Lessons from Our Woodpile

A view of the firebox of the author's Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup.

A view of the firebox of the author’s Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup.

By Richard Telford

There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the supermarket, and the other that heat comes from the furnace. […]. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

When I bought our 1770 center-chimney Cape Cod home in northeastern Connecticut in the summer of 2003, I thought little of the coming winter. Our Cape had dilapidated windows, an open fieldstone foundation, and no insulation to speak of, and I spent $3,500 on oil during that first winter to keep the inside temperature at 55 degrees F. My daily wardrobe included long underwear, ski pants, and several layered sweaters, and I often found myself excited by the prospect of getting into my heated car and heading off to my likewise heated workplace. During the following summer, I began gutting sections of the house to retrofit insulation, but the going was slow, and the second winter proved little different than the first.

Aware that my house restoration and improvement efforts would likely take a decade, I knew that I needed to act in the short-term to stave off the winter financial bleed and to mitigate my general discomfort. Thus, in 2005, I installed a Jotul F118 CB Black Bear woodstove in an existing steel chimney in a section of the house that was added in the 1850s. That 60,000 BTU stove effectively heated half the house. My oil bill that winter reduced to $1,800, and I passed most of my waking hours at home within a 25-foot radius of the Black Bear’s penetrating heat.

The Jotul F500 Oslo shortly after installation in the author's home.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2009

The Jotul F500 Oslo shortly after installation in the author’s home. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2009

I married the following year, and my wife and I welcomed our first child into our home two years later. My daughter’s first bath occurred in a portable tub only a few feet from the Black Bear on a cold October night. Realizing we couldn’t spend our winters living in a hermitage in one section of our house, we bought a 70,000 BTU Jotul F500 Oslo and installed it in one of the two flues of the center chimney. In doing so, we committed ourselves to heating fully by wood. We shut our central heating system down for the winter, opting instead to burn roughly ten cords of mixed hardwood annually. This was more of a life change than we first anticipated, and, in addition to the financial stability and physical comfort we initially sought, it has provided us many valuable lessons.

According to the Utah State University Forestry Extension, one cord of wood—128 cubic feet by volume—weighs between 3,500 and 4,500 pounds. Annually, we stack roughly 40,000 pounds of wood throughout the spring and summer, only to unstack it throughout the late fall, winter, and early spring as we carry loads into the house. Prior to burning wood as our primary heat source, the only measure we had of our heating resource consumption was the dollar amount of our check to the local fuel oil distributor. While that was all too palpable in a financial sense, it was utterly abstract in all others. Fuel oil was pumped into a holding tank in our cellar, combusted in a closed chamber, and its remains emitted up the flue, largely unseen by us. It was emblematic of our pervasive societal disconnection from the impacts of our resource use, be it fuel consumption, electricity generation, the management of our excessive waste production, or the unsustainability of our food system. Burning wood has given us a deeper awareness of and connection to both our resource use and our reliance upon the land itself—a valuable, life-changing lesson.

A cross-section view from one of the author's woodpiles.  The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A cross-section view from one of the author’s woodpiles. The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Complete reliance on wood for home heating forces a rapid learning curve. Fueling a woodstove with insufficiently seasoned wood is a recipe for winter discomfort and a creosote-choked chimney. The act of properly seasoning one’s fuel wood avoids the above and offers the wood burner an education in the physical properties of various tree species. The different varieties of birch, maple, and cherry, for example, will season considerably faster than red or white oak. While birch, maple, and cherry will provide a good burn when seasoned for one year after being cut and split, the oaks, in my experience, require at least two years. This is in part due to differing densities of the various tree species. According to the Utah State University Forestry Extension, one dry birch cord weighs roughly 3,000 pounds, while dry cords of red and white oak weigh roughly 3,600 and 4,200 pounds respectively. These variations in density give each species burn properties that are critical to understand in order to heat efficiently and effectively with wood.

A close-up view of red oak grain.  Though visually similar to black cherry, the densely packed oak wood fibers yield a significantly higher BTU output when burned, making it a choice wood for woodstove fuel.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A close-up view of red oak grain. Though visually similar to black cherry, the densely packed oak wood fibers yield a significantly higher BTU output when burned, making it a choice wood for woodstove fuel. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

To raise the temperature of our woodstoves quickly, we load them primarily with birch and maple. Doing so, we can bring a 200 degree F stove up to 500 degrees F, the “sweet spot” for our stoves, in about twenty to thirty minutes. That speed is very important in the early morning when the house is cool after the stoves have been banked for a low, slow, eight-hour overnight burn. Using well seasoned oak to start them up would require at least an hour to make the same temperature gain. Oak, however, will maintain temperature significantly longer, with hickory a close second in this regard. Thus, while we begin the morning burn with maple and birch, we mostly feed our stoves with oak or hickory throughout the day, and it is oak that fills our stoves overnight. This system, of necessity, has taught us to quickly identify any log by its grain pattern, color, bark, and density.

A close-up view of black cherry grain.  Though visually similar to red oak, the less densely packed cherry wood fibers yield a significantly lower BTU output than oak when burned, limiting its value for woodstove use.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A close-up view of black cherry grain. Though visually similar to red oak, the less densely packed cherry wood fibers yield a significantly lower BTU output than oak when burned, limiting its value for woodstove use. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The deliberateness of the burn procedures outlined above is echoed in the deliberateness of both the procurement and the stacking of our fuel wood. Our three-acre lot, though mostly wooded, is far too small to sustain our wood burning. Thus, each year, we buy six cords of mixed hardwoods and six cords of red oak, all locally harvested and seasoned at least one year. We have two wood sheds which, combined, hold about seven cords. The other five cords are stacked on pallets and covered with tarps. We dedicate one shed solely to red oak, while the other holds both red oak and mixed hardwoods. The oak needs full protection from the elements and good airflow to fully finish its seasoning, while the mixed hardwoods will season sufficiently even if a little weather-exposed. Each load we bring into the house is likewise carefully assembled by species for optimal burning. The deliberateness of these processes connects us deeply to the land; it is a connection we speak of often as we tend our woodpile through all four seasons. It is an affirmation for us that we have not fully fallen prey to the spiritual danger Aldo Leopold notes above.

