Growing up, summer-time was always a time for preparation. Winter shows up fast and if we were caught off-guard we went without heat. Now that we own a homestead ourselves we are living the same way, and the time of preparation for winter is here…
If you live in midwest America there is a good chance you use firewood for heat in the winter and, if you don’t, you at least know someone who does. There’s a lot to be said about this age-old method of heating a home. Its crude. Its primitive. Its the best heat there is if you ask anyone who has used it before. However nobody will deny heating with firewood can be a lot of work. Unless you are fortunate enough to be able to buy your firewood (seldom a very cost-effective option) heating with this fuel means you’ll find yourself cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood every spring, summer and fall, preparing for the winters ahead.
It is hard work to be sure, but its far from impossible. With a little bit of knowledge, the proper tools, and some good work-ethic getting ready for a winter of wood-burning can be made ten times easier. While I can’t help with the tools or work-ethic, I can try to shed a little light on a few of the things to help make your summers a little less laborious and your winters a little more warm.
Not all firewoods are created equal.
There are two ‘kinds’ of firewood; hardwoods and softwoods. Generally softwoods are readily available in higher elevations and more northerly locations and include species such as Alder, Juniper, and most (if not all) coniferous trees (pines and spruces). Hardwoods thrive in the middle and southern-latitudes and are normally broad-leaved. Oak trees, maples, and Osage Orange(Hedge-Apple) are examples of hardwoods.
As the name suggests, softwoods are less rigid than their hardwood counterparts and they tend to grow much faster. They are more readily available, lighter weight, and are easier to deal with when cutting and splitting.
Hardwoods on the other hand are less common in full-form. Their wood is harder, more dense, and as a result will usually be much heavier. Splitting them tends to be more difficult as well.
When it comes to burning, hardwoods are the best option. For all the extra work they require to process, they will burn longer and hotter than most softwoods. (An oak log can burn 1.5x-2x as long as a similarly sized pine log.) If hardwoods are not available softwoods are still more than adequate and safe for burning in a wood stove, but it should be noted they will burn faster and not as hot. Softwoods also have a tendency to leave a lot of creosote in chimneys, so if you choose to use them make sure to clean your chimney frequently during the season.
Good tools are worth the investment.
No invention has made cutting firewood easier than the chainsaw. If you don’t have one, Echo, Husqvarna, and Stihl are the most popular and reliable brands in my experience. My current saw is an Echo with an 18-inch bar. It is reasonably powerful and has done the job well for the year and change I’ve been using it. I could go into more details about chainsaws and their use but I’ll save that for another day.
While chainsaws take care of the cutting, when it comes to splitting it up there is only so much we can do. While gas powered splitters make the task of splitting wood immensely easier, some of us can’t afford those. If you can’t no worries, but you need to invest in the following:
- A full-size ax. A hatchet is useful too but I prefer an ax. If a log doesn’t have a crack, you can use an ax to make one easier than a maul.
- A splitting maul. This is the bruiser; a big piece of iron secured to a long handle meant to be swung fast. Short of a gas-powered splitter, this is the best you can get. Remember, weight is not superior to velocity. Mine is 8.5 lbs and is plenty. Make sure you can swing it fast. I can’t stress this enough. Use your body-weight. Swing fast.
- A sledgehammer. If a maul gets stuck or you need to split an extra-large log in half, a sledgehammer comes in handy especially when combined with…….(see next).
- Two to four wedges (I like one small, two medium, and one large.) Hit these with the sledgehammer to help crack larger chunks in pieces.
- Safety glasses and earplugs! We’re all guilty of skipping out on safety equipment sometimes. For god’s sake though do your best to be safe. You’ve only got one body. Take care of it. If you’re hitting metal-on-metal, wear them!!
Wood burns. WATER DOESN’T! (Firewood Storage).
Firewood comes from a living organism and like all organisms on planet Earth, living trees have a huge amount of water in them (this is why green wood is such a pain to burn). Lucky for us that water begins to evaporate and leave dry wood behind as soon as a tree dies. Cutting and splitting firewood speeds the process up even more and helps firewood to ‘season‘. (Dry out enough to burn most effectively.) However wood acts like a sponge and will begin to absorb any water in its immediate vicinity.
After wood has been cut stacking it outside in the sunlight for 4-6 months will not cause an issue. In fact, for those first few months the wind and sunlight on the wood can help it ‘season’ faster. After 6 months though it is important to get firewood off of the ground and (if at all possible) stacked neatly out of the elements. We use a barn to store ours (see below.)
You may hear some claim its okay to store firewood outside. They are right; it is okay if you use it in a timely fashion and are okay with sending valuable time and work out the chimney instead of into your home. Wood is an organic material. If stored outside it will begin to rot (especially the lower layers or any in contact with the ground.) Wet and/or rotten wood does not burn nearly as well as dry, well-seasoned wood.
So store your wood under a roof! If you can’t do that, store it under a quality tarp and off of the ground.
(Another note: Certain types of wood rot extremely fast. Hickory and Sycamore are two hardwoods you don’t want to store in contact with the ground. Most softwoods also will rot quickly if left to the elements.)
Greater Surface area = Greater Burn-Rate.
I’m not going to elaborate too much here but I think its worth mentioning this: the shape of firewood will be a contributing factor to how long/hot it burns. While you are are somewhat constrained to cutting/splitting pieces of wood to the size of your stove/burner, the more surface area available for the fire to come in contact with(relative to the total amount of wood in the fire) the faster and hotter it will burn.
For example, if you have a large stove and place a single 50 lbs. oak log in it; the fire will (generally) burn longer and cooler than if you put five 10 lbs oak logs in it. The extra airspace and surface area of multiple-logs will increase the burn-temp and time.
It takes a while to get the hang of using this piece of knowledge to economize your wood-use, but its a handy thing to know and over time can help you burn firewood more efficiently (and according to your needs.)
The intense labor required to heat with firewood may discourage some, but for those who still want to use this classic method to heat their homes (or those who have no choice) it is worth every penny and every minute spent. The feeling of relying on nobody but yourself for heat, the self-sufficiency and off-grid ability of a wood-stove, and the sheer romantic/homey atmosphere flickering flames can create in a room combine to make wood-heat hands down the best heat in my opinion.
And its pretty good for nature too. (Seriously, its one of the greenest options out there if you are conscious of your methods.)
Hopefully I didn’t bore you too much and I hope you get some use from this! Thanks for reading and feel free to like, share, and comment!