I recently installed a small wood-burning heat stove in my cabin.
It quickly takes the chill off and the crackle of burning wood, punctuating my thoughts, is a comforting and unobtrusive noise to work by. It is like having classical music playing low in the background for the creative person.
I spend much time in my cabin; reading, writing, practising my music, attending to my hobbies and often just staring out the window at nature. The cabin is also my “doghouse” where I can go to get away from the stresses in life.
A man, warm in his cabin, surrounded by his personal toys, regains a sense of security and stability cocooned from the pesky volatile world. Once in a awhile I toss on a piece of resinous spruce that gives-off a sweet smelling blue smoke when the fire is just above smouldering. I have learned to regulate the damper to keep the firebox, and the cabin, at the right temperature. One has to learn the lead and lag time by trial and error, so that the cabin heats-up quickly, but then you damper-off ahead of time to avoid overheating. The stove takes time to respond and, if you stoke it too much, you will find yourself opening windows and doors to get some cool air. If you forget to stoke it, the cabin temperature goes south of 21C.
Expertise in knowing when to do something, and when to do nothing, comes with experience.
Lighting the woodstove has become a morning ritual, and cleaning out the ashes from the brick-lined firebox a weekly chore.
The cold ashes are simply swept through a heavy iron trapdoor recessed into the firebrick floor and fall into an iron tray that is removed and dumped.
I recently cleaned out the ash-box in preparation for another week of wood heat. The series of actions to light my fire have become a habit, performed quietly and alone, while my mind flits to other thoughts rekindled by staring into the flames. I first crumple some paper, top it with kindling stacked teepee fashion, and then put a match to the mélange. I leave the stove door open a crack for the first few minutes for additional combustion air and get a quick burn and some good flames before stuffing in some bigger split-log pieces. Allowing them to ignite, I then close the door and adjust the damper.
Within minutes the stove is radiating heat and the ceiling fan evenly disburses it throughout the cabin.
I have done this task so many times that it takes little thought; it is done automatically by virtue of habit.
Yet I have found that one can lose respect for a process done mainly by virtue of habit only.
I may not look incompetent, but I am dumber than I look sometimes.
You can imagine my surprise when after lighting the stove one morning, and adjusting the damper to its usual position, the fire was blazing wildly out of control, and continued to do so even after fully closing the damper.
I assumed that the asbestos seal on the door was leaking air.
A self-righteous air of disdain came over me for the manufacturer at this failing only months after installing the stove.
I tried opening and closing the door for a better seal to stop the air from entering, and even tapped the hinge pins on the door thinking it may have come misaligned. Still the fire roared on. Convinced that air was leaking around the door, I lit a match and moved it around the frame of the door, watching to see where the flame might be drawn inwards and betray the leaking gasket position. Still, I could find no entry of air, but I was still mad at the manufacturer. Beleaguered, and befuddled, I was staring thru the glass window of the stove door wondering what I could do next to reduce the air intake and quench this fire, and by now the black stovepipe was glowing a dull red with the intense heat.
My keen sense of observation, yet to be coupled with deductive prowess, noticed that the fire appeared to be white-hot right at the base of the firebox and I was glad that I had a brick-lined firebox. On further contemplation, as can only come from staring into the flames, I noticed that the fires seemed to be the hottest right at that place where the heavy iron trapdoor lay. Strange. Slowly, I noticed that the white-hot coals had developed a sort of rectangular pattern not typical of any previous fires.
Slower yet, I then realized that the rectangular pattern was, not by coincidence, located atop the position of where the trapdoor should be.
The evidence began to mount, and my brain slowly made the connection that coincidence sometimes confers. The trap door was partially open.
I must have dislodged the heavy iron plate while shoving some of the larger split logs into the firebox.
Combustion air was now entering on its own free-will and rushing upwards from the base of the stove, thru the partially opened trapdoor, creating a turbo-charged jet-engine effect.
Admitting my error, I apologized, barely audible under heated breath, to the manufacturer.
They had not counted on the creativity of fools like me converting their stove to an air-injected model.
The only solution now was to re-open the stove door, and use the poker to try and reposition the trapdoor cover where it should be. I opened the door and glimpsed what some people think hell might look and feel.
With a devilish grin I stickhandled the trap-door to its rightful position. That done, the fire soon died to its normal level and was controllable with the damper. With control over this devil now established I stared into the flames and reflected on how my habits and assumptions had led me astray.
And how I had stumbled onto yet a new way of making one hell of a hot fire that almost burnt me out, had I simply lit it and left. Making fires inside or outside is serious business and one should attend to it with care.
Paul Hemingson is a freelance writer who lives near Spruce View.