Finding & Using the Perfect Wood Burning Cook Stove

Enterprise Monarch

Sooner or later, nearly every homesteader thinks about the possibility of heating and/or cooking with wood. It is certainly more labor intensive than what most modern houses have for heat and cooking. There is nothing in the world quite like the ambient heat coming off a wood stove in wintertime, or the smell of freshly baked bread made in the oven of a wood burning cookstove. Many a person will swear that the bread tastes better that way. I won’t argue with that. I do happen to agree.  There are lots of things that taste better once you know how to cook them on a wood burning stove.

This gleaming nickel-plated  beauty on the left is The One that I have had my eye on for most of my adult life.  Suffice it to say that this particular model is considered the  Rolls Royce of wood burning cook stoves. The Monarch, made by Enterprise is without a doubt, the best of the best.  The wonderful part is that this particular wood stove is as functionally rich as it is beautiful and  has been and it is lusted by many, including yours truly.   Unfortunately, however,  the Enterprise factory in Toronto was destroyed by fire in 2012 . It was one of the top foundries of cast iron in particular within the Western Hemisphere,  and so the loss was considered devastating to those of us who are wood burning stove enthusiasts.  I have seen these going in original condition, crated up for what they went for at Lehman’s Hardware, close to $9,000 with all of the accessories including the water reservoir as seen on the right hand side of the stove.  I have also seen used ones for sale on eBay and other sell your stuff apps for considerably less money. Usually, that happens if someone has no idea what they have.  Anyway, if you ever see one for sale, I can promise you that it won’t be for sale for long.

We have a wood burning furnace in our home; but do not own a wood burning cook stove currently.  I will say I have used them, been around them since childhood and that I have desired to own one for my entire life.  I even came close to getting some really good ones a couple of times – but there was something not quite right about each of the ones that put themselves in my path.  One would have a weak firebox and although everything else on it looked fantastic, that particular problem was just more of a safety concern than I was willing to risk. Another one  was left out in the elements in a cow  pasture underneath a giant oak for who knows how long. Of course, this once beautiful appliance was terribly rusted.  It was probably long past the point of repair or would have taken some serious reconditioning in order to be minimally functional. Others, including one that was given to me was too small for what I wanted to use it for.  No doubt it was designed to heat up an ice fishing hut or small hunting shack. I ended up in turn giving it to a contractor who did some work for us on the homestead.  He was trying to find a way  to keep the kennels for his Labrador Retrievers warm in the winter. Truth be told, I can never say ‘no’ to the well-being of our canine friends. To my mind it was definitely a worthy cause.  If I follow my own advice, I will just get one and make do.  However, this blog post is about sharing that quest and the little bit of knowledge about wood burning stoves that I’ve gained over the years.

Finding a Wood Stove of One’s Own

When looking for a wood stove for your own homesteading needs, the key is to start looking almost as soon as you start thinking about it.  Many home centers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot or Menard’s will have wood burning stoves of some sort. They are less likely, however, to carry wood burning cook stoves than a farm supply store such as Farm and Fleet, Theisen’s or other similar chains that cater to farmers and homesteaders.   Lehman’s Hardware in Kidron, Ohio has a line of stoves including wood burning, combination wood and gas and electric ranges that look like an old-fashioned stove. While they are lovely, and if that’s the kind of thing you are after, great.  However, that isn’t the focus of this blog post.

Barry Dordhal wrote an article on this very topic back in 1979 for Mother Earth News. The pricing he lists is pretty outdated for today, however, the information is still sound advice. Dordhal also has some good recommendations if you decide to try to refurbish an old wood burner on your own. With a little bit of time and a lot of elbow grease and determination at either finding or fashioning replacement parts, you can save a bundle of money. Homesteaders and folks looking to save money are always looking for good, reliable wood burning stoves, so if you refurbish one and like the results, you might even consider the possibility of launching a pretty lucrative business.

Other Places to Look

These include estate auctions, auction houses, flea markets, Ebay, Facebook Marketplace, smart phone apps such as LetGo, Offer Up, as well as Craigslist and even the classified ads in your local newspaper.  There are places on the web that specialize in refurbishing old stoves. If you go these routes, take your time. You will probably pay top dollar for some and unless you have a small fortune to invest in having it shipped, be prepared to travel to pick it up.  I have on the very rare occasion seen someone on eBay offer free shipping or delivery.

If you are extremely fortunate, sometimes a friend or relative may offer up an old wood burning stove  for free. My advice is to take it and find some way to haul it home.  Even if it isn’t exactly what you want, you can trade up, find a use for it elsewhere on the homestead or barter it to another homesteader.  There are a ton of them out there. You just have to prioritize what you are looking for in terms of features, functionality and price.

