Dances with Wood: Life with My Cookstove

Note: A cold, wet day in November seems like as good a day as any to talk about owning a wood cookstove, re-running a piece I first wrote in 2007. When people come to my house, they are often a little disappointed to see that it looks pretty much like other houses. But the wood cookstove really is different than what most people know - even folks who heat with wood usually don't cook with it as well. And while heating and cooking with wood aren't appropriate in every environment, it is appropriate to mine, and maybe to more people than have given it thought before. I also know it is one of the differences that isn't a burden, but a pleasure.

Perhaps the single most visible symbol of the differences between my life and ordinary American lives is my wood cookstove. So much of what we do to conserve energy is invisible - we don't go places, we don't use things, we don't buy stuff. And the rest often looks fairly ordinary - lots of people have clotheslines, lots of people have gardens - and not necessarily for the same reasons I do. But my wood cookstove, well that's something rather different, something not in the kitchens of most houses. Everyone who comes into my home stops dead at my Waterford Stanley and stares, admires, wants to know how it works.

I'm going to do a later post on wood heating and cooking in general, covering the climate impact, practicalities and dangers of using and overusing wood and the future of forests. This time, I just want to talk about what it is like to live with wood, and particularly to combine the jobs of cooking and heating, simply because I know that thousands of people are converting to wood, or considering it, and need to know a little bit about wood stoves in general, and perhaps about cookstoves in particular.

Why choose a cookstove? We have both a cookstove and a heating stove, although they only run simultaneously on *very* unusually cold days or when we have guests enough to need to heat the whole house. During much of the year, the cookstove is our primary heat source, particularly in the early spring and late autumn, when the worst of winter's cold abates, but it is still chilly enough to need a source of heat. Since wood smoke is polluting, we try not to use it when it isn't truly necessary. But I do always look forward, as the calendar turns to November and we stop playing "heater chicken" to going back to dancing with wood.

If you are trying to decide whether to buy a cookstove or a conventional heating stove, it is worth considering what your priorities are. Do you already live in a climate where you can use a solar oven or outdoor masonry oven most of the time (ie, somewhere sunny, fairly dry and warm?) Then you probably don't need a cookstove. Do you have trees on your property or lots of sustainably harvested and carefully managed forest in the area, so that wood makes sense at all?

Do you cook much? Can or preserve? If you live alone and rarely cook, I would go for the more efficient wood heating stove - remember, you can cook on one of those as well - you can put a pot of soup on the top of the stove, and even get or make a sheet metal oven to go on top of it that will allow you to bake. It isn't as precise, easy to control or as large a surface, but it can be done. On the other hand, if you live in a large household, preserve a lot and cook from scratch most of the time, a big flat hot surface and oven going all the time might be a huge blessing. Also, where does your cooking energy come from? If you are cooking now with coal powered electric, replacing that stove with a cookstove might make sense, if you live in a wood plentiful area.

How much is cost an issue? What kind of stoves are available to you? New cookstoves are often a bit more expensive than new conventional woodstoves of similar heating ability. If buying an older stove, be careful with what you are buying - older stoves of both kinds may be heavily polluting and inefficient. Used stoves are often available, but make sure you know what you are getting, and that they check out for a good tight gasket seal and are in good condition.

Also think about the costs and impacts of the wood you are using. If you live in a forested area, or can manage your own woodlot or track how wood is harvested locally, wood might make sense. In an area without a lot of woodland, where wood has to be trucked long distances, using another fuel would be wiser, since wood is heavy and energy intensive to move around. Many woodstoves can be adapted to use pellets or corn, but I'm not aware of a pellet/corn basket that would fit the smaller firebox of a cookstove - although such a thing may well exist.

How often are you prepared to tend things? A cookstove necessarily has a smaller firebox than most woodstoves, simply because a lot of the space available is used for the oven - so while some stoves can be banked and kept going overnight, many cookstoves can't. Certainly, when you are cooking, if you need precise temperatures, you'll find that you need to be able to be around, to feed the stove more often and keep an eye on things - it isn't quite like setting the oven to 350 and walking away. It probably doesn't require as much attention as you assume it does, but it does require more than a fossil fueled oven.

