When you grow up in rural Maine, you learn quickly the term character building. Whether it was picking endless rows of corn in 90 degree heat or getting together to catch a rogue cow, as a child growing up on a dairy farm, these were all what my parents referred to as character building experiences.
I couldn’t help but think of this phrase when Cheryl recounted her weekend stacking firewood in the middle of one of the hottest stretches of summer. Needless to say, she was glowing with character when she came to the office Monday morning.
Over the years, Cheryl has certainly built a lot of character by stacking many piles of wood. She has learned that there’s definitely an art to the tedious task. Don’t miss her wise tips on choosing, splitting and stacking your firewood this winter.
Choosing your Firewood
First, it’s important to choose a good quality hardwood. Each species of wood will dry differently because each has it’s own density and moisture content. In order to get the most fuel out of your firewood, the moisture content should be 20% or less. Freshly cut firewood or green wood naturally has a moisture content of around 60% or more depending on the species. So as you can see, a significant drying process and procedure must occur before use.
I look for beech, maple and yellow birch that are all available locally from folks who sell firewood. These are good hardwoods that will yield a decent amount of heating BTU’s per cord. I try to get my wood a year in advance of using it so that it has plenty of time to dry. Most types of woods will, although oak is certainly an exception. It really needs two years to dry and season. These timelines are all based on split, stacked and covered wood with proper air circulation. Wood if not covered, will not dry properly and if it is left out in the elements for a long time, will start to break down. Birch does this more quickly than other woods and is referred to as becoming punky or my favorite, dozy. Wood of this quality will not give you the same amount of heat as properly seasoned wood.
Obviously doing all this work is meant to produce dry seasoned firewood so you can enjoy the fruits of your efforts when it is 10 degrees outside. Properly split and stacked wood yields the best results.
Most wood can be ordered already cut and split, or in tree length and you can cut and split it yourself. Obviously, if you order it cut and split the cost will be more but with my busy schedule, this is the only way to go. However, even ordering it split, I find a lot of the pieces need to be split again to accommodate my heater because to get the best combustion and efficient burn, the wood needs to be around 4- 6 in diameter. The length needs be as close to 16 as possible because this is what fits best in my heaters firebox.
I have a splitting block that is actually a big round piece of firewood, an ax, a wedge for difficult pieces and a splitting mall. Over the years I have gotten a bit lazy and now use a gasoline powered splitter for production work because it can really cut the time and wear and tear on my body. I still do hand split but only when a piece of wood is just not the right diameter or a piece of kindling needs to be smaller.
If you have never split wood, then find someone who has so you may see how it is done and get some instruction. Splitting is very labor intensive and it will take practice to get good at it, but once you get it, seeing the ax or mall hit the piece of wood on center and split it apart can be quite rewarding. Remember, in proceeding with any of these activities, you need to observe all safety precautions to avoid injury. Personal safety equipment is required for your hands, ears, eyes, and legs. Splitting wood is also very physical so being in shape is critical to avoid injury. If you can’t do it safely or if you have any medical condition limiting your activity, then it would be more practical to hire someone who does it professionally.
Location and position are important regarding stacking your firewood. The location needs to be convenient in relation to your house so you don’t have to haul it or carry it for a long distance and position depends on whether it is in a wood shed or not. I do not have a wood shed, so I have to stack it outside.
I like to position the stack to take advantage of the prevailing wind, and in Maine, this wind comes from the northwest. I live on a hill so I place the stack so the butt ends are to the wind. This way air can move lengthwise down the split pieces of wood wicking away the moisture.
I use pallets to keep the wood off the ground and build a simple frame on them to contain the wood. Once I have a set of framed pallets in place, I begin stacking the wood so I have three courses of wood per pallet. I use a crib stacking method on the outside of the middle course where there isn’t a frame to hold them in.
Once I have all the wood stacked, I place plywood on top of the frames and then cover it all with a huge tarp to protect it from rain. I leave the sides of the stacks open so they can continue to get air and dry.
Now after all this is done, I can stand back and stare at my pile of wood and appreciate the accomplishment. I am fortunate because my 3000 square foot house only needs three cord of wood for the year. Being ready for next winter gives me a real sense of enjoyment, especially knowing how much comfort I’ll feel watching the fire dance and hearing it gently crackle, while soaking up the warmth from my masonry heater during the cold nights ahead.
For more information about choosing, splitting and stacking your firewood, check out woodheat.org.