Topic: Homes

Knowledge & Wisdom: How to Heat with Wood

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For more than 30 years, Stephen Philbrick has heated almost exclusively with wood—this despite the fact that for much of that time Philbrick’s western Massachusetts house has been a “drafty” 1806 Federal. In a typical year he burns through 10 cords, all of it from his property, all of it split by hand by Philbrick himself. “I love it,” says Philbrick, a published poet and a Congregational minister. “It’s my therapy. It’s my recreation. It does wonders for your patience if you can go out there and hit something absolutely as hard as you can.”

Pick the Best Hard Wood for Heat

Dense wood is good firewood; that’s why hardwoods are preferable to softwoods. But not all hardwoods are created equal. Avoid poplar, a light wood with limited grain structure. Sugar maple is better than red (swamp) maple. Ash dries fast, and its straight grain makes it easy to split. And yellow and black birch are toastier than white birch. Your best bets? “Beech and oak,” Philbrick advises. Hickory and hornbeam are excellent, too, but a little harder to find in New England.

Split Wood with a Maul

A maul, not an axe, is what you want for splitting wood. A good maul (costing about $70) has a head that weighs at least six pounds, with the bulk of that weight resting behind the handle. That gives it more force. Philbrick stands his target up in the middle of an old tire. “If you hit it and it doesn’t split, it doesn’t fall over,” Philbrick says. “You can just reach over with the maul and stand it back up.”

Stack Wood for Air Flow

When it comes to drying wood, air is your friend, so stacking is critical. “There are all those openings, which air can get through,” Philbrick explains. He stacks on top of stringers, so that air flows under the rows, while also making sure the piles are at right angles to the prevailing wind. He never, ever, wraps any stack in plastic; instead, he covers the top with a sheet of plywood or an old piece of metal roofing to keep the rain off. “People who are new to this will proudly say how they covered their piles tightly,” he says. “Well, after a year, with all that trapped moisture, it’s all punk.”

Test Wood for Moisture

Well-dried wood is easy to detect; its color is more muted. Cherry’s split grain, for example, goes from orange to a weathered gray. Wood’s scent changes, too. Freshly split oak has an almost sour smell to it, which disappears after it’s dried. Check marks (cracks) on the ends of the pieces are also a sign. “Try smacking two pieces together,” Philbrick says. “Green wood kind of thunks. Dry wood has a ring to it.”

Choose the Best Kindling

A great fire begins with a good source of kindling. Aged pine branches are an excellent choice, as well as a carpenter’s lumber scraps. You can even try a slightly unconventional route. “A bunch of people around here go to a casket maker in Northampton,” Philbrick says. “He’s got fabulous pieces that aren’t very big.”


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