Also, are you prepared to learn how to keep your chimneys clean, prevent fires, cut wood, etc... There's a basic skill set that accompanies any kind of wood heating that is necessary - and risk of fire and injury is such that you can't be casual about this. Again, it probably isn't as hard as you think it is.

Finally, how worried are you about having a source of heat and cooking power that doesn't require electricity or natural gas. Since we have regular power outages in our rural neighborhood anyway, it is just commonsense not to depend on the electric lines for our heat (our oil furnace requires electricity to be used) or cooking. If you aren't worried about your fossil fuel supplies, or have a better, more locally appropriate alternative, maybe a cookstove isn't for you. The same would be true, even if you have these worries, if you don't expect to be home to check on the stove regularly. If you use your woodstove only rarely, during power outages, you probably would be better off getting a less expensive conventional woodstove, rather than a cook stove.

If you pressed me, though, to answer which of the above was the major factor for me in choosing a cookstove, I would have to admit, although a cookstove makes sense at my house, the primary factor isn't anything so logical. I just wanted one, and now that I have it, I find that I love it.

Some of the things I do to cut my energy use and live more sustainably are fine, but I don't feel passionately about them, but the cookstove is one of my favorite things in the world (milking goats and hanging laundry also fall in the category). I love tending it - I actually love the regular interruptions to my work to go tend it when I'm the only adult in the house. I love the intricate dance of adjusting temperatures and cooking, and the huge expanse of hot surface that entices me to start just one more pot.

I love canning on it in the fall and the combined smell of the wood and applesauce. I love the way I feel it helps me cook better - the way things taste when they come out of it, and the way its enticing hot oven and surface encourage me to cook, and cook creatively.

What is it like to use it? In the mornings, whichever of us is up first lights the stove - we don't usually keep the cookstove going overnight, even though we can, simply because if it is cold enough to need a stove going overnight, we usually prefer the heating stove with its larger firebox and longer burn, and because otherwise, we can bear some cold in the mornings and the lower emissions are worth it. Sometimes we take a scoop of embers from the other stove, or if it isn't as cold, we play match games with our junk mail and the newspapers friends save for us and the kindling that my kids collect all autumn. It takes about 5 minutes to get the stove lit and be sure it is going, and another 20 minutes of hanging about doing other things, but checking periodically on the stove and gradually getting it up to a proper burn before we can load it up and go about our business. This work is entirely compatible with the rest of the things we do - getting breakfast, filling the kettle, sterilizing the milking equipment, doing dishes, getting the boys dressed in the morning, so much so that the stove itself doesn't actually seem to take up much time - it is all just morning routine.

I think of lighting a fire as a kind of dance - a delicate balancing of materials and the temperatures outside, the air and the draw of the fire. I love the symmetry, and most of the time, I love the challenge of getting it right with one match.

Once we're up and running, I immediately put the kettle filled with filtered water on the hob, and when it starts to boil, I'll pour my first cup of tea and move it over to the coolest part of the stove which will keep the kettle hot all day long. Since we often bake bread in the morning that we've set to rise overnight, many mornings the first project is to get the oven hot enough to bake bread, which is good anyway, since a short, hot burn will keep creosote from forming on the stove. Meanwhile, the bread is put on for a final rise in the warming oven above the stove - a nice toasty spot that sends it bounding right up. If you are in the market for a stove, the enclosed warming oven is a wonderful place to make yogurt, raise bread and dry mittens, or even dry pieces of wood for the next day's fire that have been iced over or had snow melt on them outside.

Meanwhile, I will probably put something on to simmer on the stove - it could be a pot of soup or stew, or some applesauce - the kind of warm, hearty food that one craves in the cold weather. Lunch will be ready when I want it. The stove is good for multiple purposes - the kids come there to get dressed, I come to warm my hands after typing in a cool office and refill the teacup. We can take the grate off and toast marshmallows or grill vegetables. We don't have a resevoir for hot water, my one regret about my stove, but occasionally we take a big stock bucket and bathe the kids in front of the stove anyway, just for fun, heating the water on the stop of the stove. If the power goes out, we hang our solar shower bags up on hooks behind the stove to get hot for a bedtime shower. And most days, the drying rack comes over near the stove so that we can rapidly dry our clothing, adding pleasant humidity to the air.

