Starting a Fire in a Small Wood Stove

We’ve been using our Regency F1100 wood stove through 1 1/2 winters now, and we’ve slowly figured out how to build fires in it reliably, cheaply, and conveniently. Here’s how we do it.

We have experience only with the Regency F1100, but I bet the method we use would work fine in any small wood stove.

Start with the wood. You will save yourself a world of trouble, frustration, and disappointment if you start with wood that is thoroughly seasoned and thoroughly dry. Everything we burn has been cut, split, and stacked for at least a year. In June I bring the next winter’s supply of firewood (for us about 1 1/4 cords) under cover, where it stays until we burn it. So the wood we burn in the wood stove is just about perfect for burning.

We heard from lots of people before we started using our stove about what kind of wood would work well and what wouldn’t. Now we know it doesn’t matter. We burn oak, hickory, pine, sweetgum, poplar, maple, cedar, magnolia, and anything else that grows as a tree here at Longleaf Breeze. If it’s wood, we burn it.

Yes, some species produce wood that smokes more, but it doesn’t seem to matter once the fire’s going. Our stove never has visible smoke once it’s burning well, not even when the firebox is full of pine. And yes, some species produce wood that burns up faster in the stove. That’s rarely a problem for us, though. The firewood pallet is right outside the door, so if the fire has burned down, we just put another couple of pieces on.

We split our firewood down to 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. With the small stove, it just makes it easier to deal with to keep the pieces small. Last year I let Ken Craig at Professional Chimney Services (who is supremely knowledgeable about wood stoves and has been of great help to us in thinking all of this through) talk me into holding out several larger pieces, on the theory that I would want them to burn all night in the stove. Haven’t wanted the stove to burn all night once, not even on the coldest winter night. So I know now to keep the firewood pieces small.

We cut all the pieces 18 inches long. That’s the length we’ve learned fits easily in the small firebox and yet uses its full size effectively.

Lighting the fire. We use “Strike a Fire” starter sticks we buy at Wal-Mart in a box of 48 for $10, and we use 1/2 stick to start each fire. So the cost of the starter sticks is about 11 cents per fire. We begin with five relatively straight, relatively smooth pieces of firewood. We place a small one against the back wall of the firebox, and then we light the 1/2 starter stick and lean it against that first piece that’s hugging the back wall.

Then we place a slightly larger piece in front of the starter stick, but leaving some room for air to flow. Then we use a third piece that forms a bridge from the top of the first piece to the top of the second piece, directly above the starter stick. The reason we want the second piece (the one toward the front) to be sightly larger than the first piece (the one against the back wall) is that we want the third piece on top of them to have a slight tilt upward toward the front of the firebox, which directs the flame toward the front. There’s always room for a fourth piece in front of the wood we’ve already placed, and then a fifth piece on top of it and positioned to catch that flame as it leaves the third piece. We try to leave little gaps wherever possible to allow for good air flow.

This next step is probably the most important. Rather than lock the firebox closed, we push the door almost closed but leave a gap for air to enter the firebox from the living space. That gives the fire an extra dose of oxygen during those critical first 2-5 minutes. After the fire is going well, we close up the door and lock it. That then forces the combustion air to come exclusively from outside and produces the most efficient heating.

Enjoying the fire. A wood stove isn’t like a fireplace. You don’t need to “throw another log on” a wood stove fire. Instead, you start it with a full firebox, and then you let it burn all the way down until you have only glowing coals. At that point, you decide to let it decline; our firebox will stay hot to the touch for about five hours. Or you can recharge the fire with more wood. We rarely need another full charge after a fire has burned all the way down. Our tiny living space is usually nice and comfortable by then. So once the first fire has burned down, we normally add just one piece at a time at a time if we want to keep the fire going.

If we do add another piece of wood, and if the fire has burned down so low that we’re nervous about whether it will catch up, we crack that door again briefly to give the fire a little extra air. That usually does the trick.

The video runs about four minutes.

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