Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Woodstove on a sailboat – comments and suggestions after one year

One of the most popular posts on this website is my account of installing the “Sardine” wood stove on “Kuan Yin”, so I thought it might be of interest to post some comments and suggestions now that the stove has been in operation on the boat for more than a year.
(I’ve also added an album of photos of the installation HERE).

Topics covered:

1)  COST  High and Low.

2) Repayment on investment

3)  Installation

4) Chimney

5) Sand in the firebox

6)  Feeding the Beast – getting the firewood

7) Three Sizes of Firewood

8) Types of Wood and what burns best

9) Tools

10) Lighting the fire

11) Fire through the night

12)  No fire at Sea

13) Wood Ash

14) Maintenance

15) Fire extinguishers etc

(SEE the album of installation photos HERE)

1) COST  High and Low.
In total – including the enamel stove, stove pipe, special deck fitting, smoke cap, copper sheathed heat-resistant sheets, buck saw and axe – the whole installation probably cost close to $2000. A lot of money, but I don’t regret my investment. I’m getting a steady return of warm and conviviality.  The Sardine is made by the Navigator Stove Works. (www.marinestove.com)

A wood stove could be installed for a LOT less.  A couple of days ago I met a man called Mark from Maine, USA, who lives in a 1967 van and has a wonderful little wood stove that he got for $75! His installation is not close to any safety code and is potentially hazardous but it certainly was not expensive.  His stove is a Fatsco stove. (www.fatscostoves.com)

My own installation was at the other extreme both in terms of safety and cost. Personally I think it’s foolish to compromise on safety. I don’t want to poison myself or any guests, nor set fire to the boat. Save money on the stove (which is the big item) by going with no enamel, buying second-hand or making a small barrel stove in a welding shop. But don’t try to cut back on a secure and safe installation. Saving a (very few) pennies isn’t worth losing control of the stove, using more wood (no damper!) and potentially losing your life.

I trust my stove to be safe because I use it prudently, keep a watchful eye on creosote build-up, and followed the codes and best practices during installation.

2) Repayment on investment
Installing any stove is an investment. I spent a lot of money on the total project but it has certainly been worthwhile, both in terms of warmth and coziness.

Right now I’m writing in St. Anthony, northern Newfoundland, while post-tropical storm Irene (aka Hurricane Irene) blows and pours rain east of here. Rain poured down earlier this morning, the boat is swaying with the gusts of wind yet the cabin is toasty warm, very cheery and there is no condensation.

In June the weather was either raining or threatening to rain every day, with temperatures not above five or 6 degrees celsius and almost down to freezing at night. The stove was going before breakfast to take off the chill and again in the evening until bedtime.  The radiant heat and the soft crackling sounds made the cabin comfortable indeed, despite the dreary weather outside.

3)  Installation

cutting the hole in the cabin trunk was the biggest job – it is steel, with two angle irons!

Obtaining the copper sheathing was easy in a big city (Toronto) but would have been more difficult elsewhere.

4) Chimney
I installed the smoke gap on a short extension from the deck but founds that a light winds from forward of the boat (ie at anchor) the smoke tended to filter through the gaps of the companionway.  this was solved by installing a longer piece of pipe to raise the smoke cap.  Mine is still below the level of the boom so that I don’t have to try to detach it before sailing. But on other boats I’ve seen much longer pipes that have to be taken down and stowed (with their creosote) while at sea.

5) Sand in the firebox
I covered the bottom of the firebox with one inch of sand to help minimise any corrosion or heat damage to the stove itself.  I didn’t use sand from a beach because I wanted to get the stove working (the nights were cold and I had no other form of heating). however, salty sand would be okay provided it is rinsed several times in fresh water to remove all the salt. I used maybe 2 lbs of sand from a big bag that cost $2.50.

6.  Feeding the Beast – getting the firewood

The principal drawback to a wood stove is where to store the wood.  If you’re sailing and returning to the same dock each night, or even after a weekend, then wood storage for a few days is probably no problem.  But on a nomadic boat with no plans to return, you need to take firewood with you – and have enough of a store for 1) a week or two when the weather is inclement and wood too wet to be worth collecting, 2) a week or two or more when there isn’t any wood to be gathered or obtained.

I keep 6 sacks on deck – which is probably a little excessive and possible only because the boat has wide side decks.  Other people keep a couple of bags in the V-berth or even in the bilge.  I also have a store under the cookstove and keep a large shopping-sized canvas bag in the head.

Keeping a good store of dry wood is real wealth and better than money in the bank. A good store helps even out the inevitable “feast or famine” in supply. Nothing would be more bothersome than being hungry for firewood all the time.  As it is I know there’s plenty until the next abundant supply of ideal dry wood. And there’s plenty to give away to others who may not so well provided.

The six sacks on deck are kept inside big sacks made of the heavy-duty plastic used for winter boat covers and discarded in the spring. The sacks are tied to the lifelines with lines but netting would be more secure.  On glorious sunny days I open the sacks to let the wood dry out (otherwise it can sweat a bit).

