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Lighting A Soapstone Stove

Q: I just discovered your site tonight and love it. Lots of great information....so, how could I still have questions? I have a brand new Hearthstone Heritage stove I bought in Portland, OR (70 miles from where I live), and I seem to have a problem establishing a chimney updraft. I have called the dealer to ask about my drafting problem, but hate to ask someone to come this far for service.

I have a stovepipe thermometer about 3 feet above the stove: I open the ash door to quick-start the stove and let it blaze until the thermometer reads around 200 degrees or so. That doesn't quite do it. I'm afraid to leave the ash door open much longer than that because the dealer warned that I'll burn up my ash grate by continually doing that....but that works far better than opening the front or side door a little. I don't think there's any way my house is airtight enough to have an oxygen supply problem.

The dealer installed the stove, and was satisfied that it was done properly. What he didn't know was the details of the chimney, because it was dark and he couldn't look at it from the outside. I have 6" single wall pipe up to the first floor ceiling and insulated (stainless...circa 1991) from there on up. The total flue is probably 20-25 feet. The exposed portion meets the 2 foot rule above the roof 10 ft. away horizontally, which unfortunately leaves at least 7 feet exposed above the roof. I am having a difficult time getting a fire going to the point where I can quit babysitting it until it burns on its own. I am gradually beginning to believe, from experimentation and with the help of your site, that my problem is having too much flue to heat.

If the problem is the flue, is it feasable to remove one section of pipe above the roof? It's a metal roof and I've never had embers coming out of the chimney. I know, I know, you can't tell me to violate code, but hypothetically, for the lesser of two evils, would that 3 foot section that's sitting out there in the cold make the difference of a better drafting flue?

Any suggestions would be "grately" appreciated!!

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Steve Wright

Sweepy Thanks for the inquiry! I was wondering if our generation would produce the Great American Novel, and here it is!

You could possibly have shortened your inquiry a bit, but don't shorten your chimney: height IMPROVES updraft, and with the restrictive baffle systems in today's EPA approved stoves, you need all the updraft you can get.

I think all that might be needed here is an explanation of how to operate a soapstone woodstove. Soapstone stoves are designed to provide constant heat throughout the entire heating season: they're not designed for occasional, short-duration fires. When you first light a fire in a cold soapstone stove, the stones absorb heat which, in a typical plate steel or cast iron stove, would rise up the chimney and get the thermal updraft going. Thus, soapstone stoves require a bit of patience at lightup time.

How To Light A Soapstone Stove

Step 1) If you haven't connected the stove directly to outside combustion air, crack a door or window in the room to ensure the fire has adequate combustion air available for lightup.

Step 2) Burn several loose balls of newspaper in the stove to "prime" the flue. Leave the door cracked open a bit, and watch the smoke from the paper fire as it burns: keep adding balls of paper until you see the smoke begin to travel up the chimney.

Step 3) Get a hot kindling fire going. Use small splits, criss-crossed to provide good air circulation. Leave the loading door open a bit and crack the ashtray door open if needed to supply combustion air to the fire. Your goal here is to warm up the soapstone as quickly as possible.

Step 4) Gradually add larger pieces of wood until you have a good-sized fire (the firebox should be about 3/4 full). Close the loading door, but leave the ashtray door open a crack if need be (you won't burn out the Grade 30 cast iron grate anytime soon), and supervise the fire until it will burn briskly on its own.

Step 5) At this point, you can close the ashtray door, but leave the draft control wide open. When the stones on top of the stove reach 300-400 degrees, the stove will stop absorbing so much heat, the stovepipe temperature will rise to about 300 degrees, and the chimney will warm up to optimum operating temperature quickly. At this point, you can turn the draft control down to regulate the rate of burn.

Once you've got the system going (the process can take well over an hour), your soapstone heating experience will be a happier one if you never let the stove cool down: you can let the fire go out for a couple of hours, but always rekindle a new fire while the stones are still warm so you won't have to go through the cold-stove lightup procedure again.

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Q: I have a large non-catalytic side and front loading soapstone stove in a vacation home. It is incredibly difficult to get going and keep going without constant fiddling with the doors, ash pan and draft control, plus spoon feeding until it finally gets there. Might take two hours. The installation and chimney are correct. The stove just doesn't know how to breathe.

Bruce N.
Lambertville, NJ and Chappaquiddick, MA

Sweepy Hi Bruce,
The engine of every woodburning system is the chimney: no woodstove will "breathe" properly until enough heat enters the chimney to get an updraft established. And therein lies your problem: chimneys venting soapstone stoves don't even start to draft properly until the stove warms up to the point where the stones stop absorbing so much of the heat from the fire. As you've already discovered, it can take a couple of hours to get a cold, 500 lb. soapstone stove and its chimney up to optimum operating temperature.

A soapstone stove would be my last recommendation for occasional use, such as in a vacation home. Our most satisfied soapstone stove customers are folks who light a fire in the Fall and feed it until Spring, never letting the stones get cold.

 
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