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.


nicola said...

fabulous post. we use some of the same starter techniques and wood guidelines, although a good quality wood stove would do a huge amount to improve our wood burning experiences. it has been on our "want" list for a long time. it would be far more efficient that the heat distributor we have now for wood fires and would keep smoke (sets off my allergies) at bay. we also have a single gas floor heater, which does little. home insulation has helped immensely.
and i know what the die hard environmentalists say about burning wood, but there is nothing like sitting by a warm fire mid winter!

Sadge said...

Our wood stove is our only source of heat. My husband grew up in a wood-heated home, and started cutting wood with his dad and grandpa as a child. By twelve, he could handle the chainsaw.

We have a pick-up truck, and get our wood a variety of ways. When they demolished a 40-year old trailer park below us, I got permission to "log" it before the bulldozers moved in. We'll often take down trees for friends in exchange for the wood, and salvaged quite a few big pines from Lake Tahoe after a wildfire. We'll haul away an offered woodpile when someone moves.

We do burn some scrap wood. Our woodstove doesn't have a catalytic converter, so we don't have to worry if there are nails in the wood. My husband sometimes gets a load of pallets from the loading dock at work - nice, because they're unfinished wood, and often made of oak. We use an old Henckles cleaver to split the smaller slat pieces for our kindling, and a couple crumpled pieces of newspaper to get the fire started.

The only downside is that we can't take a vacation in the wintertime. If we're not here to start a fire when the nights are below freezing, our water pipes could freeze and break.

Ida Nielsen said...

Great post!!
I have so many fond memories of coming home from school; with freezing hands from a 30 minute bike ride in the cold of winter, and get warm again in front of my parents wood stove. Ahh, the coziness!!

Emily said...

another wonderful post, francesca! i especially enjoyed learning about how to make your own fire starters. my family had a wood stove when i was growing up, but we always just used kindling (now i wonder where it came from...) and newspaper. i also loved that the woodcutters harvest sustainably as the villagers did before them. without laws saying it must be done that way, i'm assuming. that warms my sometimes cynical (about human nature) heart.

liZZie said...

I really enjoyed this post - in November when the new floor and walls of my downstairs living space have dried out I'm booked to have a reconditioned wood burner installed - the regulations here stipulate a chimney liner (very expensive) and an air vent or two even though I live in a very draughty old cottage. I expect the costs will be recouped quite quickly. Your advice and guidelines are valuable, many thanks.

Emily said...

Many of my happiest childhood memories involve going out to gather pinecones with my dad and then later watching them crackle on the fire. Great post!

syrahsuzie said...

We've had our wood stove for 6 years now and really love it. As well as fir cones for fire starters we make newspaper twists with pine needles and old wine corks inside. The pine needles give a flare and the corks burn slowly to give the logs time to catch.

Here in France they have a saying that wood is very efficient for heating as each log warms you up 3 times - the first time when you cut it, the second time when you stack it and the third time when you burn it !

Karen said...

this is a great post!! thank you!! i have no idea how to start a fire in my apartment, even though i've had a working fireplace the whole two years i've been here. sad, i know ... especially love that it's possible to make your own firestarters! thanks again!

Building Materials Supplies said...

When heating with wood

Annette said...

We have an outside wood furnace and an indoors wood cook stove - love them both.
I've been using newspaper and kindling to start up the wood stove; however, much prefer the pine cones - there are a slew in the woods behind our house. Thank you for the reminder.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Great post, especially about the sustainability issues surrounding your wood for fuel. If trees grow plentiful, burning wood makes sense, in the more arid prairie areas it does not.

Our wood heating and cooking season is about 8 months a year. During that time our hot water is heated through our wood fire also. During the summer we use electricity to heat our water and to cook with. No need for heat then.

Jessa said...

We've just purchased our first house and are heating it (so far) with our fireplace. We would like to use the fireplace as much as possible and only use the boiler when the fireplace can't keep up. Someone gave us some storebought firestarters, but I was not happy about the cost of buying more. Thanks so much for the great ideas on making your own firestarters. I know my girls will love looking for pinecones!


Here in the San Joaquin Valley, we have to check to make sure burning is allowed. Air quality dictates whether burning is allowed. Neighbors have been known to turn in neighbors for violations. I think that stinks.

Diana Strinati Baur said...

Francesca, do you heat exclusively with wood? We have a back up gas system and 3 woodburning stoves. I really hate using the gas system but in january and half of february it has been unavoidable until now. We are doing something different this year. We are adding an additional wood burning stove in our 2 room guest suite, and will be living in there this winter for the most part. The suite is on the first floor (in comparison to the ground floor where our apt. is) and gets more light in general and should be easier to heat.

I had not thought of pine cones as starters -- I will look for them now. I hate the fuel based store-bought starters too!

I love your topics and writing style !! (but you know that already, don't you).....

Annette said...

Do you treat or do anything special with the pine cones? I picked some yesterday and tried to use them to start the cook stove this morning and they did not really catch on. Do these need to dry some first?

Francesca said...

Hi Annette, no, I don't do anything to the cones, though they've usually dried out either on the ground or indoors for some time before we burn them (we don't actually pick them off the tree - they'd be too green to burn easily - we just collect them from the ground) Also, I don't light them directly, I always use some newspaper, and I'll light that first to start the cones. I've noticed that at least in the trees in our area, the younger cones, hazelnut in color, have higher pitch content, and sometimes are thickly coated with it, and though they also have a higher moisture content they will make better firestarters than the older, darker brown cones, which will serve as good quality kindling. I hope this helps. I'm a bit at a loss as to explain why it didn't work with you, and I can't really blame the cones, because although we do have different variety of conifers in my part of the world, I actually learned this trick in Idaho (psst, don't tell anyone the trick isn't Made in Italy:))

Annette said...

LOL thank you Francesca. I was thinking that you used only the cones and no paper to start your fire - that is why it did not work for me. Once I added two crumpled pieces of newspaper, it was on.
The cones I picked were off the ground and were definately high in pitch - made my fingers all sticky. =) I love the smell.
(your secret is safe with me).

acai said...

Nice post. I was used go to the college on bike in sever cold. I came back at home and used to sit near fire wood.

Jenn said...

We heat with only wood all winter also. Its a labor of love. I just got finished moving 4 1/2 cords of wood from the ancient working saw mill right down the road from me. They have been kind enough to GIVE us about 15 cords of slab wood. Aside from what I have split, this should be a great 3 or 4 year stockpile. Its all elevated and very dry. So I am going to cover it until its used.

I have read about the fir started things with saw dust....only what they used as a fule, instead of saw dust, was the lint from the clothes drier. I thought it was such a great idea! Maybe my boys and I will try the saw dust and the lint ones and give daddy a break in the mornings. Great post!

Bohemian girl said...

I like how you concentrate on what needs to be done when you live in the village rather than what people generally enjoy about living there. Many people don't realize they cannot do without wood out there. All my childhood we heated up the house with wood and coal. I know what it is like to wake up having the house cold. And I also know what it is like to have the room nicely toasted, the "camino" lightened up in the corner and "warm warmth" spread around you. It is a reward for work you leave on it.