The end cracks on this red oak log indicate that it is exceptionally well seasoned.  Striking two logs with this kind of cracking together will yield a distinct clinking sound that is music to the wood burner's ears.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The end cracks on this red oak log indicate that it is exceptionally well seasoned. Striking two logs with this kind of cracking together will yield a distinct clinking sound that is music to the wood burner’s ears. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Many other lessons abound in our woodpile, both in knowledge and appreciation. Birch, for example, is the wood burner’s friend. Be it from paper, yellow, black, or silver birch, the easily-stripped bark burns intensely, making it the best starter for kindling in the early morning woodstove. The bark, which contains a resinous, flammable oil, lights easily, even when wet, and emits a wonderfully sweet odor when burned; it is an odor we savor. There are other moments of appreciation, too: the arrival of wood thrushes to our loose wood piles in springtime, where they forage the freshly split logs for insects; the phoebes that annually brood twice in our rear woodshed, the winter calls of barred owls and coyotes that cut the crisp air of late-night wood runs; the profound stillness of our woods during pre-dawn trips to scout dry kindling and tinder. In an increasingly complicated world, wood burning represents a simple equation of knowledge and labor that yields many beneficial sums, some readily measured, others not so easily.

A moisture meter inserted into the red oak log in the photo above confirms its excellent seasoning.  Moisture content of less than 12% is ideal for red oak. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A moisture meter inserted into a red oak log confirms its full seasoning. Moisture content of less than 12% is ideal for burning red oak. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Lest this all sound too idealized, I must emphasize that burning wood as one’s primary heating fuel is a for better, for worse commitment. We have spent some winters struggling with wood that was not as seasoned as we thought. On particularly bitter or inclement nights, the trek to the woodpile can certainly lose its spiritual luster. At times, a cold woodstove can be a hard starter, despite our best efforts. Winter housecleaning becomes a long, losing bout with pervasive powder ash, wood splinters, and bark peelings. Still, we have achieved something of a rhythm with our wood burning, and that rhythm has woven itself into the rhythm of our family life. For this, we are ever grateful, despite the challenges or perhaps because of them. Our wood gives us warmth, both physically and spiritually; independence from the whims of the fuel oil distributor; and, most important of all, a greater awareness of our dependence upon and connection to the land, this at a time when we need that awareness more than ever.

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7 thoughts on “Lessons from Our Woodpile

    • Neva: We do take some satisfaction from the fact that we have cut our fossil fuel use in our home by 70% to 80%. I temper that feeling sometimes with the realization that I am still creating carbon emissions, but my prevailing view is that there is a net gain when fossil fuel extraction procedures, transport, and so on, are factored in. Forest resources, properly harvested, are sustainable, too, which is a big point of differentiation from fossil fuels. At some point I hope to research this a bit more fully to see if that gain can be confirmed and perhaps quantified

  1. Rich, as a nurse coach, I have daily conversations about the cause of obesity in the U.S. Consumption of sugar and fat is often targeted as the blame but in reading your story, I am reminded of just how different our collective lifestyle has become. Procuring lumber for heat and cooking is but one task of many daily physical chores that were common just a few decades ago. In fact, my father heated with wood during my childhood in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In addition to the calories burned while procuring the wood, the human body burns many more calories in the effort to stay warm in homes that are 55 degrees. People were leaner when wood burning was the primary fuel source. But they were also more vulnerable to illnesses and life expectancies were shorter. Your piece reminds us of how much we have to be grateful for in the developed world.

    • Maymie: It really is interesting to see how our lifestyles have changed, even in thirty years, and I think you are quite right that it probably has a greater effect on our overall health and wellness than we realize. I appreciate the exercise I get from stacking wood, though I realize that I will probably reach a point where stacking 40,000 pounds of wood will not be so easily doable. We are fortunate in this time to have alternatives that did not exist 100 or more years ago. Interestingly, I read once that the typical central-southern New England homestead in the Colonial era burned an average of 36 cords of wood annually, which equals about 130,000 pounds–all of it hand-sawn and hand-split and hauled by hand or livestock. Pretty amazing.

  2. This was our first winter with our fireplace insert and we had a steep learning curve when it came to buying firewood and getting fires going. Thank you for explaining the importance of knowing the types of wood — we need to get better at that.

    • Trust me, Kim, it gets easier as you go. There really is both an art and a science to burning wood effectively, and it takes practice. When you burn daily, you pick up a lot of knowledge pretty quickly. There is nothing like the wonderfully penetrating heat of a cast iron woodstove on a bitter night. One strong recommendation I would offer is to find a wood dealer you trust (unless you have a sufficient woodlot to provide your own wood). My wood dealer is a former student of mine. He is honest, knows wood, and will hand pick cords for me by species to order. Sometimes a good dealer charges a bit more, but it is because they are giving you premium wood and a true full cord. Good luck with your insert.

  3. Pingback: Practicing a Sustainable Conservation Ethic: Truth, Compromise, and the Persistence of Questions | The Ecotone Exchange

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