Wood burning heat sources are attractive to homesteaders for several reasons. The two main reasons are that they are eco-friendly and they allow people who want to live an independent lifestyle freedom from a dependency on the grid. Wood burning fireplaces and wood stoves can also be more cost effective than using oil, electric or gas generated heat sources. Regardless of the reason for using wood stoves and fireplaces for heating and/or cooking, you are going to need one very important element: wood. You will need to know how to choose, find, cut and store your firewood properly to get the most value out of your chosen fuel source.
Choosing the Type of Wood for Your Fireplace or Woodstove
Traditionally, hardwoods are the type of wood used for fuel in a wood burning stove. They are denser and produce more energy per load. The heavier density and lower moisture content of the hardwoods also create fires that last longer; where soft woods burn faster and the coal bed does not last as long. The burning embers of a coal bed can keep an area warm for many hours after the actual fire has died out.
The most common types of hardwood for burning include:
- Hard Maple
Softwoods, while producing a quicker fire, can be a good choice in some instances. Some softwoods produce less ash, and although that means less of a coal bed, it also means less of a cleanup. In some areas of the country, soft species firewood may be easier to come by as well, so it can be attractive as a convenience.
Some good choices for softwood include:
Cutting Your Firewood
For maximum efficiency, many homesteaders prefer to cut their own wood rather than purchasing it by the cord. If you are going to chop your own wood, first you have to find it. Then you need to know how to chop it effectively to save your energy, and be safe.
Finding a Wood Source
If you have plenty of the right types of trees on your property, you are in good shape. However, some homesteaders have to search for places to gather wood. Be sure you have the right to collect wood in an area before you pick it up. On some government land it is okay to remove fallen trees, but other areas may not even allow that. Most public and government land will not allow you to chop down live trees and remove them from the area.
A good way to find firewood is to look for fallen trees following storms in the area. Many local home owners will need to have large trees removed from the yard or even a roadway after a big storm, and won’t have time, or the desire to do it themselves. If you offer to cut up and remove the trees yourself in exchange for allowing you to take the resulting wood with you, many people will be happy to let you come on their property and get it.
During dry spells, you can also keep an eye out for dying or diseased trees in your local area. If you spot a tree that isn’t thriving, you can approach the home owner and ask them if they would be interested in letting you remove the tree in exchange for the wood. Whenever you are cutting wood on someone else’s land, however, always be sure to take the proper precautions against damage to their property, and keep the area clean.
There are two types of tool used for the actual job of splitting cut pieces of wood: a maul and an ax. Most people know what an ax is. A maul is actually a better tool for splitting chunks of wood, however. The maul has a thicker head that tapers down to the sharp edge, which helps separate the two split pieces more efficiently than a slimmer ax.
Once you have located your tree source, and cut up the trunk into manageable pieces you need to haul it to the area you will be cutting it into logs.
Place a log on end on top of a chopping block. While it is possible to chop wood on the ground, it can be hard on your ax/maul blade to constantly be thrust into dirt, and will dull it quicker.
Plant your feet wide to give yourself a solid base and start with the ax/maul over your head held in both hands. Swing it forward allowing the momentum of the weight of the tool to do most of the work building up speed.
You may end up with a lot of little splinters and pieces as you continue through the day splitting wood. Don’t discard them. They make great kindling to get the fire started.
Keep the pieces of cut firewood short enough to fit in the firebox of your stove or fireplace. Measure the room you have for wood inside the fireplace and then plan to cut pieces that are at least three inches shorter to give you plenty of space to stoke the fire.
Most commercial firewood is sold in pieces less than 18 inches in length. Not only is that a good size for most fireplace boxes, but that size also makes the wood easier to handle and store.
Stacking and Storing Firewood
Choosing the right place to store your wood is almost as important as the type of wood you choose. Pick a spot that is convenient. If your wood storage is too far away from the house it will be more difficult to get to it when weather is bad. At the same time, you do not want your main storage to be too close to the house. You need some distance in case of fire to keep your home safe. 30 to 50 feet is a safe distance for storage. Keeping wood storage areas more than 30 feet from the house also helps keep out rodents and other unwanted guests. You can keep some wood closer for quick access when you are actively keeping a fire going all day long.
You also need a spot for storage that will let you keep the wood dry while still having plenty of ventilation so moisture does not build up, and wood that is dry won’t spontaneously combust.
Get the wood stacked as quickly as possible. Allowing firewood to lie around on the ground too long allows mold and mildew to begin forming. Use poles or pallets to create a support for rows of firewood to keep it neat and prevent it from spilling out around the area. Put poles or pallets on the ground beneath each row of firewood to provide plenty of airflow underneath the pile, and prevent the good firewood from coming in contact with the ground and rotting quickly.
You won’t be able to use wood immediately after cutting it. Firewood takes time to dry out before it will properly ignite and give you a warm, toasty fire. Fresh wood can take between 6 to 12 months to dry well and in areas with nearby lakes or oceans, it can take even longer.
You can tell when wood is ready for use by looking for some of the following signs:
- Cracks in the grain
- Darkened coloration
- Hollow sound
- Lighter weight
If you are not sure if a piece of wood is dry enough, simply try to light it in a fireplace. If it won’t ignite quickly, or it hisses, it is probably still damp inside.