One sacks of old planking/sawn lumber lasts about four weeks if the stove is lit for two or three hours each evening and for about one week if the fire is kept going every day (but not at night).  Sacks of driftwood I’ve gathered tended to last about one-third less time. This was partly because the wood was softwood and partly because tree branches etc. pack less densely in storage than sawmill lumber.

7) Three Sizes of Firewood
I keep three sizes of firewood and a couple of bags of charcoal. All pieces have to be less than 6 inches in length – less than five inches is ideal:

Kindling about the size of fingers, or smaller, gets the fire going. The best is 1″ thick sawn lumber which chops easily into very narrow pieces.

Middling pieces – approx 5″ x 1″ – are the main fuel.

Logs – anything 2″ x 2″ or larger – give lots of heat and burn for a long time but burn best along with smaller pieces. Birch is the best in Newfoundland but maple, oak or any hardwood would give an enormous amount of heat and take up relatively less space.

8) Types of Wood and what burns best

Charcoal – keeps the fire going (just) if you’re off the boat for a few hours but it’s expensive, unless you make your own.

Coal – I’d burn small pieces if I could find it. Coal is not recommended for the “Sardine” I believe because the high temperature could eventually damage the bottom plate of the firebox. However I think this could be minimized by using a trivet when burning coal.

Wood gathered on beaches and shorelines is usually not recommended because of the possible accumulation of salt that might increase corrosion inside the stove and the chimney.

However, I think that if you gather driftwood from well above the high water line – ie where winter storms have carried it much higher – the surface salt is likely to have been washed off by successive rain showers.

In my experience, driftwood is not the best fuel only because (on the Atlantic coast of Canada) it is usually pine, very lightweight and burns fast.  Tree branches also tend to take up too much room in a sack compared to sawn lumber.

Scrap lumber
It’s amazing how much scrap lumber is just laying about – and people are usually more than happy for someone to take it away and help them clean up.  Discarded pallets make great kindling but burn quickly.

I never burn treated lumber (eg green) and try to avoid lumber with nail or paint.

Kindness of strangers
A man came down the dock in Rimouski soon after I installed the stove.  We chatted for a while and the next day he returned with two small sacks of kindling. I didn’t get his name but I haven’t forgotten his generosity. A man called Simon did the same in Englee this spring – and took me home to do my laundry and enjoy a BBQ with his wife.

Last fall I asked for directions at a house and the next minute the husband was out in his garage cutting up firewood on his chop saw for me to bring home.  He had the carcass of a moose hanging up in the garage and his wife gave a moose steak for supper.

And just now, as I was typing this, my friend Wade, an ex-fisherman, who works on boats came to say he’d be back tomorrow with some cut up birch wood for the stove.

I’m grateful for the warmth of friends and strangers alike.

9) Tools


A rough saw like a buck-saw is an essential tool if you plan to gather your own firewood.  Generous people have several times given me sacks of firewood but always the pieces have to cut down to 5 or 6 inches in length to fit my tiny firebox.

I bought a 21″ saw from the local hardware store.  Seemed to work fine , if slowly, until someone else took a look and pointed out the blade was dull. The replacement blade is super sharp.  Turns out that the saw is sold was an ultra low-quality blade.  That’s someone I’d suggest checking on any new saw.  Otherwise, sawing wood into 5-inch bits can be a lot of work.

One kind man called Roe in Englee gave me as much firewood I wanted from an old shed he pulled down. Some I cut up with the saw, the rest his brother cut for me with a chainsaw.  And another gentleman called Wilson let me put some planks through his table saw, and loaned me his wheelbarrow to take my treasure home.

When you buy a new axe almost certainly it will arrive with no “edge” – I discovered this only after months of chopping with a “dull” axe.  Putting an edge on an axe is not difficult or time-consuming but does require a little care.  If you can find a woodsman to show you how, and maybe do it for you the first time, then all the better.  If not, there are videos of YouTube.

To do it yourself you’ll need an electric grinder or at least a metal rasp or file.

10) Lighting the fire
Dry old newspapers are by far the best way to light a fire – newsprint burns better than regular paper. Coated magazine stock hardly burns at all.

I keep rolls of old newspaper in a locker and half a dozen pages torn out and folded on shelf with a fiddle three feet above the cookstove. The shelf has holes in the bottom to allow hot air to circulate to encourage the bean sprouts and yoghurt in pots. It also keeps two or three days supply of fire lighters crispy dry.

Kindling I keep in a canvas bag I made to fit one side of the main hatch in the centre of the boat.  This hatch on “Kuan Yin” has a high coaming so the bag is about 6 inches deep without taking away headroom.  Warm air in the cabin keeps a few days of kindling dry and ready to ignite.

Putting scrunched up newspaper on top of wood ash and covering it with kindling is not a sure way to light a fire.  better, I’ve found, to lay two middling pieces (see above)  parallel and about 2 inches apart.  Scrunch up the newsprint lengthways and put it in this “trench”.  Then lay the kindling on top.  This way the paper doesn’t get squashed and has air and room to burn.

If the kindling is at all damp it may not ignite on the first attempt.  Scrunch more dry newsprint and it’s easy to insert it under the kindling help up by the middling pieces.

