It’s that time of year when I look forward to building a crackling fire in my wood-burning stove on a frosty morning. Even though we’re all savoring a week of splendid Indian Summer weather right now, it won’t be long before the mercury starts to dip below the freezing mark on a regular basis. And that’s when I’m grateful that my woodshed is full.
I’ve been heating with firewood for more than 40 years and I enjoy cutting and splitting it myself. I start by cleaning up any deadfall in my woods or by knocking down a few white ash trees that are on their last leg of life. My neighbors’ woods were logged recently and I was given the okay to clean up any treetops that remained. And by treetops, I mean 20 to 30 feet of straight 16-to-20-inch upper trunks and limbs over a foot in diameter.
The species ranged from black walnut and black cherry to hickory, maple, and red and white oak. All of these make excellent firewood once they are properly seasoned, except for the ash, which does not require any drying at all. It can be burned green because it doesn’t give off any creosote like the other varieties do. Creosote is a tar-like substance that builds up on the insides of chimneys and is the major cause of smoky rooms and even worse—chimney fires.
All species of ash trees are dying off at an alarming rate due to an invasive insect known as an Emerald Ash Borer, which was first discovered in the United States in 2002. The ½-inch long beetle lays its eggs under the bark and its larvae slowly kills the tree by creating a system of feeding tunnels that meander between the bark and the cambium layer and eventually stop the flow of nutrients and water. D-shaped holes in the bark of an ash tree are evidence that the tree is infected. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has issued restrictions on moving firewood and wood products made from ash. Current regulations, which are periodically updated, can be found on the agency’s website.
I like to season my firewood for at least a year to ensure that it is dry enough to burn. Some wood like red oak may take even longer. I start cutting a year ahead in the late fall after the leaves come down. After bucking it to length and splitting the blocks, I stack the pieces in the woods uncovered to begin drying. Toward the end of the following summer, I move it into my woodshed so it can remain dry. If you buy firewood, look for checks or 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 either.
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. Surface water evaporates quickly. The goal is to dry the moisture content from within the wood itself. Once snow is in the forecast, however, it’s a good idea to cover the top of the woodpile only, leaving the sides open so air can move through. In a cold winter, I’ll burn between 9 and 10 face cords of wood. My woodshed holds 12. A face cord is a pile of 16-inch lengths stacked 4-feet high and 8-feet long. A full cord is three times that.