Taking the Chill Off with Shop Stoves

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An old automotive gas tank, a valve and a piece of copper tubing created a homemade used-oil dripper system that increased the old stove’s heat output – and decreased wood usage by 50 percent.

City folk often look at farmers as being fortunate, because farm activity is put on hold during the winter. No matter what part of the country a person is in, farm fieldwork is seasonal.

In northern climes, the off time sometimes ends up lasting several months. The uninitiated naturally think that during that time farmers can relax, because “they have nothing to do.” Anyone who has anything to do with farming knows how wrong that idea is.

When the weather keeps a farmer out of the fields, his work doesn’t go away: It just changes. During the offseason, for instance, farm equipment repairs are a top priority. But on big corporate farms (and increasingly on smaller operations), only highly specialized technicians can work on the power sources, that is, large tractors and other self-propelled equipment.

This decrepit old Warm Morning parlor stove has served me as a shop stove for 40 years.

Modern technology and manufacturing methods are so complicated that it takes a highly trained individual to diagnose and correct problems. Transportation to the dealer’s shop is sometimes necessary. If the farmer’s repair facilities are large enough, sometimes technicians can do their work on-site.

On the small family farm, farm machinery repair is often carried out by the farmer or a hired hand. If older tractors are used in the operation, they can be overhauled and refurbished in the farm shop. Even pull-behind equipment often needs repair that is within the ability of dedicated individuals, but much of that requires hours of hard, physical work. Try replacing all the bearings on a 16-foot tandem disc where every individual disc has to be removed just to get to the worn-out bearings! Each disc weighs close to 40 pounds, and the edges on some are worn so sharp that they can be almost lethal if grabbed incorrectly. 

The challenge of heating a shop

In parts of our country where winter temperatures are too low for regular activity, farmers need interior space big enough to house equipment, and some sort of shop heat. Without heat, the farm shop offers shelter from bone-chilling wind but little else. A shop stove or furnace can make temperatures warm enough that human hands can manipulate metal objects. In most cases, that is a pretty big job.

A mechanic worked year ’round for decades in a shop large enough for two-and-a-half vehicles. This huge wood burner provided adequate heat even in below-zero temperatures. The woodpile in front of the shop at the start of winter was as large as the shop building itself.

People who live in mild climates don’t understand how hard it is to raise the temperature in a large space, especially one in which the overnight temperature may have been well below freezing. But keeping the shop warm 24 hours a day is prohibitively expensive, so every morning the cold space must be brought up to as close to 50 degrees as possible.

The shop’s large amounts of vacant space are notoriously difficult to warm.

Add to that the fact that every item in the shop, especially large pieces of machinery, acts like a huge ice cube. Until the ambient temperature is warm enough to allow basic functions, repairs are on hold.

Fire-building nearly a full-time job

The lament I make to those who don’t live in extreme cold areas like ours (at more than 5,000-foot elevation) goes like this: “I go out promptly after breakfast and build a roaring fire in my wood-burning shop stove. I keep feeding it wood the whole day. After I burn what seems like a good part of the Sawtooth National Forest, it finally gets warm enough to work out there. By then, it is time to go in for supper.” Maybe that is an exaggeration, but it’s not much of one. Every farmer I know struggles with obtaining enough shop heat.

“Heatrola” was a valued brand of wood stoves used to heat homes. When retired, this one was moved to the shop and continued duty there.

The photos accompanying this article were taken recently as I visited shops within a 100-mile radius. Even though I was in several nearly new shops with sophisticated heating sources (propane furnaces suspended from the ceiling, large waste oil furnaces integrated into the work space and hydroponic systems installed in the floor), they weren’t farm shops.

The last system mentioned – one that provides floor heat – is what those of us with primitive heat sources lust over. When we lay on the floor for hours, conducting wintertime machinery repairs, it is not uncommon for our clothes to freeze to the concrete floor.

Home wood heaters were attractive. Although appearance is no longer a consideration, this one looks pretty good where it heats a small farm shop.

That said, the small farm shop’s heating sources are often picturesque. Fuel is the common denominator: Almost all shop stoves burn wood. Although wood is a good source of heat, quite a large amount is needed to keep a shop warm for an extended period, and it takes time to keep the stove stoked. Carefully banked, coal continues to provide a small amount of heat overnight, and starting a fire the next morning takes little time. But coal can be difficult to source. The nearest coal merchant to us is 60 miles away.

Efficient but expensive

More recently, the wood-burning pellet stove offers an intriguing alternative. Equipped with a hopper, the pellet stove delivers continuous heat. Pellet stoves are also quite efficient since they are “air tight” – but they have a high initial cost, unless you find a deal on a less expensive used model. Potential buyers need to figure in the stove’s high initial cost and the cost of pellets when deciding if the shop can afford them.

This barrel stove – the most common small farm shop stove – is made from two barrels: a 55-gallon barrel on the bottom and a 30-gallon barrel on the top (a stove made of two 55-gallon barrels puts out more heat). This stove is completely homemade, with a barrel lid and a piece of galvanized pipe. Later, barrel shop stove kits became available, complete with a cast iron door and adjustable air vent.

Although rustic features are usually far from the farmer’s mind when it comes to shop heat, one might think there is a certain appeal to sitting around a roaring fire and resting after a long day’s work. But after a hard day’s work, few look for a reason to linger in the shop. After all, work continues until suppertime and no one would want to be late for that. In reality, the idea of sitting around a blazing fire late in the day is unrealistic. Before leaving the shop, the farmer will ensure that the heating fire is burned down, eliminating any chance of a dangerous flare-up in the empty shop.

 Farmers are nothing if not resourceful. Photographs of small farm shop stoves accompanying this article show the unique (and sometimes picturesque) ways rural folk manage to create adequate shop temperatures during those months when inclement weather makes fieldwork impossible. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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