Firewood, Part 1: The good side


By Bob Beyfuss

For Capital Region Independent Media 


With fossil fuel prices much higher this winter than the previous seven years, some people are considering installing a woodstove or fireplace to try to save some money.

When I moved to Greene County full-time in the winter of 1973, with no job and less than no money, there was an oil embargo imposed by OPEC (Organization of Oil Producing Export Countries). The price of oil doubled almost overnight and I decided I needed to find a way to save the little money I had.

Cutting and burning my own firewood seemed like a good idea at the time. At that time, it probably was a good alternative, but there are downsides to this activity that also need to be considered.

This week I will focus on the upside and next week I will discuss the downside to heating with wood.

Burning wood to keep warm has allowed humans to survive in places and during times that our early ancestors could not. Every time we fire up the woodstove or light a log in the fireplace, we are repeating a ritual that predates civilization.

Wood fires can provide comfort and a sense of well-being that cannot easily be explained in terms of modern science. It is true that whether you cut and prepare your own firewood, or buy it locally, you are utilizing a renewable resource that can last indefinitely.

Properly managed, a 10-acre woodlot can yield about five full cords of wood a year, forever. Now I happen to own enough forested land for me to be self-sufficient if I choose to do so these days. I choose not to.

Firewood is sold by volume, but the actual heat you get is determined by the weight of the wood, not its volume. A pound of dry wood provides about 8,000 BTUs, regardless of what species it is. A full cord, which is defined as a pile that is 4-foot tall by 4-feet wide by 8-feet long (128 cubic feet) of hickory or oak may weigh as much as 4,000 pounds, yielding more than twice as much heat as a full cord of pine, willow, basswood or aspen (poplar), which weigh as little as 1,800 pounds. That weight per volume is based on the wood having about 20% moisture content. Freshly cut wood can weigh more than twice that amount.

Firewood will never dry down to less than 20% moisture content when stored outdoors. Only kiln-dried wood can be dried to less than 5% moisture. That makes leftover two by fours excellent fire starters!

It is wise to learn a bit about what species of wood you are burning. There is more to heating your home with wood than just BTUs, however.

Almost every species of wood has its own burning characteristics and long-term wood burners enjoy the “art” of using just the right wood for a specific purpose. If you want a quick, hot fire that will warm the stove and house in a hurry, you might burn some very well-seasoned pine, spruce or hemlock (or two by fours, if you can afford them), but these species do not burn for long and they also do not produce long lasting coals.

If the temperature outside is not really cold, perhaps in the 40s, you can get by just fine burning ash, black cherry, birch, red (soft) maple, butternut, basswood and even partly rotted beech. Sycamore is commonly found growing along creeks and the wood is very heavy, difficult to split (used to make butcher’s blocks) and contains lot of water.

If it gets really cold, then hop hornbeam (aka ironwood), hickory and my favorite firewood, sugar maple, are much preferred. All three of these species burn very hot and make excellent, long-lasting coals. Oak is also excellent firewood, but only when well-seasoned.

Oak firewood also has a fragrance that I don’t particularly like. I also do not particularly like the smell of willow, dogwood, black locust and aspen. Most people don’t notice the smell of wood until they have a thousand pounds of it sitting in the living room!

Apple wood is very dense, burns very hot with great coals and has a wonderful fragrance, as do pear and other fruit trees. Apple trees are generally pretty gnarly though with lots of internal rot and it is also tough to split. Paper birch has bark that burns with a dense, black smoke. It is good for starting fires, as the bark will burn even if soaking wet, but not much else.

It sure does look nice stacked near a fireplace, however! If firewood was sold by appearance, paper birch would be a best seller.

Next week I will discuss the downsides.

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