Install a Hearth Pad Underneath Your Wood Burning Stove

When installing a wood burning stove of any kind anywhere in your home, please put your wood burning stove on a hearth pad. Wood fires, no matter how careful you are, will produce sparks and wood ash that will occasionally drop outside the firebox. It’s a fact of life. These burning embers, etc. can start a fire.

This is why it is so very important to put stone or brick or even a fire resistant linoleum or tile pad underneath your wood burner in order to  prevent a potential tragedy.  I see so many pins on Pinterest of stoves that are not on a hearth pad and I want to find the original poster and shake them until they understand the risk they are taking to their homes, themselves and their families.  Admittedly, living in a log home makes me hyper-sensitive to this issue.  When you live in a log cabin, you are constantly making sure to eliminate as many potential fire hazards as possible. After a lifetime of the habit, it becomes second nature. Take my word for it: If you love your home and want to make sure you and your family are as safe as possible, having a hearth pad is essential.

One nice thing about having a hearth pad that it is between 2.5″ to  4” or so thick is that it will raise the profile of your wood stove to be countertop height.  Your current electric or gas range is probably already at this height and so it will be a comfortable transition when you are using a wood stove to cook on than literally working over a hot stove.    Ergonomically it is also much better for you and can save your back when you’re preparing food like cutting and prepping, kneading bread, etc. It also makes it more convenient when transporting pots and such to the stove top to the countertop, etc.

Chimneys and Stove Pipes

Wood burning stoves require chimneys or properly installed stove pipes. Current building codes require that the top of a chimney or stovepipe extend at least 3 feet or 1 meter above the point where it exits the roof and 2 feet above any roof surface or structure within a horizontal distance of 10 feet or 3 meters. (1)  It is good to consult with the experts or a licensed contractor specializing in such installations before doing it on your own.

How to Burn in a Wood Burning Cook Stove

The image to the left is from “Back to Basics” published by Reader’s Digest Books. Please purchase the book if you want a better image . As I mentioned on an earlier blog post, the book is definitely a must have and there is a lot of invaluable advice regarding cooking on a wood stove.

Before that, you need to actually get the thing going. The basics of getting a good fire started, getting it up to temperature and being able to judge cooking times depending on a number of factors all come into play. Different wood types burn differently. Things such as barometric pressure and weather can also affect how easy it is to get things going.  It also comes down to the personality and idiosyncrasies of your stove – and they’re all different – just like people or pets. In my opinion, a wood stove is kind of like a living, breathing thing, because fire does have a life of its own and the fire and the stove have a symbiotic relationship. Your patience will be tried regularly at first, but you will get the hang of it and it will become much easier over time.

You will doubtlessly find a number of videos on YouTube, for example, that will give advice on how to get a wood burning stove started. I recently viewed one where the young homesteader recommended using green, unsplit firewood at night to keep the fire going and to avoid stoking it at night. I would definitely advise against doing something like this. It may be labor-saving, but the creosote buildup isn’t worth the risk. I have had too many old timers in my family and fellow homesteaders who cringe at what she was suggesting. It may work for her – but I personally wouldn’t try it.

A couple of things to remember about what kind of wood to use.

  • Make sure your wood is split and seasoned for at least six months to a year.  Green wood burns slower, has more moisture and will cause it to run cooler. Because of this, it will result in creosote buildup in your chimney. This can create a chimney fire and that is something no one wants.
  • Use only softwoods as kindling or building a hot fire that is quick.
  • try to avoid using wood from coniferous trees or evergreens such as cedar, pine, spruce and the like.  These create a great deal of pitch and creosote when burned.
  • Do not burn trash in your wood stove. Plastics, waxes, and debris can make a toxic combination in your chimney and paired with any creosote buildup can make for a very nasty fire.  Instead, use wadded or rolled newsprint to start a fire initially. Unfortunately, however, today’s newspapers often will also include a large amount of 4-color advertising “slicks”. These shouldn’t be used either because of the 4-color inks and they just don’t burn well.
  • Be sure to check or any nails or metal in the wood that you burn.  They might put out pretty colors when burned, but they can make problems to the inside of your cast iron stove.
  • Firewood should be split, seasoned and be cut to fit comfortably into the firebox of your stove. Ideally, this is about two inches shorter than the interior length of the fire box.

There is a fabulous, profusely illustrated  book by Andrew Jones that is a fabulous introduction to all things wood -fired. ” Wood Heat: A Practical Guide to Heating Your Home with Wood“.  In my view, it belongs on every homesteader’s bookshelf.

