RFD Maine — Wood

By Tom Seymour | Sep 12, 2012

Every year about this time, the smell of wood smoke punctuates the still air of early evening. For many people, the first whiff of that smoke elicits a certain nostalgia. However, any traces of nostalgia quickly disappear after cold weather sets in for real and people burn wood for something more important than to just “take the chill off.”

Soon, any day now, a cold snap will hit Maine and in addition to covering winter squash and tender garden vegetables, people will touch off the first fire of the year in their wood-burning stoves. And oh, how comfy and cheery that warmth will feel. But in time, building, lighting and maintaining a fire will become just another chore, right along with taking out the trash and shoveling snow.

But before any of this can take place, we must first procure our winter’s supply of firewood and store it safely out of the weather. The logistics of this depend upon each individual situation. Some folks own woodlots and have all the equipment needed to drop trees, haul them out of the woods, cut them up to stove length, place somewhere to dry and finally, place in the woodshed.

A number of my friends greatly enjoy working with firewood and find it a relaxing and rewarding form of recreation. None of these people, I might add, have back trouble. Those of us who do suffer from infirmities of the spine view dealing with firewood with a certain dread. Include me in the latter group.

Shared labor

For many years, I shared the job of getting firewood out of the woods with my friend Dan. Dan had the equipment and I had the woodlot. It was a fine arrangement. But the last several years have seen our wood roads wet and soft throughout the summer. This makes getting wood out extremely difficult, if not impossible. Also, this past summer’s heat and humidity were sufficient to intimidate the both of us.

And finally, Dan and I both are getting to an age where we must deal not only with aches and pains, but also a general lack of “oomph.” Neither of us really feels like going out and working in the woods.

So where does that leave us? Well, it puts us in category number two, those who purchase their winter’s firewood. I joined this group three years ago and find it much easier than the do-it-yourself approach. Besides that, my firewood suppliers, a husband-and-wife team, help me stack my wood. This is a very big deal and it saves me countless hours of labor.

But still, parts of my woodlot have high ground. But these places are pretty much inaccessible for Dan’s truck. So in order to feel as though I am yet a woodcutter, by gosh, I bought a lawn tractor and trailer. This will easily go where the truck won’t and it will allow me to finely tailor my woodlot, cutting a tree here and there and getting it out as time and energy permit.

Junk wood

Most firewood buyers complain when their dealer delivers a load of wood containing a little too much “junk wood.” Junk wood is anything other than the typical hardwoods, and it includes poplar and gray birch as well as certain coniferous woods. These woods burn hot, but don’t make good coals, and thus the heat from them is not long-lasting. However, during that in-between time of year when it is too cold not to burn wood and too warm to burn hot-burning types such as beech, oak or maple, this junk wood fills an important niche.

I cannot over-emphasize the value of woods such as poplar and birch. First, in this day and age of high prices, particularly high energy prices, it seems a shame not to utilize any and all woods. Instead of turning on the oil furnace or kerosene or propane heater, a handful of split poplar and a few sticks of birch make for a jolly fire, made jollier by the knowledge that this stuff is saving us money.

Also, the later in the year this lesser-quality wood suffices to heat our homes, the better. Consider that for each armload of junk wood, you are saving several sticks of high-quality wood. So burning junk wood extends the life of our cold-weather woodpile by many weeks at each end of the wood-burning season, spring and fall.

Of course none of this can work for those who must be gone from their place during the day and have no one home to tend the stove and keep feeding it junk wood. But for those who can avail themselves of it, junk wood makes a big impact upon annual heating bills.

In fact, people often ask me how many cords of wood I burn each year. Before answering, I always ask them to qualify the question as to whether or not I should include junk wood in the total cords consumed.

Benefits/deficits

Wood burning has its benefits, for sure. Cheaper than most other reliable forms of energy, wood rates as a renewable resource. In a well-kept woodlot with plenty of sunlight peeking through the canopy, trees grow much faster than some folks might think.

On the deficit side, wood heat is dry heat and in homes heated exclusively with wood, wooden tables and chairs often come unglued, the parts having shrunk because of the low humidity. This also impacts many musical instruments adversely. The answer is to buy a whole-house humidifier, but that is a nuisance to operate and also, it costs money.

By the way, those little cast-iron vessels meant to hold water and sit on your stove, adding moisture to the air, have very little effect. A person might as well go bear hunting with a slingshot. And that’s a bad idea.

Additionally, lots of nuisance insects come into the house by hitchhiking on firewood. This includes biting spiders and surprisingly, mosquitoes. Something about a mosquito buzzing around your head in January seems terribly wrong.

Finally, woodstoves require constant monitoring, making them very demanding. This last point works to good effect for me. I dislike travel and don’t like going away overnight. So at least in winter I can truthfully say, “Sorry, but I can’t make the trip. I must stay home and tend the stove.”

Like it or hate it, firewood has an important place in our state’s economy. And one thing’s for sure. It isn’t going away any time soon.

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