Is a wood heater or wood cookstove best for your circumstances? When you live in the North the winter cold can be brutal. So can your electricity bill. We’ve overcome this by heating and cooking with wood.
Characteristics of a Wood Heater
Wood heaters are the wood-stoves that most rural houses have, they heat an area by radiant heat. Some models have electric fans built-in, and when plugged in it will push warm air from the stove around the room. A wood heater or wood-stove often has a flat surface above the firebox which can be used to heat a kettle, keep a pot of soup simmering, or heat a dutch oven loaded with biscuits in a power outage. Wood-stoves usually have a small footprint and so can be placed in a room without too much displacement of other elements in a room.
There are models designed to be placed in mobile homes, apartments, and trailers. Called “close-clearance” stoves, they have an extra piece of sheet metal on the back with an airfoil, to insulate the outside of the stove from heat. The ones with a flat stove surface are best if you plan to occasionally use it for cooking. We’ve used the Regency Close Clearance Stove for many years, upgrading to newer models as new efficiencies were developed.
Newer model wood stoves heat the wood gasses twice by forcing them back into the combustion chamber for a second burn, before releasing them up the chimney. Called catalytic heaters, they reduce the amount of particulate matter that is released into the atmosphere. Most municipalities that allow for wood heating, insist that all wood stove installations be of this type.
This second burning also makes for more efficient use of fuel, which is less clean-up and work for you. Definitely keep this in mind if you are looking at used wood-stoves. Many older stoves lack this efficiency.
Modern wood-stove fireboxes are lined with replaceable fire brick, which extends the life of the stove. Expect your wood-stove to last for 15 years of daily, seasonal use. The best practice is to burn only seasoned wood and keep the fire brick in good repair. If you do you may be able to extend their expected life by an additional 5 years or more. Know that these are not a lifetime purchase. Even after 10 years, there will be improvements to a new stove that you might want to take advantage of.
When using a wood-stove, pushing the warm air from the stove surface into the room, keeps the room air circulating, and brings fresh oxygen to the stove to aid in efficient combustion. Some stoves have built in fans at the base which plug into an electrical circuit in the wall behind the stove. These allow for efficient air circulation, both warming the room and drawing cooler air back to the stove to keep the stove working efficiently. If you live off grid or don’t have the wiring in place behind the stove, a stove top fan with stirling engine, is an eco-friendly way to keep the air circulating. These fans work because the differences in temperature between the hot stove surface and the ambient air create an electrical charge that is strong enough to move the blades of the fan. This is the same principle used in the Joi Light, that uses the heat from a tea light candle to power 8 LED lights that can illuminate a table with enough light to read by. Having some way to move the air around the room is essential to efficient indoor heating.
Characteristics of a Wood Cookstove
A wood cook-stove is another baby entirely and it can double as a source of heat when the oven door is open. It serves the dual function of heating the home and cooking your family’s food. My neighbor in Mission, Mrs. Harms, was cooking on her wood cook-stove well into her 80s. For her, food didn’t taste the same when cooked by any other method.
A wood cook-stove has a firebox usually to the side of the oven. Combustion gases are circulated across the top and around the oven, to return to the firebox for the second round of combustion before being released up the chimney. Oven temperatures are dependent on the type of wood being burned and the dryness of the wood. Wood cook-stoves can be equipped with warming cabinets (great for setting yogurt, raising bread, or keeping pies warm), water jackets, with coils to preheat your water before it heads to your hot water tank, or a water reservoir to keep water at the right temperature for washing or making tea.
The wood cook-stove has a larger footprint than the wood heater. You will need to make space away from a combustible wall and then enough space in front of the stove to meet safety clearances, usually 4 feet in front of combustibles or 2 feet from protected walls. Homes with open plans in the kitchen, dining room, or family room area are best suited to wood cook-stove operation. The larger open spaces heat more efficiently with a larger appliance.
The wood cook-stove gives you a large heating surface for stovetop cooking. The area over the firebox is the hottest and areas over the oven are less hot. A pot can be kept at a simmer, when the stove is in operation, by placing it over the oven area.
