By Bobby Akart, Author and APN Contributor With Charlie Koch, The Firewood Guy
As the leaves start to change, those of us with wood burning fireplaces should immediately turn our attention to one of the most versatile preparedness resources available to us – firewood. Typically, firewood is used for home heating. The energy stored in the wood is obtained by the trees absorption of sunlight during its years of growth. As I have written in prior articles for American Preppers Network, a fire also provides you an energy source for cooking and water purification. We have three wood burning fireplaces and stoves.
The process of procuring and storing firewood should have started many months ago. But like many preppers, it may not have been on your list of things to do until the chilly mornings arrive and the leaves fall. Recently, my good friend from Maine, Charlie Koch, sent me an interesting primer on firewood that I would like to share with my friends at APN.
Ramblings from The Firewood Guy
Greetings from Northern Maine! I have been heating my little old farmhouse primarily with wood since we moved in, some 18 years ago and grew up with wood heat as a child. Nothing beats the warm glow of a wood stove on a long, cold New England winter- ask anyone who has one, it just heats better. There are numerous little tips and tricks on how to make them work more efficiently and safely, so I thought I’d write down some of the things I have learned. Understand that wood heat has unavoidable risks and that some readers are absolute beginners with it. This post will hopefully be of use to any level of experience, and I beg forgiveness if it seems elementary at first.
Why Wood Heat?
As long as I am able, I will always have some form of wood-burning heater in my house. The reasons are simple; 1) wood heat works when the power is out. 2) Storing firewood protects me from delivery complications, price changes, shortages etc. 3) If you are not afraid of a little labor, wood supply can be cheap or even free. 4) When I do buy wood, it’s from my neighbor and not a multinational conglomeration.
Wood heat can be your primary source of warmth, a handy supplement to reduce your other fuel consumption, or just something you keep for emergencies.
Safety (read this, I’ll keep it short!)
Folks, use your heads. Wood burns at an extremely high heat and keeps much of that heat long past the point where there are visible flames. Each year, somebody manages to set their house on fire from misuse of a wood stove. Don’t be that person! NEVER use gasoline to start a fire. It’s just common sense, but somehow it keeps happening. Gasoline more or less explodes when ignited, and a tiny ember hiding in a cool stove is enough to set it off. DON’T DO IT. Re-start a cold stove with crumpled newspaper, fine-split wood or sticks, commercial fire-starters or even a propane torch but never never never gasoline!
When the stove gets too full of ash and unburned charcoal, scoop it out into a metal bucket with some sort of lid. Allow it to cool completely before disposal. We save our ashes for the vegetable garden; it’s a natural liming agent. However you choose to dispose of the ash, remember that it is still very hot when it comes out of the stove. I heard an awful story about someone who shoveled hot ash into a cardboard box and put it in the wood shed, with catastrophic results. Another fellow put hot ash in an uncovered bucket on the back porch; the wind picked up while everyone was asleep, blew the hot embers onto the house… that story led to multiple fatalities. Again, use a little common sense.
This one is a little trickier because it’s hard to see. A major source of chimney fires, creosote is a sticky resin produced by wood burning at relatively low temperatures. Unseasoned “green” wood, over-dampening of the stove, and sometimes species of wood all lay a role in creosote buildup. It comes out as a oily black smoke which condenses as the smoke cools. The creosote sticks on, layer after layer until it chokes the airflow considerably. Worse, it tends to dry as it builds up and becomes quite flammable. Once ignited, creosote can be hard to extinguish. I have had a creosote fire myself, and the sound it makes is unforgettable; much like a jet fighter trying to take off inside the house. A good masonry chimney should contain it, but don’t count on it. Again, homes are lost this way every year. Let the stove go completely cold, shovel it clean, remove the flue pipe (the one that connects the stove to the chimney) and peek inside with a flashlight and mirror. If there is buildup, scrape it off. Have your chimney swept at least once a year. It’s just cheap insurance. Avoid a lot of creosote buildup by burning dry wood and avoid smothering the fire with low air flow.
How much wood?
I get this question all the time. How much wood do I need? The answer varies by user, but it’s safe to say you’ll want a LOT. We usually measure wood by the cord, which I will explain below. I use about four cords myself in an average winter, and know people who use as much as twice that amount. Supplemental users might only need half that; emergency use only folks can get by with a half cord. To me, wood in the shed is like money in the bank. More is better.
A cord of wood is a volume measurement, meaning it measures the space the wood occupies. A cord is 128 cubic feet, which is what you get when you pile 4′ logs in a pile that is 8′ long and 4′ high. (4x8x4=128) It is quite a lot of wood. A fresh-cut cord of oak, for example, can weigh over 5,500 pounds! Now, since very few people burn 4′ wood, it’s useful to know how to measure smaller pieces. Simply put, measure the height, width, and depth (in feet) of your stacked pile and divide by 128. It’s that easy! My woodshed holds eight stacks of wood, each is 7′ wide, 7′ tall, and 16” deep, which is a common size (1.3′). So 7x7x1.3= 63.7 cubic feet. Divided by 128, that’s .497….. close enough to a half cord per pile. Eight piles: four cords. You can do the same thing with any size pile, as long as the wood is stacked.
If you have wood delivered, it usually comes in a dump truck and is loose-thrown or mechanically loaded- not stacked. Be aware that loose wood takes more space than stacked wood, so 128 cubic feet isn’t going to get you a full cord. Get what you pay for! A loose cord takes 180 cubic feet. Don’t be afraid to put a tape measure on the truck.
How do I store the wood?
