story and photos by John Adamski
In my last blog post, “Heating with Wood,” I wrote that I’ve been cutting and splitting firewood for more than 45 years. For 40 of those years, I split all of my wood by hand, using a 6-pound splitting maul. And after breaking several wooden maul handles, I opted for a fiberglass handle that was locked into place with a wavy steel wedge and secured with a generous gob of 2-part liquid epoxy. Once the epoxy hardened, the maul became indestructible.
But after a neighbor let me try his gasoline-powered hydraulic wood splitter for a few weeks four years ago, I decided to buy my own. It has eased the wood-splitting burden significantly and has reduced the strain on my arm and back muscles. I also wrote that a bit of timber management left me with a variety of hardwood treetops that include black cherry, black walnut, hard maple, hickory, red oak, and white ash. I also have a few white pine tops that I split into smaller pieces for kindling and campfires.
If you use firewood as your primary heating source, you’ll want to burn a high-quality hardwood that produces a lot of heat. If you just want a fire for atmosphere, a lesser-quality wood is fine. The following tree species, listed in their order of preference, are considered to be the best high-quality firewood: red and white oak, hickory, beech, black locust, hard maple, white ash, and mature birch. The worst firewood comes from coniferous or softwood trees in general and hemlock trees in particular. These woods produce inferior heat, spark a lot, and contribute to the buildup of creosote in your chimney, which can create a fire hazard. Deciduous trees like aspen, basswood, and willow are also poor quality firewood.
Just keeping a 10-acre woodlot cleaned up can provide a household with enough firewood to last a full winter season on an annual basis. You can buck and split deadfall at any time of the year but if you’re knocking down live trees, cutting and splitting is best done during the winter months when tree sap is at a minimum. Winter-cut trees season faster for that reason. Invasive forest pest species like the Emerald Ash Borer are killing some trees at an alarming rate and are adding to the woodlot cleanup.
I cut my logs into 20-inch lengths and split them according to size. I’ll split a 6-inch log in half and a 12-inch log into quarters. My splitter has a removable horizontal wedge that enables me to split 12 to 16-inch logs into four pieces in a single pass, which makes the work go faster. To split larger logs — those that are too heavy to lift — my splitter tips up on end and drives the ram downward into a standing block of wood.
I like to cut and split my firewood a year before I need it, to ensure that it is dry enough to burn without causing creosote. As I mentioned in my previous blog, after splitting the logs, I stack the pieces in the woods, uncovered, to begin drying. Toward the end of summer, I move them into my woodshed where they can continue to dry. If you buy firewood, look for checks and cracks in the end grain that will indicate proper seasoning. If the bark falls off by itself, that’s a better sign yet. The pieces shouldn’t be excessively heavy and the loose bark makes great kindling.
Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t hurt to stack firewood outside uncovered. It will actually dry faster that way. I always stack mine with the bark side up. That way, surface water runs off and evaporates quickly. The goal is to dry the moisture content from within the wood itself. If snow is in the forecast, however, it’s a good idea to cover the top of the woodpile only, leaving the sides open so that air can move through.