Guide to Maintaining Your Wood-Burning Cabin Fireplace

A fireplace is one of my favorite things at the cabin.  It’s great for heating, and also for atmosphere.  There’s something about the heat and the smell of a log fire that you just can’t duplicate with gas or electric heat.

But having a fireplace at your cabin does come with some work.  Fireplaces and chimneys are actually more complicated than they seem.  They can look like just a brick or stone hole in the wall with a tunnel up and out the roof, but the inner-workings of the fireplace and chimney are more involved than that.  And keeping them well maintained is really important.  A poorly-maintained chimney can lead to real issues, including house fires. 

But a little work on a regular basis can keep your fireplace and chimney working perfectly.  Let me guide you through the proper steps to keep your fireplace well maintained.  

Start by Preventing Build-up

As with most things, preventing bad outcomes is far better than repairing them after the fact.  Good fireplace and chimney maintenance is good prevention.  By keeping them in good working order, you could prevent a fire that would destroy at your cabin.  You’ll also keep the air in the cabin safer to breathe.  However, there’s a lot you can do to minimize the amount of maintenance you need to do.

Start by adhering to these good habits for fires in your cabin fireplace.

  • Only burn dry wood.  This is the most important tip for indoor fires and fireplace maintenance.  Moist or wet wood puts off a lot more smoke and will lead to significantly more buildup in your fireplace and chimney.  Always allow freshly cut wood to sit in a covered place for at least 6 months before burning it.  If you need wood quickly, just purchase dry firewood and store it somewhere covered.  It will be safe to use right away.
  • Burn hardwoods.  Hardwoods like oak, maple, apple, cherry, or ash are dense.  They’ll burn cleaner than the softwoods like pine and cedar.
  • Clean out your Fireplace Regularly.  We’ll talk about this more in the sections to come.

Clean out the Ashes After They Cool

Too much ash build-up in your fireplace will cause it to function less efficiently.  In fact, it can limit airflow up and out the chimney which puts more smoke into your cabin.  It’ll also add to build-up in your firebox that is more troublesome to clean.

While a little ash in your fireplace can actually help with the efficiency and airflow of a fire, too much ash causes problems.  After using my fireplace for a few days, I like to clean out most of the ash.  However, remember that ash can stay very hot, hot enough to start another fire, for up to 3 days.  So be very careful if you remove ash from your fireplace, even if it’s been a day since it was lit.

Good practice is to let the ash sit for a few days before removing it.  But when you’re at the cabin, you don’t always have a few days.  In fact, it’s pretty common that you’ll use the fire almost right up until you leave.  If that’s the case, removing the ashes from your fireplace should be done with great care.  Or, you can leave the ashes there and clean them out next time you go to the cabin before you start your first fire.  In either case, here are some guidelines to help.

  • Always keep small children far away.  Kids get curious.  I’ve seen a child stick their foot in a hole full of hot ashes and have their shoe melted to their foot.  After a very fast response from the adults around and a quick trip to the hospital, the child sustained some very painful 2nd-degree burns.  So keep kids away from the ashes.
  • Use a flat metal shovel to remove the ashes.  If you have a fireplace, you need a set of fireplace tools.  I like this kit that’s available on Amazon that also includes some indoor log storage.  These kits have a flat shovel and a little broom for removing ashes.  Don’t use the broom while the ashes are hot.  If you need to remove hot ashes just use the metal shovel to get most of the ashes out.
  • Use a metal bucket.  I like to dump my ashes into a metal bucket that I set on the hearth next to the fireplace.  Make sure it has a good handle because the bucket itself will get hot if the ashes haven’t cooled.
  • If the ashes are hot, store them somewhere safe.  Dumping ashes outside, even in the snow, isn’t necessarily safe.  I had a relative accidentally burn down their house dumping hot ashes in the snow nearby.  That’s not something you want to mess with.  If you have hot ashes, they should be dumped in a hole in the ground and then covered, or placed in a metal bucket in a safe place with a lid covering the top.  Wind will blow ash and embers all over the place and start another fire if you leave them uncovered.
  • Use the ashes.  If you stored your ashes in a bucket or didn’t clean them out until they were sufficiently cool, then you can actually use these ashes productively.  Scatter them over a garden area or over your lawn, or add them to your compost.  Ashes from burned wood are full of nutrients.

Clean the Firebox Regularly

Every month or two during the burning season, you should also clean our your firebox.  This is main open area inside the fireplace.

