Firewood Planning

I have two racks of wood left from this year’s wood pile. Couldn’t have planned that better than it turned out. Just enough to get me through a frosty spring.

Of course, there is other wood laying around, but none of it has had time to season or even dry properly. The winter was also very mild. Last year wasn’t bad either, but the year before was frigid out here for the few weeks I had spent working on the property.

Always plan for the worst. I estimate that I burned up around two cords of firewood (that’s basically a block of wood that is 4x4x8 feet, or a bit more than 1×1.5×3 meters). Much of that was not well seasoned, as the best pieces were cut around this time last year. It would be prudent to make that a bare minimum for a woodpile.

But seasoned wood is different than green (fresh cut) wood or even dried wood. After 4 or more seasons (a year, basically), wood darkens deeply in color on the outside, and the moisture level inside drops dramatically. It also becomes very light compared to fresh-off-the-log. The process is easy enough. Cut it up and stack it somewhere sunny. Covering isn’t required.

That might sound odd, as you would want it as dry as possible right? But it’s the inside of the wood that we are concerned with, not how much liquid is on the outer layer for a few weeks out of the year.

Anyway, I’m getting side-tracked. I’ll talk about some how-to’s of seasoning at the end of this blog post. For now, that minimum of two cords is not my intended target. I want at least four stacked up by the time it gets cold again, just to be safe. I would also much like it to be dried really well or fully seasoned, but the process takes a while.

Last year I was scrounging for anything I could burn, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few times. This year, it was really nice having a big pile that I could run out to and simply transfering half of a rick (a rick is a 4×8 foot stack of firewood) at a time to the pole barn to keep it dry for rainy weather. But it wasn’t always the best to burn. Seasoning takes a while, and until the moisture is out, much of the energy stored in the wood is consumed turning that excess moisture into steam. This also leads to uneven burning and clogged flue pipes, not to mention problems starting it.

Since it takes a while to cure the logs, it takes time to get your firewood supply for the homestead built up. Some people never do this, and end up burning slab wood and board ends every year, or chasing their tail to get fresh logs in at a considerable price.

So, my first year I burned everything, and started gathering lots of wood in the late winter and early spring. I didn’t get as much as I wanted, and nearly ran out this year. At this moment, I have two cords stacked up from mostly fallen logs or diseased trees that I’ve cut down since January. I can keep stacking up till I have four cords, and I’ll be pretty good for next winter.

or…

I could throw down for a challenge that I’ve made for myself. One cord per month. That’s felled, bucked, split, and stacked. By December’s end, I could have 12 cords stacked up out here (not accounting for what I burn in the early winter). Why would I want so much wood?

Because I won’t burn it all. I don’t believe I can. That means that the wood I burn in subsequent years, as long as I’m cutting what is necessary each year, will have more time to dry out and really season up nicely. Better wood makes better fires, and seasoning is the trick.

A cord is a lot of firewood. I don’t have to tell some of you. But it never seems to last as long as we hope. Yet, it is a manageable amount that can be collected easily in a month. I’ll bet if I dedicated an entire day and sacrificed my body a bit, I could stack up a cord in one day with a chainsaw and an axe. A few hours each weekend spreads the chore out and makes it easier in those hot summer months.

So, I decided to take my own challenge, and I’m holding myself to it. I’ve been out with a cold and some nerve pain this week, so I’m getting a late start on March, but I’m really going to try seeing this through this year. And who knows, one of my friends might be hurting for firewood and I’ll have extra to share for people around me in need, or possibly for a few extra bucks next spring.

This is by far the best way to kickstart a wood-fueled homestead. If you are planning on off-gridding, take some time in the winter to start putting up as much firewood as you can, perhaps even before your house is built. It’s something that I always wish I had more of.

Tips on Seasoning Wood

Unless you have a measurement device of some sort, it doesn’t make much sense to discuss water content of wood as a percent. There are, however, some general rules that will ensure better burning wood.

The first is time. As a minimum, seasoning takes at least one year. That means wood that will be burned next year needs to be put up now. While rain won’t bother your wood pile too much, your climate might. Wet climates require more drying time. My brother says that in Germany, they would season wood for a minimum of two years. In some places of the southwestern US, it can be ready in as little as six months.

Try to keep your wood off the ground. Ground contact will lead to rot, and nobody wants that. This year I’m using sacrificial staves, and from here out I’ll be trying to split them all from cedar as it is naturally rot resistant, but anything to get the pile a couple inches above the dirt will help.

Seasoned wood darkens. As a piece of wood sits out in the weather, the surface will turn to a dark tone of grey over time. This is an indicator that it may be seasoned pretty well. I haven’t found a single stick of wood that doesn’t do this, though cedar will be a lighter shade of grey than other woods, so there is some variance. Most hardwoods will look almost black.

Weight. When you pick up a piece of seasoned wood, especially after putting in all the hard work to split and stack it, you will notice how light it is. Wood is typically 80-90% water content, like any other plant. When that drops to 20-25% water content (an established guideline for seasoning wood) or less, that little log will weight 1/4th or even 1/5th of the live log it came from. It’s a difference you will definitely notice.

Some people will recommend, or even insist, that the wood is covered. I’ll leave this to you, but I dry mine in the sun. It’s much harder for water to soak into the core of the wood than it is for it to escape, so over time, the bulk of the wood will turn evenly dried, with only the outer 1/4 inch or so susceptible to soaking rains and melting snow.

If you are going to cover it, by tarp or other means, please do not make the covering air-tight! All you need to keep the weather off is something over the top of the pile. The wood ends should remain exposed so that trapped moisture can escape. So with a tarp, cover just the top of the pile and perhaps let the fabric drape a bit over the upper logs. If you are storing it in a wood shed, ensure airflow around the pile. That kinda thing. You don’t want to trap the moisture in wherever the pile is, and more air movement means faster drying.

Always split the wood. We’ve all skipped this for smaller logs and little sticks, and that’s fine. But wood will always dry faster if it has been split. The smaller the pieces, the faster it will season. In other words, don’t try to season big rounds so you can split them later as needed immediately before burning. They will cure better if you just bust them open and get it over with. If you want to wait a few weeks for them to dry (sometimes it’s easier to split), that’s cool, but make sure they are fully split up as soon as possible for better drying.

Leave space between rows. It can be tempting to stack your wood all together in a giant block, but this impedes the drying process for the stuff in the middle. It also traps moisture during rainy times, and that water takes longer to dry off of the surface as well. I make my stacks about four feet tall, so another change I’m making this year is to add more space between them so the sun can hit them better during the day. If you can, also build your piles so that you will be removing from the southernmost piles first. This will put more of that limited winter sunshine on the next stack you intend to use. I never do this and at least once per year I find myself hauling damp logs off the pile. Some of them get quite mucky on the bark.

As far as bark on vs off, well. It would make sense that without the bark, the wood will dry quicker. Bark also leaves a lot more ash than the bare wood. But in the end, this is up to you. For me, stripping the bark off while the wood is still green isn’t my idea of fun. It falls off quite readily once the wood is seasoned though, and I get some interesting pieces of bark laying around the pile. I would say this probably doesn’t affect the process enough to warrant making a rule about it. Strip it or leave it on, it’s up to you. I don’t bother about bark.

Hope this was fun, somewhat educational, and that I didn’t repeat previous posts too too much. It’s still cold out, so I have wood-brain much of the time, and tonight was no different really. Just wanted to put something up so you guys know I’m still here. The bears haven’t eaten me yet.

P.S. The kittens say hi. They’re now almost 6 months old and I haven’t lost one of them yet. They have all of their shots now, too, so hopefully they stay healthy and happy.


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