by ROHN ENGH
Of all the "alternative" sources of energy available to the
"little guy", wood is probably the easiest to understand
and use. As well it should be. After all, mankind has been
burning wood for a lot more years than it has been building
solar collectors, setting up windplants, or tinkering with
And there's something so deep-down satisfying about
stretching out in front of a roaring fireplace or a fully
stoked wood-burning stove on a long, dark, icy, wind-swept
winter's evening. Wood heat, besides being such a readily
available low-technology source of energy, is just plain
And that's why we're featuring wood and wood-burners in
this and the next two issues of this magazine. The six
pages you see here should set the proper tone for the more
extensive information on the subject that you'll find in
MOTH ERs 48 and 49.-The Editors.
Scenes from the past? Yes and no. There was a time when
country folks all over this continenet cut and split their
own wood for heating and cooking as a matter of course.Then
came the age of Fossil Fuel, and thought those days of
burning were almost behind us.
Now that fossil fuel are becoming increasingly expensive,
however, it's starting to make a good sense for many of us,
once again, to satisfy at least part of our cooking and
heating needs with wood... the most traditional, renewable,
and lowest-technology fuel of them all!
Six years ago, when we bought our farm here in northwestern
Wisconsin, we found the toolshed filled with quaint
memorabilia: a two-man saw, six-pound maul with rough-hewn
handle, a rusted Swede saw, several wedges, and a sizable
double-bladed axe. We hung the items up on the toolshed
wall as museum pieces, and proceeded to "civilize" the
farmstead by installing an oil furnace and hot air heat in
For the next five years we sat there, thinking we were
satisfied with our oil burner . . . and paying the price
which it annually extorted from us. Up here in northern
Wisconsin, where stretches of 20°-below weather-with
wind-are not uncommon, it's easy for a family to spend
upwards of $600 a year on fuel (especially if they live in
an old, not-so-airtight farmhouse).
Then, last winter-just as snow flurries began blowing in
from Canada-we got to know and love wood heat. As an
efficient and economical source of warmth for our entire
housewith an intimate, personal quality all its own-this
"primitive" method is (perhaps surprisingly!) it.
I'll admit that we didn't discover this all at once or
completely on our own. In fact, we initially made the
change from oil to wood because we were forced to do so
(after giving up our preliminary visions of camping for the
winter in the back yard of some friends who live on the
Gulf of Mexico). A doctor had traced the severe allergy of
our youngest son to the hydrocarbons in petroleum products,
and advised us to switch to some fuel other than oil or
gas. Electric heaters were, however, totally impractical
for our elderly farmhouse. Wood alone was left.
This prospect was sprung on us in October, which meant a
lot of scramblin' before the cold Wisconsin winter set in.
At that point, I'd never felled a tree in my life . . . but
the "quaint memorabilia" in the shed had just become
vitally important to us.
We started by stoking up our old country home's fireplace
and a small "showcase" wood-burning stove in the kitchen.
(There were enough deadfalls out in the pasture to feed
these two without my facing the task of cutting down a
tree.) But the stove would burn out in the middle of the
night, and the fireplace, with its serious heat loss, was
no match for the winter wind. We nearly froze during our
first two weeks.
Then we cried "help" in our local Tri-County Advertiser and
located a big, secondhand, wood-burning heater for $50.
With itplus the aid of a neighboring old-timer and a little
ingenuity-we not only survived but enjoyed our initial
winter of wood (the first of many, since our change of fuel
has indeed helped to relieve our son's allergy problem).
The heart of our system, an Ashley heater, is located in
the center of the kitchen where it provides the family with
atmosphere, a handy "meeting' spot", and-of course-warmth.
It's a great help if you want to take some of the stiffness
out of your hands and feet after a frigid taste of the
outdoors (or you just need to stop your whole self from
shaking on a chilly morning). Our boys use the stove to dry
their mittens, and my wife, Jeri, finds it ideal for
keeping food and cocoa-a winter staple at our house-warm.
The crackling of the fire in the stove is in itself a basic
earthsound attraction. The steady subtle murmur of burning
logs casts a comfortable feel around the kitchen, and
encourages long, lazy daydreams when you tilt back
in--yes!--the old rocker with your stockinged feet
stretched out toward the solid warmth. Such closeness to
one's needs is a rare pleasure these days and a welcome
contrast to the increasingly indirect lighting, heating,
and communication patterns "enjoyed" in our society at
On a cold morning 11-year-old Danny absorbs as much heat as
he can, then takes off for the barn to milk his goat before
the school bus arrives. And I, after storing up some of the
stove's radiation myself, pull away from the warmth and
activity in the kitchen to go outside to the woodpile.
There I start the day with fifteen minutes of axe work . .
. which keeps me in better shape than the jogging I used to
do every morning.
With the wind whistling at my back, I then carry an armful
of good chunks in to the woodbox and toss some of the fuel
into the stove. The special warmth of wood heat permeates
the house, and gives me a sense of full accomplishment . .
. because I've personally completed the cycle of finding,
cutting, and splitting my own energy source and
transforming it into warmth for both family and home.
Our big Ashley will take a log two feet long and eight
inches thick. It has an airtight firebox and ash door (a
very good feature) and a special draft system that prevents
the waste of a lot of heat which would otherwise be lost up
Air for combustion of the wood enters the heater's firebox
at the top, is warmed by the blaze as it passes through a
downdraft stack, and is then distributed evenly along the
length of the burning logs by an intake manifold. An
automatic thermostat, with which you dial the degree of
heat you want, opens and closes the damper at the top of
the downdraft stack to admit just enough air to maintain
the desired temperature.
