By Ed McClearen, Fleetwood, North Carolina – One thing we have in abundance here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina is firewood. Last winter, we noticed that the number of wood piles on our neighbors’ properties increased dramatically. That increase was no doubt driven by the high cost of propane, fuel oil and electricity. Firewood, by contrast, ranges in price locally from $150 per cord (not seasoned) dumped in your yard (not stacked) to whatever cost you attribute to your labor and the gasoline-powered equipment required to cut and split a group of felled trees. Even if you buy firewood that has been cut and split, you rarely find wood suppliers who properly season their firewood supply. Seasoning firewood is the process of learning how to store firewood by stacking and storing it so that the moisture content of the wood is reduced. Generally, firewood is considered properly “seasoned” when the moisture content of the wood is below 20 percent. I have a hand-held digital wood moisture meter (below) that I use to measure the moisture content of wood. I recently cut and split some freshly cut white birch, and I measured a moisture content of 33 percent.
Of course, a gadget of this type is really not a necessity; well-seasoned firewood can be identified by the fine cracks (called “checking”) seen on the end of the log. Also, with a little practice, you can roughly judge the dryness of firewood by tapping it on the end with a hammer or the handle of a screwdriver; if the tap yields a dull thud sound, the wood is clearly “green” or unseasoned. If, however, the tap yields a sharp, crisp report the wood has been seasoned to some extent.
So, why be concerned about the moisture content of your firewood? Well, if you have ever tried to burn freshly cut wood, you know the answer. Green wood hardly burns at all, and if you can ignite it, it yields very little heat and creates lots of creosote and white smoke. Basically, most of the heat content of green wood is lost when the moisture in the wood is changed into steam and sent up your chimney. Properly seasoned wood, on the other hand, is a delight to use; it lights quickly and easily, burns with a beautiful flame, gives off its maximum heat content, and produces only small amounts of smoke and creosote. Learn how to clean creosote properly because creosote build-up in chimneys is the primary cause of house chimney fires and the less of it you produce, the better.
Now we come to the issue at hand. What is the most effective way to properly season freshly cut firewood? I can assure you that there are a lot of different opinions on this subject. The basic approaches to how to store firewood include the following elements:
• Maximum exposure to sunlight
• Maximum exposure to prevailing winds
• Protection from rain and other moisture
• Keeping the firewood off the ground
• Stacking the wood so that it will not collapse
• Providing easy access to the seasoned firewood
Bottom “bands” and top poles keep the wood stack more secure.
I learned how to store firewood on old, used pallets that I got free from some local businesses. The problem with pallets is that they generally rot after a few years of ground contact and they really don’t hold that much wood per pallet. I decided to design a somewhat inexpensive, easy to build, efficient wood storage rack out of treated 2 x 4s and 4 x 4s. You can see from the photographs that these wood racks are simply a series of 8′ 4 x 4 posts placed in a line 98″ apart on center. (Concrete was poured into the post holes). Next, treated 2 x 4s are used to construct the lower portion of the rack and an upper “band” which stabilizes the single-file stacked wood, that is five to six feet high depending on how deep you set the vertical posts. Without the “band,” the wood has a tendency to fall out of the rack. An 8′ 2 x 4 is then attached to the top of both posts for additional rigidity of the racks. (See photographs.)
Finally the posts need to be braced in some fashion since they are a bit “wobbly” when loaded with hundreds of pounds of green wood.
Various ways Ken braced his woodpile:
I built 10 of these wood racks in a straight line down my driveway and the cost in treated wood and hardware was $35 per 8′ wood rack section. It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you waggle your ears? — J. M. Barrie
I cut our firewood in 15″ lengths (we like to load our wood-burning stove “front to back” so there is no chance a log can “roll out” of the stove during reloading), but these wood racks will accommodate all sizes of wood up to 24″ in length. Based on three seasons of use, I have learned that this “single file” style of wood storage is far superior to storing wood in “thrown” woodpiles or multiple rows of closely stacked firewood. The benefit of having both ends of the stacked firewood exposed to wind and sun greatly shortens the seasoning time and I have had good burning firewood in as little as six months drying time. Of course, 15″ long firewood dries faster than the same firewood in longer lengths.
This design has other less obvious advantages over learning how to store wood with more random storage methods. The first is that you are able to very precisely measure the amount of firewood that you have purchased or produced once you place the wood in the rack (the standard measure of firewood is the cord and it consists of 128 cubic feet of well-stacked wood). If you stack firewood in an area 4′ wide, 4′ high, and 8′ long you have exactly one cord of wood. If you have ever purchased firewood by the “pickup load” you might be surprised just how little wood you actually got for your money. A second advantage of this wood rack design is that you are able to easily track the amount of firewood you burn during a given winter season. You would be surprised at the number of people who burn wood to heat their homes who don’t know how much wood they consume annually. That knowledge can prevent you from running out of firewood prematurely.
Our two wood stoves are the Lopi Patriot and Lopi Endeavor models made by Travis Industries. Both are well made EPA certified stoves and have glass front doors that are kept nice and clean by an engineered air wash system. The EPA certification on wood stoves carries with it two major advantages … the first and most obvious is that the stove produces much less air pollution than the older stove designs. The second and least obvious is that the stoves consume much less firewood for a given heat output. I have seen estimates that EPA certified stoves consume up to 33 percent less wood than older designs; that means 33 percent less cutting, splitting, and stacking wood, which is a welcome benefit.
Finally, if you burn wood to heat your home, make sure you burn only properly seasoned wood and enjoy the benefits of monetary savings, independence from fossil fuels, and the great satisfaction of knowing you can stay warm even if the electricity goes off. After all, aren’t those some of the basic reasons you are homesteading today?
Good luck learning how to store firewood on your homestead.
Originally published in Countryside & Small Stock Journal Nov/Dec 2010 and regularly vetted for accuracy.