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The Ultimate Wood Burning Guide: Mastering Your Wood Stove, Insert, or Fireplace

Traditional wood burning fireplace with a wooden mantel

In this comprehensive wood burning guide, we will primarily focus on wood stoves, but rest assured, these tips are also applicable to wood inserts and wood fireplaces.

However, before we dive into the details, we strongly recommend reading your owner’s manual thoroughly to familiarize yourself with your specific unit’s features and guidelines.

Roaring flame on wood with bright red embers.

Understanding the Anatomy of Fire

To fully appreciate the art of wood burning, let’s start by understanding the basic principles behind fire.

Fire is essentially a chemical reaction that requires three crucial components to sustain itself—fuel, oxygen, and a source of ignition (spark).

In the case of a wood fire, the fuel consists of kindling and logs, the oxygen is derived from the surrounding air, and the heat originates from the initial flame sparked by a match or lighter.

As Sally Coulthard wisely states in her book, “The Book of Building Fires,” fire not only warms our hands and feet but also warms our thoughts—a sentiment echoed by Odell Shepherd.

Getting to Know Your Wood Stove

Every wood stove, fireplace, or insert is unique, so it’s essential to acquaint yourself with your unit’s specifications and operation before using it.

Prioritize reading your owner’s manual to familiarize yourself with any special features your appliance may have.

While there may be slight variations, most wood stoves and inserts are designed with similar structures.

Let’s explore the main controls you need to be acquainted with: the primary air control, bypass handle, and, in some cases, additional catalyst controls.

Primary Air Control

The primary air control is responsible for regulating the amount of air that enters the firebox.

Typically located below the door of your wood stove, adjusting the primary air control allows you to control the speed and intensity of the fire.

More air results in a faster-burning and hotter fire, while less air slows down the combustion process.

Bypass Handle

The bypass handle is situated above the door or on the side of your stove and plays a crucial role in controlling the airflow through the chimney.

Depending on the type of stove you have, the bypass handle either redirects air through a catalytic converter (in catalytic stoves) or through air tubes (in non-catalytic stoves). We’ll delve deeper into this mechanism later.

It’s important to note that while nearly every wood stove or insert incorporates these basic controls, their specific locations may vary.

Always refer to your owner’s manual for precise information about your particular unit.

Catalytic vs. Non-Catalytic Stoves

Another vital aspect to understand is whether your wood stove is catalytic, non-catalytic, or a hybrid.

These distinctions primarily pertain to how the fuel is burned after the initial fire is ignited, affecting the stove’s efficiency and heat output.

Catalytic Wood Stoves

Catalytic wood stoves utilize a catalytic combustor to re-burn the gases and smoke emitted during the wood-burning process.

A catalytic combustor, resembling a honeycomb, is made from a special chemical catalyst that ignites the smoke at high temperatures.

To engage the catalyst, refer to your owner’s manual for specific instructions.

Typically, you’ll use the bypass handle to redirect the smoke through the catalytic converter.

Monitoring the catalytic thermometer and adjusting the bypass handle when the temperature reaches the “catalyst active” range ensures optimal performance.

Remember to replace the catalytic combustor every 4-5 years for optimal efficiency.

Non-Catalytic Wood Stoves

Non-catalytic stoves also re-burn the smoke but do not utilize a catalytic combustor.

Instead, they employ air tubes that operate through natural convection.

This means you don’t need to manually engage any controls.

The air tubes generate superheated oxygen, effectively burning the smoke and increasing the stove’s efficiency.

Periodically cleaning the air tubes ensures they work at their best.

Manufacturers often provide a small brush for this purpose, allowing you to remove any debris that may have accumulated on the tubes.

Hybrid Wood Stoves

Hybrid wood stoves combine the best of both worlds by incorporating a catalytic combustor and air tubes.

If you own a hybrid wood stove, you’ll need to engage the catalyst manually while the air tubes function independently.

By understanding the specific features and operation of your wood stove, you’ll have the knowledge and confidence to make the most of your wood-burning appliance.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with these details and refer to your owner’s manual whenever needed.

Choosing the Right Firewood

Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, we’re fortunate to have an abundance of firewood options.

However, selecting the appropriate type of wood for your stove can be a daunting task.

Let’s explore some key considerations to keep in mind when choosing the ideal firewood.

Hardwood vs. Softwood

Firewood generally falls into two categories: hardwood and softwood, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Softwoods originate from conifer trees, which are characterized by their evergreen nature, needle-like leaves, and cone-bearing structures.

Examples of softwoods include fir and pine.

Softwoods contain higher levels of sap and other flammable resins, making them excellent for kindling.

However, they tend to produce more smoke, which can lead to creosote buildup in your chimney if not regularly cleaned.

Hardwoods, on the other hand, come from broad-leaved deciduous trees such as oak, elm, ash, and cherry.

Hardwoods generally burn longer and hotter than softwoods but may be slightly more challenging to ignite.

