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Got Your Wood Yet?

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Got Your Wood Yet?

A primer on heating your home with wood

s the days get colder and the nights get shorter, the glow of a fire from a wood stove or fireplace can end the cold trek in from the car with a warm, secure experience. Fuel wood is not only romantic, it is a renewable resource that supports the local community economically rather than sending a check to a large energy corporation. When used properly, it is as environmentally friendly as fossil fuels that are not renewable.

In the Inland Northwest, especially rural areas, wood heat is quite common. For me, our full wood shed makes me feel good. Yes, I mean physically feel good. It represents hours of demanding, healthy work. We get all of our fuel from our own forest so not only are we getting good outside exercise, we are saving money and maintaining our forest all at the same time. In addition, the stove in our home is efficient; with good wood and proper loading it burns as clean as a modern fossil fuel heat source.

In this area the best and most readily available fuel woods are Douglas fir, often called red fir and western larch, commonly called tamarack. These two species are found in most of our forests and are quite widespread. Birch is another excellent wood, but the tree needs more moisture to grow so isn’t as widespread as the two conifers. Other woods such as the various pines all are used but do not burn as efficiently.

Red fir, birch and tamarack are dense woods that burn hot and hold the heat. A well-banked stove will still have good fire in the morning after burning all night. Pine will burn hot but not hold heat as long as the others and can create more soot. It will also smoke more, so the draft needs to be held open a little more, which contributes to a faster burn.

Anyone who has heated with wood will tell you any dry wood will work and they are right, but some just burn better than others. For that matter, wood that is still green and/or wet will also burn—however, every time that has been the only option for me I swear I will never let it happen again.

We start our selective cutting looking at forest density and trees that are dead or dying; we leave some standing dead, usually lodge pole, for wild life use. We try to get diseased grand fir or Doug fir, hoping to stop any spread.

I have found the best wood for me is wood I cut in the winter. If the rounds are more than about 6-7 inches, I will split it at least once before I put it in a drying stack. My drying stacks are all only one course wide and held off the ground about 3 to 4 inches. I find places in our woods where each stack will get good sunlight during the summer. A piece of plastic over the top will keep any moisture from getting on the pile. Throughout the winter and spring we try to get out and split as much of it as possible, saving only the smallest in rounds.

In our house, both my wife and I practice wood chopping therapy. Many times one of us, after an especially difficult day or meeting, has gone out to a wood pile to chop our way out of frustration or anger. After the cord wood has been flying for a while it isn’t unusual for the other one to quietly bring out a glass of wine to help the relaxation process. The length of time between the start of a therapy session and the wine depends on the level of discontent.

In the chopping process we have taken the advice of a chimney sweep who recommends we burn smaller, hotter fires. To do this we will split a 6- or 7-inch round four times. By using smaller pieces of wood and feeding it slowly, we can get a cleaner, hotter fire.

When purchasing fire wood there is no perfect formula except experience, since the only way to know what you are buying is to recognize the different kinds of wood after it is cut and split. To determine how dry the wood is can be difficult since weight of the different woods will vary by species; tamarack is heavier than pine because it is denser. Try to educate yourself on how the woods look. It is also important to buy from someone you trust. Unfortunately, there are some people who will claim they are selling one thing and ask a premium price when, in fact it, may be poor quality fuel.

In the end we use nearly any kind of wood that is dry, since we have some trees that have been down for quite a while and need to be cleaned up. However, the poorer quality material is used during the warmer parts of the heating season and we see it as part of our forest management plan. You can burn what you have if that is the only way to be comfortable—the better the quality, the cleaner and hotter the fire.

Now it is time to go out to the woodshed so we can enjoy our warm home, bathed in a glow from our fire.

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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