Heating With Wood
It seems a logical conclusion to heat with wood when one lives on 63 acres, 48 of which are
wooded hillsides, and the nearest power lines are almost a mile away. But wood heat is very
polluting. The ash and carbon monoxide contribute mightily to damage the world’s atmosphere. If
everyone in the city heated with wood, urban centers would be smog ridden and too deadly to
But there is no doubt that wood can provide Straight Creek Valley Farm with a free source of
renewable heat during Ohio’s cold winter months. So we turned, once again, to our internet
research and learned about Vermont Castings wood stoves and their catalytic converters. We
purchased an Intrepid II from Buttelwerths Construction and Stoves, a Vermont Castings dealer in
Cincinnati Ohio. The Buttelwerths helped us design a double wall pipe system that we could run
up through the ceiling, and then out the roof top, through our green standing seam metal roof.
The outside of the double wall pipe, even with a toasty fire in the stove below, is cool enough to
lightly touch. The pipe itself obviously does not emit much heat into the room, but we considered
it a definite safety factor. We did not want to loose all of our hard work to a fire. We also
purchased Vermont Casting’s heat shields for both the bottom and the rear of the stove, again to
prevent heat from radiating to the wooden floor and walls of the cabin.
Now what is a catalytic converter for a wood burning stove? It operates on the same principal,
and serves the same function, as the catalytic converters in our car exhaust systems. It serves to
reroute the wood stove’s emissions through heated honeycombed chambers that reburn the fire’
s exhausted hot air before it is released up the flue pipe and out into the world. The catalytic
converter is only turned on after the stove’s firebox reaches a temperature of at least 250
degrees. If I am standing outside when Greg turns on the converter, I can see the fire’s grey
smoke turn clear. The converter burns off all of the greyness. All that I can then see is the heat
waves shimmering against the tree branches in the background. The catalytic converted fire also
burns odorless as well. Granted, wood smoke does smell beautiful on a cold winter’s day, but the
stove’s clean emissions make me feel far better than a woodsy fire smell.
I was at first concerned that a catalytic converted stove would be too complicated for a city born
lady to master, but my concerns turned out to be false. We simply check the temperature gauge,
specifically designed for wood stoves and which sits on the stove’s surface, and flip the converter’
s lever on the side of the stove, when the gauge temperature reaches the 250 degree plus range.
We try to burn hard woods in the stove, especially when we stack it full prior to going to bed for
the night. The stove is rated to burn for five to six hours, but we damp it down (allowing minimal
air flow into the fire box), set the converter on, and wake up nine hours later to a stove filled with
hot coals that are easily reignited into a good hot fire. One match sets our stove burning for a
And with forty eight acres of trees, we have no shortage of fire wood. There are lots of fallen
Sycamore trees on the property, but they are a soft wood that burns quickly and hot. The
Sycamore is thus a good wood with which to start a fire, but once it is burning, we use dead fallen
locust trees, or even maple, birch or elm. The locust trees are a hard wood that is very heavy
and dense. We have learned that it is the harder woods that will burn through the night. To learn
more about wood burning efficiency and safety, check out the EPA's web site at www.epa.
To start a fire in the cold stove, when we have been away for a winter weekend, we loosely roll up
a section of a brown paper grocery bag and set a match to it. As the paper starts to burn we
either set pine cones or fagots on top of the paper. When the pine cones or fagots start to burn
we set several rather slender split sycamore logs on top of the flames. Once the sycamore is
burning well, we set split locust logs on the fire. By then the catalytic inverter is ready to be
turned on and we sit back with a cup of hot tea as the cabin warms up.
Now I’m sure that you all know what pine cones are, but what are fagots? I was so excited when I
discovered fagots while reading one of the Foxfire books, that I happily called my brother
Thomas in Vermont to share my discovery with him. He was out in his own woods, but wife Beth
was home. She already knew all about fagots, and told me how much easier it was to simply pick
up pine cones and use them for fire starting devices. For you see, fagots have to me made. So
what is a fagot?
A fagot is a small bundle of twigs that are gathered up off of the ground and tied together with
cotton twine. I made mine to measure about three inches thick and twelve inches long. I simply
wandered about the edges of the fields and gathered up fallen twigs and snapped them to the
appropriate length and then tied them together in a bundle. Greg built a temporary wood box that
we sit on the cabin’s front porch. One side is filled with gathered pine cones and fagots and in
the other side, we set ten or so sycamore and locust logs. Thus whoever gets out of bed first on
Saturday morning, simply rakes the ashes down into the stove’s ash pan, piles the hot embers up
in the center of the stove, sets a few pine cones or a fagot on top of the embers, places one
sycamore and one or two locust logs on top of the pine cones or fagot and fires up the Coleman
stove to make the morning tea. Within a few minutes the fire is off and running and shortly after
that, once the temperature reaches over 250 degrees, we flip the converter lever, and are off for
a day of clean wood heat.
So where do we keep our supply of dead fallen fire wood? Well, we jbuilt a wood shed out in back
of the cabin, next to the sugar shed. It is really not so much of a shed as a cover. We built it
without any sides for both simplicity and aesthetics, but we realize that we may need to put up
siding, leaving only the front open. For the past several years though we have not felt the need
to close it in. We usually bring a day's worth of wood up onto the porch, so it can dry if
necessary. And yes, of course the wood shed has the obligatory green standing seam metal
roof. With every finished project at Straight Creek Valley Farm, our lives get that much easier. It
is hard to remember how far we have come from the days when we bathed in cold creek water
and slept out in the open air on our sixteen foot trailer with coolers of food at our feet. With warm
wood stove heat I feel like a civilized farm lady indeed.
But the wood stove story would not be complete if I did not mention the joys of chopping wood. I
have heard of wood chopping aficionados, who would not trade their axes in for love nor money. I
am quickly becoming one of them. The exercise is wonderful. The work passes quickly. Fifteen
minutes can produce a large pile of split logs that will easily provide enough fuel for our little
Intrepid II for several days. But I think that the real wonder of chopping wood is the sanity factor. I
recall one particularly stressful week a few years back. The stress was all due to work related
litigation issues. I had medical experts’ depositions, a memorandum due in Ohio’s Supreme Court
and new files landing on my desk at an alarming rate. I was not a vision of calm competence, or if
I did appear calm, it was a thin veneer. At that time, we would always leave Straight Creek Valley
Farm to head back to the city on Sunday evening, making sure that we had enough split logs to
warm up the cabin on our return the following Friday. I felt the tension tighten up my body, just
thinking of my work week ahead, but before we left, I knew that we would need to split more wood.
All that I need to tell you is that fifteen minutes of chopping did wonders for my soul. I felt warm,
calm and genuinely happy. My only regret about heating with wood is that I did not discover the
joys of chopping wood until I was 51 years old. Even now, at 56, I know that I have many more,
good wood chopping years ahead of me still.
Straight Creek Valley Farm