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How To Heat With Coal

Posted by on January 6, 2012

Coal. An Old School little rock if there ever was one. Walk through a neighborhood of old houses in the Northeast U.S. and you’ll see what looks like vertical trapdoors on the side of the houses. What are they? Secondary Santa entries? No. Coal chute doors. With the exception of wood, coal is the most Old School way to heat a house. Heating with coal is like heating with wood except for coal is dirtier and none of that annoying “doesn’t that cherry wood smell delicious?” conversation.

While I prefer the heating with wood, coal does have its advantages. You don’t have to chop, split it and stack it.  It is a little trickier to light, but once it’s burning, you can bank coal. You throw wood in your furnace before you hit the sack, odds are you’re waking up cold. You bank a coal furnace right, you wake up warm & toasty. If you ever woken up with a house that’s in the low fifties, warm & toasty sounds like a good thing. Here’s the work:

How to start and bank coal

Use dry paper, cardboard, kindling to start the fire. My favorite? Liquor boxes (free from the liquor store) and pizza boxes (free — when you buy a pizza — and the pizza grease makes them burn nicely. Mangia!)

Add hardwood pieces. How much? I burn coal in a fairly large outdoor furnace and if I have to start a fire in a pinch and I have no decent hardwood on hand, two of the five dollar bundles at the local big box home store do the job.

Old School Digression

When an Old School Man buys a $5 bundle of seasoned wood,
it is appropriate to feel an inner cone of shame.


Once the wood is down to a bed of red embers, you’re ready to start adding coal. This can’t be rushed. Add a layer at a time, virtually sprinkling the coal on each time. Rush this and the coal will start to extinguish itself. Once that starts, it’s almost impossible to reverse. Take your time and over a long winter you may only have to do this starting process a three or four times. If you’re really good you’ll only have to do it at winter’s start. Depends how often you’re away from home.

Do this sprinkling process every fifteen to twenty minutes. Keep it up until you have a two-inch bed of hot coals. I’ll say it again: Don’t rush this. Once you have a bed of hot coals you are ready to start banking the coal. Bank before you have the hot bank and you’ll be waking up cold. Because coal begins burning from the bottom up, the coal you add (bank) will burn through the night.

If you’ve added enough you’ll wake up with a furnace that is still red hot and just needs a shaking and some additional coal.

Maintaining the hot coals

Shaking (the act of moving the grates so burnt coal will fall through) can be done anywhere from two to six times as day, depending on how hot the furnace/stove is running. Shake the grate with short & choppy strokes for best results. Stop when red coals start to drop through the gate.

That’s it. Like many Old School skills, starting and maintaining a bed of coals is easy… if you know what you’re doing.

Keep it Old School, my friend

The Old Man, Chris Dixon

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