Monday, November 9, 2009

i'm a firestarter

last year, as summer was ending and the cool weather lay ahead, blake and i made a decision: we were going to challenge ourselves to NOT turn on our central heating system. our first year here, the heating bill was insanely high--not surprising since we have a very large home, with an above-average amount of windows, none of which are energy-efficient. one aspect of central heating that we've never liked is the even-ness of heat around the home--we were always battling over the "perfect temperture"--in our classic opposite natures, if one of us was hot (blake!) then the other was cold (me!) we alwasy felt "dried out" and anytime the heat would kick on blake would complain its was "blaring"....sigh.

we decided to experiment with heating main living area with wood, and use space heaters in the bedrooms. seemed like a simple switch but actually proved to require a fireplace remodel. our a-frame home is graced by a dramatic external cement-cast fireplace and 30 feet of piping shooting past the all-glass face of the our home, toward the sky. the fireplace opening is of course in the inside of the home, was originally set-up for gas but we planned on just burning wood. we decided to consult with an expert to see if our ridiculously tall chimney would need any maintainence before the first burn. this is how we met Buck. he owns Buck's Stove Palace on Foster Road and really deserves a blog post all his own: he's a kookie, amish-bearded, stove genius who charges one dollar for a housecall. he leaves messages that begin with "Hi, from Buck!" and then ends with "Well, 'bye' from Buck!"

when Buck came to see our fireplace he descibed it as "a rich man's dream"--architecturally stunning but completely inefficient. for starters the stove piping was single-walled, added to the fact that the unit itself was outside of the home it equaled massive heat-loss. he suggested installing a cast-iron fireplace and running new piping up through the old, turning the old place into a sort of hearth for the new unit. well, that wasn't in our budget--a new jotul wood stove, although beautiful and long-lasting, runs for thousdands of dollar--so we spent some time discouraged.

by october we'd done nothing for heat and dealt with extra layers and wool socks. but upon returning from our seattle vacation, we found a surprise in our living room--Buck had, with the help of breana and our extra house key, delivered a gorgeous chocolate brown cast iron stove to our living room with a note that explained that he'd just recieved this unit used (a rarity) and he'd like us to check it out--no obligation to buy--but that he would really like to help us and we could work something out. we were pretty stunned that he'd gone through all that trouble for us and we'd only given him a dollar so far! once i saw the fireplace in the living room, i was smitten with it--it grounded the sleek and modern existing fire area with a traditional and functional warmth (no pun intended.)

we ended up having it installed, piping and all, which was a massive undertaking requiring extensive scaffolding to feed the pipe down from the top, 30 feet in the air (remember, in an a-frame house there is no roof to stand on since the sides are so steep.) buck barely charged us for materials and the fireplace was a fraction of what it would have cost new--and he gave us a year to pay it off.

by november, the very night we had houseguests arrive for the thanksgiving holiday, it was ready for a fire. it was exciting to have our extended family with us for the first blaze and we huddled around it, mesmorized by its light. the area soon became the hub of activity, where our guest would come to warm up, since the back sections of the house remained cool, and we would set up the kiddie table and play games like mancala, or read or do a homeschool lesson near the "heat box".

we soon learned that heating a home by wood was a sort of lifestyle. everyday we'd gather wood from the wood pile and bring it in, hopefully enough to last the day. we'd split kindling daily. we were alwasy grabbing extra newspapers. the ash box had to be emptied every few days. we would look at the dead trees in the backyard and see them as next years cord of wood. blake took to cooking our morning eggs and potatoes in a frying pan on the top of the stove and we'd set our tea cups there to stay warm. we became wood stove people. we would only start a fire if we'd be around to tend it so some days we'd come home from a long day of errands and the house would be cold, but blake would start an evening blaze while i made dinner and by the kids' bedtime, we'd have something cozy to sit by. once a fire is lit, there is this potent energy in the home that has to be tended, mothered even, like one of my own children. and this became part of my routine, periodic checking, stirring the hot coals, adding a log, fanning a dying flame, putting on boots and jacket and walking to the wood pile for a few armloads...the fire needed to be kept healthy, kept alive! i fell in love with its presence in my home and the discipline it evoked from me.

i'd always had fireplaces in our homes growing up and remember watching my father build and stoke many a fire. i felt like if i had to start one myself i'd do fine--i understood the gist of fire-building. having one in our home now gave me the opportunity to really build this skill. keeping it alive once it got going was a quick learn for me, but starting one myself was not a consistant success. some would take off and others would fizzle leaving me frustrated that i'd lost time and starter materials. i was not exactly sure what i was doing wrong, so at first i just asked blake to always start one before he left. this was fine for a while but busy mornings happen to busy people and sometimes there just wasn't enough time--and it seemed that the way we were starting them took a lot of time and tending just to establish a decent layer of coals. i will never forget one cold day when there was no fire and blake was at work, my hands were full with the baby and two children--i wanted a fire quickly and didn't want to waste time with a failure. i decided to call the neighbors, and see if rich (breana's husband) could come over and start one for me, which thankfully he did. this time, i watched how he did it closely. i am perfectly at ease with traditional roles, and leaving certain work "to the men"--blake brings home the bacon and i tend the hearth--now quite literally--but what kind of hearth-tender would i be if i couldn't build a decent fire! i felt very grateful for rich's help, but i also decided that i didn't want to have to call him again--i needed to master fire-building.