Once the stove is going, and if there's not much food to tend, I usually visit it once every hour. It doesn't have to be done that often - once every two or more hours would be sufficient, but I find that it helps me avoid getting engrossed in work or homeschooling and forgetting about the stove entirely. Plus, the break - getting up, bringing in some wood or poking up the stove and adding wood - is pleasant. I fill my tea cup again, fill the kettle and check on my simmering thing then too.

Lunch and dinner somehow seem easier with the cookstove to me - it is so simple to put something on to cook when I'm tending the stove anyway. The structure and discipline of dancing with wood bring food along with them. And the rich smells of food that comes out of the woodstove oven seem to make things even more delicious. We eat in the dining room, basking in the warmth of the cookstove.

This reminds me that where you put the stove, and the shape of your house, will also affect your decision about having a stove. You could put your cookstove in the garage or somewhere away from the kitchen, I suppose, but that will likely create a good bit of hassle for you if you do - carrying food that is bound to be spilled sometimes, running back and forth for things. So if the kitchen - or a room right off of it isn't a place you want to be, having a cookstove might not be for you. For us, we have a good sized older kitchen with room for the stove, and right off of it is the dining room where most of our homeschooling is done. The stove concentrates us in the kitchen and dining room, which is lovely - it makes our public space more public and collective - we are all together, often working on different projects.

When we're doing a big cooking project, with things in the oven and going on the stove, this requires more attention, a familiarity with the vagaries of our draft and the best strategies for heating up quickly. Learning to use a cookstove does take some practice, and will probably involve a few mistakes as you master the idiosyncracies of your particular stove. I think I burned things once or twice, and underestimated the time for something at least as often, but it was a surprisingly short learning curve, and you shouldn't be intimidated by it. It wasn't nearly as hard as I expected it to be, and the learning was a lot more fun.

You'll want a plentiful supply of potholders and wooden utensils, since these don't transmit heat, and cast iron cookware is the nicest and easiest to use on the stove - but since I like wood and cast iron better anyway, that's no hardship for us. Other than a few basic fireplace tools and a tight metal can for storing ashes, that's really all you need.

During the daytime we all gravitate to the stove, both to tend it, to enjoy the enticing smells and to be warmed by it. The kids pull their chairs in for story time. At night, we shift the stove to warming the bedrooms - that is, we put bricks into the oven (we soak them in water first) where they get hot. The bricks are then carried upstairs, wrapped in flannel, and put into the children's beds to radiate warmth to the sheets, and then gradually warm up their feet as they cool down. We also heat water in hot water bottles, and rice bags to warm the beds. Since we do not really heat the upstairs - we all prefer sleeping in a colder room with plenty of blankets - this means the pleasure of getting into a cozy, warm bed without the fire risk of an electric blanket. Later, we'll do the same thing for ourselves.

If we do keep the stove going overnight, there's an art to banking it - it takes a little time and practice again. Otherwise, in the autumn and spring we let it go out after dinner, while Eric and I sit and talk about our day, basking in the residual warmth. When it drops into real cold, we fill it up before bed, and then just let it go out - because our stove is cast iron and tight, the stove will still be quite warm to the touch most mornings, even hours after going out, still radiating heat into the kitchen.

All of it, to me, feels like a dance - occasionally clumsy or awkward, but often delicate and oddly freeing, despite the structures it imposes on my day. It seems odd that one of the secondary (after the husband, kids and other family of course) loves of my life is green, squat, named Stanley, and often too hot to touch, but so it is.


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Sharon, you might want to edit this; the first part of it double posted just before the end.

Other than that though, very nice. Makes me realize that, however much I might want a wood stove, without the ability to haul wood without fossil fuels, it might not be the best idea. Have to think on that one more.

