Monday, January 21, 2013

Guest Blogger- Gordon Hayward

Woodcutters by Thomas Hart Benton, 1948


When we bought our 200 year old farmhouse here in southern Vermont we knew we wanted to heat with wood. It was a New England tradition; it was cheaper than oil or propane; any house heated with wood seems to feel warmer than those heated by oil, electricity or propane; it felt like the right thing to do ecologically; and then there was simply the romance of the thing.  An old place like this deserves wood heat.

Photo by Gordon Hayward
We bought a wood burning furnace that was of the appropriate size for our two-story 2,000 square foot house and every winter since we have been toasty and warm. Through all the vagaries of oil and propane gas price changes, we have heated our home with around 9 cords of wood a winter, which entailed a whole lot of work. But then it was good work, it saved us money, and, as the old Vermonters say, wood heats you three times: when you cut it; when you split and stack it; when you burn it.

I have to admit that there has been a bit of attrition gathered around the amount of effort I’m willing to put into keeping warm in the winter. When I was in my 30’s, I cut, split, stacked and burned all 5-6 cords of wood we needed for our two woodstoves in an earlier and smaller house. When I was in my 40’s and we moved to our bigger house, I ordered 9 cords of wood cut, split and delivered for our wood furnace; I just stacked it and burned it. Now that I am in my 60’s and busier than ever, and older, I’ve installed an oil-fired furnace next to the wood-burning furnace. I now order 4-5 cords of firewood rather than 9-10.  On many normal winter days, I take the easy route and just turn that little dial to 68 degrees F.. But on days when the temperature drops well below freezing and beyond, I build a fire in the wood-burning furnace. It’s a cozy feeling, one that warms the body as well as the heart.


Whether you’re in your 20’s or 40’s or older, you may well have been thinking about heating with wood, either in a woodstove or furnace, or you might simply be interested in having an occasional fire in the fireplace. Whatever your motivation, there are a number of things to know about firewood.

It is typically sold by reputable and hard-working people by the cord,  that is, a pile of stacked wood 4’ high, 4’ wide and 8’ long for a total of 128 cubic feet. There are less reputable suppliers of firewood who might try to sell you  “a pickup load” or a “face cord” – a pile 4’ high, 8’ long but only 12” – 16” wide – and call it a cord. It isn’t. 

The Woodcutter by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1857
If you’re not certain about what you’re ordering or what might be delivered, contact your local State University Extension Service and ask for information regarding weight and measurement standards for firewood. During the latter half of the 90’s, many states enacted legislation to create uniform standards for firewood sales to which all suppliers should be adhering. If you know about these standards, you can quote them to your supplier, thereby increasing the likelihood that you are  getting what you paid for.
You can buy wood either as cordwood or firewood, and the difference between the two is a whole lot of work. “Cordwood” is four-foot long round tree limbs or tree trunks; you will have to cut it to the appropriate length for your stove or fireplace, split and stack it and then let it dry out for at least 6-8 months. “Firewood” has already been cut and split, but not necessarily seasoned.

A cord of seasoned firewood that has been cut to order, split and delivered could cost around $200 or even a bit more depending on where you live; some firewood suppliers will stack the wood for you for a further payment. Before ordering a load of firewood, measure the length of your woodstove or the width of your fireplace and subtract three or four inches to give yourself room to maneuver the wood. For example, I had a woodstove, the interior chamber of which measured 26” from front to back; I ordered 22” long pieces of wood.

When ordering, always ask what the mix of wood will be. You want hardwoods: oak, apple, hickory, black locust, sugar maple, ash, beech, yellow birch, madrone, osage orange, mesquite, ironwood (aka hornbeam), depending on where you live. You do not want softwoods: aspen or poplar, pines, spruces, hemlock, basswood, cottonwood, fir, willow. By carefully examining this Fuelwood Characteristics chart from The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, you will clearly see which woods have a high heat value, which are easy to burn and easy to split. What you want to order from your supplier, then, is a good mix of hardwoods so that you have a wide range of woods (and sizes of wood) for different heating situations: big pieces of hard woods that will last through a bitterly cold night; smaller pieces of wood just to take the chill off in the late spring and early fall; average-sized wood to provide reliable even heat on normal winter days; small pieces of wood to get a fire started easily.

