Heating With Wood: Cutting Your Own Firewood

By , February 15, 2014

As I indicated in the last post (Heating With Wood: Scrounging Free Firewood) now that we live on our “homestead,” we cut our own firewood exclusively. Our situation is extremely rare in today’s world: we have our own heavily forested land. This is ideal for frugal wood heat.

Targeting the best available firewood is important to maximize your time and effort. Standing dead is the best, as it has already begun the seasoning process before you begin cutting. Fallen dead is better when it’s not laying on the ground, and is safer to cut than standing dead, as tree felling is dangerous. We avoid rotten wood when possible. It will burn, but not as well. Wood cutting time and energy is best spent on sound wood.

We focus on cutting hardwoods before softwoods. Not only will hardwood provide more and cleaner heat, but it often takes longer to cure properly than softwood. It’s best not to even think about burning hardwood until it has seasoned at least a year. Two years is better.

Opinions vary on the burning quality of various woods. Wood rating charts can be found on the Internet or in books on wood stoves. In addition to how well different types of wood burn, other factors should be considered, such as how likely it is to give off sparks, and how easily it splits. Availability never seems to be considered in these charts. They focus on middle and eastern states in the lower 48. All of our indigenous woods fall to the bottom of these lists. 

In our part of Southeast Alaska, the forests are overwhelmingly hemlock and spruce. We have a scattering of cedar, some birch, willow and cottonwood, with alder around the fringes.

Birch is our first choice for firewood. It grows very fast, and tall, but then it dies within a short time. It’s prone to rot, because the bark is so watertight it holds in moisture. Since we harvest only dead trees, we watch the birches carefully, so we can fell them as soon as they’re dead. This is tricky, since a tree with a dead stump can leaf out for years afterward.

Hemlock is our second choice. It seems to burn better and hotter than spruce. It’s also easier to handle, as it’s less resinous, and hemlock needles aren’t sharp.

We have access to a lot of driftwood, but we don’t use it in our stoves. The salts absorbed by driftwood, when burned, eat metal quickly, especially if burned in a cast iron stove. We use driftwood for beach or other outdoor fires.

We have processed logs that drift in, but haven’t been in the water very long. Whole trees come across Lynn Canal from the Katzehin River, sometimes carried on the less dense fresh river water flowing over the surface of the saltwater canal. A month or so in the rain usually ensures these logs are salt free.

If you’re just getting started heating with wood, even if you own forested land, consider buying a winter’s worth of wood anyway. Some seasoned cords will get you started while you build up wood for future years by cutting and seasoning your own.

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