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Keeping the Home Fires Burning

February 17, 2011

I love my cookstove.   I realize not everyone has a dusty, black cookstove these days.  It’s just part of my landscape that I don’t notice much, but it is something people yearn for and are curious about.  Before I get all nostalgic on you though, I’ll admit it is work, although work of the meaningful kind.  So I’ll sprinkle some work in this post too.

In the winter, my day starts by lighting the fire, to cook breakfast and to drive the chill out of the house.  We heat exclusively with wood.  I build the fire, and scoot the cast iron pans from the right side of the stove where they live to the left side, so the pans can heat up as the stove top does.  Building a fire in the cookstove is noisy.  Comforting if you’re in bed waiting for someone else to light the fire, and crucial if you’re the one building the fire.   First the lids rattle and scrape as you open the stove to begin.  Then the scritching as you scratch the ashes off the grates with the poker to let in air for the fire to be.   The fire needs air to get going, so you slide the side draft open with a small bang, the oven damper will clunk when you open it, and the check draft in the pipe makes a tinny sound as you close it.  All this before you even lay in the fire, and all this that takes several sentences to describe, happens with a few flicks of the wrist, while you’re assessing  the woodbox.  Kindling?  Hopefully an odd assortment of sizes for a good tinder pile?  Maybe.  Or maybe a trip to the chopping block.

Throughout the year we make wood, dead or diseased trees and storm damage make up our wood supply.  It all gets stacked for curing in the woodshed which is the twin shed to the feeding shed at the hay barn.  As we stoke the furnace fire we keep an eye out for pieces of wood that would be good for kitchen wood.  This piece of Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menzeisii is perfect for the kitchen stove.  A little bit of pitch on one side which is good for kindling for many fires, and  it looks to be easy splitting.

Only one knot to split around, but otherwise clear.  This piece could go into the furnace as is, but it will go further as kitchen wood, yielding enough pitchy kindling for a week’s worth of fires and enough wood to cook a meal.

Using an axe, I begin by breaking it down into smaller pieces, splitting on either side of the knot in the center.  Whack, whack.

That’s the process, I just keep splitting the wood  into smaller and smaller pieces to isolate the pitch, and to make odd size pieces of firewood.  You don’t want perfection in your wood, the more angles, the better the fire will burn.  This is for hot cooking so I want the angles.  If I were just keeping the fire at a simmer I would use rounds which make a slow, simmering fire, perfect for stews and soups.  Hot fire, more work, slow fire, less work.

The piece with the knot will end up in the furnace, it’s still too big for the cookstove firebox, but will be perfect for starting a fire in the furnace, as a middling piece on top of kindling.

A small armload of wood and kindling for the woodbox.  It takes about 5 minutes to split this maybe, if you’re dawdling.  Most days while I am waiting for the furnace fire to take, I split kitchen wood and set it aside.  I don’t time myself, I just do it.

To start the fire, the first order of business is to clean the grates of ash.  If you’re the lucky one listening from upstairs, you hear the distinct sound of cast iron on cast iron as the lids are removed.

Usually I use the lid lifter to scrape the ash away from the grooves. This part is important, air needs to flow from the side draft positioned below the grates up through the wood to get the fire going.  Scrape, scrape all three grooves, more fire sounds.

If I’m particularly anal retentive, I use the grate turner and turn the grates to clean off all the ash.  That really makes a clunk like a some kind heavy safe door.

Nice and clean.

Slide open the draft.  It has a little squeak and thud.

Next open the oven damper on the right, and close the check draft on the left.  Essentially this gives the fire enough air to start properly, by pulling the air from the side draft beneath up through the wood, over the oven and up the chimney.  You need a good draw to pull the smoke and heat up the chimney.  (I told you it was black and dusty, just pretend this is some Italian farmhouse kitchen…)

I love pieces like this where the wood is splintered from splitting.  Before this goes in the fire I pull off every small piece I can for future fire starting.  It’s like free kindling I didn’t have to chop.

To start the fire, I remove the lids and connector piece over the firebox, and wad up several pieces of newspaper (not the slick ads, they contain too much clay and make too much ash) and starting with maybe one piece of kindling with pitch and several small plain pieces I lay them in criss-cross fashion with gradually larger pieces of wood.  Smaller sharp-edged wood starts better than round edges.

Then I light the fire, replace the lids as the fire begins to crackle.

You can see the fire being pulled to the right in this view.  I don’t look at the fire so much as I listen.  It will crackle and pop but when it threatens to roar, I close the oven damper.  At that time the stovepipe should be quite warm to the touch, signifying you need to close that damper.  I wait a few minutes and open the check draft on the stove-pipe.  A check draft is just what the name implies – it is checking or slowing down the updraft in the flue.

We use our cookstove as a heating source too, the oven door is usually open allowing the heat to escape into the room unless I am cooking.  And unless you really want to buy or cut lots of firewood I would recommend keeping the oven damper closed whether you baking or not.  With it open you are just sending all that heat up the chimney and to the outside.

Cooking with wood is a much art as science,  the fire can be very hot, but I rarely burn anything on the woodstove, and I like the dance of the pans and kettles.  When you need to adjust the heat you move the pan, not a dial.

Remember keep the ashes off of your oven, your lid lifter away from the heat, and your hot pads handy!

So much for spring…

21 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2011 1:12 pm

    Can’t wait til mine is up and running. Soon!!!

