Features & Stories

Story and photos by Trudy Frisk

Granville Ellis & Bruce Curle
"But, I thought YOU were holding the elbow!"
Cleaning the stove pipes is an autumn ritual for owners of wood stoves. There’s no avoiding it. Clean them now before the cold and the snow. Or hide in shame as the photographer for the local newspaper angles for the best shot of flames shooting out your chimney and the volunteer fire crew jostling for position on the roof.

This isn’t a task that can be postponed, like composting squash vines or digging out carrots. Worse than gritting one’s teeth and cleaning pipes in the dying days of autumn, is delaying till a chilly day in mid-November. Procrastinators have long, fervent chats with themselves while scraping out soot.  Their families hope the mumbled recriminations aren’t loud enough to be heard by passing travelers.

Cleaning stove pipes tests a couple’s relationship.  “It was nobody’s fault.”, insisted my friend. “In fact, we were very civil to each other.”  She and her husband cleaned the furnace pipes last Saturday.  They’ve been doing this since 1978, the year the behemoth wood furnace was lowered into the basement.  When you’ve taken out a wall and re-arranged the basement to get the furnace in, you certainly want it to burn clean.

People who’ve cleaned stove/furnace pipes know there’s no such thing as a straight pipe.  Not unless you want all your heat and a tower of flame going up into the midnight sky.  There are curves and elbows attached to the main stove pipes. They have a very special and delicate relationship. Disturb it at your peril.

“If I’d been downstairs’, continued my friend, “I wouldn’t have taken out the sheet metal screws connecting the short sections to the long section. That’s where the problem began.”  It may have been that her helper was dismantling the stove pipes to make it easier to carry them, very carefully, up a steep set of stairs, and out into the yard, while NOT spilling soot.

This task requires delicate balance from the front end person coupled with constant consideration for the person at the rear. Like being the head of a pantomime horse. The follower; (and we know who that usually is, don’t we ladies ?); has the most difficult part. She has to synchronize her steps with the leader, keep the pipe constantly moving forward, while holding the orange plastic bag around the pipe tight enough to prevent soot cascading over her.  Failure results in her emerging, resembling a chimney sweep, to a volley of recriminations.  That didn’t happen to my friends. They wrestled the pipes out in a comradely, one might even say, a congenial spirit.

They placed the pipes on the lawn, orange plastic bags still wrapped around them, and scrubbed the soot down and into the bags for spreading on the garden later.
The problems arose when putting the pipes back together. “The short sections took a bit of doing. “ said my friend. She’s renowned for terse understatement.  “We first tried putting a short section into the long section.  That didn’t work so we took it apart. We put two short sections together. Then we fitted those short sections into the long section. They didn’t want to go.  Once we’d used a shoe horn and a couple of hammers, the pipes fit back together. “  Both partners were still civil at the end of this exercise!  Doesn’t it make you proud to be Canadian?
It needn’t be big furnace pipes, kitchen stove pipes can also ruin a day. Our family had wood stoves. When we were children, our Father frequently cooked pancakes as a treat on Sunday mornings. Father wanted his implements just so.  One Sunday morning, the batter mixed, the griddle hot, the family seated expectantly around the table, Father decided the stove wasn’t drawing as well as he’d like. Evidently the pipes needed cleaning.

Barbara & Ray Hicks.
"A happy couple has a warm wood stove."
No time like the present.  He let the fire go out, and the pipes cool.  We were hungry, but now did not seem the proper moment to mention it.  Father detached the pipes from the stove and each other and took them outside to clean.  That took a while, but we comforted ourselves with memories of Father’s tasty pancakes. The tricky part came when fitting the pipes back together. They refused to fit.  Father had little patience.  He gave those pipes a talking to.  No improvement.  In high dudgeon he showed them;  he put them on the ground and jumped up and down on them. He then took the flattened pipes and threw them down the hill. We heard them crashing into several poplar trees in their path. No one was audacious enough to say so.  We knew Father could hear them, too. It was a quiet Sunday morning at our house.

However annoying and un-co-operative they might be, those were the only kitchen stove pipes we had.  Father, in a calmer mood, set off down the hill to bring them back. After much laying on of hands, the pipes became circular again.  They were re-attached to the stove and the fire lit.  I believe we did, finally, get our Sunday pancakes.    

I know what you’re asking as you read this: why?  Why spend a day, probably a bright autumn day with crisp leaves begging to be scuffed, torturing yourself with stovepipes?  Where’s the sense in that?  You haven’t heard the news lately, have you?  Pleasant is it, there on the Isle of Happy Dreams, where the heat responds to the flick of a switch, and
you can rely on hydro and gas to maintain you in the style to which most of us have become accustomed?  And at a reasonable cost.

Signs, like woolly bear caterpillar’s coats, point towards a different future.  ‘Smart’ meters are coming, be they water, hydro or natural gas. Such infernal devices measure each jot consumed.  What difference will that make?  Ask Ontarioans, shivering under the tripled cost of ‘time of day billing’. 

People with wood stoves or furnaces sensibly provide themselves with alternate sources of heat.  Did the ice storm bring down power lines or the gas line spring a leak? These  independent folks can still cook, wash, and stay warm, just as our grandparents did not very long ago. This self-sufficient way of life is more readily available to rural residents, who are more likely to own land with convenient trees. But, even city dwellers, determined to have a back-up, can obtain permits to cut fire wood on crown land. 

It’s not simple, wood needs drying and seasoning.  You don’t burn wet wood nor wood with pitch, not unless you want a build up of creosote to make your insurance agent weep. 

Wood stoves aren’t perfect.  Keeping the fire burning when you’re away without setting fire to the house is an art.  Stoking the fire, damping down the draft and returning after hours working in -35 weather to a home filled with smoke doesn’t make them loved.  There’s nothing like spending two hours with doors and windows all open as you fan out the heavy-side layer.

Wood stoves have many good points.  They give a comfortable heat, and the fire box, once warmed, will emit heat for hours. Temperatures on the stove top vary, bacon cooks well on the front, a pot of soup could simmer for hours near the back. The ashes,
mixed into the garden, return phosphorus and potash to the soil, and chunky bits that didn’t burn, discourage slugs.

One can’t deny that not all of the wood burns, that’s why there are ashes and chunky bits.  So, is it green?  Considering that from sapling to garden ash, rural fire wood usually doesn’t move far from its growing site, and that its residue is returned to continue the ecological cycle, I think so. Some power-saw gas and a few hours of hand-splitting and stacking wood equal minimal consumption of fossil fuels compensated for by healthy exercise –and aren’t we supposed to get more of that?

Humans have been fascinated with fire from our earliest times. While other animals feared it, humans, thousands of years ago, were creating warm, safe hearths around a central fire. Scientists once defined humans as the only creatures which fashioned tools and used fire.  Since crows and chimpanzees have been discovered making and using tools, use of fire is all that separates humans from other species.  We’d better hang on to it.

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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