We, too, have had a wood cookstove for many years - about 34 years, I'm guessing. Our friends have a Stanley - we have a Tirolia, which is a European (Austrian) model.It does have a water jacket that provides badly needed humidity to the dry air indoors in winter. Our winters are very long (about 7 months) and very cold. We used to have heating stoves as well but now we just have the cookstove.

I also much prefer cooking on a woodstove - all that cooking surface just calls out to be used. It's also so easy just to push pots and pans around from bake to boil, simmer to just keeping warm.

We do have our own woodlot - 22 acres. We also live in a rural area that is prone to losing electricity, especially during our many, fierce winter storms - Nor'easters! Nice to know we can always stay warm(ish, if the weather is especially brutal), cook our food and have hot water for washing.

Curiously, I also have blogged about the dance with wood; but the perspective is quite different, and likely interesting for all those watching the gender puzzles.

We actually heat the house with the cookstove; it's the only source of heat we have. All the points you make here about the joys of wood, we fully share.

But, there is another aspect, which is the management of the wood supply; harvesting, drying, storing, moving... it's a major part of life. And usually the task of the partner with more muscles.

And it can be a major source of family friction. Spice is well used to my loud exasperated sighs when I find the dampers wide open on the woodstove, an hour after dinner... it means good firewood, sent up the flue without doing us any good at all; all the work that went into finding it, cutting it, carrying it... wasted, for want of the moment's thought needed to close the dampers after opening them to get the faster fire needed for cooking.

Arrgh. Exasperation can run in the other direction, too; according to rural mythology, in Maine is it listed as legal grounds for divorce, if the man of the house fails to provide the woman with DRY wood for cooking.

The ball of aggravation is currently in my court here; we're short on dry wood that is under cover...

Just keep in mind, Sharon; every silver lining has its cloud.


(must be the elections...)

Oops, Susan - off to correct that right now.

Greenpa, I do half the wood management at our house, although we don't cut all of our own (firewood and hay are two things that my neighbors produce in quantity, and that I like to buy from them - and time for both are always limited), only about half of our annual wood consumption. But even with purchase, a lot of the larger pieces need to be split again to fit in the cookstove. I actually really enjoy working with wood - I don't take down larger trees and I'm afraid of chainsaws, but I can use a bucksaw and a maul like nobody's business and I enjoy it.

I mind when the dampers are open too, and when wood is wasted, but it isn't a battleground at our house, maybe because we both take full responsibility. But that's easier for us than many couples - I'm 6' to Eric's 6'1 and fairly strong, it would be a lot tougher if I was 5' and weighed 120 lbs.

It is a way of life, though, and anyone getting involved with wood should like it, or at least not mind it.


The wood burning cookstove I have now is small, but it does have an oven. It's in the garden shed as there's no place for it in the kitchen. Years ago in Illinois we had a huge cookstove, with six round plates & an extensive solid warming surface, really large oven, a copper hot water reservoir & an overhead warming oven. It had a good sized firebox & was so heavy that when stripped down to just the main body of the stove, it took four people to move it. Even with that stove, though, wood had to be broken up smaller than for the Ashley heating stove, which shared a chimney, on the other side of the wall. I wish I still had that stove although I don't know where I'd put it.

We didn't have running water in those days and so bathed with the water heated in the copper reservoir. I first learned to can on that stove. It took practice to maintain an even pressure on it. The pressure would begin to drop so I'd open the damper & put in more wood, pressure would shoot up & I'd close the damper. Seems like I was always chasing the pressure up & down at first. But I soon got the hang of it. This said, however, it's easier to maintain a steady pressure in the canner on a gas stove.

Last winter we heated exclusively with wood. Didn't even turn the gas furnace on. This year, though, I've had to light the furnace since there is no one home during the day to keep the fire going & I can't afford to have the pipes freeze. I keep the thermostat set below 60^oF and build a fire in the evenings. It's been unseasonably warm and the past couple evenings I haven't even needed a fire. Once daylight saving time ends this coming weekend I plan on getting up a half an hour earlier in the morning and building a fire in the fireplace. The fireplace has a homemade metal insert with glass doors. I cut wood 28" for an optimal fit. I've considered cutting the front of the insert off with a cutting torch & extending it out to the edge of the stone hearth. This would allow bigger pieces of wood to fit and would give a small top surface for cooking on. The fireplace has an electric fan that blows air from the pantry behind the fireplace through the rocks and out into the living room. Without this fan the rest of the house wouldn't receive much heat. Even with it, the back bedrooms stay cool & I sleep in a sleeping bag in winter. There is also a solar forced air unit on the roof. Even in January it blows warm air between about 11 am & 2 pm, if the sun is shining. It, too, requires electricity.