Cooking Tips

Cast iron cook stove with pots suitable for use. Photograph by Grey3K, Wikimedia Creative Commons

Cooking on a wood stove is unlike anything you have ever done before. There are a number of things to make sure that you get the most enjoyment out of learning how to use a wood stove to cook and bake with, the safety of everyone in the house, and to ensure the long, productive life of your stove.

  • Use pots and pans that are either cast iron, ceramic, or enamel ware. Dutch ovens and heavy cast iron are the best.  Copper and stainless have a tendency to oxidize on high heat and can get blackened quickly, thus require extra maintenance in cleaning. Aluminum shouldn’t be used for any type of cooking for reasons I won’t go into here.  Use them as planters or give them to your kids to play with out in the sandbox, but don’t use them to cook with.
  • Never put a pot of cold water directly on top of a hot stove.  You can cause pitting, rust, or even crack a cast iron stove top. Get water as hot as possible from the sink and use that,  or use cast iron trivets to begin the process of heating the water.
  • Because a cast iron stove top can have temperatures above the boiling point, be careful to keep an eye on what you’re cooking and try to avoid letting things boil over.
  • Be sure to season all of the cookware that you use on or in your cast iron stove. This is done by rubbing them with grease or oil and heating them until they begin to smoke. There are other methods such as slow heating in the oven or on the stove top and then letting them cool a few times so that they are adequately seasoned.
  • Do not use dishwashing soap on seasoned cast iron. Stainless steel scouring pads are inexpensive, or better yet, places such as Lehman’s Hardware will sell squares of steel chain mail.  (Yep,  just like the knights used to wear under their shining armor in the medieval times!)  I  have a piece of mail that was originally my great grandmother’s.  I use it just about every day.  If something is baked on, put about an inch of water into the pan and bring it to a boil.  The water will help remove the stuck on food.  Take it off the heat and then wash as you normally would. Use salt in place of dish soap and the steel/chainmail if you still need to scrub the pan a bit more.
  • Depending on the age of your wood burning cook stove, you may or may not have a thermometer on the oven.  Even if it does, it might not work properly. You will likely need to have a thermometer  that you can place inside the oven to measure your heat.  Maintaining a consistent temperature takes practice. Different wood heat differently . Softwoods are fast and hot, hardwoods burn slower and longer and are ideal for stews, casseroles and bread. If you don’t have a thermometer, there are tests you can do to make sure it’s hot enough.  A piece of paper placed in the oven will curl up and brown when it is the right temperature to bake bread or cookies.

Other Tips

  • Keep the top of your wood stove clean from any food spills.  There are scraping tools to do this.  It’s a good idea to not  go to bed before it’s done. Love your stove and it will love you back through many years of service. Cleaning out the ash pit on a regular basis is a must.  The best practice is to clean it out before you start a fire.
  • Use stove blacking on your wood stove occasionally to keep it looking nice. I usually do it in the spring. The type of paint used for this can be found at most hardware or farm or home supply stores. Be sure to get paint that can stand up to high temperatures. Rutland, Rustoleum and other companies produce these products.
  • Empty the ash pit  or ash box regularly.  For most stoves, you won’t have to do this more than every few days. I have had winters, however, where this had to be done daily. Having good oxygen flow in your wood burning stove is important.
  • When you do scoop ashes out, put them into a metal bucket.  It’s important to do this even if you think that they are completely cool. Ash can stay hot for a long time, even if it seems that your fire is completely out. With that in mind, never use anything for an ash bucket that has the potential to melt or could ignite.  A container that is 5 – 10 gallons seems to be ideal.   I personally use a 5- gallon galvanized steel bucket.

Keep your wood ash. There is no better snow melt on the planet, and it is environmentally friendly to boot. Using salt or other chemicals can adversely affect your garden and your lawn.  Wood ash will reintegrate into the soil much better.   Also, if you are into making your own soap or other homesteading projects that use wood ash, you’re set!  If you heat primarily by wood, you may want to consider getting a few galvanized trash cans with lids. There will be a lot of it if you heat by wood all fall and winter, or if you regularly cook on a wood stove.  Having a lid will also ensure that your cat or any other critters from the forest are not using your ash as a litter box.

This post is meant as a primer and meant as a starting place for homesteaders. Certainly there is a lot more that can be said about the subject and I will probabably elaborate on them as times goes on. If you have some wisdom to add, please drop me a line at fannyfae at gmail dot com or  realworldhomesteading at Gmail dot com.  I love hearing from other homesteaders and welcome the feedback!

Resources Used

Wood Heat: A Practical Guide to Heating Your Home with Wood” by Andrew Jones, 2014, Firefly Publishing
Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Third Edition, edited by Reader’s Digest

13 Tips to Keep a Wood Cook Stove Functioning at Peak Efficiency

 

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