The New Physics of Firewood


While the implications of the engineering term “efficiency” make my skin crawl in some settings, in our private economy here on Goose Creek and at this chapter of our lives, producing the greatest product for the least input of effort is something we must think about more and more. This grudging homage to efficiency most especially has to do this time of year with what it will take to stay warm this winter and those to come.

We first started heating with wood in the mid-seventies. On moving from balmy ‘bama to Virginia, we couldn’t keep the kids warm with oil heat, even at 17 cents a gallon. A Fisher Momma Bear came into our home.

Ann and I thought nothing then of bucking up a 10-inch standing-dead oak with a bow saw and axe. The fact that we’d have to haul each piece up from a rocky ravine 300 yards from the hatchback barely entered our minds. Effort was half the fun; the energy in the stacked cordwood couldn’t touch the energy expended in its cutting and gathering.

But with all that, a good bit of that hard-earned wood heat went back into the neighborhood through the single pane window glass and un-insulated ceiling of our drafty old rambler on Withers Road in Wytheville. We’d just cut more.

That was then, this is now, and as B. B. King sings, the thrill is gone. While the comfort of wood heat lives on, those early macho-romantic notions about heating with wood cut by my own hands are giving way to more practical considerations.

Each outing these cold days is less an opportunity to exert manly force over nature and more a lesson in the bizarre New Physics of our golden years of wood-gathering: the ground gets further from our hands. The same slopes grow steeper; and a pound of wood exerts more gravitational pull toward the center of the planet than it did just the year before.

So I am thankful for what usable wood I’ve been able to scrounge from right around the house, left behind by windfall and the efforts of others. AEP’s helicopter and the Asplundh fellas left us limbs and small trunks removed from the power line right of way-enough for a couple of truckloads toward the winter of ’08.

We are more and more into those limbs-arm and leg-sized pieces-and less into body-wood; dropping from my job description: the heavy lifting. And of course, the smaller rounds don’t require splitting, saving one step in the process from field to fire. A cord of wood that heats me only once is sounding better and better.

Even so, there will inevitably be some fallen and standing-dead resources that are bigger in girth than my splitting threshold of 8 inches. I can hardly leave these solid trunks to become a slow meal for the organisms of decay. With careful attention to the wood-chopping ergonomics befitting a late fifty-something physical therapist, I still split a fair share each winter using the little-known method that has saved my shins, back and rotator cuff to burn wood yet another year.

Take two old tires. Wrap some wire or stout nylon twine around them in several places to keep them one atop the other. Put a single big round or several smaller rounds into the well created by the tires. You’ll soon discover the efficiency and wisdom of this method.

The split wood stays in the ring and does not leave manly scars on your shins. The split wood stays standing, reducing the distance that the sore back and legs must lower the hands to lift and stack the wood. The ring helps reduce the arc that the shoulders must follow to complete the split, and the rubber of the tires’ rebound absorbs some of the blow’s impact at the end.

There is a creeping ambivalence in our relationship each year with the chainsaw, splitting maul and black plastic in the wind. Staying warm some future winter may be a matter of turning up a dial. Perhaps the heat pump cometh, but not today, not this year when we have enough in the stacks to see us through ’til April. We have our health, mostly, and we have Advil. And there will likely be windfalls yet to come.

Floyd Press “Road Less Traveled” for Jan 3, 2007
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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. As an aging gentleman homesteader, this piece really resonates with me. Yeah, I really like the tire-trick when splitting wood too, although I only use one tire. This year, in the move towards more efficiency and less firewood use, we’re eschewing the conventional wisdom of keeping the wood stove going continuously and the notion that it takes more wood to heat up a house than to keep it warm. So, we don’t keep a fire overnight, but still sleep warm and comfortably under a bunch of quilts. In the morning, I build a warm-up fire until the house temperature reaches about 70 degrees. This seems to be sufficient until the early evening, when I build another small fire to warm the house for the evening. As far as I can tell, we’ve used about half of the amount of firewood that we have in the past. I used to have to clean my chimney by now, but my gauge ( creosote in my chimney cap) says I’ve got months to go. Another benefit of this method is that I’m using some of the small dead pines which are plentiful around here( as I’ve scorned their use before), which are proving ideal for warm-up fires and are easy to bring in and cut up, requiring no splitting. And they don’t seem to contribute to unreasonable creosote build-up, if they’re cured, as I had been told. A final benefit of this method pertains to the aging of the human body. As humans age, their bodies seem to become less and less resistant to the cold, requiring more and more heat. I figure if we unwittingly give in to this trend, like most elderly people seem to do, we’ll want/need more and more heat as we grow older. But, as indicated by research, human blood in general also has ways of adapting to increasing cold, and if we hold the line, and train ourselves to live with slightly less heat , instead of ever-increasing quantities, we’ll remain hardier as we age, and need a lot less firewood.