My property is about five acres & is wooded. The largest trees are native cottonwoods and I don't cut them for firewood. If a branch falls blocking a trail I'll cut it up but otherwise don't burn cottonwood. Introduced Russian olive & Siberian elm comprise the bulk of my firewood. Some people don't like this wood, saying that it stinks or "doesn't burn right." I find that it burns just fine if cured at least a year. We went through about six cords last winter. Wood harvesting is sustainable in that woody biomass has actually increased on the property, in spite of firewood harvesting. This year with the furnace supplementing wood heat I will burn less.

I use a medium sized Husqvarna chainsaw for cutting wood, unless it is small enough to cut with lopping shears. I have operated chainsaws all my life and have fallen big timber, worked on thinning contracts for the US Forest Service, and have cut firewood commercially. I even operated a chainsaw in the Combat Engineers & worked one winter as a chainsaw mechanic, so I know saws. The Scandinavian saws: Jonsereds & Husqvarnas are the best by far. German made Stihls & Sachs-Dolmars aren't too bad and American made saws are worthless. For the past several years I have used a gasoline powered hydraulic wood splitter. It has a stroke length of only 26" so I have to cut big rounds 2" shorter than I otherwise would. I also have a gasoline chipper/grinder for dealing with the small stuff. The chips make excellent mulch. I haul wood up from the riparian bosque in a wheelbarrow and stack it on pallets to cure. I have considered getting a pony or donkey for getting firewood in a cart - and as a pet for my granddaughter. Maybe gasoline powered chainsaws, wood splitters & chipper grinders aren't as sustainable as using ax, bow saw, wedges & sledgehammer but I simply couldn't deal with firewood without them. Even when I had two strong sons at home to help we still used the chainsaw, although they split the wood by hand.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 04 Nov 2010 #permalink

Ahhh, wood! I put a woodstove in the fireplace of our old house. It all started with a dead elm tree in the yard the city was going to charge $480 to cut down. I bought a cheap chainsaw and started cutting. That year was a lot of learning, like you said, about wood heating. The gas bill was still 40% of the previous year. The next year I turned off the furnace and left it off for 16 months. My fiancée did not like cold (50F) mornings, or the constant hauling/splitting/stacking as much as I did. But we will return to it when the time is right again. I had to drive an hour each way to cut wood, and that put a toll on the car. 6 cords did it for me too DD. Lots of work splitting and stacking, to be sure.

Funny story- when I needed a replacement 'lifetime' maul and some new wedges, the clerk asked me how long I had been in this country, complementing me on my mastery of English. He had never seen a native-born American buy hand tools to cut or split wood.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 04 Nov 2010 #permalink

The weekend I was at your house, the one thing that -I- noticed was that with the bedrooms so cold, it made getting out of bed easier, because there was a warm stove and water for tea downstairs! Being the first one up would probably be more difficult for me...

6 cords did it for me too DD.

In Illinois we burned more like 10 cords per winter. It wasn't that much colder there than here in NM (further north but lower in elevation) but the house here is better insulated.

- when I needed a replacement 'lifetime' maul..

I don't care what a handle was made of, my boys would break it. We went through ax & sledge handles like crazy. In my grandpa's day, he & his dad & brother would carve a new handle and could do so quickly. To us a broken handle meant a trip to the hardware store to buy a new one. Learning to carve tool handles would be a good subsistence skill.

We never used a maul. When I was first burning wood as a young adult my grandpa told me not to buy one, that they were a waste of time. He said to get a good double bitted ax & a set of wedges & a sledgehammer. These have always served well. If others like a maul better, I'd like to hear. When my sons were young, they used an 8 lb. sledge. As they grew they progressed from 8 lb. to 10 & finally to 12 lb. hammers. Me, I use the hydraulic splitter. No broken handles that way! :)

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 04 Nov 2010 #permalink

Wow, I don't know what's better reading, Sharon's blog entry, or all the wonderful first person accounts in the comments section.

