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The Warmth of a Wood Fire

February 11, 2002

"When you heat with wood, you are warmed thrice
- once when you chop and split it,
- once when you haul it,
- and once when you burn it to heat your house"

Old New England saying. or mebbe it was Benjamin Franklin?

The house seems warmer heated with wood

"Got Your Wood in Yet?"

There is nothing quite like the feeling of contentment that you get from having your stores laid in for winter. When we had our farm in Michigan, I would often find myself standing in the barn. I would just gaze at the hay bales neatly stacked to the rafters and breath in the smells of summer captured there. Long forgotten were the sweaty hours cutting and raking, the frenzied dance on the hay wagon behind the bailer, the stifling heat at the top of the loft struggling to get the last bales in place. All I felt was the satisfaction of having the barn full, with enough to feed all the critters until the new grass came up in the pastures next spring.

The bin full of oats and the corn crib full to bursting. These brought warm feelings as well. There is great contentment knowing that these fruits of our own labor, from our own fields, were stored away, ready for whatever winter would throw at us.

Having the winter's supply of firewood piled in the cellar gives me the same sort of satisfaction. It is part of the seasonal ritual here in Maine. Somehow, I don't get the same satisfaction in gazing at the fuel oil tank. In fact, I hardly look at the tank at all, except once and awhile to check the guage to see how full it is, usually on my way to stoke the wood furnace. I think it all has to do with interaction. If you heat with wood, you have a close relationship with it in the cutting and splitting, hauling and stacking, or stoking the fire - or all three. The only interaction with fuel oil is saying hello to the oil truck driver and paying the bill when it comes.

When the trees start to turn colors,
it is time... get the firewood
into the cellar for the winter

When the mornings start to get a little crisp and the trees take on their fall colors, there is an urging that most New Englanders feel that goes deep in their soul. It is time to get out the splitting maul and the wedges, the chain saw and the wheel barrow, and get the firewood under cover before snow flies.

It doesn't seem to matter if folks heat their whole house with wood, or if they have just a stove or fireplace. Everywhere you go, you see people around town working on their wood pile. Sometimes they have cut their own and are splitting it, and sometimes they have bought a load of wood and are busy stacking it. It is an annual ritual, and for most, as much a part of the season as deer hunting and bringing in the last harvest from the garden.

We can back the loads
of split firewood
right up to the cellar walk-in door.

We store our firewood in the cellar once the weather starts to cool off and the humidity in the New England cellar (aka dirt floor and stone walls) drops. When the Meserve's built the Farmhouse they had the forethought to build a big double-door entry under the kitchen with ready access all on one level into the main cellar. It makes it real handy to back a trailer load of wood right up to the doors and move it by wheel barrow to the stacks on the east and north walls. There is ample room to store six cords along the stone walls of the cellar and still have plenty of room to get around.

This year son Jim and I put up two cords of oak and maple that came from his back yard in Wells. During the winter a couple of years ago he and I had taken down a number of big hardwoods that had to be removed for a new septic drain field to be installed. We cut the trees into roughly two foot lengths and stacked them on the side of the yard. Jim burns oil, and has no need for the firewood. I was happy to get it. This last fall we hauled it all in several trailer loads up to the Farmhouse and stacked it out next to the big maple on the side yard. As the fall progressed we worked at the pile with splitting mauls and wedges, turning it into split and seasoned firewood. There was a little pine as well, and this was cut into lengths and split for kindling.

The cellar holds 6 or more
full cords of firewood easily.

From our first full winter at the Farmhouse, I figured that we would need six cords of firewood to see us through this winter. I was four cords shy, and the day job has cut into the time I would have needed to cut and split the additional firewood needed. I have been buying firewood since we moved into Sebago from Mark Ware. Mark runs Family Firewood (1096 Sebago Road, (207)787-3053) on Route 114, just south of the Naples town line. I have been very pleased with the mixed hardwood he delivers. It is usually a mixture of red and white oak, red maple, beech, white birch, and a little cherry for good measure. Mark gives full measure, rounded cords.

I called him up in the early fall. "Mark, what have you got on hand? I need you to bring me four cords sometime this fall." I asked. "Got anything seasoned?"

"I've got some, but it is only a few weeks out of the woods" he said. Mark has an arrangement to cut the hardwoods on various woodlots in the area, and then hauls the whole trees to his wood yard next to his house. There he has an amazing mechanical gadget that bucks and splits the trees to order and loads it right into his dump truck for delivery. "Its still green, but it'll season quick enough".

I made arrangements to have him bring four cords over, cut to 22" long (the longest length his machine will cut) and quarter-split. When he delivered the load I had him dump it outside the walk-in doors so it is handy for the wheel barrow. I stacked it in the back of the cellar and planned on using the more seasoned oak and maple from Jim's place first. That was to give Mark's wood a couple of months to season in the warm, dry cellar. Merlyn and a friend came to help stack some of the wood when I got called out of town on business. All together, all six cords were under cover before the first snow arrived.

