This is an important question, not just for people with a couple of hectares of mature woodland, but for anyone considering the purchase of a wood burning stove. What you put into your stove, how much work or money it takes to put it there, and whether or not it will burn and produce meaningful amounts of heat are all questions that should concern you. There is a complex symbiotic alchemy between stove, flue and fuel; restrictions or conditions on one factor will likely have knock-on effects for the others.
Unlike gas or coal or electricity, which are delivered in clearly quantifiable, uniform units, wood comes in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of different burning characteristics. Nonetheless, for regulatory purposes, it has been lumped in with other smokeless fuels by trade bodies dominated by the coal industry, with all the illogical discrepancies and market-distorting effects that such bureaucratic fiddling entails. This impacts directly on comparisons on stove efficiency which are carried out, by necessity, using standardised test fuel of specific proportion, density and moisture, so that, in effect, wood is unrealistically treated as a regularised fuel.
Many of the cheap modern stoves that are sold on the internet and by unscrupulous supply-only retailers now appear to be made with the achievement of a high efficiency rating as their principal and perhaps sole design objective, regardless of whether or not the appliance will actually function in real life conditions.
As a result, almost implausibly-high efficiency ratings are a characteristic shared by some of the most vaunted and expensive, and bargain-basement, stoves on the market. In both cases, you will want to be careful to burn only high-value woods, at extremely low moisture levels. Fed with good fuel, the expensive bijou stoves will work if they’re properly fitted in accordance with their sometimes Byzantine installation instructions. If they don’t, there is often a pre-meditated solution by which you can reduce their efficiency in order to make them function. With the cheaper stoves, there is not typically a back-door solution to such contingencies. Many of them will prove next to useless for burning normal wood, and the owners will be reduced to burning expensive kiln-dried wood, or coal and smokeless fuels if the stoves are described as multi-fuel.
Needless to say, the best solution is to buy through a reputable stove shop, who will guide you to a stove that is likely to suit your needs and lifestyle. It may be reassuring to know that, in our opinion, the best and most user-friendly stoves need certainly not be the most expensive.
In our experience, the most common cause of dissatisfaction with any wood burning stove is wood fuel abuse, which is to say, using damp wood, or attempting to slow-burn wood. However, it remains true that some stoves are more tolerant of moist wood, others less so. Wood is hygroscopic, the upshot of which is that stoves which have been designed for use in dry continental conditions might struggle with wood stored in the damp maritime United Kingdom. It pays to learn before you buy.
Another factor to consider is log dimension. If you chop your own wood, you would do well to think about buying a stove with a wide door. The difference between having a stove that will take a ten inch log instead of one that will accept a fifteen inch log is fifty per cent more work, which over the course of dismembering a felled tree might represent enough time to re-decorate the house or to finally sit down and read the complete works of Dostoevsky.
At the same time, if having a huge door is going to saddle you with far too big a stove for your cosy sitting room, then you are going to want a stove with a good turn-down ratio (representing the range of heat output possible from the stove) or you will face the choice of cooking or freezing, when your stove won’t adapt its heat output to your thermal requirements.
Similarly, your stove’s ability to digest enormously thick trunks of even well-seasoned wood, is not a sure thing. Some stoves will manage this, others won’t.
Lastly, if you are installing a stove but have nothing to burn on it yet, bear in mind that, ideally, you should count on a year’s seasoning before you can burn green wood, so if your planning process is long enough, it is well worth laying down supplies in advance of making your way to the stove shop.