Wood-burning stoves are simpler than pellet stoves, making them easier to install and repair. Logs are also the ideal do-it-yourself fuel, although to cut your own you'll need a chainsaw, safety equipment, manual or powered wood splitter, and a way to transport the logs -- not to mention up to a year for the wood to season before you burn it, or two to three years for oak.
Of course, you can also buy firewood. Unless you live far from any trees, wood logs are the easiest solid fuel to find, even in the city. Tree trimmers, landscapers, and cabinet and furniture shops all make scraps as they work. The main drawbacks are the cost of installing an insulated chimney, then the need to reload and tend the fire at least twice a day.
Wood stoves are classified as EPA-certified or EPA-exempt, and the latter cannot be sold in California or Washington. EPA-certified wood stoves are further classified as catalytic or non-catalytic. Catalytic stoves use a palladium-coated combustor to burn the gases produced inside the stove. Non-catalytic stoves use secondary combustion to burn off these gases.
Of all the stoves we evaluated, the Lopi Endeavor (Est. $2,000) stands head and shoulders above the rest for its durability, low emissions and thoughtful features. It produces up to 72,400 Btu and can heat up to 2,000 square feet. But even more important are its heavy plate-steel construction, a square firebox that loads easily and accommodates logs up to 18 inches long, and a bypass damper for preventing smoke backup and rekindling the fire.
The Lopi Endeavor even comes with an optional auto-start (Est. $225), an unusual find in a wood stove. Just place kindling in the stove and push the button, and igniters and bellows will start the fire and fan it for you. You can also purchase a blower (Est. $250) to help move the heat around. Owners say that as long as you properly bank the fire, this stove has no problem producing steady heat all night long.
The Endeavor uses secondary combustion for a clean burn and is EPA-certified, with an emissions rate of 1.9 grams per hour -- one of the lowest we've seen. It's also approved for use in mobile homes and alcoves, and can be placed quite close to walls if you use the appropriate heat protectors and venting. Overall, many satisfied owners say it's the perfect combination of easy-to-use, powerful wood heat. With the proper use and care, the Lopi Endeavor will easily last well more than a decade; Lopi also has a good track record for parts availability, even on its older stoves.
If you're worried about kids or pets touching the hot steel surface of your wood stove, or you just want to enjoy gentle, radiant heat for hours after the fire has gone out, you may prefer the Hearthstone Heritage soapstone wood stove (Est. $3,000) . Its soapstone walls heat up more slowly than a plate-steel stove like the Lopi Endeavor, sometimes taking an hour or more to really get going. The Hearthstone Heritage typically holds a fire for up to eight hours, and once the fire goes out, you can look forward to up to four hours of gentle, radiant heat released by the soapstone. This type of stove is ideal if you plan to keep it running near-constantly through the winter season.
We did find some concerns about fit, finish and general design of the Heritage stove. Owners say the ash pan is useless -- they're better off shoveling the ashes out -- plus the door hinge pins need to be periodically tapped back into place and the firebox baffle is very fragile. On the other hand, the 2.3-cubic-foot firebox itself is lined with firebrick, and the stove's oversized front door and extra side door make it easy to insert logs up to 21 inches long.
The Hearthstone Heritage is EPA-certified with emissions of 2.77 grams per hour, uses secondary combustion instead of a catalytic converter, and is approved for use in alcoves and mobile homes. However, even with double-wall piping and a rear heat shield, it requires significantly more clearance between it and the walls than the Lopi Endeavor.
If you prefer the radiant heat of cast iron -- which heats up more quickly than soapstone but radiates lingering heat longer than plate steel -- the Vermont Castings Defiant (Est. $2,480) produces up to 75,000 Btu to heat up to 2,400 square feet, has a maximum burn time of 14 hours and can accommodate logs up to 24 inches long. Its FlexBurn combustion system gives you the option of quickly converting from catalytic to non-catalytic operation, and it comes with a thermostatic air control, which is a very rare find on a wood stove.
If that's overkill for you, the Vermont Castings Encore (Est. $2,345) produces up to 65,000 Btu to heat up to 1,800 square feet, burns for up to 12 hours and accommodates logs up to 22 inches long. It also quickly converts between catalytic and non-catalytic operation, and comes with thermostatic air control. Both the Defiant and the Encore are EPA-certified, with low emissions ratings of 1.1/2.3 grams per hour (catalytic mode/non-catalytic mode) and 1.2/1.5 grams per hour, respectively.
Vermont Castings stoves may be particularly attractive because they're made of 100 percent recycled materials and produced with renewable energy. They also come with a limited lifetime warranty on all castings, combustion systems and door glass. However, before you buy from an online retailer, make sure you can get local warranty service.
