Time to stack up some firewood

Published 10:22 pm Tuesday, October 18, 2016

It’s fall — or so they say (despite the 84-degree reading on the thermometer).

That means we need to prepare for winter’s chilly blasts. Some are having their fuel oil tanks filled. Others are checking their heat pump efficiency. Those of us who love a warm cozy fire are evaluating our woodpiles.

Our woodpile is home to birds, bugs and chipmunks. Woodpiles and brush piles are a nice addition to your backyard wildlife habitat and a great place to observe wildlife activity.

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But wood is what we’re here to talk about.

Like so many good things — for example, aged cheeses, fine wines, and cured meats (all perfect delights to be consumed in front of a fire) — wood must also be aged to perfection or “seasoned” for at least six months. Oak needs a bit more time, and 20-percent moisture content is the goal.

The length of the wood must also fit your fireplace insert, or free-standing wood stove. The ideal diameter is six inches, though we keep a few larger for overnight burns.

I’ve split my own with an 8-pound maul and wedges. I’ve split my own with a 20-ton hydraulic splitter. I’ve ordered wood already cut and split.

At age 70, I’ll let you guess which alternative we currently use.

If you are going to burn an open fire in your fireplace only every now and then, the type of wood you burn is not too crucial. The only exception is pine, which burns hot and fast, but creates lots of creosote, which can cause a chimney fire. Get your chimney cleaned early and often, especially if you burn much pine.

If you are going to burn regularly during the winter in an insert or free-standing stove, you need good hardwoods. They burn hot. They develop good coals. They burn completely, leaving little ash. Dense woods burn a long time and don’t produce much smoke.

This helps us reconcile our conscience with our creature comforts and our carbon footprint.

The best woods to burn in this area of the country are oak, hickory, maple, beech and cherry. White oak is the best to burn by far in terms of burn time, coals, BTUs delivered and so on. Red oak is on par with white, but is usually difficult to split.

The next group down — hickory, maples, beech and cherry — are all excellent but lack the burn time of oak. Birch and cedar are excellent starters for the hardwoods, and they are excellent for burning in an open fireplace. Cedar is very aromatic.

If you try to burn inferior woods, such as willow, Bradford pear, sourwood or unseasoned wood…you may encounter the following problems: difficulty in getting the fire started or keeping it going, smokey fires with little flame, low heat output, smoke in the house (fireplace not “drawing” well), excessive fuel consumption and rapid creosote buildup.

A cord of wood is a pile four feet wide by four feet tall by 8 feet long. We pay $150 a cord which is two-thirds oak and one-third beech. We generally use about two and a half cords to heat our small house for the winter, although we have thermostat-controlled heat for backup.

Our small freestanding wood stove was made from recycled cast iron in a Norwegian foundry, which is run on hydro electric power “that creates no pollution.”

The stove is super-efficient and made for “clean-burning and environmentally sound performance.” We paid way too much for it about a dozen years ago, and it has long since paid for itself in BTUs, in ambiance and in coziness. Our wood stove is in our kitchen, which is the warmest, cheeriest room in the house all winter.

We are waiting for Sam, our wood man, while writing this article. We’ll have a long day and sore muscles from stacking the huge pile of wood Sam will drop in our driveway, but it will warm our hearts and souls on the cold, dark, winter nights to come.