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Brutal! A favorite adjective of weather forecasters and TV news people attributed to those days when the mercury starts to take a nose dive. I save that same word to describe the cost of liquid propane this time of year. Funny how that resource always seems to cost more in January than it does in July.
After ordering the last shipment of natural gas about a month ago, I decided to turn down the thermostat and seriously begin using the stored energy we had already paid for and stockpiled this season in the garage: nine face cords of mixed hardwoods from the nearby Pella swamp.
When we built our house five years ago, a mason friend skillfully crafted a beautiful fieldstone fireplace for us. He did an artful job of creating the rustic look we dreamed of in a modern log home. The only drawback is that the fireplace eats wood almost as fast as we can stoke the andirons.
A recent basement remodeling project gave us the opportunity to take advantage of a second flue we put into the chimney when the house was originally constructed. We have since built a cozy family room and attached a cast iron wood stove to the chimney. This compact and efficient 300-pound descendant of Ben Franklin's original creation regularly attracts the family to its radiant warmth as arctic temperatures descend upon the countryside.
Our stove is a small one that accommodates logs up to 16 inches long and three inches across. If I keep a fire going in the stove all day, enough coals are left over the following morning to get a new blaze roaring without striking a match.
Wood stoves today burn fuel much more efficiently than fireplaces do, but they require some added attention. The owner's manual on my stove stresses starting a fire on a of one- to two-inch bed of coals. It recommends covering the bottom of the stove with tightly-crumpled bundles of newspaper under a generous amount of dried kindling to ensure a quick, hot start. Initially, the draft control needs to be wide open, as does the bypass damper. The stove door is left ajar about a half-inch to allow lots of air to rush over the combustible kindling as the paper is lit. After the stove builds up a bed of hot, glowing coals topped with a couple pieces of well-seasoned oak, the wood stove aficionado approaches nirvana. The damper control can be backed off and the flame slowly, efficiently burns logs and wood gases alike.
The wood stove offers much more than warmth. It creates an atmosphere that high-tech gas logs with a press-of-the-button remote control can't come close to achieving. The welcome smell of wood smoke (sometimes a whole roomful on damp evenings before the chimney starts drawing properly), the snap and pop from dry kindling or a misplaced cedar log, the radiating heat and even the ashes have their place in the whole ambiance of heating with wood.
Boy Scouts and old salts love wood stoves almost as much as whittling on sticks with their pocket knives. Cutting firewood in the forest, sawing logs, splitting, hauling and stacking cut wood, even hauling it from the wood pile or garage to the wood box bring a measure of pleasure.
Tinkering with the damper on the stovepipe and setting the draft control to get a long, hot, efficient burn all add up to a rewarding experience, a real throwback to bygone days of pioneers who kept the fires burning to ward off winter's chill.
As I turn off the room light and settle back in my easy chair, I quickly get lost in the hypnotic dance of the flames flickering through the isinglass. Thoughts of inflated fuel prices and brutal windchills drift away leaving only the cozy smell of woodsmoke lingering in the air. The stove's radiant glow warms my feet, my face and the whole room offering comforting reassurance that all is good with the world.
Tim Sweet writes from a small, warm place in Clintonville, Wis.