My family’s sawdust furnace

We’re having the furnace replaced today. The old one was 20 years old, and while it hadn’t failed yet, a number of people who know about furnaces have looked at it and told me that it should be replaced Real Soon Now. Last winter I watched the neighbors enduring a furnace replacement during rather cold weather. I’d really rather avoid doing that, so the new furnace is going in today.

This event brought back memories of the furnace in the house that I grew up in. It burned sawdust. There was a room in the corner of the house that served as a huge storage bin. Once or twice a year (to my recollection) a huge truck would arrive and blow a load of sawdust into the room through a covered hole in the wall. After that the house would smell of sawdust for a few days.

The furnace itself had a big hopper that my parents filled with sawdust in the morning. The sawdust trickled into the firebox through a slotted grate. When the temperature fell, the thermostat turned on a motor which pulled a chain that opened a little vent on the front of the firebox, allowing the fire to burn more rapidly and creating a draft to pull the heat through a manifold, from where it was blown through the ductwork like any other furnace. (You can tell that I found this fascinating as a child; I still have vivid memories of it.) The fire would burn as long as the hopper was full. If it went out, it had to be restarted with newspaper and kindling, just like starting a campfire.

Such a contraption only made sense in the northwest during the 1960s and 70s, where there was an ample supply of sawdust as a by-product of the lumber industry. Eventually it had to be replaced because they started shipping all of the top-grade sawdust to Japan where it was made into particle board. After that the sawdust that was delivered to us was wet and resinous, and the accumulation of resin in the flue started a fire in the chimney. In retrospect it was kind of a neat invention, although obviously it had the same emissions drawbacks as any other woodburning source of heat, and perhaps more.

6 thoughts on “My family’s sawdust furnace

  1. We had a sawdust furnace when we moved to Eugene in 1983. The house had been retrofitted with electric baseboard heat which was considered the main heat source. The house had insulation typical of the 1940’s which meant that the baseboard could not really heat the house when the temperature dropped below 25. The home had come with about a half room worth of sawdust which we used to heat the house on extra cold days. It worked great. We thought it was wonderful. We ordered another roomful. I made the mistake of not paying to have the sawdust blown into its special room. It took me the better part of a day to shovel it all down there. That was just the start of the problems. The original sawdust had worked well because it had been drying for several years. The new sawdust made so much smoke that neighbors called the fire department. After a year or so of drying we were able to finally use up that load of sawdust but never bought any more and eventually put in a gas furnace.

  2. My Parents rented a a house on Davis st next to girls poly in Portland from 1955 to 1974. I have vivid memories of our sawdust furnace. The truck would dump the load in the driveway and we would shovel it into the room. There was a 2′ wide opening into the room that we had a board across to keep it in the room when first delivered.

    We had a “manual” thermostat. The chain for the flue was on pulleys and there were hooks on a decorative plate in the kitchen. Pull the chain and set on a lower hook for more heat.

    I remember many times that I had come home from school and the sawdust had hung up in the hopper. We had a pile of kindling and newspaper next to the furnace. I would get it going grab the cats and a blanket to sit on the register waiting for the heat.

    We had to replace it in 1971 due to the fact that the company suppling the sawdust would not deliver into the city anymore. I now have a pellet stove but there is no charm there.

  3. When we moved into a house in NE Portland, 1949 we had a sawdust furnace. No fancy electric control, just a chain operated damper, no ducts, just a central, in the hallway, register. We needed about 10 units per year all was hand shoveled into the “Sawdust Bin” in the basement.
    We use to put wet shoes, stuffed with news paper, next to the heater to dry them, we needed to put them on again in the morning.
    When I think back it was such a simple life… Wonderful.

  4. During the ’50s, my father delivered truckloads of sawdust to local Mainers he knew for their furnaces. It would be shoveled down a chute into the cellar where the furnace was located. From my recollections as a young girl, the burner looked very much like other wood-burning stoves, except it had a large chute on top that was probably three feet tall and held the sawdust. Dad would fill the chute up with sawdust a couple times a day and it would heat the house as well as the water tank. I think the temperature was regulated by a thermostat upstairs in the main house. I remember the sawdust bin was a great place for my brother and I to play during those long, cold, wintery days in Maine.

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