If you want a wood stove with a more modern look, consider the Quadra-Fire brand of steel-plate stoves. Some Quadra-Fire wood stoves are approved for use in mobile homes and can heat a very large area. For example, the Millennium 4300 (Est. $1,950) can heat up to 3,000 square feet and accommodates logs up to 20 inches long. The smaller Millennium 2100 (Est. $1,550) accepts up to 16-inch logs and heats as much as 2,100 square feet. The mid-range Millennium 3100 (Est. $1,750) heats up to 2,600 square feet and accommodates 18-inch logs.
For an even more modern look, try space-saving vertical designs that seem to be more popular -- and much easier to find -- in Europe than in the U.S. The sleek, Danish-made Rais Opus (Est. $5,600) won the 2008 Vesta award for best new wood stove. Its innovative design lets you add up to 20 optional soapstone blocks (Est. $600) for more efficient, long-lasting heat. However, it's only rated for heating about 1,150 square feet at temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The best buy we found for $1,000 or less is the US Stove 2000 (Est. $1,000) , a plate-steel model that produces as much as 89,000 Btu and can heat up to 2,000 square feet. In return for that much heat in this price range, however, you can expect some quirks. One of the biggest is an oddly shaped firebox with a too-small door; if you want to get the promised 21-inch-long pieces of wood in there, they must be split quite small.
Other owners say the US Stove 2000 drafts only in the front -- so the back corners won't burn well -- and that it's easy to overfire. Reviewers add that the ash pan is too small, so ashes pile up quickly and restrict the airflow. On the upside, the US Stove 2000's firebox is firebrick-lined and it has a built-in 100 cfm blower, although said blower can get loud. Assembly is quick and easy at about 15 minutes, and the US Stove 2000 is both EPA-certified, with emissions of 3.69 grams per hour, and approved for use in a mobile home.
If you're heating only a small space, it's worth considering some of the smaller versions of Vermont Castings' EPA-certified wood stoves, which are sometimes sold at big-box stores. For example, the non-catalytic Vermont Castings Aspen (Est. $800) heats up to 600 square feet, but the trade-off is relatively low efficiency at just under 70 percent and high emissions of 4.3 grams per hour. The Aspen's cast-iron construction helps it radiate heat longer than budget stoves made of sheet steel.
When you're shopping in this price range, keep a weather eye out for stoves so inefficient that they're marked EPA-exempt. That's a warning that you'll end up using a lot of wood for relatively little heat.
If you don't mind sheet steel for radiant heat that starts up quickly but also dies down as the flames die out, the big 75,000 Btu Englander 30-NC (Est. $1,000) is EPA-certified with an emissions rate of 1.63 grams per hour. It comes with a built-in blower and a giant 3.5-cubic-foot non-catalytic firebox, and produces up to 75,000 Btus to heat up to 2,200 square feet. It's also mobile home approved when used with a pedestal. The mid-sized Englander 13-NC (Est. $1,150) is also EPA-certified and mobile home approved. It warms an area up to 1,800 square feet, but users say it requires frequent tending.
Vogelzang sells an even wider range of wood stoves with varying efficiency and emissions, but they come with a very limited warranty: one year for most parts, and three on the firebox and doors. The small Vogelzang Defender TR001 (*Est. $600) , rated for up to 1,200 square feet, is EPA-certified and meets even the strict emissions standards the state of Washington imposes. It's not for mobile homes, however, and the 4.18 grams per hour emissions rating is nothing to brag about compared to ratings for more expensive stoves.
The Vogelzang Heartwood VG820E (Est. $700) gets nearly perfect scores from four owners at NorthernTool.com. This is an older design that encloses the firebox in a metal cabinet, making it safer for use in a woodworking shop where there's always a lot of fuel to catch fire, and around pets and children. The stove is EPA-exempt, so your initial savings may be lost in higher fuel costs over the years. Also, it's illegal to install such a stove in several areas, including California and Washington.
You can pay even less for EPA-exempt wood stoves in the old-fashioned box stove or box wood design, like the little Vogelzang BX26E (Est. $300) . You can make a larger EPA-exempt wood stove with a 55-gallon drum and a Vogelzang Barrel Stove Kit (Est. $70); you just need a jigsaw to cut the openings for the door and stovepipe. The barrel stoves radiate heat well because of their rounded sides. However, these box and barrel designs burn a lot of wood, need constant tending, and are best suited for brief fires when you're working right next to the fire and have lots of free wood to burn. You must also live in an area where emissions aren't a big problem and such stoves are legal.