Wood Lore

Hickory makes the hottest coals in stoves when winter's bleak,
Apple wood like incense burning through the hall both fragrance seek,
Elm wood fires have little smoke and warm both serf and lord,
Oak logs split and dried this year make good next winters hoard,
Beech burns bright and fills a the room with warmth and dancing light,
Maple sweet, not white or red will burn throughout the night,
Birch logs cut, need ne'er be stored - they blaze, then heat the pot,
Ash, straight grain and easy split - the kettle sings, and stove is hot,
Poplar logs must need be dried lest smoke both then ensue,
Pine and fir midst showers of sparks burn fast and line the blackened flue

Anonymous, Old English Song

The Rufus Edwards system

Rufus Edwards was the town character in Effingham, NH. He worked with me a couple of summers on the road crew, cutting brush and picking rocks out of the road walking behind the grader. "Rufie" was always good natured, a hard worker, even if nature had dealt him less than a full deck.

I always thought, however, that Rufie was pretty smart in some ways. Like when it came to cutting wood, for example. He lived alone, in a little one-room tar paper shack on the side of the road, going up Cook Mountain from the old Chase Mill Pond. When it started to get a little frosty out, Rufie would fire up a little box stove he had in the shack for heat. The place wasn't very big, and it didn't take much to heat it.

You could go by on any fall or winter day, and Rufie would have one of the windows open. I thought at first it was to cool the place down. Even that little box stove would drive you out of a place pretty easy. If you looked a little closer, however, you'd see that Rufie had a log sticking out of the window. What he would do was to cut his fire wood in real long lengths, trim off the limbs, and then feed them into the open door of the box stove. As they burnt down, he just shove a little more log into the fire. If the log was too long for the shack, then he'd just open the window and stick the end outside. Why bother cutting the trees into firewood length and splitting them - they are just going to get burnt up anyway!

As appealing as Rufie's system of wood handling was, however, we opted for the more traditional cut-split-stack approach to fire wood.

Our Kerr Scotsman wood furnace

Long before we bought the Farmhouse Dot and Ed installed an oil furnace and a wood furnace. They are both tied to the same blower system and supply warm air through a common system of ductwork to the six rooms on the first story of the Farmhouse. Paul has since extended the ductwork so that we have heat in the office, the shipping room, and the mud room. As is common in old Maine farmhouses, we do not have heat to the second floor. However, bending the rules a little, Paul has run a heat duct up to the bat room and will add Penny's studio upstairs to the system as well.

The heating system is designed to run on either the wood or the oil furnace. The wood furnace keeps everything cozy and warm, even with the extensions to the ductwork. I try to keep the wood furnace stoked all the time when I am home, but if we are away it is comforting to know that the oil furnace will kick in if the wood fire goes out. Also, if I am out of town Penny can run the oil furnace and not have to climb up and down the cellar stairs. This was not always the case. When we lived for a time on Greenstone Road in El Dorado, California, the only heat in the house was an old Ashley fireplace insert. I ran through 3 1/2 cords each winter with that inefficient stove in a house without very much insulation. Whenever I was off on business there was no alternate heating system. It was not a good arrangement.

In the living room of the Maine Farmhouse I have installed two thermostats - one for each furnace. The thermostat on the wood furnace activates a servo motor that opens the front draft on the furnace and regulates the amount of air reaching the fire and make it cooler or hotter.

The Kerr Scotsman wood furnace
heats the whole house nicely
We have two thermostats -
one for the oil furnace and
one for the wood furnace

The wood furnace is a Kerr Scotsman, made in 1979 by the Kerr Heating Company in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, Canada. It is a 100,000 BTU model specifically designed for larger farm houses, with a fire box that will take 30" logs, a two-stage heat exchanger, and a heavy 13 inch cast-iron door. One charge of wood will last from four to six hours, depending on the call that you put on the furnace from the thermostat upstairs.

For the first couple of months this winter, I could smell the new wood drying every time I went to the cellar to stoke the furnace. It was like being in the woodlot all over again. By the time the aged oak and maple were used up, the new wood was ready. Seasoned firewood has dried to about 20% moisture content. The ends of the logs are checked, and if you strike two pieces together there is a high-pitched "tonk" sound that is distinctive.

Ode to a fire

A fire on the hearth represents
a piece of the sun which was stored
in heart of the earth's ecosystem.

As a fire burns,
we should delight in
the life it brings to our homes
as we should delight in the life
once generated by the trees in the forest
as they collected the sun's energy
and provided us with
the air we breathe.

Let us ensure that as long as the sun
shines down on us, fires will continue to
warm the body and soul of humanity.

Ted Kesik 1991

It may only be our imagination, but it seems as if the house is warmer when we heat with wood than with oil. Certainly the smell of wood smoke in the air when the wind blows the right way when I am outside is nice. And, I enjoy the interaction with the fire, the visual gratification of seeing the stacks of wood in the cellar to keep us warm all winter long.

Sources of information used in this Journal Entry

"Come home to wood heat, it's good for you",Wood Heat web site.
Gay, Larry. The Complete Book of Heating with Wood. Garden Way. Charlotte, VT. 1974.
Kesik, Ted J. "Ode to Fire" from a wood-burning conferencepresentation, modified by John Gulland of Wood Heat.
Owner's manual, Scotsman Wood Furnace Model DB-101, Kerr Wood Furnaces, Parrsboro, NS.

Image of wood fire is of John Gulland's stove that he uses to heat his house (see Wood Heat).

The "wood warms you thrice" quote is provided by Judith Koppel, who heats with wood sometimes.

Allen Crabtree

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Last updated March 8, 2002

Copyright © 2002, Allen Crabtree