Finding and Storing Firewood

[The following is an excerpt from Countdown to Preparedness.]

The best time to accumulate supplies is before you need them and firewood is no exception. With all of the storms that we typically experience this time of year, spring is a great season for collecting firewood.

There is something about a roaring fire, isn’t there? Given the choice, I’d much rather watch a campfire or fireplace than what passes for television these days. A controlled fire will keep you warm, cook your food, dry you out, and is just overall comforting. Coming in from the winter cold to a crackling fire…well, like the old beer commercial used to say, “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

It can take a fair amount of work to be able to rely strictly upon wood fire for heat and cooking. First obviously is acquiring the firewood. Then you may have to cut it to size, split it, and stack it to dry. It can take up to a full year before freshly cut firewood is properly seasoned and ready to use, so you need to plan far ahead. Depending on the size of the building you are heating, you could easily go through several full cords of firewood in an average winter. A cord of wood is 128 cubic feet, usually arranged in a stack four feet deep, four feet high, and eight feet long. A face cord is usually a stack four feet high by eight feet long.

When stacking firewood, one should allow for some degree of air flow above, below, and around the cord. Doing so allows the wood to fully dry, which results in a cleaner burn. Prior to stacking, it should be cut and split to accommodate the size of the fireplace or wood stove. Splitting the logs also provides for better drying. Do not keep these large stacks up next to your house. They tend to become havens for all sorts of bugs, especially carpenter ants and termites. Keep them well away from your home and only bring in as much wood as you’ll need for a couple days at a time.

The ideal for storing firewood is often a three sided wood shed. But if that’s not an option for you, stack the wood as best you can. While there are many different types of log racks commercially available, we’ve found using a few metal fence posts pounded into the ground on each end of the stack works just fine. However you stack it, at the minimum loosely cover your firewood with a tarp to keep rain and snow out. Remember, you want some air flow so don’t wrap the stack like you’re wrapping Tyvek around a home. What we’ve done with a degree of success is to stack the firewood on scavenged pallets, with buckets of kindling on either end. Then we lay a tarp along the top of the stack, draping it down to cover the buckets at the ends. The fence posts keep the tarp up off the wood a bit, allowing for that important air flow. Then, take the ends of the tarp and fold them toward one another, securing them together with rope or bungee cords.

The tools required to cut and split firewood can be as simple as just a hand saw, an axe and wedge. However, I can tell you from experience the job is much easier with a log splitter and a chainsaw. Being that splitters are often fairly costly, you might consider renting one for the time being. Alternatively, if you have family or neighbors who would also benefit from a splitter, see if you can split the cost of purchasing one new or second-hand. Even if you have a splitter, you’ll still need a good, sharp axe, a maul, protective eye glasses and gloves, as well as a saw and pair of loppers to take off smaller branches.

Chainsaws can be found fairly cheap second-hand, if you keep your eyes open at rummage sales and the like. Familiarize yourself with the basic operations of a chainsaw so you know what to look for when buying a used one. You don’t want to end up just buying someone else’s problem. If you can at all afford it, you’re often better off buying a good quality chainsaw new. Invest in a sharpening kit as well as extra chains and bars. Avoid the electric saws, they usually aren’t worth the price of admission. Of course, proper ear protection when using a chainsaw should go without saying. Maintained properly, a good chainsaw will last many years.

Cut and split the firewood as close as possible to where you’ll be storing it. I realize this sounds like common sense but I’ve seen countless examples of people splitting the logs on their driveway, then hauling them out to the back of their lot. That’s just making the job twice as much work, if you ask me.

Quite often, you’ll have bark strip off the logs as you split them. I tend to keep a few buckets of these bark scraps as they make for great kindling. Same things goes with some of the smaller branches. You can find suitable buckets for this purpose at your local dollar store.

When you are concentrating on obtaining firewood frugally, you often don’t have a choice as to the type of wood you receive. While hardwoods such as oak make for the warmest and longest lasting fire, it is rare indeed to find such great wood for free or cheap. Instead, you’ll likely end up with softwoods like pine. The problem with cheap wood like that is the creosote buildup you can experience in your chimney. Creosote buildup is a very real danger and needs to be combated. You could sweep your chimney yourself, provided you have the equipment as well as the means to safely get up on your roof to do the job. You may find it a better option to pay a professional a couple hundred bucks every fall to get the job done right, with no risk to your own neck. However it gets done, it does need to be done every year.

Good quality hardwoods to be considered for firewood include oak, ash, and walnut. All give off good heat and are relatively easy to split. Suitable softwoods would be yellow pine, cypress, and douglas fir. But again, part of the deal with free or cheap wood is you kind of have to deal with what is available. Beggars can’t be choosers and all that.

So, where can you find firewood on the cheap? First, pay attention to your neighborhood. If you notice someone is having trees removed or severely trimmed, ask the owners if they plan to keep the wood. If not, quite often they’ll let you have it just for removing it from the property. If that’s the case, be sure you leave the area in better condition than when you arrived. Avoid wheel ruts in the ground and clean up after yourself. Not only is it just the right thing to do, if the owner is having more trees taken down in the future, you’ll have a leg up on anyone else who stops by asking about the wood.

Be sure to scout your area after a severe storm has come through. If a homeowner has had trees come down, they’ll be more than happy for you to remove them in exchange for keeping the wood. Personally, I would avoid making this offer if the tree is sitting against their home or has taken down power lines, just for safety’s sake.

If you live in an area that has a municipal or county street department, give them a call and find out what they are doing with trees they take down. While brush surely gets mulched, the larger limbs and trunks have to go somewhere. In many areas, you can buy this wood for a nominal fee, provided you can transport it yourself. Again, odds are this isn’t going to be premium grade hardwood but you can’t beat the price.

Watch for construction sites in your area. Once you see the framing start to go up, get in touch with the site foreman. Ask if you might be able to get some of the cut offs. Usually, as they cut the framing to length, the scraps just go into a bin. Find out if it is possible for you to get a load or two of those scraps. It’ll likely be pine 2×4 remnants for the most part. You might even be able to strike a deal with one or two of the workers whereby they’ll drop a pickup truck load to your home for a 12 pack of beer. It never hurts to ask, the worst that can happen is they’ll say no. Some of these scraps may have to be cut to the proper length to fit into your wood stove but that’s just the work of an hour or two with a chop saw.

If you have local businesses where they make custom cabinetry and that sort of thing, hit them up as well. The scraps might be smaller in size but they’ll burn just as well. Be careful though to avoid any scraps that look like they’ve been painted or stained. Burning those may give off harmful chemicals.

I know a few people who have regular access to junked wood pallets. I hesitate to recommend this as a means of obtaining firewood as one can never be certain what chemicals may have leached into the wood during the pallet’s use.

You’re far better off to start getting together firewood and sources for more now, rather than in the dead of winter.

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