For optimal results, wait until your fire is well-established before adding hardwood logs.

Using Dry, Seasoned Firewood

Regardless of the type of firewood you choose, it’s essential to ensure it is dry and seasoned before burning.

Attempting to ignite damp, unseasoned, or rotting wood will result in frustration and disappointment.

Properly storing your firewood is crucial to maintaining its dryness and readiness for burning.

Store it in a covered area, off the ground, to protect it from moisture.

You can often gauge the seasoning of firewood by its appearance.

Well-seasoned wood typically has a washed-out appearance and is lighter than wet wood.

When struck together, seasoned wood produces a hollow sound.

For absolute certainty, you can use a moisture meter to measure the wood’s moisture content, which should be less than 20%.

Woods to Avoid

To ensure both your safety and the longevity of your wood-burning appliance, it’s important to avoid certain types of wood:

  1. Non-local wood: Burning wood from distant sources can inadvertently introduce invasive species and diseases to your local environment. Always burn wood near the area of purchase.
  2. Treated wood: Wood treated with varnishes, preservatives, fungicides, paints, or glues contains chemicals that can be toxic when burned. It is best to steer clear of treated wood.
  3. Green (wet) wood: Burning wood that hasn’t had sufficient time to dry out and season will be challenging and result in excessive smoke production. Plan ahead and burn dry, seasoned wood for optimal results.
  4. Poisonous wood: Wood from poisonous plants like poison ivy, oak, and sumac should never be burned as the toxins can become airborne and pose a health risk when inhaled.
  5. Driftwood: While driftwood may burn well, it contains salt that can corrode your stove or chimney over time. It’s best to avoid using driftwood as firewood.

By selecting the right firewood and following proper storage practices, you’ll enhance the performance and efficiency of your wood-burning appliance while minimizing potential risks.

Breaking in Your Stove

To ensure long-term durability and optimal performance, it’s essential to break in your wood stove or insert gradually over the first few burns.

This process allows the materials to acclimate to the heat and prevents potential damage.

The method of breaking in your stove varies depending on the material it is constructed from.

Cast Iron and Steel Stoves

Cast iron and steel stoves may emit an initial unpleasant odor during the first few burns.

This odor is a normal result of paints and oils burning off the stove’s surfaces.

While non-toxic, it’s advisable to open a window during this process to allow the fumes to dissipate.

The odor should subside after approximately 10-20 minutes of operation and will not continue once the stove has cured after a few burns.

Soapstone Stoves

Soapstone stoves require a seasoning process to draw out the natural moisture gradually and prevent thermal shock, which could lead to cracking.

Avoid over-firing the stove before it has been properly seasoned.

Patience is key when it comes to soapstone stoves.

Understanding the specific requirements for breaking in your stove will contribute to its longevity and performance.

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations and guidelines for your particular stove material.

Starting a Fire (And Keeping It Going)

Now, let’s get down to the practical aspects of starting and maintaining a fire in your wood stove.

While having a high-quality stove and dry firewood is important, the art of starting and sustaining a fire is a skill in itself.

The Top Down Fire Method

One highly effective method for starting a fire in a wood stove is the Top Down Fire technique.

This approach offers several advantages, including improved flue warming, enhanced smoke exhaust, and efficient fire progression. Here’s how you can create a Top Down Fire:

  1. Begin by placing the largest logs at the bottom of the firebox, running parallel to the door.
  2. Layer medium-sized logs across the large logs, forming a crisscross pattern.
  3. On top of the logs, add a layer of smaller logs or split wood, ensuring proper spacing for airflow.
  4. Place a generous amount of kindling on top of the smaller logs, creating a solid foundation.
  5. Finally, add a layer of finely split kindling or newspaper on top of the structure.

The key to success with the Top Down Fire method is patience.

Build the structure carefully to prevent it from collapsing as the fire ignites.

Once lit, the fire will progress naturally from the top down, warming the flue and promoting efficient smoke evacuation.

Kindling: The Essential Ignition Aid

When building a fire, remember to start small.

Matches or lighters alone cannot ignite full-sized logs.

Kindling serves as the vital ignition aid. Ensure your kindling is dry and seasoned, just like the rest of your firewood. You can easily create kindling by breaking off small strips from your firewood.

To have a sufficient supply of kindling on hand, consider storing pencil-sized, pinky-sized, thumb-sized, and wrist-sized pieces.

Keep your kindling and newspaper in a dry and easily accessible location, such as a basket, to ensure their readiness when needed.

Embrace the natural approach and avoid using lighter fluid, as you’ll soon become proficient at starting a fire without it.

Establishing a Draft

A crucial element in wood burning is establishing proper draft, which allows smoke to exit through the chimney rather than permeate your living space.

Achieving the right draft can be challenging, but with a few considerations, you can optimize your wood stove’s performance.

