firewood

The firewood will heat my woodshop through the winter months. Cherry, hackberry, basswood, some ancient red elm, even birch, mulberry and red cedar. It all burns, some to get the fire going and some to keep it burning.

 

A cord of red oak firewood, fresh cut and green, can weigh over 5,000 pounds. That’s estimating moisture content at 40-45 percent. Give it six months to a year to dry under a roof and it will be almost 1,400 pounds lighter.

Since firewood volumes nowadays are often measured in pickup truck loads, not cords, the weight can easily exceed 5,500 pounds if heaped and stacked. More lifting.

A cord is measured by an amount of wood that is 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long, 128 cubic feet. Be advised though, all cords are not created equal. You will have considerably more wood if the cord is cut in 16 inch lengths than a cord of wood in 8-foot lengths.

Nova Scotia Natural Resources forestry department found 8-foot long cords had just 73 cubic feet of actual wood, air space around the wood was 40 cubic feet and 15 cubic feet was bark. If you’re buying firewood, but need to watch your spending, then greenwood cut in the spring is likely a little cheaper, and heavier than seasoned dry firewood. If only wood could be sold like coal once was, by weight. Wood is as much as half water when cut. In six months to a year it can be down to 12 percent moisture. More lifting.

From the woodlot to the woodpile, by the time that firewood is finally stacked and covered for home heating you will have handled it perhaps four or five times unless you mechanized some part of the work. That could be over eight tons of lifting, not to mention swinging a splitting maul countless times to reduce it to stove size wood.

Why in the name of all that is sacred does a person do this? I have two friends, now retired farmers, older than I am, who live to cut firewood when it gets cold. Both could easily afford to sit out winter in an RV park in Florida or Arizona but no, they cut firewood. They are committed, I am just involved. They use mechanical splitters, but still. As long as I have enough firewood to keep the cast iron heater down in the woodshop in the old sheep barn radiating warmth I am content.

It is rewarding, but absolutely exhausting work. Not unlike building a good fence. At the end of the day you have something to show for the effort. I just could never picture myself doing it to heat a house for perhaps six months.

The answer to why we split wood can be found in the tiny cracks in the face of a piece of firewood. Their arrangement on the surface is a clue to how the grain is aligned. Are there surface obstacles along the bark like knots, a crotch, that provide additional guidance?

If you’re making firewood with a mechanical splitter then reading the face of the cut is much less important.

 By hand, which is how I split my wood, it comes down to how accurate the strike with the maul. Misread the end grain and splitting can mean double and triple swings of the maul before the piece is divided. I think of golf swings when splitting. Keep your head down, focus on the point of impact.

We burn douglas fir in the fireplace out at the house in Washington. It is as common as hackberry is here in farm woodlots like ours. With some exceptions you can split douglas fir with a good double bit axe instead of a maul. It has a beautiful grain but it is a conifer, a softwood still. It pops and crackles even when thoroughly dry. Fir burns hot and Babe the cat and our granddaughter Claire were drawn to the warmth and the sound no matter where they were in the house.

I read once that a well stocked, 10-acre woodlot would heat an average size, two-story home indefinitely. A woodlot with the gate closed to livestock grazing however. Cattle, and deer, graze and browse tender seedlings needed as new recruits to the tree inventory.

After the wind storms of 2020 there is a world of snapped limbs and blowdowns in the woodlot, enough to heat a dozen homes. University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension has even devised a novel method for estimating firewood from standing trees. Using a 74-foot diameter circle, which is a tenth of an acre, you measure diameters of trees from 5 to 22 inches in diameter. From their chart, it takes 50 trees, 5 inches in diameter to make a cord of firewood. It takes one 22-inch tree to make a cord.

 There is not a little irony in the fact that just at a time when we understand and appreciate the carbon cycle, when we understand how releasing it into the atmosphere in such quantities as our industrial society is capable of doing, the tools for doing it have never been more accessible.

The lightweight, dependable chainsaw I use in the woodlot is a far cry from my father’s Montgomery Ward one-man crosscut. The chainsaw is light years from the crosscut in productivity. It also allows you to work alone at one of the most dangerous activities on a farm.

I restored his saw, even set and filed the rakers and cutters but I would never go to the woodlot with this venerable forestry tool. In this pandemic year just past the woodlot and working up there to make firewood was almost therapeutic in nature. It was pure escapism and you could bring home something of value to show for the time you were safe from this scourge.