Here’s an example of an order I placed a few years ago with Edmund Coombs, a farmer and firewood supplier in his 80’s who lives here in southern Vermont. In early September one year, he called to say he had several cords of red oak that had been cut and split three years earlier into big hefty chunks that would be perfect for my wood-burning furnace. I ordered three cords of the oak and three mixed cords of ash, beech, yellow birch and maple that had been split into two or three different sizes so I had small fire-starter wood, medium sized pieces for spring and fall and then some big chunks of wood other than the very hard oak. Keep in mind that piece size affects the rate of burning: the smaller the piece, the more quickly it will be consumed by fire; the larger the piece, the more slowly it will burn.

Der Holzfäller (The Woodcutter)
Ferdinand Hodler, 1910
That mix of well-seasoned oak combined with other hardwoods of various thicknesses was absolutely the best cordwood supply I ever purchased. Even on February nights when the temperature dropped to 15-20 degrees below zero, those big chunks of well-seasoned oak would burn slowly right through the night. We would wake up to a house at 68 degrees F.  But because it was so hard, it would only catch fire if I threw it onto a good bed of coals already established with ash, birch or maple. 

If you are going to order cordwood that you will have to split yourself with a splitting maul, buy wood that is easy to split: ash, birch, cherry, sugar maple and oak. Even though many of the softwoods – firs, pines, hemlock, basswood, cedar, etc. - will appear on The U.S. Forest Products chart as being easy to split, don’t order them; they burn too quickly, send out a lot of sparks, and produce a very hot but short-lived fire.

Woodcutters In The Forest by Carl Larsson, 1906

One other question that you should ask of your supplier is when the wood was cut and whether or not it has been drying in the form of whole logs or split firewood. (A split log will dry much more quickly.)  If the firewood was cut from late October until January or early February, that is, when sap is not running, the trees will be at their lowest moisture level of the year and will require less drying out. If the trees were cut any other time of the year, the wood will be full of sap and therefore require a longer drying-out period before burning.  Ashwood is the one exception; it burns brightly, just as the poem says, wet or dry, green or seasoned.

The heat from any fire depends on wood density as well as moisture content. The wetter the wood, the more slowly it burns, the more energy is taken up drying the wood out, and the more acidic water in the form of flammable creosote builds up over time on the walls of your chimney or its liner. Green wood can contain anywhere between 40% - 60% moisture by weight whereas properly seasoned wood contains only 15%-20%. Properly seasoned wood releases about 7,700 British Thermal Units (BTU’s) of energy per pound whereas green wood releases only about 5,000 BTU’s per pound. (A BTU is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one pound of water one degree F.)  By drying your split firewood for at least 6-8 months, and preferably a year, you reduce the amount of moisture and increase the BTU’s released into your home when you burn the wood. Your chimney also stays much cleaner.

Photo courtesy Old Sturbridge Village
The very best way to assure yourself that you have well-seasoned wood is to buy split wood one year ahead of time, stack it properly with the top of the stack covered and the sides open to wind and sun, and then you will know for certain that your wood will burn hot and clean.
Ken Babbitt, who lives near us here in Vermont, has been cutting and selling firewood for the past 40 years. He told me how he stacks his wood so that it dries out properly. He cuts the branches off several hemlock or pine branches that are 10’-12’  long and around 6” in diameter. He chooses softwoods such as pine or hemlock because he would never use either in his woodstove. He lays a pair of logs 16”-20” apart and parallel to one another on the ground 15’-20’ away from the house but near the back door. He then stacks the wood atop those logs by setting them across the two supporting logs. He would never set firewood directly onto the earth as it will not dry properly and will very likely rot before he gets to it. He then covers the level top of the 4’ high pile with plywood or folded tarpaulins and weighs them down, making sure that air can get to the open sides of the pile.

In order to support either end of a 4’ high stacked pile of firewood, Ken builds up a cribwork of larger pieces of split wood. That is, he lays two or three across the two supporting logs, and then two or three parallel with the supporting logs and so forth to create a 4’ high stack that would retain the mass of the balance of the pile.
You could also store wood under an open shed or a simple open roofed addition to the end or side of your garage. Though I have stored wood in the unheated part of our cellar and have not had any problems with introducing powder post beetle or woodworm into the house, the possibility is very real. It is best not to store firewood in the cellar, but outside, where you have easy access to it from a door near the stove or furnace where you will burn it. That way you keep any molds or mildew, insects or pests out of your home. But there is one caveat to note. Very cold wood brought from the outside and put directly into your woodstove will cool your fire far more than you want it to. Have a small storage area inside your house for a 2-3 day supply; that way you are putting warm dry wood onto a hot fire.

