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Care and feeding of the woodstove
Drift from a Driftless Place
JOHN GIBBS finished up his western adventures at a Farm-n-Fleet in Las Vegas, browsing the hat section. He'd been on the lookout for a good cowboy hat, and no surprise, he found his dream chapeau in the Wild, Wild West.

GAYS MILLS - I once heard a dairy nutritionist give a talk on how to feed dairy cows.  He said a lot of farmers would feed their cows more if they would give more of milk. He said “that’s like telling your woodstove that you’d put some wood in it if the stove would give you some heat.” Actually, if you give your cows plenty of feed, and the right kind of feed, you‘ll get more milk, assuming that the cows have the genetics to support milk production, and most modern cows do. I think of what he said often these days as I’m feeding the woodstove.

I’ve burned wood for over 40 years.  Sometimes, I think of the pile of wood that 40 years-worth would make and get tired just thinking of it.  

I’ve burned everything from box elder, very low on the wood-for-fuel desirability chart, to hickory and oak, near the top. I’ve burned many, many loads of dead elm, black walnut, maple, popple (poplar), cherry, and even pine in a pinch.  

A DNR Forester once told me that a pound of wood is a pound of wood. Sounds brilliant, I know, but what he meant was that the BTU’s (British Thermal Units that show the heating value of a fuel wood) were pretty much based on the weight of the wood being burned. Thus, a heavy wood, like oak, has got more heat in it than a light wood, like pine.

All wood is heavy when it is first cut; it’s going to be full of sap. A good start on getting dry wood is to cut the tree down after that sap has gone down into the ground for the winter, like maple sap does. 

A wood burner is supposed to let wood dry a full year before it is burned.  It’s amazing how well a downed, dead tree can hold its water. To qualify as a year of drying, wood must be cut up and/or split to really get dry.

Speaking of genetics, all woodstoves are not created equal. Cheap, sheet metal stoves will generate a lot of heat, but are not suitable for long-term comfort. 

Modern, more high-tech stoves have the ability to squeeze more heat out of a given quantity of wood. Most of these stoves are built heavier, are lined with fire brick, and have some means of slowing down the burning rate and extracting a higher percentage of the heat you are after.

I still use a little pine, mostly as kindling to get a fire started in the morning. Then, I add hardwoods to build a fire to heat with. One of these days, very soon, I won’t need to build a fire every morning. 

During the winter, I like to keep a fire going all day and all night. That calls for heavier wood and bigger chunks and a stove that will hold its fire overnight.  I’ll be using oak, some apple wood (a very good, heavy wood) and black locust.


As the saying goes, the wood in my woodpile has already warmed me up once; woodcutting is good, honest work after all.  I look forward to being warmed again  as our stove gives us back some of that stockpiled heat.  


Meanwhile, I need to get out and start cutting.  Next winter’s coming.