Burning Wood --
A Renewable Resource and More


Is there anything like a burning wood fire?

Whether it’s the smell of a campfire in fall,

a wood stove glowing, or a blaze on the hearth,

it adds beauty and comfort to life.




At the end of a hard day, a good wood fire can relax you with a variety of entertainments --
sizzling sounds, flickering shadows, and dancing lights -- and before you know it, you’re mesmerized into sleep, or at least into a deep pool of reflection. And when we also know that burning wood can help reduce global warming, the combination is irresistible!


What you don’t want is to have your enjoyment spoiled by a fire that won’t burn! So make it easy on yourself by keeping the right materials on hand for efficiently burning wood.


STARTING OUT

When you’re constructing a building, everything rests on the foundation. It’s the same with burning wood – it all depends on “laying the fire,” beginning with the smallest wood, and gradually increasing in size to the main firewood. Here’s what a fire needs:

  • Air The best way to insure this is by criss-crossing your wood as you lay it, so air can get between the pieces.
  • Tinder -- The very smallest wood category. It can be shredded cedar bark (sometimes available free at a lumber mill), cedar or sassafras twigs, or any really dry twigs or splinters. Dead sassafras twigs have a waxy coating that also seals out water. It’s the best match tinder I know. (And the fragrance is heavenly!)

    Tinder can also be whittled from dry wood. Old men used to drive the young crazy by always whittling on a fuzz stick for the next fire.

    Got a piece of old plywood that’s coming unglued? It separates into the thinnest layers, which can be broken into wonderful tinder. One sheet will give you about five years’ worth. It does have that glue in it, but when you consider spreading it out over a long period of time, environmental damage is miniscule.



  • Sumac


  • Kindling -- This is the second smallest category. When we were camping for long periods (up to a year at a time, under wet conditions!), burning wood day-in-and-day-out could be tough. But we gathered dead Sumac for kindling, using sassafras twigs as tinder. With natural oil in its wood, Sumac burns very hot, even if you’re starting a fire in the rain. Be careful, though - only gather dead sumac from bushes with red spikes - other species are highly poisonous, like poison ivy!


  • When you’re living in a house, of course, you’ll probably just split kindling, as the pioneers did. Try to choose dry (untreated and unpainted) softwood boards, or seasoned softwood logs, and split them down to a size from ½” to 1”.


  • Other spark-holding materials In the 18th century, burning wood was just about the only way to go -- so there was a big-time need for spark-holding tinder, because they had to build all fires without matches, both at home and in the wilderness. Flint-and-steel was the standard spark-maker, but tiny smoldering coals were also generated by the ancient friction-drill bow technique.


  • So people were always on the catch for natural materials which would hold a spark long enough to be blown into flame. Shredded cedar bark and abandoned bird’s nests were considered ideal, and a fuzz stick made by an expert can do the job, too. During the Middle Ages, traveling people would keep fire alive by putting a live coal to smolder in a bed of moss, inside a clay pot.


    Of course, in our time, most of us just crumple up newspaper, and set a match to it. This usually works, but real tinder is a little more reliable for burning wood, since it doesn’t flash and fade too quickly, smothering your fire in ash before it’s going well.


    But whichever way you start your fire, please don’t use kerosene, and NEVER GASOLINE. Realize that your kids see what you do, and are likely to follow your example, >>> but without any of the precautions you would take.


    MAINTAINING THE FIRE


    After your tinder is catching well, arrange your kindling around and above it, then add slightly larger wood from your main supply. It can take a while for a wood burning stove to get really hot, especially if it’s firebrick-lined.


    But when it does, just put in the largest seasoned hardwood log that will fit, and shut it up tight. If it’s getting too hot in the house, I sometimes bend the rules and put a green log on, to hold with less heat.


    An old secret of woodsmen like Nessmuk or Kephart that we’ve brought inside is to burn a punky, even waterlogged chunk in marginal weather. The sorriest logs you ever saw will hold all day or all night, without making much heat.*


    This works beautifully in spring and fall, when the weather is too warm for wood heat during the day, but chills you thoroughly in the morning and evening. Cooking can be done when the fire is hot, early and late, and the fire put to sleep till needed. It always amazes us how many coals are left in the morning to start the new fire...


    *And that’s why, when you’re camping, it is SO important to really dig down and make sure that fire is out, using water. Punky roots have been known to act like a fuse (even when it’s wet outside!), and start forest fires many months later. Expert woodsmen say that if you’re really sure your fire is out, you won’t mind sticking your hand in the wet ashes. (A good rule! See what else Smokey the Bear says about campfires )


    THE MAIN FIREWOOD


    Ideally, when burning wood, you’ll have both hardwood and softwood logs, using the softwood either to get a quick cooking fire, or to get the hardwood going.


    People always tell you to burn nothing but seasoned wood, both because it makes your life much easier, and because burning green wood produces a lot of creosote in the pipe, which can be dangerous if you don’t clean the pipe frequently.


    Mostly, we’ve never had our “druthers” to that extent -- I’ve burned a lot of unseasoned wood, and cleaned the chimney often. But don’t do it if you don’t have to.


    Woodpile

    For a good laugh about burning wood when Paul
    was young, read the story, “Making Maple Syrup,” in
    his new memoir, Grandma Does His Duty.



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