My school has 170 acres of land, about 150 of it forested. The kids and I have been clearing old pastures of invasive, introduced buck thorn that looks to have been introduced by birds somewhere in the 1960s. Though the stuff doesn't grow all that big, it's some of the densest, best burning wood I've ever thrown in my masonry heater at home.

The kids LOVE splitting wood with mauls too. They don't really like going into the fields and woods so much, but for this, and a pay of $4 per hour, they're there. Their accuracy isn't so great and they hit the handles quite a bit. We probably break 3 or 4 handles a season, splitting about 7 or so cords. I've learned to put a good wrap of duct tape around the handles near the head to cushion their mis-hits. I use a sharp knife to cut off the mashed duct tape as needed, and that helps me get away with replacing so many maul handles. I have a hydraulic splitter that attaches to my Troy-Bilt tiller too, but the kids go for the manual splitting every time. G*d bless them.

We've been cutting larger trees here and there on the school property too, restoring some overgrown woodland trails as we go and selling the firewood on Craigslist. Our agency policies don't let us keep any of the proceeds (it all has to pass through our Accounting dept. in Boston, so they can skim as they please), so the customers make their checks out to a local charitable trust that helps our school instead.

I'd love to put a wood stove or masonry heater in the new dorm our school is planning, but the legalities of wood heat in a dorm, no matter how well built the dorm might be, don't seem promising. (The architect is planning a LEED certified building, but from what I see, such certification means lots of interesting building materials, but still seems to depend on too much active, powered heating and cooling as well.)

Anyhow, I take about 4 of those school cords for my own use at home. (I volunteer several extra days a month in the fall above and beyond my paid work at the school, so I feel that I'm justified.) The masonry heater I have is no cook stove, but it heats the house very nicely, especially since we went through the attic and crawl spaces, insulating like crazy a few years back. We also have some fancy cellular window shades that tie into nifty side tracks that really cut window heat loss. The furnace is seldom used unless we're absent for several mid-winter days.

My mom grew up with a wood and coal cook stove and she swore that she'd never go back to wood heat, but the combination of a modern, well-insulated house and the easy, once or twice a day tending of the masonry heater, makes heating with wood far superior to what my mom remembers in a drafty six family in Somerville circa 1942.

I still long for a cook stove just the same, but haven't really figured out the chimney work that would allow it in our kitchen as the floor plan above the kitchen isn't very accommodating.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 04 Nov 2010 #permalink

i lived in a cabin near a small village in Minnesota for 26 years and burned wood in a small cast iron box 500 watt electric baseboard heater set as low as it would go was placed in the pipe runs to keep them from freezing while i was at work.firewood came from my own woodlot and one weekend a month in the fall and winter was "woodwork". people have asked about using a smaller wood stove,what was it like? how much time did it involve,did you stay warm at night?i told them it was like sailing a small boat,you had to be at it all the time.adjusting the draft,the air intakes,filling it with wood,taking out the ash. it was not something that ran on its own,you were always "trimming the sails" to keep the temp just right.

Great post Sharon, our cookstove means so much to us, besides just providing heat for half the house and making meals so easy to cook. Funny how fossil fuel heat seems "cold" and impersonal compared to wood heat.

Loved this post. We heat our 1400 sq. ft woodframe home with a wood stove. I would love to seriously consider a wood cooking stove but haven't found an answer to this question. Our winters are cold and snowy, but we have about 4 months of hot, dry summer. A wood cooking stove would add heat to an already challenging living experience with the summer heat. Of course, we have no air conditioning. Would love some ideas?

Nadia, there is some information out there about how to make small "summer" fires to cook with, but we simply don't use the cookstove from June to September - too warm. What we do then is switch to other methods - solar oven, rocket stoves, outdoor ovens and grills. We do occasionally use the electric stove that came with the house in summer, but we try to keep it to a rare thing.