Heating With Wood, by SGT B.

Sunday, Oct 11, 2009

I don’t know that you would call my father a prepper. He was more just in love with the idea of economic independence and living in the woods. When I was nine (after the woods behind us were clear cut for an apartment complex), we sold our house in the suburbs, bought ten acres far enough out that he figured the developers would never find us, and built a home in the woods.

We heated this house with wood, and as any of you who grew up with a wood stove can already guess, that meant I spent a good chunk of my young life cutting, splitting, hauling, stacking, and burning wood.

Here are some of the things I learned while I was about it. This will by no means be complete, but will reflect only my partial understanding of a subject as old as fire, and as varied as the trees.

First things first: Why wood?

Wood grows. Wood in one form or another grows in most of the inhabitable regions of the earth. If you own land, chances are you own some wood. If not, probably your neighbors have some. Wood heat is renewable energy that anyone can harness. It can be had when the economy is bad as well as when it is good, it is absolutely EMP-proof (although your stove may not be, if it uses electronic components), and so long as you harvest it yourself, it is tax-free. Wood is not necessarily the best or only way to go, and should be weighed against other options. Even for off the grid situations, heat can be provided through heating oil burning stoves (I assume) or through electric stoves if you have a generator or other form of power. That said, unless you have a super abundance of electric capacity, you probably have many other demands on your juice in any sort of emergency.

The downside of wood is that it is not free. You will have to spend either time or labor to get it. Depending how much you use, this could translate to a lot of labor. The other aspect of this is that if you are injured or disabled, you will have a rough time of it. When my father injured his arm badly, I was in school, and our wood stack was at a low point. We were supported by members of our church fellowship helping with wood, and by using on the grid backup systems. In our case this was merely embarrassing, in some situations it could be worse. I’d say follow the rule of threes and have multiple means of heat.

Other considerations: You will have maintenance and cleaning chores with this method. On the plus side they’ll be things you can do yourself with the right tools. Own your own gear for cleaning the chimney. Don’t burn chemically treated wood, and you can use the ashes in compost, but mix them with other stuff or they’ll just form a smothering layer of gray mud. Avoid burning trash for heat if you can help it. Chemically treated wood and plywood can also produce poisonous fumes, so keep that in mind.

Woodstove Selection
I am familiar with three ways of heating with wood indoors. There may well be others, but if so I don’t know them and am not qualified to speak on them. They are, a fireplace, a simple wood stove, and a wood burning water stove.

The fireplace: This is the most basic form of woodstove. They range from the small and basically decorative fireplaces of most modern suburban homes to the vast fire places of old manors, where large meals can be prepared at the hearth. Fireplaces are generally poorly situated to heat a home. They reside on one side of the room, radiate much of their heat directly up the chimney, or out through the sides, and are basically inefficient. That said, if that is all you have, it is well worth laying in a supply of wood for hard times. From a survival standpoint however, someone in such a position should probably focus more on securing their primary method of heat, with a generator or a supply of heating fuel depending what that is.

Free standing wood stoves. These are, at their most basic a big box with a fireplace in the middle, and with a stovepipe to take away the smoke. They can be situated anywhere in a room, and radiate their heat outwards. If properly designed and located, they lose much less heat up the chimney than a fireplace. They are not efficient for heating other rooms, and (like a fireplace) may be inadequate for heating a large home. Some designs can also provide a cooking surface and or an oven. I find this attractive enough to be a primary consideration, but you may feel differently. These stoves also require no electricity in their basic form. I’ve heard of designs that have some electrical features such as blowers, that can heat other rooms of the house, but I have no experience with them. (BTW, I have seen other posts on SurvivalBlog that speak of woodstoves that can handle coal. I don’t have any personal experience with this, but I think that it is a valid consideration during stove selection.)

Wood burning water [jacket] stoves. These are somewhat more complex. Essentially they are a woodstove wrapped in a water tank. Rather than radiate heat directly into a living area, they heat the water, which is then circulated through the rest of the house. They have some major advantages and disadvantages. This is what we had, so this section will be a bit more in depth perhaps.



All said, my father, reluctant though he was to admit defeat, came to regret the water stove. It became a beast that swallowed a whole lot of our labor, and wasn’t particularly more efficient than living on the grid and using your labor for other things. Other pursuits, such as gardening, livestock, and hunting, suffered due to the need to feed the machine. Neighbors with regular wood stoves used much less fuel, had fewer problems, and had no need for concern with heat when the power was out. I do not recommend these unless you absolutely must heat the entirety of a large structure.