  2. Hi Bruce,

    Wish you’d come convince my wife bout that “adapting” part. Don’t think it’s gonna happen.

    In this 120+ year old house in our pleasantly wind-sheltered but sun-deprived location, we probably take a bit more daily heat than some of the more exposed spots up beyond “middle earth” here.

    I expect time will come soon we’ll start supplementing what I cut with what somebody else cuts. Fortunately, there are not a few folks who can provide our needs as a byproduct of their work as loggers.

  3. A small suggestion that may work for folks with tight or solar oriented homes (might not apply on Goose Creek):

    Banking a fire is the practice of getting a good bed of coals, then covering/smothering the coals with a goodly layer of ash. Then shutting down the drafts on the stove and forget about it, 8-12 hours later when it comes time to rekindle a blaze, rake back the coals, lay on a couple quartered logs, open drafts- viola effortless fire!

    This is old timey; also very efficient – low drag on kindling, and avoids the slow smokey fires that pollute the environs and clog the chimney with creosote.

    Only 12 more weeks of heating! Enjoy.

  4. Don’t know what growing up would have been without firewood — it’s definitely a part of who I am, even considering how little I’ve split it myself in these early adult years. Thanks for raising me to respect a cord of wood, Where it comes from, and Whom. Great photo, too. Captures the whole rainbow of Mom’s favorite colors, eh?

  5. I feel a bit the same as you Fred – I have 2 teen age boy neighbors that are now my wood haulers and stackers. I love my stove – it’s a Pacific Super 27 high efficiency stove that burns long and clean. I can always get it to re light off the coals in the morning and it heats 2,500 sq feet easily.

    By the way we do adapt – as a boy no heat at home and school in England. My Granny never took off her fur coat when she visited me form Canada – I was wearing a thin sweater and shorts! Had chill blains but don’t recall feeling cold

  6. burned twenty five gallons of oil three years ago and non since. have been using national stove company stove for 26 years and burn 6-7 cord a year to heat this old farm house. have kitchen stove for really cold snaps or use in early fall and late spring for quick early morning fires and also for slow cooking when we have it going.

  7. The secret to staying warm at lower temps is this; stocking hats. Not tight fitting ones that make ones head itch, but nice loose knit stocking hats. When people visit in the winter and see me in my stocking hat they sometimes ask, “is your furnace out?” “are ya too poor to afford gas?” and other such nonsense. Of course my response are “no”, and “no”. I burn wood, but I’d rather burn less money if I can. If it gets too cold I turn up the propane heat. Simple.

  8. Oh, man, another Merrie Melodies fan-atic. My favorite? Foghorn ARE YA LISTENIN TO ME BOY? Leghorn. Rooster extraordinaire. Can’t get enough of that chicken. Along with Foghorn is his ‘nemesis’ Henry the Chicken hawk. “I’m gonna get me a chicken!” And we can’t forget the Dog. There’re so many more; Witch Hazel, Bugs, of course, the martian, what’s his name again? Marvin? Melvin? Miss Prissy. Daffy, like you said, Elmer ( ever heard Elmer Fudd sing “Fire”?) Look it up. Pretty funny. “And when we kiss….Fi-oh”. Ya gotta hear it. Hahahahahaha. Who can forget Yosemite Sam? Ya know, I don’t care too much for the roadrunner, or most of the later cartoons, but one of my absolute favorites is The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Priceless.

  9. Oh, yeah, I forgot. RIP Soupy Sales. What a talent. Wish I could’ve known him. Sigh. “My wife, she can’t cook. She can’t make apple pie. She can’t make rhubarb pie. But she sure can make my Banana Cream! Badda boom! Classic Soupy. Ok, kids, are mom and dad out of the room? good. Now, listen to ol Soupy.

  10. Hi, Fred. May I inquire, what type of maul are you using? Way back when, a company called Sotz made an implement named The Monster Maul. It has a relatively heavy, triangular shaped head. Once you’re used to moving the extra weight, it is nearly unstoppable when swung quickly. This would certainly boost the top diameter that can be practically split to twelve or even fourteen inches. They no longer seem to be in business, but the item must show up on Craig’s List from time to time. This aging homesteader has used one for over twenty years, and the maul shows fewer signs of wear than the owner…