Woodstove Maintenance 101: Ash Management

When I got my first real wood stove I was already mentally making plans for an emergency backup wood stove. This was because I had fallen prey to what was at the time a common misconception: Boxwood stoves always rust out on the bottom. Why they rusted out I did not know, but by then I was the sort who always poured out a libation for Murphy and I was prepared to just believe it and plan for it.

In fact the misconception wasn’t that it does happen but that it must always happen…

…because it’s really just a matter of poor maintenance. What happens is that people don’t clean out their stoves when they’re not being used, particularly during the wet season. Some water will certainly find its way down the stovepipe, and if it mixes with a pile of ash you may as well just take a grinder to your woodstove yourself. It’s exactly the same reason burn barrels always rot out where the water meets the ash pile on the bottom, though of course that’s always quicker.

During the stove’s active season, there’s a sort of chicken-and-egg problem with ash management because you can’t always – I imagine in colder climates you seldom can – wait till the ashes are cold before shoveling them out of the stove. It’s a simple problem to overcome but you have to plan ahead a little bit.

You need three things: A tin bucket for indoors…

…The larger aluminum bucket from that camping kit you never use is perfect for this. Then you need a smallish ash can for outside, with a tightly sealing lid…

And the idea of this is that the ashes get a good chance to go completely cold before you do whatever you do for permanent ash disposal. I know of experienced neighbors who started unwanted fires outdoors because they got cavalier about that last step. The ash can should ideally sit for a couple of days between the last time you donated hot ashes to it and when you dump the (must be cold) ashes into a pit or whatever. Charcoal can smolder for an impressively long time. So if your ash can is getting full, take the time to empty it before giving it the hot ashes from your tin bucket.

The third thing – not essential but a huge aggravation avoider – is a decent ash shovel.

Take my word for this. I’ve genuinely lost count of how many unwanted “fireplace sets” I’ve been offered…

They’re unwanted because they’re generally useless. The only tools you’re ever going to use are a poker and a shovel. Fireplace sets always contain a sheet of metal on a stick that is only euphemistically a shovel…

…and the best thing that can be said of it is that it’s marginally better than nothing. I got mine 12 years ago at Lehmans.com – They still sell it – and it’s one decision I have had many opportunities to pat myself on the back for. I don’t always – I don’t usually – do things right the first time, but this was a good purchase. Your floor and your broom will thank you.

Ash management is obviously not rocket science but it can literally burn you if you take it for granted – so don’t.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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8 Responses to Woodstove Maintenance 101: Ash Management

  1. I find that a set of long tongs, the length of a poker, useful for grabbing burning things when they must be seriously rearranged while in progress.

  2. Badseed says:

    Joel, I would suggest that you consider seriously relocating your fire extinguisher to a location away from where there is most likely to be a fire. Maybe closer to bedside or any other place you deem reasonable but I don’t think beside the wood burning stove would be it. Enjoy reading of your life’s travails.

  3. Ben says:

    My rule for fire extinguisher placement is simple: “Imagine where you will retreat to if faced with an intimidating fire, locate the fire extinguisher there.” For me, the answer usually involves an exterior doorway.

  4. Joel says:

    🙂 Everyone assumes that’s my only fire extinguisher, forgetting how paranoid I am about fire.

  5. taminator013 says:

    There is potassium hydroxide in wood ash which is corrosive to metal. That’s why the bottom of a stove will rust out pretty quickly when the ash gets damp. In the old days before lye was available people made soap from fat and wood ash……….

  6. Jonathan says:

    My stove has a grate and an ash drawer that makes it easy to remove ashes, even with the stove running… It’s the only type I have used, but I assume it is easier to use than other types.

    I dump my ash drawer into a covered metal can that usually gets emptied once a year in the summer… having said that, I haven’t yet emptied it this year…

  7. B says:

    Next summer, put a thin coating of fire cement on the bottom of your woodstove. Keep the ash from contacing the metal. It will extend the life of the stove for YEARS.


  8. DAN says:

    JOEL: up here in the great white north with only wood heat one has to take the ashes out hot or risk having to start a fire all over with kindling & all that shit, my heater goes 24/7 for the better part of 8 months depending on the temp. sometimes spring can be a tad late [ june or so] generally take ashes out 1st thing in the am. leaving as much coals as i can from the nite before, dump them out in the garden in the snow, directions that came with heater said to leave 1 inch of ash on bottom so i tossed in 4 one inch thick fire bricks & laid down a heavy steel grate on top & that makes it a perfect 1 in. of ash under the grate. kinda like the idea of keeping the temp up in the heater, stops all the expansion & contraction of the metal, kinda like a hiway rig running all the time, been working well for me for 26 years now. of course everybodys got different climate etc.only have to clean out once a month BIG RSF HEATER, clean chimney once a month also, my fire insurance policy !! Bs got a good idea also, CHEERS DAN

To the stake with the heretic!