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Wood and Coal-burning Stoves

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2009, Coal burning in my King Stove & Range Company model Sun 50 cast-iron potbelly stove

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Life with the Potbelly Stove

July 2010 - Preparing for a Move -The stove is being removed, so I can use it again for decoration at my upcoming new apartment. The rust has been brushed off, where the stove polish has worn through, and it has been given a coat of high-temperature flat black paint. By this weekend, I hope to have it fired up in order to cure the paint. The legs I will heat up with a propane torch.

December 2009 - Tiling the stove surround - the majority of the tiles are installed around the tin ceiling tile and they look great! This sucker is heavy, it took two of us to lift it off of the floor and put it into place behind the potbelly stove.

October 2009 - Implementing an idea for a better-looking surround - the surround is taking shape, which is good, as winter is quickly approaching and I might want to fire it up soon. I have built up a framework for the rear heat shield, using 3-1/2" steel studs, with 3/4" hat channel to support the 1" layer of cement board and the tile layer. So far, I have the first 1/2" layer of Durock on the front face. Maybe I am being too anal about keeping combustables out of the build-up, as I have found many surround designs that have wood studs as part of the build.

A masonry circular saw blade sure makes a mess - the rest of my cuts will be made using a backerboard scoring knife. I picked up two different types at Home Depot - a Brutus model, which has a handle with a knuckle guard and a QEP model, which is quite basic. Both models have a carbide scoring tip. Both models appear to be made by the same company, QEP; found this tidbit by looking at the fine print on the packaging.

A little bit of reading has yielded some backup to my observations on coal energy efficiency. Once I get the coal burning well, it makes a nice layer of gooey, burning coal. Once I achieve this state, it burns without attention for hours. As a matter of fact, if I start to poke at it (thinking that I am helping it get more air circulation) to open up air flow down to the grate, it rebels and proceeds to go out. I have found it best to simply place a paper bagful (lunch bag-sized) of nut-sized coal onto the middle of it and let it spread over the burning coal; with a jostling of the shaker grate at that time and otherwise just leave it alone. I have to throw away my recollections of burning wood, that just loves the attention.

I have realized a consistent 550° burn, measured 18" above the stovetop, with this method. The Rutland brand burn indicator (thermometer) seems to be way off, over 150° too low at times, so I bought another one (what was I thinking?) and found it had a huge lagtime, but when it finally settled out, it was only 25-50° too low, when compared to a Fluke 62 Mini IR Thermometer. I have learned not to trust the Rutland brand, but keep the better-working one on the stovepipe as my sanity check and use the Fluke 62 for my monitoring of the various surfaces around the stove. When the stovepipe is at about 550°, the outside belly of the stove is running between 650 and 750° and the cast iron humidifier on the stovetop is at about 250°.

March 2009 - Implementing an idea for a better-looking surround - after deciding in January to build a hearth surround that looks nicer than the ton of 1/2-inch cement boards that the landlord provided, I finally found a cool idea - tin ceiling tiles, with ceramic tiles around them. It just so happens that the retailer of the tiles, The American Tin Ceiling Company ( website: www.AmericanTinCeilings.com ), is located in Bradenton, Florida - a really long story. So, I paid them a visit this month and checked out all their finishes (there are a LOT of them to choose from) and some of their patterns (I had made some decisions ahead of time) and walked out with the 5- 2'x2' tiles that I needed. I will post pics as that surround developes. But, American Tin Ceilings has some great products.

December 2008 - The potbelly stove gets installed! - An ice storm hits New Hampshire. We are without power for 4 days. On the second day of the outage, the landlord stops by to check on the property and his wife talks him into getting everything needed to get my potbelly stove functional. This video is of the stove burning anthracite coal. I start it with a sheet of newspaper on the grate, with some wood kindling above that, then a little hardwood charcoal, with nut-sized coal on top of it all. The neat-looking blue/purple flame is not as vibrant in this video as it is in real life.

Burning coal has some interesting advantages. First - I find it less messy than wood. In an old book I have, they discuss placing the coal in lunch-bag-sized brown paper bags. I find this works like a charm. Second - the draft does not need to be as wide open as it does with wood, so the stove radiates more heat, while sending less heat up the stovepipe. Third - creosote is not an issue, so a coal fire is not going to create build-up as it cools down and on the same note, practicing to keep the coal at a critical mass to maintain the fire is much less likely to start a chimney fire.