How to Properly Start a Wood Stove


Tamara WilmStarting a wood stove to heat your home or cabin can be a daunting task, especially if you've never done it before. However, once you get the basics down it becomes second nature and is a practical — not to mention cozy — way to provide warmth in the colder months.

Many people in the Adirondack Mountains — where I go every chance I get — heat their homes and camps this way. Seeing smoke rise out of the chimneys in the park is both picturesque and reminds me of simpler times. The smell is also deeply embedded in my scent memory.

Yet, when I first went to the Adirondacks I wasn't too confident with the stove. Even though I had grown up in Wisconsin with a campfire pit in my backyard — that I knew how to light with confidence — a woodstove is another animal all together. Experience and the advice of local friends taught me what to do.

First, I need to acknowledge that all wood stoves are different. While there are some universal steps to getting one going, there can be differences depending on the make and model. Be sure to read the manufacturer's instructions that come with your stove.

If you're staying in a rented cabin ask the owners for the instructions or about any quirks you need to be aware of. That being said, let's start that fire!

  1. Make sure the flue is open. This usually means that the handle is pointing up and down horizontally. Although, depending on the type of stove you have there could alternatively be a lever you pull in and out, or a dial, to adjust the air control. On the wood stove I most often use the flue handle is on the stovepipe.
  2. Once you're sure the flue is open, it's time to build the fire in the stove's firebox. Open the load door and start out by placing crumpled up newspaper in the bottom of the box. Now, there is debate on exactly the best way to crumple the paper, but — at least in the neck of the woods I hang out — general opinion is that wringing the paper into long (or short) log-type pieces, or wicks, is best.
  3. On top of the paper place your kindling. It's important to have dry, aged wood that has been chopped into small pieces. You'll want a lot of kindling at hand. I usually place these pieces in a box pattern to start out — two pieces on the outer part of the paper, and two pieces on the ends, making the box. I then add smaller pieces in the middle. On top of that I place a small log.
  4. Now you're ready to light. Using box matches or a long gas lighter, set the paper on fire in multiple places. You may need to blow (gently) on the paper and kindling to get it to catch.
  5. Tend the fire until it gets going and the log begins to burn. You may find that using the metal poker, to move the kindling or logs around, is helpful. When you hear crackling sounds that's a good indication that you have a strong fire started. You may need to add more newspaper or kindling to ensure a sufficient fire.
  6. After everything in the firebox is burning well, add another small log or two and shut the door. You can then turn the flue handle down to 45 degrees, or adjust the lever or dial in a commensurate way. In some cases, you may need to keep the flue open longer to ensure enough airflow.
  7. Once the fire is burning well without being tended to you can let it be. Just be sure that you have closed the load door tightly. Check on the fire every now and again and add more wood to keep the fire going. Do not overfill the firebox, especially if your stove has a glass front as the glass can break.
  8. Once things are rolling you can relax and enjoy your toasty cabin.

One more tip: leaving some ash in the bottom of the firebox can actually help the next fire get started more easily. I'd recommend clearing out the ash once or twice a week, depending on usage.

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