Life with a Wood Stove: A Curious Beast for the Uninitiated
A story. A primer. Small town life in VT.
I moved here a long time ago from a part of New England where winters were mild, and wood was scarce. Of course, I'd heard about wood stoves. I knew these curious beasts of metal and stone existed, but I'd never used one, and I didn't have any friends who did. They were as foreign to me as cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing, or upland game-bird hunting at that point in my young adult life.
Moving to the Upper Valley changed all that. I lived in a drafty old apartment in a dreadfully uninsulated old Victorian house to start my new life here. The first heating bill I received was a shocker, and I knew I had to do something. I put plastic up over the windows. I put weather stripping around the doors. I put felt under the window sashes, and above them, too. I screwed in the loose screws on the window locks so everything would tighten up when I locked the panes of glass in place. Nothing seemed to help My next heating bill was even worse!
That's when a friend told me I needed to get a wood stove. He had seen the seven or so cords of wood, bone dry, in the basement of my first floor apartment that were mine to use if I chose. He surmised with a small wood stove I could heat the place for 3 years for free. It was a tiny little place, and the necessary BTU's were all sitting right there beneath my kitchen table, one floor below, silently, noiselessly, ready to warm me all winter long like a close friend with a warm blanket.
So, I set about building a hearth from old bricks I found out in the barn and behind the barn of this place I had recently purchased and carved out a small space for myself along with two other rental apartments I needed to fill. I then put up a couple of pieces of cement board to insulate the wall behind the stove which, as luck would have it, contained an unused brick chimney. I used air spacers between the board and the wall that were made of ceramic insulating tubes. I then found a small wood stove on sale, got some extra hands, and dropped it onto the hearth. I should mention the hearth was built above a wooden floor, so I put a piece of sheet metal down, then two layers of cement board, then the bricks, and boxed it all in with 1x3 pine boards. I filled the cracks between the bricks with sand for good measure and to keep things from shifting. It looked fine, and it worked well. It was far beyond what the safety code requirements suggested for a hearth pad. This I'd checked out with the wood stove manufacturer and the local fire inspector.
As luck would have it, someone had already had a wood stove in this very spot some many years or decades back, so there was a thimble in the wall, capped, that led straight into the chimney. I inspected the chimney with a mirror from down in the basement and it was clean. After that, it was measuring and buying the correct length of stove pipe and inserting it into the wall thimble. The people at the local hardware store helped me out with this. I also went the extra mile and bought double-walled stove pipe and a stove-pipe shield to ensure no excess heat would reach the wall from the vertical section of pipe rising from the top of the wood stove prior to turning to horizontal and going into the wall. I wanted to be safer than sorry when it came to building a live fire right inside my living room!
So, I was set to go. I went to the basement and grabbed some wood, having read all the instructions about how to first fire the stove slowly, and expect to get an unusual smell as the stove's black paint fully cured. As I knelt down to place the first pieces of wood in the stove atop kindling, atop newsprint, box of safety matches at the ready to start my very first indoor fire, I realized the stove wouldn't fit the wood. Or, maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it didn't matter.
So, what to do? I went to the hardware store and, after being laughed at for quite a while about my plight by the counter staff, I got some great suggestions. Lots of people had brothers or cousins who would be willing to come in and move the wood out of my basement, cut it to the shorter length I needed, then re-stack it in the basement for me — for a fee, of course. I then had people calling me at home asking if they could come by and "help" me with my wood situation. All, of course, for a fee. One guy said he'd trade me shorter wood for the longer wood. To this I was sufficiently wise. I knew the difference between green (wet, freshly cut) wood and seasoned (dry) wood. He wanted to trade me green wood for my bone-dry wood. I wasn't so inclined and offered him my best wishes for him to find another buyer. I also had two brothers come to tell me—not ask, mind you—they'd dig up the old in-ground 1,000 gallon oil tank I didn't need any longer so they could use it as a culvert, in exchange for my dry fire wood. Since I didn't know what a culvert was, I said no. I also wasn't keen on giving away the farm, as it were. I'm happy I demurred, even if it was out of sheer ignorance. I sensed they were up to something fishy, and I was right. A few years later I needed that 1,000 gallon oil tank for, what else, oil(!), when I installed a new furnace to heat another portion of the house for other tenants.
