The many warmings of firewood

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Now that summer is over, vacations are but a memory, and kids and others are back at school, for some of us it’s time to set those old mitts to work. Whether it be clean-up from the heavy abundance of rain we’ve had, the yearly winter prep of stowing all our summer things away until next year, the harvesting the last of the summer crops, or making the time to do a project that the now-cooling days of fall give us leeway to begin. Let’s dust off those work gloves, pull on an old pair of jeans and a sweater that’s seen better days, and figure what we’re going to do next.

For me the fall is a very busy time of year. After a mildly relaxing August, September begins a yearly set of chores that I both love and occasionally feel like I might be getting too old to keep doing with such spring (all puns intended) in my step. By all this mildly obscure beating-round-the-bush, let us now take a closer look at that chore amongst chores, firewood.

Like any self-respecting Noreaster who can think of little else more comforting than heating with wood, I’ve always relished the cutting and splitting of my winter firewood. Unfortunately my poor back is in fierce disagreement with me when it comes to this touchy subject.

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There’s an old saying that cutting and splitting your own firewood heats you three times; once when you cut it, a second time when you split it, and a third time when you finally burn it in the stove (not to mention all the times you might move it). What I will burn this winter was mostly cut and split last fall and has been sitting outside in big stacks awaiting its movement to the woodsheds. I’ll be hauling three or more cords of wood from the woods to the sheds by the house, where it will do its final bit of drying before the cold sets in and a fire is needed.

Now the piles I’ve just moved need to be replenished. They will require at least a year (depending on the type of wood you’re burning) of sitting stacked outside so the wind will have the time it needs to push the moisture out. This can really only be done properly if the logs are split and stacked, with enough space around them for the air to circulate and thus “season” the wood.

 

Cut it yourself or buy it cut

Luckily, I’ve always loved doing this. I wait all year to be alone up in the woods with my saw and my axe, with the only sound the rustle of leaves falling in the slow wind, the chill air crisp and dry. My back declines to share this great seasonal feeling with me. In fact its resentment toward the pleasure I get from this chore may be growing. Despite all the care I try to administer to it, from long periods of stretching to over-the-counter painkillers to a fancy German back brace all done up with yards of velcro and wires and a pulley or two to cinch me and my vertebrae into place (I might be exaggerating here), it’s usually not long before I feel that first danger twinge from a protesting muscle. I slow down, trying to be more conscientious of any twisting I might be doing. But I keep at it, perhaps a bit more slowly than before. If I’m lucky I can make it through the day with little more than that twinge. If not, I could be laid up for a day or more.

The older I get, the worse it seems to be getting.

But lo, there is a solution, maybe not the perfect answer but an option nonetheless. We live where trees outnumber people many times over. When I first moved back up here from the city, chased by demon hounds nipping at my heels, one of the few requirements I had was that I wanted to see more trees than people on any given day.

Without even trying, I have accomplished that goal every day since. But I digress.

Most people who heat with wood don’t necessarily have the time or the inclination to be out there cutting and splitting their own wood every year. They rely on someone else whose business it is to do it for them. There are any number of such people, some to supplement their income and others full time.

Please know that not all of them are as reputable as you might want or hope them to be. It’s been a long-standing issue that not all firewood you can buy has been seasoned even to the point of being burnable. Way too many times have I heard of someone dropping hundreds of dollars on a few cords that would barely light. Most probably needed at least another year drying time before being properly seasoned even to be usable. Fortunately, there are more than enough highly reputable purveyors of high-quality, well-seasoned firewood in our area who will be more than happy to get you up and running, and warm.

If this be the route you’ll be taking, then please don’t wait too long to find the right supplier. The first place to look might be your local wood-stove dealer, such as Fireside Warmth on Route 28 heading out of Kingston. They should know any number of reliable folks who would be more than willing to deliver whatever amount of wood you might need.

Beyond this there are the arborists, tree guys (and gals) who may have so much surplus hardwood that it would be ridiculous for them not to be splitting and selling it as well.

Then again, you might see a dump truck piled high with split wood ready to be delivered parked along the roadside with a phone in the window. That works, too.

I’ve had great luck with my neighbors at Story’s farm in Palenville, where one of the younger generation (read: back still strong) has made a great business with his firewood, due as much to the quality of his product as his friendliness and hard work. He splits his logs long, making great squared-off stacks to season at their farm. Then when he gets an order he can cut it all to the lengths requested. Perfect.

 

A few things to know

Cord dimensions: There are mainly two types of cords when dealing with firewood, a face cord and a full cord. A face cord has a measurement of four feet high by eight feet wide by sixteen to 18 inches deep (generally the length of a log your firebox will hold). A full cord is four feet high by four feet deep by eight feet wide. When buying your wood, it’s important to know if they’re selling you a full cord or a face cord.

Type of wood: All wood takes different amounts of time to dry just as it all gives off different BTUs when burning. I burn a lot of oak and I’ve found that it takes at least a year after being split to season properly enough to burn well. Conversely, ash can be burned almost green but is better with at least a few months split for it to burn well. (And speaking of ash, know that due to the Emerald Ash Borer killing off most of our ash trees it is illegal to transport it across county lines.)

Some firewood dealers only cut and split their wood to size when they get the order, meaning you’re going to have to be doing some seasoning yourself. It might help to invest $30 in a moisture meter from your local hardware store to be able to check the moisture content yourself. The EPA states that most wood should have a moisture content of 15 percent to 20 percent when burned, as opposed to 50 percent when green. That means that half of a log’s weight is in water! I guarantee that you do not want to find yourself on a night with the temps dipping down into the twenties stuck with a couple of cords of nicely stacked logs in your garage that will not light. Brrrrrr…

If you don’t want to find yourself in that position, don’t be afraid to ask questions of your firewood person. What kind of wood is it? How long has it been seasoned? How long has it been split? Is the price for a face cord or a full cord? Is it extra to have it stacked and how much?

 

The zen of woodburning

More often than not, the wood delivered to you will be a mix of hardwoods (oak, maple, cherry, ash), with no set amount of time that it all has been seasoned. It also may be difficult to know the dimensions of your firewood when it’s a pile in the back of a dumper or pick-up truck. In the immortal and ever-sage advice of our dear Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic!”

Most people are not criminal by nature and aren’t looking to rip you off. They’ll want you as a returning customer and will bring you what you’ve paid for.

Lastly, and here’s the contentious part of all I’ve written here, is the question of the impact of burning wood on the environment. This is a big issue, and I will only touch lightly on it.

Most modern wood stoves burning a well-seasoned log will produce little if any smoke.

Wood is also a renewable resource when a forest is managed properly with future generations in mind. Personally, all the wood I’ve burnt since installing my wood stove (made from recycled iron) seven years ago has been taken from fallen trees, trees cut along the roadways, and those cut under the power lines following hurricanes Irene and Sandy. This is not to say that there is no negative carbon impact at all from burning wood, but balanced with where we live, surrounded by forests as we are, the impact is minimal especially when compared to the over-use of fossil fuels, coal and oil.

In the end. I believe there is little more comforting in this increasingly technological world, little more basic and primal to reach back over the millennia connecting us with our simpler, truer selves, than to spend a day cutting, chopping or stacking our wood, to build ourself a fire, pour ourself a nice large drink, and gently fall into a deep and sweet slumber before the warm glow of your logs crackling upon an iron hearth.

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