Wood needs to be seasoned in order to burn safely and efficiently, so take care to store it properly. Most people use some sort of outbuilding, and for good reason. Fresh-cut wood contains a huge amount of water- as much as half the total weight of the log. Drying it takes time, but you can speed the process up with a good woodshed. Regardless of how you decide to build your woodshed, keep these tips in mind: airflow, airflow, airflow. Did I mention airflow? Think of wood much like a sponge. Left in the sun, it readily gives up it’s moisture and dries. Left in a damp spot, it will hold that moisture indefinitely which is NOT what you want. Wet wood rots and gets invaded by insects and fungi so keep wood off the ground. Stack it on runners, pallets, whatever it takes to let air flow under the pile. A roof is good, but make sure there is space between the top of the pile and the bottom of the roof. The shed needs many open windows, louvers, anything to let air through. Many have no sides at all, just support posts. Use whatever works in your area. Wood shrinks a little as it dries. This makes the ends split and crack, which is a fair indicator of dryness.
Some wood storage methods to avoid: don’t dump wood on the lawn and cover it with a tarp. This is the best way I know to decompose, rot, and compost wood. The ground is always wet, and the tarp traps the moisture. Bugs and worms have a field day, and your wood (which you thought was drying) turns into spongy mulch. Also, I usually advise against stacking wood in the cellar of a house unless it’s already been thoroughly dried. Green wood is about half water, and when it dries that water is going into your house. Not good. Plus there are always a few bugs, ants and such. If you have no other option, be sure to use a dehumidifier and numerous ant baits.
Storing wood outside is fine too, if you do it right. Large logs can be piled on skids and left for future years. They are difficult to move so pick your spot well. Long logs also dry extremely slowly- water goes out the ends of round wood, not through the sides. Short pieces dry much, much quicker. I like to stack wood into cribs made from discarded pallets and covered with scrap plywood. Just be mindful of whatever critters that live in your area… snakes, termites, whatever else might use your wood pile as a home. Plan accordingly.
What kind of wood?
Briefly, any species of wood is ok to burn as long as it is dry. Some have more heat value than others; some dry faster or resist decay better. Some produce more creosote. And of course, some may not grow near you, so use whatever makes sense in your area. Here in Maine, we have a tremendous variety of tree species to choose from. I use mostly hardwoods for heating, small amounts of softwood for kindling or late season “chill chasers”. Oak is one of the best for much of the country; plentiful, dense, high heat value, usually easy to split. It does take longer to dry than others, but resists decay well. Oak is my favorite wood for long-term storage. Beech and maple trees are great too. Birch and aspen species are fair; birch throws a lot of creosote and neither of them store well. Both are plentiful in my area and burn well, so I always wind up with plenty. Willow trees stink when burned, so avoid them. White pine is low in heat, high in creosote and best avoided as well. I hear southern pines are fine to burn but never tried it myself. Got hickory or osage orange? Lucky you, it’s the best stuff around. In a pinch, construction lumber is ok to burn as long as it’s not pressure-treated. Pallets too.
The trick to firewood is to do the hard work well in advance of needing it. Most of us process wood in the summer- 18 months before we need the wood! It’s an integral part of a preparedness mindset. However, sometimes events and circumstances prevent this from happening and you find yourself needing wood now. Sometimes it can be bought, but at mid-winter premiums if it can be found at all. Some emergency sources do exist. Here are a few. 1) standing dead trees. If you’re lucky, you may find a dry stem sticking out of the snow somewhere. A tree dies, and either remains standing or perhaps falls and lands in the crook of another tree. Either way, if it is off the ground it may dry instead of rot. Grab it! Hit two pieces together and listen for the noise it makes. A sharp knock means dry; a dull thud means wet or rotten. 2) Construction ends. Know a carpenter? Get some scrap 2x4s. There are sawmills that sometimes sell slabs and trims, industrial businesses that have blocking and pallets. Concrete fixtures and heavy plumbing pipes often come with large wooden blocks. Ask around. You might be able to barter some or find a community wood bank.
If you have a few weeks, whole trees can be quickly dried if there are still leaves on it. Cut the tree completely free of the stump and walk away. The leaves will wick the moisture out of the wood in a matter of weeks. When they shrivel and die, the wood is dry enough to use.
Random parting shots
Don’t run out of chainsaw gas. Old-fashion saws and axes are great, but for production you need a chainsaw. If you foresee fuel shortages, this is a great tip. A few gallons of saw gas can get you a winters worth of wood. Store gas with stabilizer, and don’t forget mixing oil.
Learn your stove before you need it. They’re all a little different.
Don’t forget kindling wood. You’ll use more than you think. I use cedar, split about thumb-width.
Wood and wood stoves make awesome bartering items. In a bad situation they can be a life saver.
Be prepared. Firewood is hard work, so start early.
Wood is easiest to acquire when it is least needed, most difficult when it is most needed.
Water doesn’t burn, so dry your wood!
A very big thanks to Charlie Koch for providing us this excellent summary of the importance of firewood to preppers. You can find Charlie on Facebook – Charles Koch.
Bobby is the best-selling author of the epic series of novels entitled The Boston Brahmin Series. Political suspense collides with post-apocalyptic thriller fiction as nine Bostonians whose lineage dates back to the American Revolution navigate the societal and economic collapse of America.
Can The Loyal Nine save the republic while protecting the interests of their
mysterious benefactors — The Boston Brahmin.
Learn more at www.TheBostonBrahmin.com.
Because you never know when the day before … is the day before.
Prepare for tomorrow.