There were more who came to visit to see the wood in the basement and offer me ideas about what to do. Split it with an axe, then cut it with a chainsaw, some said. Smaller pieces would be easier to handle for such a small stove. Always stressing the word "small" as if such a tiny stove was a joke and never to be taken seriously. Of course, it meant the wood would have to be moved outside, then back inside again. People suggested I get a larger stove, and offered all sorts of favorite models of wood stoves they already had to sell me second-hand. I learned everyone in small Vermont towns must have a spare wood stove or two kicking around their barns or garage spaces. Others just asked me on my morning walk if I'd figured out what to do with my new, small, stove. Many others, I could tell, just snickered behind my back. That is, until I found THE solution.
Walking into the hardware store a week or so later, my social value in small-town Vermont somewhat tarnished due to my buying a stove too small for the eligible fuel source sitting directly beneath me, I saw a sale on electric chainsaws. It was a smallish item, not of much use said the counter clerk who, I knew, would never employ such a "toy" himself. I bought one for $39.95 plus tax. I also bought a heavy-duty extension cord. I bought a quart of chain lube as well. I immediately went home and set about cutting nearly every piece of wood exactly in half. No smoke, no fumes, no moving the wood outside, then back in, up and down basement steps, no paying someone else to do the work for me, no swapping of green wood for my nice, dry wood. It was fun and satisfying work, and all I needed were safety glasses and earplugs. (Today, I'd wear kevlar chaps, but back then, I was still green and learning.)
Once I accomplished this feat, lovely white smoke began rising gently from my chimney each day. Then, more questions starting coming. The postmistress was the first to ask where I was getting my wood. I told her I'd cut all my basement wood in half without mentioning the electric chainsaw. By the time I had crossed the street to get my morning cup of coffee, the store counter clerk said she'd heard I had cut all my wood in half. She wanted to know how. She said she hadn't seen me out in the yard cutting or splitting wood. And she ought know, because she passed by my yard twice each day. I told her I had a secret, and that, yes, all the wood had been cut in half. It was, I exclaimed, some sort of miracle, and I was thrilled I could use all my dry wood to heat my new place. She didn't know me quite well enough to persist with the game we'd begun, so off I went with my coffee in hand, smiling broadly like a Cheshire cat, a twinkle in my eye, and a new bit of bounce in my step.
My next stop was to see the Town Clerk well across town. i needed to update some of my personal address records with her. By now, word had really traveled. She asked me flat out who I had hired to cut my wood in half. I told I'd done it all myself. She was simmering, ready to boil, and I could tell. It was my way of having some fun with everyone who had had fun with me for the past week or so. It was a satisfying sort of fun to keep a secret in a small Vermont town. Something I relished -- relished, that is until I next went to the hardware store for a bit of plumbing material.
There, as I was paying for a new sink trap I needed to fix an under-counter leak, the clerk just winked at me and nodded. He knew my secret. But, there was also a slight head nod that suggested he'd never reveal it, I could tell. His nod was a sign of small-town, rural respect. Now we were both going to have some good old-fashioned fun in our little town in Vermont.
Our shared secret lasted for about a month, until I had to call a plumber to look at my furnace. He came in a flash, wanting to see the now-infamous wood, not the furnace. He opined over the bone-dry hardwood all cut and split and stacked neatly in the dirt-floor basement. He said he'd trade me his plumbing services for some of the longer-length wood I hadn't gotten around to cutting. It was then he saw the electric chainsaw. "Well," he mused, "I'll be. Never did see a use for one of these little babies until now. Maybe I should get one and see if I can't get the missus to do some indoor cutting in our basement." His barter request faded away, lost in the fascination that I'd found a new way to work in winter with cord wood indoors, out of the cold and snow.