Woodlot Management

If you have a wood lot, you want to manage it. Second growth forests are often too dense for optimum growth, and culling and thinning the trees permits faster growth by the rest. I’ve heard it said that you can expect a cord a year, per acre, from temperate deciduous forest if you manage it well, but I don’t know it for an ironclad fact. Selecting which trees to cut is important. Unless you’re trying to clear a field (or field of fire) it is not a great idea to clear-cut. Pick out individual trees and cut those to clear space for other trees. Start with downed trees before they rot, and move on to wolf trees that take up a lot of space. Plan ahead too, and make sure you take advantage of downed trees on willing neighbors property. Also make sure they’re willing, otherwise it’s theft of a tangible resource. A significant chunk of our family’s firewood came from other people’s lands. People who have invested in woodlands but not yet built on may be particularly willing to allow you to take storm-downed trees. I know people with sizable woodpiles that only harvest other people’s trees. Coppicing is an interesting idea that is worth looking into, but I have no personal experience with that.

I won’t go into different types of wood here. My knowledge of that is limited and regional, and there is very good, technically detailed information out there about the burning properties of various woods. We always cut a lot of trash trees, because despite the poorer burning properties we wanted them gone from our land. YMMV, and watch for creosote buildup vigilantly. Removing trees that produce large quantities of fruit or nuts fall can reduce the presence of game on your land, and/or remove a significant emergency food source. In general quality hardwoods with long straight trunks are worth leaving to grow, in a pinch you can sell them or use them for lumber.

Cutting wood
I won’t say much about the mechanics of cutting down trees. I’ve never been much of a chainsaw artist, and others could tell you much better. I do recommend having multiple chainsaws in every size you use though, because it is darn hard to cut down a tree with a broke saw. Also, following major storms, at least one of your neighbors will want to borrow one, without fail, and it is an easy way to help someone out a lot. Barter is of course always a consideration as well. Other tools that are nice include come-a-longs, wedges and a heavy hammer - for freeing up a bound saw, log rollers, and a machete for clearing small branches and underbrush. Orange reflective tape on the ‘chete grip will save time wondering where you put it.

It is of course possible to bring down trees with hand-powered tools as well. Following the rule of threes I’d say have a felling axe and a two man cross cut saw in addition to the chainsaw. If you’re worried about noise for security or wildlife purposes, or if you live alone, you might also want a single man cross cut saw. Axes are pretty much the least efficient of these in my mind (but great exercise). Bear in mind that there is a difference between a splitting axe and a felling axe. Felling axes can also come in single bit (that’s the sharp part) or double bit (like the classic battleaxe) and can have curved or straight handles. I like the double bit, but that’s a matter of preference, and I am only modestly experienced at felling with an axe.  I have no experience with two man saws, and therefore won’t comment on them. I will say that you should always have maintenance and sharpening equipment (and know-how) for any cutting tool you keep. Finally, machetes can also be used for bringing down saplings and underbrush, and can provide a lot of small wood.  This can increase the depth you can see into the woods, and reduce fire risks around your home (so long as you clear away the hacked brush of course). Machete hacked stumps can be fairly sharp, like little punji sticks, and you may wish to break the points down with your boot as you cut to prevent future tripping and foot bruising.

Safety first when cutting (as always). Always clear any potential fall area of people when bringing down a tree, and bear in mind that a severed trunk can jab out backwards with a few tons of force behind it. That can kill you very dead. Also always check your root bole holes when cutting free a storm-downed trunk. A state worker got crushed to death while taking a squat in one after Hurricane Fran because his buddy didn’t check. Also make sure anyone you’re working with is practicing good safety and understands what they’re doing. A friend of mine got the side of his face caved in by the end of a log once because I instructed another friend poorly. He was lucky. A inch or so higher would have caved in his temple. Which brings me to the always wear appropriate safety gear rule. Always do. Period. Long sleeves and pants, boots, gloves, helmet with a face-guard or safety glasses, hearing protection. I’m losing my hearing and not quite 30 years old. I now wish I’d worn it.  In very cold weather avoid steel-toed boots as they can promote frostbite.  Remember too that after a tree has torn itself free of the surrounding canopy there may be sizable limbs left suspended that may come free and drop with a breeze. Dead trees can also break apart as they come down, or even with the vibration of the saw, so helmets are important.

Younger family members can be included in hauling small wood and burning brush and waste wood while you cut, but make sure you watch out for them. They can be hard to see, and may lack a proper sense of safety, or at least the attention span to remember it. You’ll also want to monitor horseplay. I busted a friend’s teeth out with a piece of firewood at the woodpile at the age of five, and got severely burned in a brush clearing bonfire when I was six. We weren’t working at that age, just horsing around in a work area.