11) Fire through the night
So far I haven’t bothered.  I’ve been content to sleep snug on a sleeping bag on the V-berth and get up into a chill cabin in the morning.  I make a mug of tea, light the stove and go back to bed to read a book and enjoy the tea while the cabin warms up.

12)  No fire at Sea
Along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador my sailing ha been all day hops so I haven’t thought about having the stove going while sailing.  I’d be reluctant to do that, but may that’s just because I haven’t done it.  The door closer seems secure but I’d probably wrap some stainless wire around the firebox just be sure the box didn’t accidentally fly open.

13) Wood Ash
There’s probably a little bit more dust inside the boat because of the wood ash from the stove. I brush the top, around the stove and the cabin sole every time before I light the stove, in addition to regular cleaning.  this suffices for me.

The firebox needs emptying maybe once a week if the fire has been lit each evening.  One there’s more than an inch of ash at the bottom it’s time to clean out – otherwise it tends to smother the fire. I use a stainless pan and a soup spoon to clean out the firebox, as I once had a nasty accident with hot coals in a 5-gallon plastic pail!

The ashes I either throw overboard, when at anchor, or dump discreetly ashore.  It’s 100% biodegradable so I don’t see any harm.

Wood ash can be used for cleaning plates and pots but I haven’t tried.

14) Maintenance
I haven’t tried to clean the chimney or had to dismantle the pipes.  From time to time I bang on the smoke cap and on the stovepipe in the cabin to dislodge the dried creosote.  This seems to have been fairly successful at avoiding a potentially dangerous build-up of creosote.

15) Fire extinguisher

Prevention is better than cure – keeping the chimney clean of creosote build-up, not overloading the firebox and making sure nothing that can burn comes near the stove or chimney.

I have one fire extinguisher in the head (toilet), another in the forepeak and a fire blanket in the galley.  In addition, a smoke detector hangs on the ceiling between the main cabin and the forepeak where I sleep.  And it work – usually when I’m making toast.

All in all the stove is a great success and I would not want to sail in the chillier climes without it.


12 comments on “Woodstove on a sailboat – comments and suggestions after one year

  1. oggy bleacher
    August 31, 2011


    here’s the site for the wood stove I put in my van. cheers


  2. Daniel
    November 4, 2011

    Hey Dennison,

    Fellow sailor here, I just ordered a Sardine stove myself.

    Wanted to say thanks very much for the Sardine install details you posted, as well as these excellent year-after comments – they were instrumental in helping me understand how I might fit this stove into my own vessel safely. Do you prefer the stove on the cabin sole as you have it or would you rather it be a bit higher? What was your rationale for that decision? I can envision the “hot air rises” aspect to keeping your feet warm – does it make much of a difference? What about bending over for changing the firewood or putting a kettle on/etc, does that become a pain?


    – Daniel


  3. Andrew Moore
    January 10, 2012

    Great write up D. As I read your notes it crossed my mind that your text should be included with each stove that I ship out of here. Sorry to miss you in Toronto over Christmas. While there I was able to re read Farley Mowatt’s fine aacnt. of his Nfl’d adventures in “The Boat That Would Not Float. Certain you have a dog eared copy somewhere?
    Sure made me want to lock the shop door and head back up that way to putter about. Cheers Etc. A/NSW


  4. Pingback: Wood, Diesel or propane bulkhead heating stove? - Page 14 - SailNet Community

  5. Eric
    August 29, 2012

    I was wondering where you purchased your Sardine.
    You mentioned getting the install materials in Toronto, and I am in southern Ontario.
    It would be ideal for me to be able to pick one up rather than have it shipped.
    You can reach me at the address listed with this message.
    Thanks in advance,



  6. Ron
    September 21, 2012

    Good information Dennison,
    I was wondering, we ordered a Sardine from Navigator over a year ago and have a great place already built for the stove. My wife designed the main shield with a compass rose on it and we had the local blacksmith make up the weathered copper panels with the design on it. It really looks great but we don’t have the stove yet. We’re still waiting and can’t wait to finish the install. If your interested, send me your email and I’ll send you pics.
    Great information and looking forward to that cozy heat source.

    Thanks, Ron


    • Dennison
      October 13, 2012

      Yes, I’m interested and have sent you my email. thanks


  7. Abby
    October 12, 2012

    I am curious to is there somewhere in toronto to buy this stove….?



    • Dennison
      October 13, 2012

      not as far as I know – you have to deal directly with Navigator Stoves (keeps costs down).


    • Dennison
      October 13, 2012

      Not as far as I know.


  8. Liam Knuj
    January 11, 2013

    You seriously did not know to sharpen an axe? And that if a saw blade didn’t cut well it needed to be replaced?


    • Dennison
      January 22, 2013

      Mea culpa I guess. I confess it never occured to me that the axe did not come already sharp. I’ve used other people’s axes many times but never bought one before. And the saw – well, I thought it was just binding in the cut. Live and learn and learn and learn.



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This entry was posted on August 30, 2011 by in Equipment, Kuan Yin, Life Skills, Sailboats, Sailing and tagged , , , .
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