I never used to believe in the goodness of wood. Up until 1994, I really never thought much about wood. The houses and apartments I lived in were made at least partly of wood, or at least I assumed they were. I would use wood when it was necessary; in a pencil, for instance, or a ruler.
My father was a bit of a woodworker, majoring in industrial arts in college, but after beginning his teaching career he never bothered to set up any kind of woodshop at home. Up until ’94, the only time I ever even lived in a house with a fireplace was during college, when my first wife and I rented a house in Platteville with what appeared to be a working fireplace, although it was mostly for show, not heat.
That all changed on Memorial Day 1994, when my soon-to-be second wife, Sue, and I moved into this place, out in the country north and east of Rice Lake:
It didn’t look like this in ’94. The home had been built seven years before by a German couple, intending to emigrate here, but they never finished the interior and finally decided to stay on their side of the Atlantic and sell the place. Sue found it entirely by accident one day in March of that year, and pretty soon we owned the house and five acres, along with over 400 feet of lakefront on a small lake with the name of Pickerel. More than twenty years and not a small amount of money later, it looks like this.
The original heating source was a large, German-built wood furnace in the basement, with the comfy name of “The Cannibal.” The heat generated by the furnace warmed water which was distributed throughout the house by pipes and radiators. The backup was an electrical system, which was even less efficient. Within a couple years we had replaced the Cannibal with a gas furnace, and installed a smaller wood stove on the main floor.
If you have a wood-burning stove, it naturally follows that you must have wood. Much of our five acres is, in fact, filled with trees, mostly basswoods, which we soon discovered grow quickly, are prone to topple due to storms or age, and whose wood is good to get a fire going, but for long-term burning we needed something like oak. There are a lot of people around here who burn wood, and so there are more than a few “wood guys” in the area who gather firewood and sell it to homeowners like us. We found a fellow down the road from us and he has supplied us once or twice a year ever since.
Reuben delivers two cords of firewood to us every year, usually in the spring. A “cord” officially measures four feet high by four feet wide by eight feet long, which is a volume of 128 cubic feet. But because firewood does not come in block form, a cord of wood will generally include about 85 cubic feet of actual wood. It comes in lengths of between 12-24 inches, and usually it is already split, which means the wood that has been cut from the tree, naturally in the shape of a solid tube, is cut in half or in thirds, depending on the diameter of the original piece. There are wood-splitting machines that do this job quite nicely, and I remember once we rented one when we had quite a bit of wood from our own property to split. But since most of Reuben’s wood is already split, we’ve never had to use a machine to split the small amount that would require such extra work.
At least, by “machine” I mean a wood-splitting machine. We actually do have a machine of our own which takes care of that job. And that machine is me.
Working the wood, old-school style.
There is, of course, a right way to split wood, and a wrong way. I learned the right way early on by trial and error, and fortunately my errors were few and did not involve chopping off my foot. Articles like this, on Art of Manliness, were very helpful: How to Split Wood.
The article includes a how-to video in which AoM founder Brett McKay shows how it’s done. His post was published in 2009, and by then I thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about splitting wood, but it was still helpful.
Early in February of this year, with another six or eight weeks of winter staring at us, we realized our wood supply was running low, so we had another load delivered. As we worked all one Saturday morning stacking the wood—and I was doing this just barely a month after having my left knee replaced—we saw that more than the usual number of logs needed splitting. There was enough split wood to carry us through the rest of the winter, which turned out to be fairly mild anyway, so the splitting could wait until the weather was warmer and my knee was up to the task. That day was yesterday, April 1st.
The day dawned clear but still chilly at around 30 degrees, so we did some indoors work while waiting for the morning to warm up. Around 10 a.m. I got properly attired—heavy shoes, old jeans, a long-sleeved shirt over a tee, sunglasses and of course a hat and gloves—and went to work. Now, normally I go to the gym on Saturday mornings, but that wouldn’t be necessary today. About halfway into the job, this is how it looked:
I have an old stump that I use for the chopping platform. The maul is the second one I’ve had since I started splitting wood back in ’94. They are simple tools, but very durable. And dangerous, if not used properly. Even if used as they should be, the split wood tends to fly around, which is why I never split unless Sue is around to keep the dog occupied elsewhere. Sophie has learned, though; if she comes around, she stays at least 15 feet away and has one or two of the deck support legs in between her and the action.
After a couple hours of work, the wood was all split and ready to be stacked. There are proper ways to do that, too, and once again, Art of Manliness comes to the rescue:
I have to admit, I’m not quite that precise, but our method gets the job done. We stack the wood under the deck, minimizing exposure to rain and snow, and use tarps to keep it covered, although we do allow plenty of venting on the sides to promote air flow and drying.
Not quite a full cord, but close enough for us. The recently-split wood is in the first two rows. The wood on the rack is our oldest wood, and some will need splitting eventually. For now, though, with winter behind us and the need for firewood still about six months away, we’re in good shape.
The high temp yesterday was a very nice 60. While our daughter near Boston was enduring a spring snowstorm, we were sitting on the deck, enjoying the day. Sue said she would keep some of the wood up in the house, next to the stove, just in case we had a chilly day. She is, of course, a smart woman—she found the house, didn’t she?—and sure enough, today was overcast and chilly with occasional drizzle. And so the wood stove got its first, and perhaps last, use of April. It was nice and toasty indoors.
At one time we considered replacing the wood stove with a gas burning model. We have a gas fireplace in the master bedroom upstairs, which starts at the flick of a switch, and gas never needs to be hauled or split or stacked. The gas truck shows up two or three times a year, fills the outside tank and we’re set. But one bitterly cold February morning a few years ago, we awoke with no electricity. There was no way to start the upstairs fireplace, or even the furnace in the basement. But the wood stove was there and worked like a charm. We were able to stay warm until power was restored a few hours later. Since then, there’s been no talk of replacing the wood-burner.
And that’s fine with me. I like working with the wood. There’s something elemental about it, almost pioneering. And splitting wood is great exercise. In short, I like everything about it. The wood stove fills the home not only with a cozy heat, but with an aroma that connotes everything that is good about living in the country. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t be beat.
Where, indeed, is the romance of adjusting the thermostat to turn up the furnace, or flipping a switch to see flames pop up in the fireplace? Yeah, I’ll use those, but I’ll stay with the wood, too. Looking at my freshly-split, organized wood pile is a lot more satisfying than looking in the other direction and seeing the gas tank.