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All About Wood-Burning Stoves

Written by Carol J Alexander

Published on January 9, 2023


All About Wood-Burning Stoves

Enjoy the warmth and ambiance of a wood-burning stove this winter. Choose the right one for your home after reading our complete guide.

To provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information, we consult a number of sources when producing each article, including licensed contractors and industry experts.

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If you live where the winter temperatures are especially chilly, you may want a convenient place to warm up. For that, nothing compares to a wood-burning stove.

Whether you use it as your sole heat source, a backup for power outages, or just to take off the chill, you’ll find the dry warmth and flickering flames of a wood stove inviting and comforting.

Keep reading to learn what a wood stove is, how it works, and whether it’s the right choice for your home.

Keep warm this winter and install a wood-burning stove

How a wood-burning stove works

A wood-burning stove is typically made of cast iron or plate steel. These stoves consist of a firebox lined with brick, an access door, and a stove pipe to channel the smoke out the chimney. They also include dampers that regulate the air intake, and some models have an ash pan to make cleaning out the firebox easier.

Some combination stoves are made with a plate steel firebox surrounded by cast iron to hold the heat longer. You’ll also find gorgeous porcelain-covered stoves that enhance any decor. But like cast iron, they cannot withstand overheating without damage.

To operate, you build a small fire with kindling in the bottom of the firebox. With the damper open and the door ajar, there’s enough oxygen to feed the fire and get it going. Once the fire takes hold, you add a few pieces of split wood. When that is burning well for about five minutes, you shut the door and adjust the damper.

As the fire burns, it draws fresh air in from the room through vents in the front or bottom of the stove to fuel the flames. The exhaust exits through the stove pipe and up the flue, out the chimney.

Types of wood stoves

Plate steel wood stoves can withstand higher temperatures than cast iron ones. If you overheat a cast iron stove, it could crack. Some stove models are constructed with a natural stone covering, like soapstone, which holds heat for longer than metal, making it a natural radiator. 

No matter what your stove is made of, it’s probably one of the two main types of wood stoves on the market. Both types can heat your home. Which one you choose should be based on local regulations or personal preference.

Catalytic Wood Stoves

A catalytic wood stove is named for its ceramic honeycomb-shaped catalyst that burns gasses and particles before they’re released into the atmosphere. While a catalytic stove may seem the obvious choice because they emit fewer pollutants, they aren’t without drawbacks.

  • + Produces fewer pollutants
  • + Most energy-efficient option
  • + Produces less creosote. A byproduct of the wood-burning process, creosote is a sticky, flammable substance that coats the inside of a chimney.
  • + Has less heat loss
  • - Requires a higher learning curve to operate
  • - Requires more care and maintenance to protect the catalyst
  • - Catalyst degrades over time
  • - Has less heat loss

Non-Catalytic Wood Stoves

The difference between a catalytic and non-catalytic wood stove is the presence of the catalyst mechanism. But non-cat stoves still have measures to reduce emissions, like baffles that slow the burn time to burn gasses and particulates before release. So while non-cat stoves may not be as efficient as catalytic wood stoves, they must still adhere to the EPA’s strict emission standards.

  • + Less expensive than a catalytic stove
  • + Easier to operate
  • + A better option for large spaces
  • + More models to choose from
  • - Slightly less efficient than a catalytic stove
  • - May produce more ash

Heating a home with a wood-burning stove

Now that you know how a wood stove works and the types to choose from, it’s time to decide if heating with wood is the right choice for you. While the experience is idyllic, it does come with a few downsides. Here are a few of the pros and cons of heating with wood.

  • + Firewood costs less than other heating options
  • + A wood stove is highly efficient
  • + It operates during a power outage
  • + Wood is a renewable resource
  • + Nothing compares with wood heat
  • - Harvesting and splitting firewood is hard physical work
  • - Burning wood is messy
  • - There's a learning curve to keeping a fire going through the night and while you're away during the day
  • - You may encounter a high initial cost to purchase and install a stove

Wood stove efficiency and sustainability

Modern wood stoves are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for emissions. Effective May 2020, the EPA's emission limit for wood-burning stoves is 2.0 grams of smoke per hour (g/h). While this figure is higher than other heat sources, like natural gas or propane, it uses a renewable energy source–wood–rather than a non-renewable source.

When choosing a wood stove model, first decide if you want a catalytic or non-catalytic stove. Then, look for the EPA certification. Also, look for a stove rated for the size of your home or the space you want to heat. For example, if your stove is to supplement your central heating system, you won’t need one big enough to heat the entire house.

However, if a wood stove will be your sole heat source, bigger is not always better. In your attempt to warm rooms furthest from the stove, you could heat the room the stove is in too hot for comfort.

Finally, the Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) is an organization that investigates the hazards of operating various devices, equipment, and materials. When a product displays UL approval, it is considered safe to use in its intended capacity. Also, your homeowner's insurance carrier may require your wood stove to be UL-certified, so look for one that is.

When shopping for a wood-burning stove, seek a retailer that employs certified technicians with the National Fireplace Institute. These professionals have the knowledge to answer all your questions regarding stove manufacturers, types of stoves, and the perfect placement of a stove in your home. They also are equipped to install any hearth product in your home safely.

Check the EPA website for a complete database of EPA-certified wood stoves.

What to burn in a wood-burning stove

Your wood-burning stove is no place to incinerate your garbage, nor is it ideal for burning some types of wood and paper products. So here is a list of no-nos regarding wood stove burning.