Flatbreads can be cooked directly on the surface of the woodstove, without burning. We bake chapatis on the surface of our cook-stove, by moving the baking chapatis around to take advantage of the varying degrees of heat, finalizing the bread with a puff directly over the firebox.
When choosing your wood cook-stove, make sure that the oven is large enough for your family’s needs. I have a Pioneer Maid Wood Cook-stove, built by Mennonites in Ontario, Canada. The oven will bake 6 loaves of bread at a time, to a crispy wood-fired brown. The oven is big enough to hold a pan with a 20-pound turkey for Christmas Dinner, too. I can bake 2 large pizzas on the two oven racks, for crispy, light gourmet wood-fired pizza.
The Pioneer Maid is utilitarian looking but meets the needs of our family and I’m very happy with it. Other stoves available are fancier, many of them are reproductions of antique cook stoves.
Wood cook-stoves are much heavier than wood heaters and you won’t want to move it outside to a summer kitchen. Cooking in July, in the house, with a wood cookstove can be uncomfortable. (although I’ve often had mine working even in July). So before you make your investment, consider where you live and how many months you are actually able to cook on it, as well as available wood supply.
Here in the mountains of BC, our normal temperatures will allow me to cook with the wood-stove for 10 months out of 12. A well-maintained wood-burning cook-stove is a once in a lifetime investment. You’ll only need to replace the firebricks every 8 to 10 years.
Use this quick checklist to help you decide if you need a wood heater or a cook-stove
You will choose a Wood Heater when you:
- need to heat a small space or a few rooms.
- live in an apartment, trailer, or smaller square foot house.
- live alone or are a very small family and don’t really need the full value of an oven that cooks 6 loaves of bread at a time.
- plan to build an outdoor wood oven for once a week bread baking or pizza making on your rural property or already have one in place.
- plan to use a conventional stove for cooking and only need a wood cooking fire occasionally — during a power outage or snowstorm.
- have a larger, old fashioned house, with several stories, smaller rooms, and a small footprint. Wood heaters are ideal in these situations to heat the full house from a central room since heat rises.
- don’t do much baking or roasting and hardly use an oven.
- have a place to store dried wood and a source for inexpensive fuel. Any seasoned wood will give you a fire to warm your house. Woods with higher BTUs, hardwoods or larch, will burn longer and more consistently, but even pine and cedar will warm your house if the wood is dry.
- have checked the clearance requirements on the model you want to purchase, to ensure that you have room for it where you want to install it and there is chimney access available in the same spot.
You will choose a wood cook-stove when you:
- want to cook and heat predominantly with wood.
- have a free source of hardwood, larch or other dry fuel to fire the stove with. While almost any dry wood will work to heat a home, longer burning woods with higher BTUs work better for the long, steady burning required for cooking and baking.
- have a larger family and use your oven daily.
- are running out of burners on your electric stove and need the full range offered by a wood cook-stove.
- your home has an open plan kitchen/dining room/family room where a wood cook-stove will heat and enhance the decor.
- don’t mind learning new skills if it will make you more self-sufficient. There is a learning curve when learning to cook with wood heat. It can be frustrating if you think your skills of cooking with electric heat will translate easily into woodstove cookery.
- you’ve checked the clearance requirements on the model you want to purchase, to ensure that you have room for it where you want to install it and there is chimney access available in the same spot.
This is the wood heater and cookstove we use
In our log home, we have both a Regency Close Clearance Wood Stove for heating and a Pioneer Maid Wood Cook-stove for cooking and heating. Our house is a two-story log house and the single wood heater wasn’t adequate to heat the whole house in a very cold winter.
Since we’ve installed the Pioneer Maid Wood Cook-stove we only occasional need to light the Regency stove. The cook-stove keeps the living area of our home at just the right temperature and the wood heater downstairs is lit once a day, in cold months, just to take the chill off the downstairs of our home and keep the bedrooms more comfortable.
Have you seen the other articles in the series on cooking with wood?
It’s Your Turn
Have you ever heated or cooked with wood? Would you consider converting, why or why not? Leave a comment below.
BTU of 25 fire wood species chart
Explore the BTU ratings of 25 different firewood species with this downloadable chart and get my best tips for Firewood storage and safety by clicking the pink Free download button below.