to melt a stovepipe. This would be disastrous. When your stove glows red, you can warp the metal but worse than that, you can catch a nearby wall on fire if it is too close. Sparks from the chimney may not catch your roof on fire but might ignite something else like hay, another building, leaf pile, dry grass etc.

One time when Khoke was a child, his parents’ fireplace had a serious chimney fire that was not dampered well enough to cut off the air flow. They had a wood shingle roof and this was in danger of catching fire. Khoke’s dad climbed on the roof and poured a 5 gallon bucket of wheat berries down the chimney to smother the fire. This worked.

Some people will put a spark arrester in their chimney. This helps prevent fires that may be started by sparks coming out of the chimney especially in the case of a chimney fire. These spark arresters can also become clogged with creosote and block your draft. You would want to watch out for this.

It is a good idea to clean out your chimney at least once or twice a year depending on the fire hazard rate and creosote buildup you have. Do not put creosote in your compost pile or in your garden. Creosote is not like ash or charcoal which are beneficial by-products of wood burning. Creosote is carcinogenic to both humans and animals even from casual skin contact. If you get it on your skin, wash it off as soon as possible. There are things that creosote is used for, such as a wood preservative, but you should consider if you actually want to use something that potentially dangerous. If you do use it, consider what may be in contact with it.

Understanding the Wood You Burn

Inside your stove firebox you have ash that has sifted to the bottom, a coal bed, wood and flame.The burning wood is generating heat/energy, the coals will hold heat and the ash is insulative. Too much ash can block your airflow but a sufficient ash bed helps hold the heat in the coals.

Wood needs to be very dry to burn well. Dry meaning, if you cut down a live tree and cut, split, and stack it, it should wait a year before you burn it. Burning wet wood can compromise the potential BTU’s because some of the energy is taken to evaporate the water in the wood. This evaporated water then goes on to mix and bind with the smoke to create creosote in your chimney.

The more dense your wood is, generally the higher the quality the wood is. Hardwood like oak, hickory, elm, locus, osage etc will burn hot, make a good quality, long lasting coal. The coal bed from these hold heat for a long time.

Lighter, less dense wood such as cottonwood, cedar, pine, burns hot and fast but burns out quickly and does not make a long lasting coal bed. Comparatively speaking. This type of wood needs restoked often. One thing that is nice about these soft woods is how easy they are to start a fire with.

Wood crackles and some wood sparks more than others, this comes from resin inside the wood expanding and combusting. Wood can also crackle as miniscule pockets within the wood with water or even just air expanding with the heat to burst the walls that hold them. Resinous wood such as pine and fir are known for sparking but hardwood can do it too, such as hickory, oak, or more likely, mulberry.

Starting a Fire

When starting a fire in a stove you will want to open your dampers first. Then you need to build the kindling base laying the wood smallest to larger. The first layer should be wood shavings, or some crumpled inner bark of cottonwood or cedar. Some people use shredded or crumpled paper but paper holds no coal at all and though it may work, it doesn’t work nearly as well as wood shavings.

The next layer on your wood shavings is some small kindling split into matchsticks. This is crisscrossed to promote airflow. Tightly stacked wood doesn’t allow air to come in where it needs to. Onto this finely split layer of wood you can crisscross some slightly larger wood. Now if you light the wood shavings, let it burn until all your wood has ignited before adding more and larger wood. Building your fire too fast is a good way to make lots of smoke or put the fire out.

There are some who will build this fire in reverse with the larger wood on the bottom and the smaller material on the top. Our experience prefers the bottom build style as the coal bed is not disturbed and the flames char the wood above it making it easier to ignite.

If you are building your fire over coals, you build it the same way as you do the match fire. Building a fire over coals is usually easier. Technically, you need only one coal, this takes some practice to build a fire off only one. The more coals you have the easier it is to get the fire going.

Let’s say you have a handful of live coals. (Obviously not actually in your hand.) Group the live coals together, cover with wood shavings, crisscross a handful of finely split pieces of wood and then some slightly larger ones. Blow gently on this (you can also use bellows) and let it ignite and burn a little before adding incrementally larger wood until your fire is going as you like.

A friend of mine in Tennessee, Chris Mayott, had a beautiful wood cookstove that he did not use regularly. But being the organized person that he is, he was more than prepared for when it needed to start. Behind the stove he had a row of 5-gallon buckets with presorted kindling of different sizes in each bucket. One bucket had the wood shavings, another had the matchstick splits, and the remaining buckets held incrementally larger kindling sizes.

If you are trying to start a fire from one or two live coals, dig around in your ash to find a handful or two of dry charcoal. Pile some of this around your live coals and blow on them gently to reignite them back to live coals. Add the rest of your handful of charcoal and repeat. Now build your kindling pile starting with the wood shavings or their equivalent. Blow on it to ignite to flames.

Substitutes for the wood shavings can include the inner bark of cottonwood or cedar, dry grass, hay or straw, lint, shredded or crumbled paper. Never use sawdust. Sawdust will hardly burn, it will smolder and likely smother the fire.

Setting the Fire

Setting or shutting down the fire is when you put a couple good sized chunks of wood on a nice coal bed or on your burning wood and then closing the dampers to extinguish the flame but keep the coals alive. It is much easier and quicker to get a hot fire going from a pile of live coals than a match fire.