i spent the next few months perfecting the initial fire-starter set-up, and also experimenting with the different types of wood we had. the first two cords of the season were a varied mix of hard and soft wood, but the final cord was all fir, which took a lot of time to adjust to. fire after fire my confidence grew. i am happy to report two things: first, we met our goals and we never did turn on our central heat, and second, this year i am the official fire-starter in our home, with no more failed attempts. i decided to take pictures of the process during 2nd or 3rd fire of this year, to cement my confidence that after taking off the summer months by fire-building skills had not waned, and also in case someone else out there lacking this skill wanted to be enlightened (ha, more puns!!) so here's how i start a fool-proof fire:


you've got to have your essential items: newpaper, dried twigs, pinecones, smaller-sized fir kindling, a few soft wood logs...oh and a lighter!

first layer: newspaper. i prefer a combo of the twisted-like-a-log and just a plain old crumple

second layer: sprinkle with some pinecones

third layer: a handful of dried twigs, layed out all willy-nilly in different directions

fourth and fifth layer: kindling sticks layed down in an "x" pattern, with the bigger logs on top, also crossed. you want air (and then flames) to be able to make its way through your pile to ignite more material. resting the larger logs on the little metal log holders can help to keep the "upside-down pyramid" balanced...

light 'em up. i prefer a long lighter like this, and also i like to light three points of the newspaper--left, front, and right.

now i close the doors, but crack the bottom vent causing an updraft of oxygen that feeds the flame, and really makes it blaze hot to catch all of that material on fire. this is actually the ash pan on my fire-place but the other vents on the sides don't do the job the way this does...

here we go--everything is catching

a quick peek a few minutes later reveals that, yes, the logs have caught fire and things are progressing nicely

at this point i had walked away for a while, and had not yet added any logs since that initial start-up. but no fear, a nice hot bed of coals is forming that will ignite any log you throw on top. i might take a poker and flip that red log before adding two more and closing it up.

so i did just that, and things are getting very hot. once i see all the logs are caught and there is that layer of hot coals, i can close the bottom and let things burn more slowly.

once things are fully established, this is what the inside looks like. as each log burns down and turns to glowing red coal, i just keep throwing on fresh, dry logs, adjusting the hardwood logs as needed (they are much denser and sometime need a flip)


do you have any wood fire tips or memories to share??

12 comments:

buffybutt said...

Go Leah, doesn't it feel so good:) I have been searching high and low for someone to come look at our fire place, this is our second fall here without a fire and it makes me so sad, not to mention our gas bill is horribly high because like you both one of us is hot( jack) and cold (me!) Plus our central air vents are wonky and the bedrooms are hot, ESP Xander's( and it kills the poor bubs skin) but the rest of the house is cool. Hugh bummer.
How is your bill now using space heaters?

Also, when I was growing up it was my job to tend to the fire, I always saved the lint from the dryer to add and it would spark a flame quick like!

Your stove is beautiful and Buck sounds like the perfect guy to help me. Thanks for the tip.

Aimee said...

I love having our woodstove! I grew up with one and we got one installed in Feb of this year. I don't know how we lived without before. Its just a different kind of heat and such a relaxing heat at that. I too get frustrated when I do the exact same thing that I had done a hundred times before and this time it flopped. But like you I've perfected right now at least, we have an old bunk bed that we cut up after it broke and its the best fire starter. Between that and yesterdays newspaper. I don't know what I'm going to do what that ol bunk bed is gone!

Lee said...

We have the exact same woodstove at our vacation home and we love it. Sadly, though, we have not enjoyed it for the last few years as my parents were scared to use it while Jake was around. I think he's old enough this year to stay away from it while it is going, though! Yay!

radishly said...

i love buck!!! and i love this stove, beautiful!

radishly said...
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korin said...

We had a wood stove in the (renovated) garage that my sister and I shared as a bedroom in jr high and high school. So many late nights, and early mornings ...
"it's your turn to stoke the fire"
"no i did it yesterday!"

We were like Laura and Mary Ingalls. Good times!
I so wish we had a wood stove in this house! we don't even have a fireplace :( Maybe when we finally renovate the kitchen (when we win the lottery) we'll use the old furnace fireplace for a woodstove!

Mama Nomad said...

angie: the space heaters don't significantly change the bill, although i can't tell you how much since i don't pay the bills! i will say though that we didn't exactly spend way less money on heat when you factor in the cost of wood. we squeezed by with three cords i think. this year we are using some wood from our own yard though (altough those dead trees cost $ to cut down as well...)

lee: after reading margaret mead's growing up in new guinea, we decided to not put up a gate around the fire. the first time i built one george came over and i sat with him as he reached out and burned his finger--he pulled back quickly and just scrunched his face and said "oooowwwww" but didn't cry. i watched him closely the first few days, and watched his awareness and respect for the fireplace grow...now he doesn't pay it mind at all except to come and blow on it, from a short distance when i am stoking it:) of course, i am sure there are many parents and grandparents who would not be comfortable with this approach!

korin: now i have the image of you dressed as laura ingalls wilder but with rainbow knee socks--cute!

radishly said...

i keep having to do a double take on pic number 3 there man.

radishly said...
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radishly said...

good grief, can i ever just post once?

LA RN said...

You are such a hippie with your pine cones! I happen to be the BBQ starter in our house (we use hippie coals) and have had some challenges along the way. It takes a light, gentle hand and patience. Noah just wants to drench the wood in lighter fluid resulting in a dangerous bon fire.
I always loved having the wood stove growing up and how sweet Dad was to get up early and get the house warm while the rest of us were waking up. Remember when you fell on the stove and burned your arm? Meesh and I used to love to stand with our butts to the heat, warming up our jeans, and then running to the couch and sitting down quickly to get maximum butt warmth. What dorks!

Little Mrs Mason said...

it is beautiful!