Wood Stove Innards

[Today’s post is longer than usual. Forgive me for this is serious stuff. If you’ve ever experienced -30 in a house primarily heated by a woodstove you understand. If not, can I please live in your house next time my stove breaks down?]

The repairman arrived more or less on time. I was elated! I didn’t expect it because tradesmen in 2013 are in competition with the free shit army and free shit is so attractive that the labor pool is toast.  After weeks of waiting, dozens of phone calls, promises of cash, and no small amount of prayer he was here! I made him coffee. I thanked him profusely. I offered to wax his car.

As soon as he approached the stove, things started happening. There’s a heat shield welded to the each side of the stove. He approached a shield, twisted it just so, and sprong… it was loose. Ah ha! What looked like spot welds were tab and hole. How could I have missed it?

I popped off the other side’s heat shield just like I’d seen. What’s this? Bolts? Now I knew how to get into the stove. How simple! How utterly foolish that I hadn’t found it myself.

Meanwhile the guy was head and shoulders in the firebox. Inside, he attacked what looked like metal welds but were actually bolts covered with carbon (it’s a firebox… duh!). These removed brackets that held the firebricks. One brick was cracked.

“Bricks are cheap, why not replace it?” I asked.

“I didn’t bring one.”

A wood stove service repair guy and he didn’t bring fire bricks?

“The hardware shop is still open. I’ll go there and bring back fire bricks. I’ll speed.” I was trying to be helpful.

He wasn’t going for it. “Wrong size. These are non-standard bricks.”

Sigh. “OK fine, I’ll pick up some at your store. Maybe next week?”

“Nope, I don’t stock them.”

“Um… you sell whole stoves but not fire bricks?”

“Yeah, the bricks are cheap but shipping is a bitch.”

“OK, I’ll order them on the Internet. I see how you removed them. I’ll pay the shipping. It’s cool.”

“They only sell through dealers.”

“Um… like you?”

He nodded.

“You, the guy who doesn’t stock them?”

He nodded.

Just in case I was missing something I repeated it.

“The only place I can get non-standard fire bricks is a dealer. You’re the only dealer for miles around. You don’t stock them?”

I waited.

Twenty seconds later a very dim bulb lit above his head.

“Hey, I’d better get some bricks. How else are you gonna’ buy ‘em?”

“Good thinking.” I smiled. Life is hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid.

He removed more bricks. I was interested to see that there was insulation behind the bricks. I thought it was all metal. I was pleased that the insulation looked sound. Another brick was cracked.

“What have you been burning in here?” He eyed me like I’d committed a sin.

“Wood?” What the hell else would I put in a wood stove?

He eyed me like I was burning orphans and uranium. “Bricks don’t usually get so cracked.”

I didn’t know what to say. I burn wood. Good dry wood! I do it carefully. How does one prove that?

“These bricks”, he lectured, “are meant for wood fires. You gotta’ take care of ‘em.”

“I burn only wood. I promise.”

He didn’t believe me. Apparently he thought I was dumping gasoline in there?

Then he slipped and dropped the brick on his foot. It broke in half. While hopping out of the way he stepped on another brick and broke that one into three pieces.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. At any rate he was embarrassed so the lecture was over.

Ten minutes later he had opened the heat exchanger and was cleaning it. I was impressed with this newly discovered territory. There were tunnels and places for air to move about. Someone with a PhD in thermodynamics had put serious work into the design. I’d never gotten into that part of the stove before.

“I’ve never gotten into that part of the stove before.” I mused.

“It’s dirty. Have you cleaned it.” He scowled. (Probably his foot was throbbing.)

“No. I haven’t gotten into that part of the stove before.” I said redundantly. I felt shame. Like I’d beaten my stove with a rock.

“You should clean it. Didn’t you read the owners manual?” He grumbled.

“I did read the owners manual. Did everything it said to do. It didn’t mention anything about opening up the heat exchanger and cleaning it out.”

“Nah. It doesn’t say anything about cleaning the heat exchanger.”

“So I didn’t do the thing that wasn’t mentioned in the manual?”

At this he smiled; seeing no bricks were in his hand to drop, he continued.

“You need a vacuum…” He complained.

“Like this?” I handed him the hose to a specially made vacuum designed for and marketed as a device for cleaning wood stoves.

He waved it away. “It has to be fireproof. With a metal canister.” His eyes followed the flame and heat resistant vacuum hose to the metal canister. “Yeah, I guess that will do.”

“What do you use?” I asked. Trying to be friendly.

“Actually,” he paused sheepishly, “I have the same model. It’s out in my Subaru.”

With that he vacuumed the area that’s not mentioned in the users manual with the special vacuum device that I keep at the ready and is identical to the one he carries in his Subaru.

Once it was clean I could see that air would flow a lot better. I was pleased. Now all he had to do was button it up and we’d be golden. My grin was a foot wide.

“Now the firebox.” He rubbed his hands together. I looked at the front of the stove, which was shaped like a box and which usually holds a fire.

He chucked, stayed at the back, and picked at an area where the metal looked suspiciously rough. “This is the secondary combustion chamber”, he announced smugly, “it’ll slide out nice and easy.” (I remembered the literature from when I bought the stove. It referred to some sort of awe inspiring ‘non-catalytic reburn chamber’. All along I’d thought it was just a metal box with some baffles that had been given a sexy name by sales-droids. Silly me.)

He gripped it and tugged. Nothing happened. It looked like it was cemented in place with creosote.

“It’s cemented in place with creosote.” He opined sagely. He rummaged around for a screwdriver while I examined it. Fascinating! It was a felt / ceramic mix. probably very delicate. It was probably expensive. If the repair guy couldn’t come up with a brick,  this part was probably irreplaceable and had to be ordered from a secret lab in Scandinavia. It would have to be custom built by a team materials scientists working in an underground bunker beneath a herd of grazing Reindeer. Whatever material it was, it was definitely special. iPods are shit compared to this level of voodoo.

