Hard as this is to believe, I lived in my home for 12 years before buying a wood stove. How could I have waited so long? I mean, I live in Maine.
There is nothing like wood heat. The next best thing is the old-fashioned steam radiator of my childhood, replete with its clangs and bangs as it struggled to do its duty. Forced hot air is the worst way to deliver warmth: Not only is a good amount of heat lost through the ductwork, but the incessant on-again/off-again roar of the furnace as it blows heated air in one's face is enough to drive the cows from home.
I commenced my search for a wood stove in a manner to which I had become accustomed: I mentioned my need to everyone I ran into. Within a week I had struck pay dirt. "Know anyone selling a secondhand wood stove?" I recited to an acquaintance as we crossed paths in the hardware store. "Yep," he said. "Me."
The fellow escorted me to the workshop behind his house, where he had set the cleaned and polished stove aside on a little platform as if it had just won an award.
The thing was gorgeous. A combination of cast iron and enamel, lined with firebrick, and with a see-through door, I immediately recognized it as a so-called "furniture stove," designed for elegance as well as warmth. I also knew that the stove, if new, would sell in the neighborhood of $1,400. I bit my lip. "How much are you asking?" I ventured.
The man pushed his fisherman's cap back on his head, looked me over, and said, "Gimme two fifty."
I couldn't believe it. "Come again?" I said.
"Two fifty," he repeated, and then he leaned in close to my ear. "On one condition," he added.
"If you ever sell it, you ask for more than two fifty."
With the help of my teenage son, I hauled the thing home. Within a very short time I had tethered it to the chimney in the very heart of our home. It was October, and the days had become crisp enough to warrant an inaugural lighting, in the interest of producing just enough heat to take the chill off the house. I had recently collected some wood from a pruning operation down the street and wasted no time in "loading 'er up" as my son looked on with mild interest. I didn't tell him that I had almost no experience with wood stoves, but I did know enough to nest the wood in yesterday's newspaper before striking my match. "Here we go!" I announced.
Well, the paper flared up beautifully, but that lasted only a minute before the stove was cast in darkness again. Hmm, I considered. This isn't good. So I threw in some more paper, lit 'er up, and the same thing happened. The wood remained almost unscathed. I threw my son a doleful look. "Well," he said as he checked his watch. "Gotta go." And he was off to his social engagements.
I immediately brought in an expert, a friend named Dave who knew and appreciated wood as a gemologist esteems his stones. Dave threw the top of the wood stove open and fetched out one of the logs. "Gee whiz," he said, shaking his head. "This stuff is green."
"Is that bad?"
Dave ran his free hand over his face, still considering the length of wood. "Well," he said, "you got two problems here. As I said, it's green, which means it's got a lot of moisture. The other is that it's pine, which means it doesn't have a lot of Btus," or British thermal units.
I threw him the same doleful expression I had launched at my son. "So I can't burn it?" I concluded with something short of brilliance.
But Dave upended me. "Oh, sure you can burn it," he said, "but a lot of your fire's gonna go into getting rid of the moisture." And then he wagged a finger at me, as if imparting a lesson. "Kindling - is - everything," he instructed. I watched as he hurried out of the house, returning a moment later with an armful of dark slats. "Red oak," he said as he loaded the stuff into the stove, following it with my soggy pine. He lit the pile and the stove was soon roaring. Dave waved a palm over the stove, as if imparting a benediction.
"There's your heat," he said.
I spent the rest of the day tending the fire. That evening, when my son returned home, it was still going, but the Btu-poor pine couldn't get the house temperature above 60 degrees F. I refused to give in to the temptation to turn on the furnace, however, and we spent much of that winter in sweaters, staying as near the stove as possible.
Since that inaugural season of the wood stove I have mended my ways. Now I burn hardwood, sometimes so avidly that the stove hisses in the joints. Last week the house hit 90 degrees F. "Why do you keep it so hot in here?" my son asked as I stoked the beast.
"To make up for lost time," I said. "Now hand me that length of maple so we can keep this thing going."