Backroads: Winter Firewood

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Mauls used in splitting wood. Photo: Walter Mehring.

There is an old adage that says, “Firewood warms you twice—once in the cutting and again in the burning.” In my experience it warms you several more times than that. After a tree is felled, “rounds” have to be cut. Then the rounds have to be loaded on a truck or trailer, split, stacked, and finally hauled in the house to the stove! We’ve cut wood in every season; in the heat of August, the beauty of autumn and the dead of winter. It’s something you have to keep on top of lest you run out of fuel when the weather turns sour. Our theory is that it’s best to over-cut and be prepared than to under-cut and be sorry.

Like most mountain people of the area, we heat our entire house with wood. It is an excellent heat source and, if you have your own property on which to cut trees, the fuel is free. Drawbacks include the labor required to get the wood and also the mess it involves. Ashes must be removed from the stove on a regular basis or a buildup will occur, making it hard to get more wood in for proper heating. Our stove has a built-in ash pan in the bottom of the stove that eliminates the flying dust that occurs when ashes are emptied into a metal container with a shovel, but it has to be emptied more often. Bits of bark and wood chips around the inside wood box are also a given. The leftover ashes have a productive purpose however; when strewn in the soil of a garden plot, the ashes provide a wonderful source of nutrients for the earth. They can also substitute as lime, since they have twice the acid neutralizing power of limestone. And a shovelful of ashes thrown under a tire will give better traction in snow and ice. If you have chickens, cold ashes in the henhouse are great for controlling odors, plus the birds love taking dust baths in them, which kills any lice they may have.

A cozy spot by the woodstove. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Like the early settlers, in the past we’ve split wood with axes and mauls, with the help of wedges, but in later (wiser) years we invested in a gasoline-powered log splitter, saving time and our backs. But I still remember the thrill of swinging an 8-pound maul into a round of red oak and hearing the low “thunk” as the wood split down the middle. One of my older neighbors hand-split wood as early in the morning as I did, and we both enjoyed the sound of the back-and-forth rhythm as we worked.

Different types of wood yield different kinds of burns. Our personal favorites are red oak and locust, which both burn hot and give out the most heat. Locust wood also seems to have the least amount of ash when it burns down. But we’ve burnt everything from poplar to pine and found every type of wood thrown in the woodstove produces heat.

Circular stacked wood. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

We try to be at least one year ahead on wood to give it plenty of time to season. Green wood can be burned if added to an already hot fire, but it is hard to start on its own. Stacking is also a personal preference. My husband is fond of dumping the split wood in a big pile and loading a wheelbarrow from the pile and pushing it up to the back porch where it’s stacked. Having an OCD personality, I like the orderly rank of a woodpile. Ranking involves laying the pieces in rows sandwiched in between two end stacks that are cross-laid for strength, holding the rows tight and secure. The circular stacking method is where you start leaning pieces of split wood on end sometimes against a tree or pole and continue adding layers around and on top of each other until you have a goodly pile. This method is an attractive way of stacking that adds a lot of wood to the pile and it sheds rainwater extremely well.

Cutting wood can also be used as a life lesson. Many times, a perfectly straight piece of wood, seemingly without any flaws on the outside, reveals a rotten core when you get into its middle. On the other hand, a piece that appears crooked and has some exterior scars may prove solid through and through—just like people!

However you cut it, putting up winter firewood is good for the muscles as well as the soul. At the end of a long winter’s day, there is something very satisfying about pulling up a rocking chair next to the woodstove, watching the flames and soaking up its warmth. 

Ranked wood. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

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