Monday, 5 October 2009

When heating with wood

by Francesca

chimney 1

In the old days, my elderly neighbor tells me, her husband used to hike each springtime up the valley to their part of the forest, fell trees, drag them to the stream at the foot of the valley and float them down it, and finally, haul them up to their house with a donkey. Then my neighbor and her father-in-law would saw them up with a two-handled saw, a job that took many days to complete, and that, like all her other farming chores, she'd do even when she was heavily pregnant.

Nowadays, getting firewood is a little less strenuous: my family, like our elderly neighbor and most of the other villagers, buy it from the local woodcutters, a husband-and-wife team with two grown sons who earn their living exclusively from this occupation. Most houses in our village are heated with firewood, and the thick forests on the hills around our village have for centuries been a source of fuel for the inhabitants. These forests are a jigsaw puzzle of separate, interlocking landholdings, indistinguishable to me but clearly mapped out in minds of the villagers: my neighbors will point to a specific tree immersed in the greenery far across the valley, and say, “That’s our tree.” The reason why these woods are still thick is that, with the wisdom of experience, the villagers have always managed them sustainably, cutting the trees selectively on a seven-year cycle to allow for regrowth. The woodcutter and his family still do this today.

chimney 2

Since moving here, I’ve learned the numerous advantages to heating with wood. I see how it supports a small local business, and employs a renewable energy source. Plus, by buying our wood from someone we known, we avoid using dubious scrap wood and certain kinds of pellets, which can be coated with paints or chemicals and thus emit toxic fumes when burnt. Wood, like any fuel, emits particles and gases as it burns, but the research I've done suggests that burning wood produces substantially fewer greenhouse gases and pollution than natural gas, the other heating option in our area.

Because it takes some work, we make the process of heating our house a family undertaking, and all of us pitch in: my 10 and 12-year-olds are in charge of restacking our indoor woodpile, collecting kindling, and sweeping up the ashes in the fireplace (some of which go in our compost bin, but only in small quantities, since wood ash is quite alkaline). And over time we've learned a few tricks that help us do our heating more cheaply and efficiently:

1) Get to know your local firewood
Hardwoods release more heat, make longer-lasting fires and produce better coals than softer woods. They cost more, but are often worth the extra money.
2) Dry out your firewood properly
Wet wood burns less efficiently than dry wood, and causes creosote deposits in the chimney that can lead to dangerous chimney fires. So it's always best to burn your wood when thoroughly dry. However, wet wood is often cheaper, so you can save money by planning ahead and buying your wood in late spring, when it's wet, stacking it outdoors in the summer sun to dry, and then moving it to a sheltered storage area for the winter.
3) Be ready to start your fire quickly
When you heat with wood, it takes more than just pushing a button to warm your house when you wake up in or come back to a cold house! Keep an ample supply of firewood handy, as well as firestarters to get the blaze going quickly. Store-bought firestarters are often expensive and sometimes even toxic, so I recommend making your own.

We use two different kinds of firestarters:

1) Pine cones

pine cones 1

Cones contain lots of pitch and therefore burn easily: they make excellent and free fire starters, and are fun to collect! As fall approaches, in fact, our family walks and the childrens' adventures in the woods often produce a supply of pine cones, which we'll use to start our winter fires.

2) Homemade wax & sawdust firestarters

fire starters 7

We make these with candle ends we've saved up during the year, and sawdust we've scooped up where the woodcutters saw their logs.

Here's how you can make them:

Homemade firestarter tutorial

- This tutorial is not for children, with or without adult supervision. It is intended for adults only.
- Be careful while making your fire starters: you're working with inflammable materials.
- Make several small batches rather than one large batch: don't risk having inflammable melted wax boil over onto a hot burner.


fire starters 1

Candle ends
Large can (a coffee can works perfectly)
Large saucepan, bigger than your can so that it will catch any wax spillage
Newspaper cut into rectangular pieces (size depends on how much sawdust and wax you use per firestarter)
Hot pad


1) Melt wax

fire starters 3

Put at least 1" of water in the saucepan. Place a few candle ends in your can, and put the can into the saucepan. Put the saucepan on the stove at very low heat, until the water reaches a gentle boil. Wait for the wax to melt ~ remember, you're handling inflammable materials, so don't leave unattended.

2) Add sawdust

When your candle ends are completely melted, turn off the burner, but don't remove the can from the water: wax solidifies surprisingly quickly. Add the sawdust little by little to the wax, stirring, until all the liquid wax has been absorbed. (Hold the can with the hot pad - it gets pretty hot!)

3) Wrap up your firestarters

fire starters 6

Scoop out up to 1/4 cup of your mixture, and place on a piece of newspaper: roll up, candy-wrapper style. (PS I couldn't resist some local color: the newspaper reads "Lasagna, a warm castle made in the home," which sort of fits this tutorial!)

We've also used egg cartons instead of newspaper, pouring the wax and sawdust mixture into the individual egg cups and then cutting them apart when the mixture hardens. However, we found that this method took more time, and that the firestarters ignited faster when wrapped with a generous layer of newspaper.

As someone with an incredibly low tolerance for cold, and a constant desire to improve my wood fire techniques and technology, I'd love to hear how other people go about heating their homes with wood!

Also, The Wood Heat Organization, a Canadian NGO, has an excellent free downloadable Guide to Residential Wood Heating here.