For optimal draft results, follow these steps:

  1. Ensure the temperature outside is cold (below 40˚F) while the chimney temperature is relatively warm.
  2. You can warm the chimney by using kindling and allowing enough airflow to create a small fire for 10-20 minutes before adding any logs.
  3. Open the primary air control fully and leave the door open until glowing coals form at the base of the stove.
  4. Once a solid bed of coals is established, add your desired firewood.

By paying attention to draft conditions and following these guidelines, you’ll enjoy efficient smoke evacuation and a more pleasant wood-burning experience.

Adding Logs for Sustained Fire

A well-built fire can last for several hours, but eventually, you’ll need to add logs to maintain a steady burn throughout the day. When it’s time to add logs, follow these steps:

  1. Once your logs have burned down to glowing coals, use a poker or fire tongs to rake the coals into an even bed at the base of the firebox.
  2. Add medium-sized logs directly onto the coals, ensuring proper spacing for airflow.
  3. Open the primary air control fully to allow maximum airflow until the new logs catch fire.
  4. Once the medium-sized logs have ignited, you can add larger logs as desired.

With an ample bed of coals to work with, adding logs and keeping the fire going should be relatively easy.

Just remember not to let the coals burn out completely, as this would require restarting the fire with kindling and re-establishing proper draft.

Rekindling After an Overnight Burn

There’s nothing quite like waking up to a warm and cozy wood stove on a chilly morning. To maintain a fire overnight, follow these steps:

  1. Before going to bed, add a few logs to your stove and set the air control to a low setting to promote slow burning. Be cautious not to overload the stove, as this can be hazardous.
  2. In the morning, you should wake up to a bed of glowing coals at the bottom of the stove. Rake the coals toward the front, where the air control is located.
  3. Add a few medium-sized logs directly on or near the coals.
  4. Open the air control fully to allow sufficient airflow for the logs to catch fire. You may need to crack the door slightly to ensure adequate air intake.
  5. Once the logs have caught fire, you can add additional logs as needed, and your wood stove will continue to provide warmth and comfort throughout the day.

By following these steps, you can enjoy a hassle-free and consistent wood-burning experience, even after an overnight burn.

Answers to Your Burning Questions

To further enhance your understanding of wood burning, here are answers to some common questions:

▸ My stove keeps smoking, is it broken?

Excessive smoke production can indicate a problem with your wood stove, such as improper airflow or a malfunctioning component. It’s best to consult a professional technician to assess and resolve the issue.

▸ I’ve used a wood stove for years. Why is my new stove harder to get a draft?

Newer wood stoves are designed with improved efficiency and tighter seals to comply with environmental standards. This may result in a slightly different draft experience. Familiarize yourself with the specific controls and features of your new stove to optimize its performance.

▸ What is the best way to store firewood?

To ensure your firewood remains dry and ready for burning, store it in a covered area, off the ground. Proper ventilation and protection from moisture are key to maintaining the quality of your firewood.

▸ Which is better for a longer burn time: hardwood or softwood?

Hardwood generally provides a longer burn time and produces more sustained heat compared to softwood. However, both types of wood have their merits and can be used effectively in wood-burning appliances.

▸ Can I convert my wood stove or insert to gas if I don’t like burning wood?

Converting a wood stove or insert to gas is possible but requires professional expertise. Consult with a qualified technician to explore your options and ensure a safe and proper conversion.

▸ How often should I clean my chimney?

Regular chimney cleaning is crucial to prevent creosote buildup, which can lead to chimney fires. It’s recommended to have your chimney professionally inspected and cleaned at least once a year, preferably before the start of the wood-burning season.

▸ Why should my fireplace chimney be inspected for a new insert if you’re going to reline the chimney anyway?

Even when installing a new insert, inspecting the chimney is essential to ensure its structural integrity and identify any potential issues. By addressing these issues before relining the chimney, you’ll enhance the overall safety and efficiency of your wood-burning system.

▸ Why do I hear hissing when I put a log into the fire?

The hissing sound you hear when adding a log to the fire is caused by moisture within the wood evaporating. This is normal and poses no cause for concern.

By equipping yourself with knowledge and understanding, you can enjoy the full benefits of wood burning while ensuring safety and efficiency.


With this comprehensive wood burning guide, you’re now equipped with the knowledge and techniques to maximize your wood stove, insert, or fireplace experience.

By following the tips and guidelines presented here, you can create beautiful and efficient fires that provide warmth, comfort, and ambiance.

Remember, always refer to your owner’s manual for specific instructions regarding your wood-burning appliance.

Stay mindful of safety precautions, such as regular chimney maintenance and proper firewood selection.

By doing so, you’ll create a welcoming and inviting atmosphere while enjoying the timeless charm of a wood-burning fire.

At Dreifuss Fireplaces, we’re passionate about helping you make the most of your wood-burning appliance. Contact us today for expert advice, high-quality products, and exceptional service. Let’s embark on a journey of warmth, coziness, and unforgettable wood-burning experiences together.

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