Cleaning out the firebox will keep the actual fireplace in good working order and help prevent issues later.  The better you take care of your fireplace and chimney on a month-to-month basis, the longer it will last and the less issues you will have.

Allowing the fireplace or chimney to get too much buildup can actually lead to poor fireplace performance.  Airflow decreases and you’ll get more smoke inside.  If the smoke isn’t going up and out the chimney well, your fires can get deprived of oxygen and even go out.  For good performance, keep it clean.

Here are some tips for keeping your firebox clean.

  • Clean out all the ashes.  You can use your shovel and broom when the ashes are cool to remove a lot of them, but the easiest way to get it all cleaned out is to use a vacuum with a hose attachment.  That’ll get it all cleaned up.
  • Remove Soot Buildup.  Now the work begins.  We want to remove as much of the black soot in the fireplace as possible.  The easiest way to do this is to do it regularly.  The more you let it build up and bake on, the harder it will be.  Start by mixing some dish soap with warm water.  Now fill a spray bottle with this mixture and spray it all over inside the fireplace.  Let it sit for a full 30 minutes before you get to work.  Now, use a wire brush to scrub the surfaces inside the fireplace.  If it some of the residue won’t come off, try spraying it again and letting it soak.  You can also add vinegar to the mixture.  And if that doesn’t work, you can use muriatic acid to clean the fireplace.  Just be aware the muriatic acid is toxic.  Follow the instructions and precautions on the label.  Apply the acid to the soot buildup, let it sit for 30 minutes, and then scrub again.  I strongly recommend using a good, thick pair of rubber-type cleaning gloves.
  • Remove Buildup from the Damper.  Use the same wire brush and soapy mixture to remove any buildup from the damper.  You need to make sure the damper mechanism is working and that you can actually use the damper.  It can be hard to get to so don’t wear clothes that you don’t want to get dirty.

Maintain the Chimney

There are also some DIY steps you can take to maintain your fireplace chimney at your cabin.  The chimney is really important and these few things will really help keep your fireplace in good working order.

  • Make Sure Stuff Can’t Go Down the Chimney.  You need a chimney cap.  Otherwise, debris such as leaves and even animals will find their way down your chimney.  They can partially or fully block airflow causing you to smoke out your cabin the next time you start a fire.  The easiest way to clear out your chimney is to keep it clear.  Get a good chimney cap with a wire mesh that completely covers the opening into your chimney.  Every chimneysweep I’ve ever met (and I have met a few) has recommended a good cap with wire mesh for chimneys.
  • Make Sure the Chimney Cap Stays Clear.  That cap and mesh is great, but sometimes leaves and other debris build up on top or around your chimney cap.  Take a look every once in a while, especially if you’re having trouble with airflow up the chimney.
  • Inspect the Bricks and Mortar on the Chimney.  Watch for cracks forming in the bricks and the mortar on your chimney.  If the mortar is flaking away or cracking, or if the bricks are getting worn out, this may be a sign of more issues inside the chimney.  Repair on your chimney should be done by someone who knows what they’re doing.  Unless you’re a stone mason or something, I suggest you call a good chimney sweep and get their opinion.  If you send them photos of what you found, you may save them a trip and yourself some money.
  • Inspect Where the Chimney Meets the Roof.  There should be a piece of flashing where the chimney meets the roof.  This should form a watertight seal.  If it doesn’t, then when it rains water will run down your chimney and into your cabin.  While you’re up there inspecting the chimney, take a look.  If there are any gaps or worn sections, you can patch them up with caulk.

Get an Annual Inspection and Chimney Cleaning

There’s obviously a lot you can do to maintain your fireplace and chimney.  But there is other stuff you probably can’t do yourself.  For that, I strongly recommend having a certified Chimney Sweep do an annual cleaning and inspection.  It’s good to do this right at the end of the burning season, as the buildup of creosote can actually cause damage throughout the year as the moisture from the air mixes with it.

A chimney cleaning and inspection won’t be too expensive and it will extend the lift if your fireplace significantly.

The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA) certifies chimney sweeps.  Make sure that whoever you hire to inspect your chimney has this certification.  They have equipment that they can run up your chimney and take pictures to get a good idea of the situation inside.

Enjoy Your fire

If you perform good maintenance and have your chimney swept and inspected annually you’ll catch issues before they turn into big problems.  Small repairs can be done quite inexpensively.  But a chimney left to itself can quickly develop serious problems that can cost thousands of dollars to fix.  But a well-maintained fireplace and chimney at your cabin can lead to many long years of enjoyment by the fire.

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