The Woodcutter by John Eastman
One simple way to tell if your wood is well seasoned or not is to hold a piece of wood in each hand and then strike one piece with the other. If you hear a dull thud, the wood is too green; if you hear a clear clunking or even clinking sound, the wood is properly seasoned.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t use your wood during the third or fourth year after it was cut, it might begin to get too dry and perhaps even begin to deteriorate. Keep a close eye on your woodpile in the third and fourth years and following and you may find you’ll have to sort through your pile and discard pieces that are rotting.

Starting a fire in a woodstove or fireplace is an easy thing to do if you have the right materials. I crumple newspaper loosely so that there is plenty of opportunity for air and thus oxygen to gather in the folds and crumples of the paper. I then lay a cross-hatch of pine or other softwood kindling, or, if necessary, I split ashwood finely and make the cross-hatch with that. I then lay two or three pieces of small well-seasoned firewood atop the cross-hatch and then light the back, front and sides of the newspaper rather than simply light it in one spot. If the kindling is thin and dry, the fire will catch immediately. Only when the smaller firewood has caught should you put larger pieces on. And as the strength of the fire is building, don’t fuss and poke at it. Let the fire take its own course and more often than not it will catch.

A Talk At Fireplace by Adriaen van Ostade, c1640
And you’ll know when you have a good efficient fire burning by looking for the following signs: When wood burns it should be flaming until only charcoal remains. If there are no flames but dense smoke, then you need to light more newspaper to get the flames started, or you need to open the air vent on your woodstove further.  After a few moments, check to see what color smoke is coming out of the chimney. If you see white smoke or even clear gases, the fire is burning perfectly; if you see masses of dense gray, blue-gray or blackish smoke, you need to increase the air flow to the fire or your wood is too green.  If your woodstove has a glass door, it should never be black with soot.

Wood combustion involves three phases. First, moisture in the form of white smoke is evaporated from the wood. Second, volatile gases and matter other than carbon burns. You see the first indication of this second phase in the form of gases which also make up the smoke and second, when the fire reaches 1100 degrees F., you see long yellow flames above the glowing fuel bed. After all the moisture and gases have been driven off, carbon – solar energy stored by the tree – burns with very little flame or smoke.

Farmer Sitting At The Fireside and Reading, Vincent van Gogh, 1881
All that remains when the fire is out is ash.  In fact, a cord of wood typically produces about 50 pounds of ash which you can use as an excellent liming agent in your garden. Whether you should spread the ash on your garden or not depends on the existing pH level in your soil. The ideal pH level for most plants is between 5.8 – 6.5, so if a soil test shows that your soil has a pH of 6.0 or above, don’t spread ashes on your garden. If your soil pH is at 6.0 or below, spread it annually in the Spring at the rate of 10 pounds (the equivalent of three gallons of dry ashes) per 100 square feet.  Then work the ash into the top 2”-3” of the soil with a spading fork. The result will be to raise the pH level slightly each year, so when it reaches 6.5 or thereabouts, stop spreading ash in that area. Two pounds of wood ash will increase the alkalinity of your soil the way one pound of lime (calcium in the form of ground limestone) does, but it will also add potassium and trace elements essential for good plant growth.  Keep ashes well away from potatoes, blueberries, or any acid loving ornamentals such as rhododendrons and azaleas.

The Woodcutter by Camille Pisarro, 1879
 I find this process of heating with firewood to be a wholly satisfying circle. I cut dead or disfigured trees from the woodland, thereby increasing the health of the forest. I get the valuable exercise of splitting and stacking the wood followed by the satisfaction of heating our home in an old-fashioned, time-honored way. And then I complete the circle by returning the ash to the soil where it will support new growth in new plants. That’s a good circle to draw.

 Portions of this post first appeared in Country Journal magazine.

Gordon Hayward is an acclaimed garden designer and lecturer and the author of over ten books and countless articles on gardening and garden design. For more information on Gordon, you can click here or visit his website at

To see more guest posts from Gordon, click here.


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  2. I read a article under the same title some time ago, but this articles quality is much, much better. How you do this..


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