Will Blocking Log
Since we heat with wood that means cutting wood. Our son Will is learning about using the chainsaw. In the photo above he’s blocking up logs. The thinner tops of the trees and the branches generally are burnt whole without splitting. For faster fires we use smaller pieces. For longer burning over night I’ll put in as large a log as possible on a bed of coals. Those logs Will is cutting above are thick enough that they’ll need splitting for our small wood stove.
Will’s been splitting wood and tending the home fires for about five years. He has been awaiting the day when he could use the big chainsaw. My rule is he had to wait until he could easily hold the saw out at arms length. At 34 lbs that’s harder than it might look. The reason for this is not that he’s going to ever do that move while sawing, I hope, but rather it is important to have developed enough strength to easily work with the machine. Even then, an hour of sawing leaves newly discovered muscles aching.
Of course, proper work habits and technique mean that normally he supports an elbow on a knee or such much of the time. That keeps the fatigue at bay, saves the back and prevents accidents. One lesson I teach is when you get tired, you stop. That is important with all sorts of tasks so as to avoid injuries especially when dealing with powerful tools, sharp blades or both at once.
Blocking up the wood from logs into firewood is an excellent starting project with the saw. Flat level ground, logs that are set in place. In this case on a driveway that’s covered in about 8″ of hard pack snow so even the chain blade is protected from hitting stones. After will got good with basic blocking I started giving him challenges. Under cuts. Cut, roll and cut. Tension release. Hanging a log on the snow bank. Predicting which way a log will roll on a slope and not being there. It’s real life problems but in a nice controlled situation rather than out in the woods which has even more complications.
You’ll note that Will is wearing protective garb. Helmet, ear protection, face/eye protection, gloves, chaps, boots. The chaps are a bit awkward. I’ve told Will the story of our ex-neighbor who cut off his leg… most of the way. A dream that died and he returned to New York. Things not to do. A little discomfort is minor. This garb is one reason winter cutting of wood is nice – its much easier to keep cool.
A chainsaw has many teeth. Sharp teeth cut long shavings. Dull teeth make fine sawdust. This is one way to know if you need to sharpen you saw. Another thing is that a sharp saw will cut more easily, almost falling through the wood while a dull saw deviates easily from the intended path, smokes and works harder. A sharp saw is a safer saw. Keep sharp.
Firwood Drying on Grate
Ideally we would have cut our wood back in the summer or fall but other projects interfered. Doing it in the winter is actually a fairly pleasant task as it is hard work that warms you well. The only problem is the logs are covered in ice. So their first stop in the house is on the entry grate where the ice will melt off and drip down the floor drain.
This wood is all from logs that have been drying for a year in the pile up above the cottage so the wood is actually quite dry and seasoned – the wetness is just on the surface. Once the ice is gone we move the wood under the wood stove where it finishes drying. We’ll often leave pieces of wood on a drying shelf above the stove. That makes for ultra dry wood that catch in the morning from the last night’s embers buried in the ash. Easy wood heat.
How much wood does it take to heat our tiny cottage?
So far we have used 0.13 cords of wood (full cord, not face cord). A cord is 8’x4’x4′ of tightly stacked wood. That’s 128 cubic-feet of wood.
We are now about half way through the winter. Will and I just cut about another 0.20 cords which is stacked and ready to use. That will probably last the rest of February unless it gets a lot colder – unlikely. There’s about five to six(?) more cord in the log pile.
We didn’t burn any wood in December as I didn’t get the wood stove installed until the beginning of January so most of that 0.13 cord is for January. That suggests we would normally use about 0.78 cord of wood a year to heat the cottage for the six months from November through April. That’s excellent.
Since the insulation and windows of the tiny cottage are not yet done and that is based on this year’s January wood usage which is the coldest month of the year we will probably use less in the future. Perhaps half a cord of wood a year is required to heat the tiny cottage. That number would be further diminished since we currently have no electric appliances adding heat to the cottage right now – With computers, aquariums and cooking all generate quite a bit of heat.
Compare that with the two to three cord we have historically burnt in the old farm house over the same period each year. Oh, and one more detail, with that small amount of wood the tiny cottage is staying warmer, less drafty and more comfortable than the old farm house ever was.
So why do we heat with wood? Why not go with the ease of propane, diesel, coal or electric? In a word, availability. Wood is sustainable and forever renewing. We have wood. Lots of wood. Lots and lots and lots and lots of wood. The waste tree tops, the culls, the fells, just from around our homestead area are enough to heat our old farm house forever. The cottage for longer. It’s wood that is not good enough to even sell for firewood because people want to buy neat straight logs that are easy to cut but it is still excellent wood.
The danger with wood is of course chainsaw accidents, logs rolling and fires – particularly chimney fires. But those are all things I understand and can control. I can fix, service and sharpen the saw myself. Worse case I would end up using a hand saw or axe – takes longer but it works. Logs are physics. As to chimney fires, they are easy to prevent by what we burn (dry non-creosote wood), how we burn it (daily fast fires) and regular cleaning of the chimney which is easy to do oneself. Other fires are prevented by proper design and use of the wood stove area. All very manageable risks.
Wood also has the advantage, unlike propane and LPG, that it doesn’t explode destroying the house and killing the family. There are all too many instances of that happening. In the old farm house there was propane for the kitchen stove, hot water and lights when we first got here 18 years ago. It stank. it was always leaking. The propane company redid the supply pipes repeatedly but could never stop the stench or the leaks. It was giving me headaches from the fumes. Headaches on top of those I got from reading in the newspaper about homes that had exploded from similar leaks. I finally had them remove the tanks. Enough of that nonsense.
So what about home heating fuel. Yes, it leaks into the ground but at le
ast it doesn’t tend to explode like propane. Still, I like wood better. Unlike diesel wood not imported from foreign markets. The price of wood is not shooting through the roof, or at least not for us since we have our own renewable supply.
Coal? My parents had a house that was heated with coal at one point. Pretty stuff. Crush it real hard and you get diamonds. Messy though. Besides, we don’t have that around here. We can buy it but it gets shipped in from a long ways away. I don’t like the distance thing.
Electric? That is we officially heat with, even it it never gets used and there is the little detail that we average about one to two weeks worth of electrical outage per year, most of it in the winter when it would be needed most. It’s a backup but I wouldn’t bet my winters on it.
The tiny cottage, unlike the old farm house, is primarily heated with passive solar which gets soaked up through those gorgeous huge windows by all that thermal mass in the stone and mortar. But that isn’t something that is currently accepted as a primary source of heat. Yet, that is a big reason it takes so little to heat the tiny cottage.
I joke that we could heat the cottage with the sun and the heat output of five dogs. They burn about 3,000 to 6,000 calories a day each. Of course, five big dogs in one tiny cottage might be a bit crowded…
Outdoors: 27°F/-20°F Mostly Sunny, 2″ Snow
Farm House: 54°F/45°F Moved sows to main, atrium & NF gardens
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/50°F