  2. February 17, 2011 1:59 pm

    I felt like I was right there with you:)
    Funny, the part about angled wood catching faster than round wood, well that’s something I guess I’ve instinctively known, but never really thought about it much, or put it words. Kind of neat to read it here:)

    • February 17, 2011 3:23 pm

      Karen, 🙂

      I never think of some of these things either that were mentioned to me as a child, which makes it hard to write about sometimes, because to me it seems obvious – but I was at a friends house a month ago, and they kept lighting their fire and it kept going out. My daughter and I exchanged glances, knowing it was the type and shape of wood that was giving them fits. The topic of their outside, uncovered wood storage has came up more than once at our dinner table. It’s like watching the contestants on Survivor trying to build a fire…or my favorite when they decide to kill one of the chickens, they pick a hen instead of a rooster, it’s gone in one quick bite for everyone and no ones makes any stock out of the bones!!

      • February 17, 2011 8:24 pm

        I laughed about your comparison to Survivor. I just shake my head at how clueless they are sometimes:)

  3. February 17, 2011 2:17 pm

    We heat with wood also, but we now have an out side furnace and we still have an old wood cook stove in the house that we actually use just for the heck of it. We haven’t used it this year because we need to redo the chimney and until then we are being safe rather than sorry! I sure can’t wait to go back to cooking on it though. Nothing beats cooking on a wood stove in cast iron.

  4. Fid permalink
    February 17, 2011 2:30 pm

    Ohhhhhh… that last picture is beautiful! Hopefully your furnace fire overnights so you don’t come down to a really cold kitchen. I have memories of this routine as a child right down to being the one in bed listening…wanting to get up, but wanting the room to be warm…waiting for the right time. As always, thanks for sharing. Take care and keep warm. Scratches for Jane.


    • February 17, 2011 3:25 pm

      Fid, Jane is tip toeing around in the snow today 🙂 I usually let the fire go out, so if I come down to a cold kitchen it my fault entirely 😉

  5. Fid permalink
    February 17, 2011 5:10 pm

    We are getting some snow ourselves this afternoon! We only get snow once or twice a year. This has been a very dry winter except for the end of Nov/early Dec. Lucy and Pearl were happy to see me bring them some hay under their tarp.

  6. February 17, 2011 7:33 pm

    We have one for back-up but it’s NOT in the kitchen where it should be to really use it. I always loved the noise of the rattling and banging that went on at my grandparents when that’s all they had to heat with………especially early in the morning… always knew the day was about to begin.

  7. February 17, 2011 7:49 pm

    Was that ever a walk down memory lane! Thanks for sharing. My Grma cooked on an old wood cook stove until 1972. We have one in our garage that we are planning on using when we move to the country in a year or so. I’m sure I will have to have lessons…it maybe will just be a trial by fire:)

  8. February 17, 2011 9:16 pm

    Sounds cozy. My sister-in-law desperately wants a wood cook stove, and my guess is that when they remodel their kitchen, she’ll probably get it. That’s if she concedes a dishwasher to my husband’s brother-in-law.

  9. February 17, 2011 9:19 pm

    I have a dover stove which I love too ( . The heat it gives off more than compensates for the work involved.

    Can’t wait for winter to get it going agin LOL

  10. February 18, 2011 3:23 pm

    Dear Matron I love the smell of food cooking on an old cook stove. We do not have one now but I am OK with that. As I get older I like doing a little less work. I am glad you showed everyone so well how they work. Good post. We do burn wood to heat our house so still have work. It is a nice warm heat. b

  11. MMP permalink
    February 19, 2011 8:16 pm

    I read your title as Keeping the home “fries” burning the first time through.

    We have an old cook stove in our kitchen also and I think I have similar feelings about it. I recently wrote something about the satisfying sounds it makes, the clanks, sqeaks, thuds and crackles. I made an analogy (or it could have been a simile) to an old stationary engine that you run with assistances of dials and gaugues but more by feel and sound. I think the sound I left out was bang of the shifting cast iron as it expands and contracts with the rise and fall of the fire. A domesticated fire breathing dragon that lives and breathes in our kitchens. Didn’t the flinstones have one of those?

    • February 20, 2011 5:08 am

      MMP, I’ll have to come check out your post, kitchen stoves seem to take on the part of additional family member 🙂 It’s funny you mention the one lung engines. My brother had one that came from a mine in Nevada, a hoisting engine, and I forget the horsepower, but when he would fire that dragon up before taking it to a steamup our cows would come running excitedly to listen and look, and that was when they had free-range of the place and could easily been a mile away most times. Something about the wheezing, huffing and popping got them going I guess. Thanks for conjuring up that memory!

  12. Teri Pittman permalink
    February 20, 2011 8:20 am

    If you ever run across it, holly is the perfect wood for baking. The bark catches like it was dipped in gasoline, then it settles down to making the longest lasting coals you’ll ever find. It doesn’t have much of a grain though so it doesn’t really split. We used to live on a holly orchard, which is where I found out about it. There are a few of those old holly orchards out there, so you might be able to get some.

    • February 20, 2011 9:25 am

      Teri, I lovvve holly, its a feral tree around here, so once in great while we get one in the woodpile. I have a few pieces (big rounds) left I’ve been saving all winter for when it gets cold, but it hasn’t got much below 10F here this winter and only for a week, so I’ve saved it. Filbert is like that too, although doesn’t light at easy.

  13. February 21, 2011 7:41 am

    A great tutorial – I have the same type of stove and we fire it up every morning. Love the sound, feel, smell… *sighs* I just love my stove!

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