“It’s delicate. Best to be careful so it doesn’t get any holes.” He explained. I couldn’t see any screws and wondered what he was doing with a screwdriver. He tried to slide the screwdriver along the edge to break it free. It slipped and punched a hole in the material.

“Whoops.” We both said this at the same time. In his defense he looked crestfallen.

“I guess you’re going to have to replace it now.” He sighed. I prayed the keeper of the fire bricks had the part on stock.

Finally he broke it free and slid it out. It was a cube with all sorts of pathways for flammable gas… my non-catalytic reburn chamber was a work of technological prowess! Who knew? I wouldn’t have been more surprised if he’d extracted… say, a penguin.  I was in awe.

The underside had various asymmetrical presumably very important  gaskets. The gaskets were shot and one side of the object was warped. No wonder it was venting smoke into the house. The guy saw it too and breathed a sigh of relief.

“It was shot anyway.”

“Fair nuff. Got a replacement?”

“Yep. It’s in the Subaru. I’m surprised it didn’t last long. They usually last several years.”

“This stove is several years old.” I prompted.

“Hey!”, He brightened, “I guess it did last several years. By the way, these things ‘aint cheap.” I smiled and excused myself to go pound six beers. He hummed and went back to work.

When he was done he handed me the bill. Predictably I had a coronary. Mrs. Curmudgeon stepped over my twitching corpse and handed him a well earned check.

An hour later a cheery fire was warming the house. I took off my “Carter sweater” and threw it outside into the snow. I will never wear it again! (Notice I didn’t burn it? I told you I only burn wood!)

After the warmth had thawed my fiscally shocked heart, I began to smile. It burned well. Not well… extremely well. As good as new. Maybe better than new. Why? Because I have been initiated into the secret society of people who witnessed the rare and esoteric technology of ‘non-catalytic reburn chambers’. I have seen that which was heretofore unseen.  I’ve bonded with my woodstove. I will henceforth be chatting with it, we will share stories and compare notes as we travel through life together. Me and my woodstove. All is well. I am ready for winter.

Now if anyone knows where I can order a non-standard fire brick…

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
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16 Responses to Wood Stove Innards

  1. M says:

    Thanks for the series. Our Family adores our Chimney sweep/wood stove Guru. He’s the first to get Steaks when we butcher. We don’t live in -30F country, but it’s cold enough without heat to be uncomfortable. But (she says smugly) he does carry non-standard fire bricks….just not in the size we need.

  2. jon spencer says:

    I have used a variation of this in incinerators, boilers and a few wood stoves, it works.
    Did it without the air hammer too. I tapped it into place, thickness and shape with various hammers.
    Do follow the directions for heating it up, so it hardens properly. (voice of experience)
    I would try to find a source (boiler repair shop?)for the amount that you need as the full box covers quite a few square feet.

  3. Mordacai says:

    Buy fire bricks. Find mason. Have mason cut bricks to size.

    • It took an act of God to find a fireplace guy within a 100 mile radius and you think I’ll find a mason? I’d have better luck finding a French contortionist who can levitate.

      If I must cut bricks I’ll just have to buy the tools myself (which can come from the Internet).

  4. Expat says:

    You don’t say if you need bigger or smaller sized bricks but if smaller perhaps a 4″ angle grinder with masonry cutting wheels on what’s available.

  5. Douglas2 says:

    Out of curiosity, I looked to see if I could find Harman firebricks online.

    At “woodsmanspartsplus”, I found them for $6/ea. But I was amused at the description:

    For model SF260, SF360, and SF1500A 8 are required.
    For model SF3500A 16 are required.
    For model SF2500A and SF2600A 10 are required.
    Sold in packages of 6

  6. Doctor Mingo says:

    Doesn’t sound like a very good heating engineer. I’ll bet he didn’t even fill out a twenty-seven B stroke six.

  7. Doctor Mingo says:

    I have found that putting a masonry blade on a chop saw works well for cutting brick, nice accurate cuts. I re-bricked my fireplace this way.

  8. Spud says:

    I have a couple of cures stored out in the shop. Two old school wood stoves with no gizmo’s !
    One is a heavy duty step stove which will last a life time with no chance of breaking down !
    The other is an old school GI type tent stove for use in the shop.
    When SHTF there ain’t a gonna be no stinking EPA…

  9. Analog Man says:

    A lot of people figure they are smart not to go with a cat…time proves them wrong. When you get serious about staying warm look at a blazeking, ten year waranty on there cats, even if you have to buy one 220.00.Experience up here gives roughly 7 years on them but they are ridden hard up here, -45 isnt unheard of, and often fired for 6 months straight. you can replace it yourself in minutes, just nothing to break on this model, and even burn times of 20+ hours, and git this even if you do something dumb like throwing cold water up and onto it when its red hot and shatter it to pieces, you just pull it out and can keep on using the stove until you can pick up another, and even without the cat in it its eff iency only drops down to where your non cat model is when its working perfect. You have a grinder? Slap a zip disk on it and you can cut down any brick to the size you want. Dont inhale the dust, cut it outside.
    Stay warm.
    ps; I do own other non cat units like yours(other properties) junk by comparison, secondary air tubes to light gauge to last, complicated air delivery path, prone to pluging..just a poor attempt to try and equal the perormance of a cat, but never getting there and costing more to fix in the end anyway..I bet you travel charge for your repairman was what a a cat air mailed to you would have cost,and you could have put it in yourself.

  10. Pingback: Wood Stove Efficiency Win | The Adaptive Curmudgeon's Blog

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