Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cleaning a Woodburning Cookstove

After some unfortunate incidents with the caramel from sticky rolls boiling over on top of the stove, a rather large splash of oil while frying chicken, and a gurgle of ketchup which managed to even hit the ceiling, the time had come to clean the cookstove.  Marjorie needed a bath.

If you click on this picture, you can get a better glimpse
of how dirty Marjorie the Margin Gem had gotten.

Her cooktop was particularly unbecoming.

Grease from frying chicken had cooked onto the stainless steel trim
that surrounds the cooktop.
The light-colored square on the top of the water reservoir
is the outline of my breakfast griddle.  I had left it on the reservoir
but didn't realize that it was covering the holes which are on the left.
Those holes are steam vents for the water reservoir, and when I
realized what had happened, the griddle was sitting in a puddle of
water.  Not only did the bottom of the griddle have to be re-seasoned,
but the top of the reservoir had retained its autograph.

I started out with a stainless steel soap pad on the top of the reservoir. 

The soap pad and I were soon good friends.  We spent a lot of time together.

The soap pad skittered across the stainless steel cooktop trim,
followed closely by a damp rag.  Then, the soap pad waltzed all
over the backsplach and stainless steel section of stovepipe.

In the picture above, please note how rusty the stove collar is at the base of the stainless steel stovepipe.  When Marjorie arrived last year, like all new cookstoves, her highly polished cast iron cooktop had been coated with a thin layer of some type of petroleum product in order to keep it from rusting before it was put into use.  Unfortunately, whoever had applied this coat of oil, missed putting it on the collar.  Hence, the collar began to rust even before we had installed the stove in March, but I hadn't done anything about it yet.

The next thing that I did was begin working on the cooktop.  I rub a grill brick all over the cast iron.  This effectively removes any food and grease that has cooked onto the stove.  It also smells very strongly of sulfur.

The grill brick leaves all manner of sand in its wake.  I remove this with the vaccuum cleaner.  Next, I was on to soot and ash removal.  I removed the short length of stovepipe which connects the stove to the chimney, then began cleaning the flue which stretches up from the bottom of the back of the stove to the top of the warming oven.
A view down the stovepipe from the top of the warming oven
before cleaning.
The next step was to remove fly ash from the top of the oven and creosote which had accumulated along its right side and beneath it.  New cookstoves are generally shipped with a handy little tool called a soot rake which is made for this task.

The soot rake scraping across the top of the oven.
The manufacturer's identification plate masks the
oven clean out door.  The soot rake is pulling
creosote from beneath the oven.
After that, I drained the reservoir and began working on cleaning it out.  You can learn more about that in the previous post.

After the stovepipe had been cleaned outdoors and re-attached, the next job was to coat the newly scrubbed cooktop with vegetable oil.  I also put a layer of stove black on the collar.

All other surfaces were wiped clean and parts replaced, and the ashes which had missed falling in the ash pan were also scooped out.  The water reservoir was refilled, and a new fire lit.  As the coat of vegetable oil burned onto the stovetop, the kitchen took on the scent of a large hot breakfast griddle, and Marjorie was once again a gleaming beauty gracing our kitchen.


  1. Interesting post. I've read a little about cleaning wood cook stoves before, but never in so much detail. It sounds like quite a bit of work. Do you think you'll need to do this deep clean every 6 months?

    1. You're right; it is a lot of work, but in my experience anyway, cleaning any stove that gets regular use can be a lot of work--even ceramic top electrics.

      As to how often this cleaning will need to be done, that is a good question. I actually had scraped the soot from around the oven once earlier this summer. You can kind of tell when the oven flues need cleaning because the stove doesn't act like it is breathing correctly. For example, you might get an unusually strong whiff of smoke when you add fuel.

      If everything is as it was with the Qualified, this kind of cleaning will need to be done about three times per year: twice during the heating season and once at the end of summer. However, the Qualified was not airtight and therefore could not sustain the longer, slower burns which will be occurring overnight and while we are gone to work and school. These fires will produce more creosote than we would have seen in the Qualified, so I will have to play it by ear.

      As far as the surface cleaning of the exterior of the stove goes, that will all depend on what we cook and how messy we are as we cook it.

      I'll keep you posted as we go through the winter.

  2. Marjorie looks too good to cook on now!

    1. Too late. The cleaning was completed on the afternoon of the 16th, and Marjorie has turned out several meals and an array of baked goods since then. She's a busy lady.

  3. Jim,

    Thanks for the great post about cleaning the surfaces and tips on what to avoid (like keeping the water vent holes unobstructed). This blog is an amazing resource for those like myself interested in wood burning cookstoves. I am just getting started into the wood cookstove adventure with a Range Qualified (old cookstove). It has four burners, an oven (with a drawer below it), and a water reservoir. It is creme with light green fade on the edges of the enamel panels. Since you had and loved a Range Qualifed at one time (maybe you still have it), I wanted to ask you about the firebox grate. I do not know if mine is complete. I have a large grate that is vertical and sits against the left end by the damper window, and then a smaller one that has a post on either end and "gears" that look like it would connect to a handle to rotate the grate. Do you have any pictures of the Range Qualified firebox looking from the top you could post/share? Or do you know of a good online resource for details about the Range Qualified cookstoves?

    1. Thanks so much for dropping in and becoming a member! I thought that your questions deserved their own post, so I hope I answered everything there. If not, feel free to comment again.

      I'm excited about your new cookstove adventure. Our Qualified was/is a great stove, and yours sounds very similar to ours. I talked to an Amish woman whose mother had one, and she had good things to say about them too. We still have ours, so I was able to snap some pictures for you.

      If I can make your journey into the world of wood cooking easier in any way, please let me know!