Do not burn these woods:

  • Painted, pressure-treated, or manufactured wood. These woods contain chemicals that could emit toxic fumes into the atmosphere when burned. Manufactured wood includes plywood, MDF, and OSB.
  • Pallet wood. Pallets, too, are typically treated with chemicals.
  • Unseasoned or wet firewood. Wood with a high moisture content smolders, creates a lot of smoke, and causes creosote to build up in the chimney.

Do not burn these materials:

  • Plastics. All plastics release toxic chemicals into the air when burned.
  • Accelerants. Never use lighter fluid or other fuels to start a fire in your wood-burning stove.
  • Some paper. Avoid heavily inked paper, like that used in magazines. Plain paper or newspaper is best for helping to start a fire.

Heat output is measured with British Thermal Units (BTUs). One BTU is the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. When you shop for HVAC appliances, you look for the BTU rating required to heat or cool the square footage of your home. Likewise, when heating with wood, you want to choose firewood that can give you that rating.

The best fuel for your stove is seasoned hardwood with no more than 20 percent moisture. And, since the BTU output of burning wood varies by species, some types of wood are preferred over others. Of course, hard, dense wood burns the hottest. But that doesn’t mean you won’t want to mix a bit of softwood into your wood pile. Softwoods are perfect for starting fires and for producing high heat fast. So in the spring and fall of the year, when you start a fire from scratch every day, you’ll want a bit of softwood. The following chart lists some of the most commonly used firewood species.

Wood stove installation and placement

Once you’ve decided to install a wood stove in your home, you must choose the correct location. Since wood-burning stoves don’t have ductwork, it helps to place them in a central spot so the heat can radiate to other areas of the home. Here are other things to consider when choosing your first wood-burning stove.

  • Size – Stoves are rated for the square footage of the home. Check the specifications for the stove you’re interested in, and consider the stove’s dimensions. After all, a fireplace is recessed into the wall. A wood stove sits in the middle of the room, so you’ll want enough space to walk around.
  • Weight – Wood stoves are heavy, weighing as much as 800 pounds. So, ensure the floor where you plan to put it can support its weight. Also, make sure you have enough people to lift yours into place.
  • Chimney – If your home has no existing fireplace or chimney, you can still install a wood-burning stove. If you place the stove on an exterior wall, the stove pipe can exit through the wall and up above the roofline. 
  • Safety – Always check the manufacturer’s instructions for properly installing a wood stove. Follow the tolerances given to keep the heat from the stove igniting the walls and floor. Walls adjacent to the stove, and the floor it sits on, must be covered with a fireproof covering. You also need enough space between the stove door and flammable floor coverings so that sparks won’t catch the floor on fire.

How to clean and maintain a wood-burning stove

Proper wood stove care keeps your appliance running efficiently and helps to prevent fires. Four parts of a wood-burning stove need regular cleaning: the firebox, stove pipe, flue, and glass.

Weekly cleaning

  • Remove the ashes that have built up inside the firebox and run a hot fire to clean any creosote built up on the glass door. If the hot fire doesn’t do the trick, use cold, moist ashes and a crumpled-up newspaper to clean the glass.

Pro tip

Never assume ashes or coals removed from the stove are cool. Always store them outdoors in a metal can with a lid. Also, check with your local municipality for proper ash disposal

Yearly tasks

  • Use a chimney brush to clean the stove pipe. First, remove the pipe from the stove and the wall. Then, take the pipe outside and run the brush through it to remove any buildup.
  • Have the chimney cleaned and inspected by a professional chimney sweep before you light your first fire for the season. While you can use the chimney brush to do this task yourself, you’ll need to climb on the rooftop, which is unsafe. A professional will use a camera to inspect your chimney flue to look for any cracks that could lead to a devastating fire.

Alternatives to wood stoves

Not sure you’re up to messing with firewood? Don’t have the space for a wood stove? Here are a few wood-burning alternatives to consider.

  • Pellet stoves burn wood pellets explicitly manufactured for this type of stove. Some homeowners prefer this option over typical wood stoves because they don’t have to handle firewood, keeping their living room cleaner. However, pellet stoves require electricity, so they won’t work during a power outage without a backup generator. For more pros and cons of pellet stoves, see our article comparing them with wood stoves
  • Fireplace inserts fit inside the firebox of a wood-burning fireplace. An insert gives you the benefits of using a wood stove, but it doesn’t take up the floor space that a freestanding stove does.
  • Outdoor wood furnaces burn whole logs outside. The heat produced creates hot water that is pumped into the home through tubes in the flooring to create radiant heat. Outdoor wood furnaces give you a budget-friendly heating option without the mess in your house.

Warm up this winter with a wood-burning stove

You're not alone if you’re convinced that wood heat is for you. The EPA estimates that there are millions of wood stoves used nationwide. But, you may be concerned about their safety and environmental impact. To ensure that your wood stove installation is safe for you, your loved ones, and the world, consult a professional for your wood stove selection and installation.

Hire a local pro to install a wood-burning stove in your home

Written by

Carol J Alexander Content Specialist and Subject Matter Expert

Carol J Alexander is a home remodeling industry expert for Fixr.com. For more than 15 years as a journalist and content marketer, her in-depth research, interviewing skills, and technical insight have ensured she provides the most accurate and current information on a given topic. Before joining the Fixr team, her personal clients included leaders in the building materials market like Behr Paint Company, CertainTeed, and Chicago Faucet, and national publications like This Old House and Real Homes.