After that, there was a run on electric chainsaws at the hardware store. I'm not sure anyone in town ever knew I was the cause of their newfound indoor wood-cutting hobby, and I'll never say it was me. But the hardware store had to order more electric chainsaws that winter for the first time ever. And the sale pricing on them disappeared as quickly as it arrived.
If you're new to this area, there's nothing like a wood stove to heat your home. The gentle warmth it emanates, the beauty of the flame licking the glass, the water pot slowly evaporating off the stove's top to keep the humidity level in your home just right, the fascinating conversations had with new visitors about the stove and how well it heats our home, these are some of the joys of wood stove ownership. The esthetic of having an actual fire burning inside your house, keeping you warm and cozy, will get you all fired up to install a stove, and maybe even two stoves, like I have now. One at one end, and the other at the other end of the house. Plus, it gives me plenty of exercise moving the wood around. It's my upper-body workout for 6 months of the year, and it's satisfying work to be sure. They say wood warms you twice, in the stacking and in the burning. For me, it warms me at least three times, in the cutting, then the stacking, then the burning. Another benefit is that my two dogs can't get enough of hanging around the base of the wood stove, where they'd be likely to climb right into the fire if they could. It speaks of Norman Rockwell, and good times. Burning a wood stove is a slice of life in the Upper Valley you'd enjoy. And, the fuel source is about as local and sustainable as you can get.
If you need to speak with someone who can help install and service a wood stove for you, I'd suggest Nathan Maxwell of Lyme, NH. Nathan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's terrific, knowledgeable, nice, with reasonable prices, and he's a volunteer basketball and baseball coach locally for kids. He'll also service chimneys and install chimney liners. He's honest, and trustworthy. And he knows his business well. Though, with my 25 years of wood stove experience, I pretty much do it all myself these days, relying on Nathan for the most vexing of problems, like cleaning out the chimney above a fireplace insert that I can never seem to put back in place correctly without serving up some terse words and high levels of stress to the rest of my family. For others ready to give the wonderful world of wood stove warmth a try, I'm thankful there's a Nathan Maxwell around to keep us safe and warm all winter long.
If you want to get going with a wood stove for the first time, and even if you’re an old timer with burning wood indoors, I suggest getting your chimney cleaned annually by a professional like Nathan. I also suggest you find a professional stove installer to help you site and install your stove properly the first time. As lovely and heartwarming an experience it is to bring flames right into the center of your living room, it’s no fun to have them escape freely to have their way with your home. Wood stoves are quite safe when properly installed and serviced, and when you don’t overload them with too much wood. There are other tips and techniques that, perhaps, I’ll mention in my next piece. I’m sure you’d enjoy hearing about my experiences felling large beech trees on a steep pitch of land behind my house, then rolling them downhill—on one occasion, right smack into my parked car at the bottom!
Always some kind of new adventure happening in my life, and in small town Vermont.
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Instead, Dave's a writer who likes to share information about his life in the Upper Valley on a host of topics ranging from food and beverage, to art and craft, to politics, humor, history, and even wood stoves! Dave is a freelance writer, poet, visual artist, art gallery curator, and consultant for the education industry. He co-manages Long River Gallery & Gifts in Lyme, NH and its new gallery space in White River Junction, VT with his wife Lisa, where over 175 local artists and artisans now show their work. The new gallery is at 49 South Main Street in White River Junction between The Junction Frame Shop and The Hotel Coolidge. Dave is also principal of Advancement Consulting Services offering higher education institutions and private secondary schools global best practices and unique ways to increase alumni giving and involvement through programs that develop relationships and value holistically. His "virtuous circle" model on developing fundraising programs, and his strategic program development centered around "treating students like alumnae/i and alumnae/i like students" have gained favor among development industry professionals and higher education leadership on multiple continents. Dave is former director of development at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, and former co-executive director of the Dartmouth College Fund. He may be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please feel free to add your comments below. Dave will respond.