  4. I am just learning to cook on a wood cookstove. The stove that I have is currently living outside. I am planning to convert a BBQ cover to keep it covered and out of the weather. There is of course rust on the top of it now. I am wanting to clean it all off but can't find any solid information on what I should put on it afterwards. If you have any advice that would be wonderful :) We plan to build a covered area for it next spring but it still won't be indoors. Thank You!

    1. Welcome, Sarena! I thought that you had an excellent question which deserved its own blog post. I just published it. If you have further questions, please let me know, and I'll do my best to help.

      Please feel free to chime in wherever you see a place where your experience with your stove differs from the information presented. It's always good to hear from a fellow wood cookstove cook!

    2. We are having a wood / coal cook stove refurbished for us. The man doing it spray paints the outside of the cast iron stove. I asked him not to put anything on the cooktop as I may wish to cook directly on it. We wanted a black cast iron stove, no enamel as I wanted the 'older look'. I have been hearing about the stove black. Do you advise against stove paint?

    3. I have used both stove paint and stove black on the outside of heating stoves, and I know of no reason that one is better than the other.

      I think that you are wise to not put any paint or black on the stove top. When your stove is back in your possession, lightly coat the stovetop with unsalted vegetable oil. If you will be installing it and using it right away, all the better. The vegetable oil will also be better for the bottoms of your cookware.

      You indicated that the stove repairer was only going to paint the outside of the stove. I would be sure that he will not be coating the inside of the oven, too, if the oven is cast iron. I would coat the inside of the oven with a little vegetable oil, but you could leave it entirely untouched. I just think that painting or blacking the inside of the oven could result in off-flavors entering any foods which are cooked in it later.

      Best wishes as you enter the realm of wood cookstove cookery!

  5. We recently purchased a GEM stove. Is there a polish or something on the surface that must be removed? Can you give me step by step instruction as to what we do before using for the first time? We are very new to this. Thank you!

    1. Kathi,
      Congratulations on your new Gem! I am very excited for you. Please feel free to comment often here on the blog.

      Yes, the cast iron cooktop of your Margin Gem is covered with a film of oil which is applied by the manufacturer in order to keep the cast iron from rusting before the stove is used. Do not do anything to remove this film of oil.

      When you first fire the stove (do this according to the instructions about the first fire which came with your stove), this oil will burn off, and the bright, shiny cast iron will immediately begin to darken. It will stink and smoke, so you might want to open a window.

      The enamel and chrome surfaces on our Margin Gem were not coated, so no special care had to be taken there.

      If your Gem is equipped with a waterfront (or water jacket) or a water reservoir, be sure that in the case of the waterfront it is hooked up to your water system and has water in it, and in the case of the reservoir, water is also in it. Never fire a stove thus equipped without water in those two features.

      If you need further help, please feel free to ask. I'm no expert, but I'll do what I can to help you. Also, I would love to eventually write a "Readers' Cookstoves" post about your stove if you would be willing to let me.

      Welcome to the wonderful world of wood cookstove cookery!

  6. Hi Jim. I’m not sure if your still active on this site but I’m needing some guidance on cleaning my grandmothers old stove. I use it only for heat purposes and the occasional warming up a meal if the power has gone out. I had assumed it was some type of steel top. I was going to use a very fine steel scrubber but I’m seeing that you used a grill brick then added oil. Is that what you’d recommend? I know my grandparents used a very fine sand paper at times. Thanks!

    1. I'm definitely still here!

      I use a grill brick and oil, as you mentioned, but I see no reason why a fine steel scrubber wouldn't be just as good, and I would see sandpaper working fine, too. Just do be sure to rub a light coating of vegetable oil on the stovetop afterward as that will prevent rusting. It will smoke a little at the beginning of your first fire, but don't worry about that. Just pretend you're making pancakes. If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask.

  7. What is the purpose of the water in the cookstove? I dont know how to join your blog. Could you email me the answer to bjd@mymts.net. thanks.

    1. Thank you for your question!

      The water reservoir on the right side of the stove is one of the two ways that our cookstove is equipped to heat water for household use. We only use water from the reservoir for dish washing, laundry, or other cleaning--never drinking or cooking.

      To join the blog, you should be able to click the blue "Follow" button under the pictures of the followers up at the right hand side of the top. I appreciate all my subscribers!

  8. Hello! Great post, great blog :) I'm about to buy a 1922 Supreme Comfort wood cookstove, and I know very little about cook stoves! It looks like it's in excellent condition with the original (?) enamel and parts. Cast iron cook top. The inside of the oven is a bit rusty, so I'm wondering if it's safe to cook with rust? I'll do everything I can to clean it, oil it, repair it, and replace if possible/necessary, I just want to be sure I'm not cooking bad stuff into my food! Thank you, I'll email as well.

    1. You will be just fine. Do all of the things you mentioned and include vacuuming out the oven in the list. As you can see from my posts about the Hayes-Custer in our summer kitchen, we bake in an oven with rust in it, and I'm not a bit worried about it.

  9. Jim, thank you so much for your speedy response! Great to know, phew, that makes me feel better in my endeavors! Excited to join this group of folks.

  10. Hello, I just bought a house with a Margin Gem Cookstove in it. I am curious how to clean the brass, copper and nickel surfaces. I'm concerned that if I use a brass or copper polish to clean it when the stove gets heated it might damage or stain the surface.
    Thanks for any insight you can give me.

  11. Hello, Cindy! I'm sorry I'm so late in responding.

    I would think you would be just fine to use brass or copper polish. The only thing you MUST do is be sure that absolutely all of the polish has been removed from the surfaces of the stove before you start your next fire. As long as all cleaning residue is gone, I can't see any reason that you would have any trouble. Keep me posted on how you like your new stove!