Too few coals with too much wood can pull the energy from the coals and they can go out leaving you with only charcoal. Depending on how airtight your stove is is directly in relation to how long the fire will hold. Most stoves hold the fire overnight pretty easily. Shutting down too tight, so that there is no oxygen at all, can potentially put the fire out entirely.

Coals can be kept alive outside a stove as well. When we are cooking maple syrup in late winter sometimes we have sporadic weather that has sapflow in stop-and-go mode. This means Khoke can’t cook syrup every day. Instead of restarting the fire every time he has to cook down several barrels of sap, he would take the tray off its runners when he was done cooking and shovel ash over the coal bed.

One year when Khoke had cooked off the last batch of the year he shoveled a pile of ash over the coals in case there was more sapflow. After a couple weeks it was more than obvious that the season was done so when he went out to the sapyard to put all the equipment away for the year, he found that the ashpile still had a handful of live coals under it. This was rather incredible, especially considering that there had been a 4-inch rain in that 2 weeks. Obviously the ash pile was big enough that the water did not penetrate all the way through.


Ash is a great by-product of burning with wood. We burn nothing in our stove but wood. We do not even burn paper or cardboard, only real wood. I have known people who will start their fire quickly by burning plastic or styrofoam. Do you realize that burning wood and plastic of any kind causes dioxins which are among the most carcinogenic chemicals known to man? The only thing ashes that have burned plastic should do is go to a landfill, and I am not endorsing landfills. But these ashes should never go to your garden or be used for anything else.

Ashes pulled out of my stoves are not just spread out to mineralize my garden. I also sift some of it through a fine screen to save to make hominy with. Ashes can also be collected to make homemade lye. When you sprinkle a little (not too much!) ash into your radish or other root crops that struggle with root maggots, the ashes help deter them. Too much ash will over-alkalize your plants and burn them. Ashes can also be sprinkled on potato leaves to deter potato beetles. This too, in excess, can burn the leaves.


Charcoal is another resource that can come out of a stove (that burns only wood). Your woodstove won’t produce lots of it but all those little black chunks in your ashes are flecks of charcoal. When you close all the dampers on your stove when it is full of red hot coals, these coals will lose their life, at least their ability to burn down to ash in the void of oxygen. If they continue to burn they will burn down to ashes.

Charcoal will not over-alkalize your soil like ashes can. Charcoal is catacombed with microscopic passages that catch and hold water, minerals and other nutrients and keeps them from washing away. So if you rake or sift some of the charcoal out of your ashes you may want to mix some (in appropriate sized pieces depending on the size of your pot) in your potting soil or mix a little in the soil as you plant.

Charcoal is good for you too. Since we only burn wood in our stoves, we will save some of the charcoal from it and grind it. We use it in our homemade toothpaste, poultice it on a cut to pull out infection or take it internally to combat the stomach flu or other medicinal uses. Commercial activated charcoal is steam or chemically processed to strip off excess carbon to make the charcoal catacombs even more cavernous and effective. My stove charcoal is free and works well enough for me.


Installing a wood stove correctly is the first step to having a safe and successful relationship with your stove. Be careful to not install it too close to a flammable wall or furniture. It is also advised to have it sit on some sort of nonflammable flooring. I have seen many homes that have a metal bib covering the floor at least a foot wide around where the firebox is fed. This is to catch any coals that may accidentally drop out. Coals do not usually immediately ignite a wood floor but over time can char the wood which then is easier to ignite.

Be aware that some insurance companies will not insure a house that has a wood stove in it. Sure there is risk in having a wood stove, there is also risk in electrical shortages and other fire hazards. Practicing safe habits can help create a safe environment with your stove, because honestly, it is not usually the stove’s fault a fire occurs, it is ours. Some insurance companies that won’t insure a house with a wood stove in it will insure a home with one of those outdoor heating stoves that are venting into your house and through your ductwork.

Those with small children worry about burns from a stove. When my brother began his foray into parenting, he worried about his heat stove in the living room. He asked my dad if he should cage the stove to keep his toddler from burning herself. As a father of 5, my dad is highly against caging or fencing off the stove in a house. He says no matter what you do, they will figure out a way to get in it and then they can’t get out and are in much greater danger of getting burned.

My father was a believer of teaching with natural consequences, supervised natural consequences so children are not actually injured. My siblings and I, as children, had an inborn skepticism to logical reason, we preferred hands-on learning. Literally. My father learned to oblige this and instead of always trying to rescue us from possible mistakes, he’d let us make supervised mistakes. He would outline the hazards and explain what to avoid and why knowing full well that we were going to try it anyway. He’d let us touch the stove when he “wasn’t looking,” or at least we thought he wasn’t, when he knew it was hot enough to educate us but not hot enough to hurt us. Until we had that moment, he took extra care to ensure that we were safely away when the stove was much too hot. After we were able to touch it with our fingertips and see for ourselves, we had no interest in trying again and we had no burns until we were old enough to use the oven. We discovered the natural consequences of heights, speed, bees and other childhood educational experiences in like manner.

Cooking and Heating with Wood

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Life is not all about all work and no play. At least not my life. Sometimes you can let the fire die down to coals in your stove or fireplace, this will be hot but not smoke, then you can open your stove door and roast marshmallows or your choice of stick roasted food. Just stir the coals now and then to make them hotter. This helps redeem a rained out camping trip. Maybe. But it definitely helps put a little extra in your ordinary.