“In winter we lead a more inward life. Our hearts are warm and cheery, like cottages under drifts, whose windows cheerfully ascends….We enjoy now, not an oriental, but a boreal leisure, around warm stoves and fireplaces, and watch the shadow of motes in the sunbeams.” Henry David Thoreau
At the Lower Farm I heat with wood. It’s how it’s always been here. For over a hundred years, families at this old house have been heating water, cooking and staying warm by burning wood. It’s no different now.
Firewood is a local, low cost resource that is sometimes free. Wood heat may be cost efficient – but it is labor intensive. Gathering wood and maintaining a fire for six months is a year long process.
Autumn is my favorite time of year for wood cutting. The temperature is cooler and more comfortable for physical work. The beauty of the turning leaves and changing season makes any day in the forest a healthful plus grounding experience. I’m especially fortunate to have not only a wood lot but the national forest, which is within two miles from the house. For 20 dollars I can get a permit from the Forest Service to cut 5 cords of dead or down wood. During winter months I burn one cord of wood per month. I’m sure lots of folk would like to have a heating bill of $30 or $40 for the year.
Harvesting wood is hard work, it’s dangerous and there are tool costs involved. A truck, axe and chainsaw are essential. Safety must always be a consideration. For Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) I use a helmet with noise reduction ear muffs and a full face, mesh shield. On my legs are chaps that the fabric will bind a moving chain on contact and stop the chain saw, preventing cutting (off) a leg. I wear gloves and on the bottom end are steel toe work boots. Safety First! Swinging a chainsaw around is no time to be careless.
When cutting I always plant my feet firmly. I clear any brush or branches on which I may stumble. I also will most importantly have a clear escape path planned if a tree twists and turns while falling. Even trees on the ground can roll and crush a hand or foot. Safety First folks.
Harvesting wood is only one part of the year long process. Once home it needs to be unloaded, split and stacked. There are plenty of gas powered hydraulic wood splitters on the market these days. I’m using the old fashioned method of swinging a splitting maul. I do a little bit at a time. I actually enjoy going out to the woodpile early on a brisk winters morning under a brilliant blue sky. Working for about an hour splitting and stacking is good exercise. Afterwards I can enjoy a hearty breakfast fixed up on the wood burning cookstove. They say that wood will heat you thrice. Once when you are cutting, once when you are splitting and once when you are burning. True enough.
When purchasing or cutting firewood It is good to know the difference between hardwood and softwood. Hardwood is ideal to foster a long low burn and maintain a hot bed of coals. Soft wood in contrast burns hot and fast. Softwood is often said to be dangerous because it generates more creosote. All woods create creosote. This myth is repeated most often in the northern Atlantic states where tall species of oak and maple are common.
In western states where pine and fir forests dominate the myth is seldom heard. Wood cutters use the resource at hand. So called dangerous woods like pine are in fact safer than woods such as oak , as they will burn hotter and thus keep the flue temperature up. This myth may have originated with old fashioned stoves and fireplaces that burned inefficiently. Modern stoves when operated properly do not cause this high level of creosote accumulation.
Fireplace inserts and metal stoves were first used in France in the late 17th century. In the United States, Benjamin Franklin invented a metal stove in 1741. It was made of metal plates held together with bolts and was intended to produce more heat and less smoke than a typical fireplace. The original stove functioned poorly and was never popular but after improvements Franklin stoves are still in use today. During the 1800s there were a variety of wood stoves available to the public. There were iron cookstoves, pot belly stoves, parlor stoves with lots of nickel accents and large stoves to heat market stores and businesses. In rural areas wood stoves remained in use up to the 1950s when popularity declined and other options became more available.
Wood cookstoves are a versatile appliance. They can heat a room, cook food and heat water. Early models were manufactured of mostly cast iron construction. Later models retained the cast firebox and cooktop but have lighter materials for the remainder using a protective and attractive porcelain finish. Porcelain is resistant to heat and wear of everyday use plus it is easily kept clean.
All cookstoves, no matter when manufactured, have a similar design. There is an enclosed firebox of heavy cast material with a grate at the bottom that allows ash to collect in a pan beneath. Access to add fuel is at the front and side or top of the stove. Air intake is provided through a grill on the side of the stove near the fire. The grill can be slid open or closed to control the air/fuel mixture. Exhaust smoke travels across the top of the oven box and exits out a flue. A sliding damper on the back of the stove regulates the outgoing draft thus retaining more heat in the stove.
Depending on size, the stovetop has 4 or 6 removable plates that can induce more direct heat to a pot or pan. I seldom use this method because of the mess from possible soot accumulation on pan bottoms. Some stoves are equipped with a water reservoir. A galvanized tank can hold about 12 gallons of readily available warm water. A nice feature when there is no indoor plumbing. Most stoves have a shelf above the cooktop. Some have warming ovens. Warming ovens are small metal cabinets with doors. This warming cabinet replaces the simple shelf. The warming oven gets plenty hot above the cooktop next to the flue pipe. It can be used to keep foods warm or do a slow bake.
When the electricity goes out, as it often does, I’m not hampered in preparing a hot meal. On cold snowy days the heat is a welcome benefit.
“Age appears to be best in four things, – Old wood best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and and old authors to read.” Alonso of Aragon
Next to the fire the heat is warming your body, calming your nerves and emptying your mind of worry. Meditate.
A wood stove offers a degree of independence. Having wood heat can release the pressure of being under the thumb of the electric company (with it’s intermittent power, often in the worst of weather conditions) or the propane company with it’s variable prices.
There is satisfaction in providing for ones own needs. One develops an active relationship with the environment when using wood heat. Bonds with nature are strengthened. Arms and back are strengthened also. Heating with wood is difficult work and needs dedication. Maintaining a fire 24 hours a day for 5 or 6 months requires commitment. If the resources of wood, strength and dedication are at hand, it’s worth a go. In some instances it’s a necessity for staying warm. There is a legacy of wood heat at the Lower Farm that goes back generations. It’s all there is. It’s how it’s always been.
There is no finer warmth than that of a blazing fire.
Stay warm and healthy, Dohn