When sectioning trees, make sure that there is sufficient clearance between the bottom of what you’re cutting and the ground for you to stop. Even occasionally grounding a moving chainsaw blade is too often. Also make sure the two sections won’t twist free of each other when you separate them and strike you or your assistant.

Splitting wood
For splitting wood you should have a variety of tools, because not all wood is created equal, and I’m pretty sure some trees were created specifically to build the character and fortitude of wood splitting youths everywhere.

Tools I used for various splitting tasks were a hatchet, a small axe, a large splitting axe, an 6 lb maul, a 14.5-pound maul, a sledge hammer and an assortment of wedges. Most of these are not used most of the time, but I recommend having them all, especially the wedges. Sometimes a large piece of wood will decide not to give back your maul. Small axes and hatchets can allow children to participate (and boy don’t I know it), but make sure you give them clear safety instructions and supervise them. After years of replacing handles I have given up and determined that I will never buy another wooden handled striking tool. I have not yet personally owned a fiberglass-handled axe, but plan to get one. With the heavy maul I use a steel handle.

I advise against using a chainsaw for splitting unless absolutely necessary, because it is a lot of wear and tear on the saw, and because it isn’t generally necessary. I also advise against splitting even small wood with a machete, you’ll have better control with a hatchet.

Remember to always bend at the knees when you bring down the maul/axe. This reduces the risk of back injury, and also ensures that if you miss, the arc of the maul will intersect with the ground rather than your shin or foot. I also advise against swinging from behind the back. I find that that increases strain on your back and arms and leads to significant injury. It also reduces accuracy and doesn’t add enough force to justify it. Others disagree. They have their ways and I have mine. I bring the axe gently to an overhead position, with a wide grip, and only then begin the swing, bringing my top hand down along the shaft as I swing.

I consider myself a minor artist with a maul, and am more conceited about it than anything but my fire building, but when I again heat with wood, I will have a gas powered pneumatic splitter. Yes, the purchase cost is high, yes, it requires gas. But it will save you many, many hours of labor. In my case it added days to my year when we rented a friend’s for just a week.  Pick a centralized location, and then one person brings the wood to the splitter while the other one feeds.

I would however not be caught dead without the tools for the older methods. Gas runs out. Machines break. It would just about take an Arc Light [bombing] mission to destroy a steel handled maul. Also some times it is easier to use a maul than a splitter, and sometimes you just need to blow off steam by breaking things apart (I mean firewood, not people who stress you out).

Always wear boots. Always wear gloves. Always have extra gloves in depth.

Hauling wood
Own a good quality wheelbarrow. [JWR Adds: In addition to a wheelbarrow with an air free (foam-filled) tire, if you have an ATV, then buy a sturdy steel trailer for it. Unless you live on a mountainside, an ATV can get to the farthest corners of your wood lot.] Keep spare parts for everything but the bucket. You will need them. Always store the wheelbarrow upside down if you keep it outside. Always check for snakes when you turn it back up to use. For obvious reasons I recommend using a motorized vehicle for hauling long distance up hill. Even if you have to clear a path, it will save time. Plus, you also burn whatever was in you path. Even the trunk of a sedan can be used to haul a fair bit of wood. Human chains are great for loading/unloading operations. I advise resisting the temptation to toss the wood to one another, but for short, steep gradients, throwing wood down can save a lot of time. Just don’t try to catch it. Make sure to switch sides periodically to vary which muscle groups are getting the strain.

Stacking Wood:
Stacking wood is an art form of its own. There are many ways to do it. Just remember the basics:

Generally we cut down trees in the late Fall or Winter. It was a good time for hard labor with the cool weather, the underbrush is less dense and buggy, and the sap isn’t running in the trees. We would usually try and get the years supply down and cut into rough lengths. This lets it dry faster. Generally we would leave it in place or rough stack it in place and move on, and then collect it in a later season to haul to the house. This let us make the most of the time when the sap wasn’t running to bring down trees.

Once the wood is rough stacked you can leave it there for a while. I don’t bother to cover wood I leave in the woods. The rain won’t hurt the inside of the wood much, and it will have time for the outside to dry when I bring it to the house. This was an issue of space around the house for us. If you have a big wood barn, like one of our neighbors, there’s not much reason to leave it in the woods.

As for splitting wood, some say it’s easier when wet, some say dry. After trying it both ways I think it depends on the type of wood, but ceased to look into it once I discovered powered log splitters. I do know that wood dries much faster when split, and stacks better too, so I see no reason not to split wet wood.

Thanks to Mr. Rawles and to all the SurvivalBlog contributors. God bless you all and remember to change your socks. - SGT B.

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