By David Hawke — What is it about firewood that still catches our attention in these modern times? Few people use it as primary heat for the home, and even homes with fireplaces rarely actually spark them up. Yet there sits a pile of birch or ash beside the grate, neatly split and ready to go, more for aesthetics than practical use.
As I look at my own woodlot, trying to figure out a way to supplement my income, I am getting an education on both the business side and the romantic side of firewood production.
To start at the beginning, when Mankind first discovered how to make fire, wood was used as fuel. Through a lot of trial and error ever since, we now have a pretty good understanding of how to grow and harvest good firewood, how to handle it, how to sell and buy it, and how to burn it efficiently. What was once common knowledge is now gleaned from the Internet or some deep investigation of best firewood buying practices. Seasoned? Split and delivered? Face cord vs bush cord? Hard wood or soft wood?
Whenever we have a cold spell in mid-Winter, I reflect back on how in the world did Indigenous people survive with just a layer of elm bark laid against the longhouse frame? Any supply of wood to get them through the Winter was in the form of found dead trees that were dragged back to the lodge, and then laid out in full length as the tree was fed into the fire, slowly, to burn and heat the place.
Even the more recent settlers had one heck of a challenge for their first couple of Winters, as firewood needs to be cut in Winter and dried over at least one summer before it is heat worthy. If you came to your new homestead in July or August (as my paternal family did in 1843) there was no time to cut enough wood and get it properly dried by the time the snow began to fall. I can only image the rigors of trying to survive through those first couple of years.
Clearing the land produced copious amounts of wood, most of it burned where it fell. I wonder what went through the minds of those shivering settlers in late February when they reflected on the huge fires of last summer vs the dwindling flames within the wood stove?
There are many anecdotes and bits of lore that go with firewood collecting and burning. In regards to the above, there was a saying I learned in Boy Scouts while learning the skills of fire building: “Indians build a small fire and crouch over it; white man builds a great big fire and gets way back.” I always took that to mean bigger is not always better.
Which helps to understand the names given to fires: campfire, cook fire or bonfire. A camp fire is small, short-lived and just hot enough to heat up a freshly caught trout or pickerel for a shore lunch. A cook fire is going to last overnight, the coals used for cooking or the roasting of the carcass of a rabbit or duck. The French term, bonfire, is a celebratory label for a “bonne fleur” or good-sized fire, one that many people may gather around to sing and dance.
Nowadays we have chainsaws that come in a wide range of power and cutting capabilities, gas-powered firewood splitters, ATVs with trailers for hauling, and covered shelters for drying the wood. Despite these amenities, another saying remains most applicable to firewood production: “Firewood heats you twice… once when you cut it and again when you burn it.” Working up a healthy sweat is no problem when swinging an axe or hand-carrying blocks of wood.
According to those who continue to prepare firewood, the saying “heats you up twice” seems a tad insufficient. After cutting the tree, hauling it to a work site, cutting the blocks, splitting the blocks, hauling them to a stack pile, stacking the wood and then eventually carrying it inside, you will have gotten some good muscle-warming exercise more than a couple of times.
A cord of firewood is traditionally measured as being eight feet long, four feet high and four feet long. It used to be that a logger could measure the success of the day by how many cords of wood had been cut and piled. In today’s measurements, a face cord is about one-third of a bush cord.
The guide to prepare for Winter was to have 13 cords of wood ready to burn, the reasoning being that an average home used a cord of wood a week to heat and cook. The 13 weeks of Winter generally ran from early December to late March. But a hard Winter might have caused the family to burn more than the wood that was budgeted, with a shortfall in March. Pray for an early Spring.
Firewood was such an ingrained item to everyday life that poems and songs have been penned about the loggers or the product they produced:
“Beechwood burns bright and clear,
If the logs are kept a year;
Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the Winter’s cold;
Newlyweds traditionally were provided with poplar firewood, as it burns fast and the stove needs constant replenishing; the intent being that rather than get out of bed to load the stove, yet again, the folks would find another way to stay warm.
So why does a wood fire still lure many to keep a stove stoked or a fireplace blazing? Part of it is that a wood fire heats radiantly, while an electric baseboard or oil furnace simply warms the air. Radiant heat is dispelled outwards and is absorbed by solids (such as you) and eventually saturates the body with heat.
Unfortunately, electric heat warms only the air and we can utilize it only on our surface skin. With enough electric heat, a building eventually warms up, but it takes a huge amount of energy to do so, and that heat will dissipate rapidly once the source is shut off. Wood heat has sunk deep within the structure and will retain that heat for a longer time.
So now you know, oak wood is best to heat the muscles and joints, and poplar for production of grandchildren.
Dave’s notebook: Yet another week has flown by, a week of snowshoeing in brilliant sunshine and through knee-deep powder snow. Starting to feel sorry for the local coyotes and foxes as they try to wade through the deep stuff. Make peace with Winter... it's the only way to get through to Spring.
© 2021 David J. Hawke