We've found the Ashley to be highly effective . . . even on
the few days last winter when temperatures dropped to
30° below zero and the wind came up to give us a chill
factor equivalent to -60°. We conserved fuel by putting
blankets over the kitchen doorways, brought out the
Monopoly set, and kept more comfortable than our nearby
friends . . . who had their oil burners' thermostats set on
high and still couldn't get really warm unless they stood
in front of their kitchen ovens. That's the real advantage
of a wood-fired stove over "modern" heat: You can get close
to the source and toast comfortably, yet still have warmth
evenly radiated to the rest of the house. Another good
thing about an Ashley is that it doesn't require a huge
supply of wood which has been dried and seasoned for a
year. The unit is perfectly content when fed with logs
freshly cut no more than an hour before. This is possible
because the design of the heater (and certain others on the
market) causes the contents of the firebox to burn from the
bottom up, not from the top down. Thus the upper wood-even
if it's green-dries out as it gradually falls, and is
consumed so completely that carbon and creosote deposits in
the chimney-caused by unburned wood gases-are kept at a
minimum. As one neighboring old-timer commented, a stove
like ours "even burns up the ashes".
If -our wood burner isn't that hood-or even if it is-you
should definitely be aware of the inflammable wastes that
may well build up in your home's chimney. A large roaring
flame, like that which leaps up when you throw a
wastebasket of paper into the stove, could ignite the soot
and resins in the flue and possibly trigger a serious house
Although the chance of such a flare-up is remote, it's wise
to be conscious of the hazard. Some old-timers prefer to
let any chimney blaze burn itself out (as long as the fire
doesn't spread), while others keep a large bag of salt
handy to dump down the flue as an extinguisher.
One useful item I found up in our homestead's barn was a
ladder with hooks on its top end. It was the same length as
the pitched portion of the house roof and had been kept up
there in the old days just in case a chimney fire did get
started. We put the "antique" back in its rightful place
atop the house and left it there all winter. Though we've
never had to use the ladder, we'd rather be safe than
The best answer to the problem of chimney fires, of course,
ies in preventing the buildup of inflammable residue in the
first place. Every now and then, some people give their
stoves' fireboxes a sprinkling of salt . . . which seems to
help keep the chimneys sootfree. I do the same thing with a
commercially available (from Marine Electrolysis Eliminator
Company, 1137 S.W. Hanford, Seattle, Washington 98134)
product called Red Devil.
Or-if you forget occasional applications of the cleaners
mentioned above-just look down your flue now and then and
knock off the soot with a long pole or a chain swung in the
shaft (be careful not to dislodge any mortar).
By the way: If this all sounds terribly complicated or
dangerous, it's not. Any kind of equipment should be kept
clean and in good operating condition. Do the same for your
chimney and the chances of its catching fire are less than
those of a backup or other malfunction in an oil or gas
A close look at your home's water pipes is also in order if
the house has wood heat. Any line that runs along an
outside wall, as some of ours do, can be wrapped with
insulation to protect it from freezing. And, if you leave
the house for any length of time, it's most important to
have a dependable friend pop in and reload your heater for
you. The better models hold 100 pounds of wood at one
filling and will burn up to 18 hours unattended. If you
plan to be gone several days or more, of course, it's best
to drain the water pipes. Anyhow, the pleasures of wood
heat make it more fun to stay put and keep the home fires
During our first season of heating with wood we were too
caught up in the initiation throes of chain saw
maintenance, log-splitting techniques, and tree-felling
traumas to keep a considered record of how much fuel we
used. This year we intend to be a little more scientific,
especially since our research indicates that an Ashley will
heat a six-room house all winter on only two to three cords
of wood . . . depending on home layout, insulation, and the
severity of the weather. (Our house has nine rooms. We
closed off two, and the other seven stayed totally
comfortable.) Heaters differ in performance, of course, and
one farmer told us that our model uses only a third as much
wood as he'd needed with another brand.
Last winter gave me my education in fuel gathering. Before
I'd "graduated", I mangled three axes, one chain saw bar,
and one sixpound maul. My mistakes were my teachers . . .
and when the temperature plummets to the below-zero mark
and stays there, a student learns fast. Perhaps my
experience might be helpful to others who are interested in
Spring and fall are the best times to cut fuel (no bugs, no
weeds, no burrs, no prickly heat). If you're using a good
automatic heater, the wood can be burned immediately.
Otherwise, if possible, it should be left out to dry for a
Which timber makes the best fuel? The hardwoods burn
slowerand usually hotter-and oak, ash, birch, and maple are
generally the favorites. Elm is good, too, but tough to
split. A first-rate heater will burn even poplar (low fuel
on the totem pole), however, and keep your house warm while
doing it. Fireplaces and less efficient stoves won't.
It's handy to have your own source of fuel, but it's not a
necessity. A little scouting around can turn up many
possibilities: neighbors who want a tree taken down,
telephone and electric company prunings, outlying farmers
or country dump locations with groves to be cleared, new
construction sites where you might be paid to haul away
In our case, we're lucky enough to have a built-in supply
of oak (a great fuel!) in the woods on our south 40. Our
house and barn were built back before the turn of the
century with timber from this same stand, and I feel an
intangible "rightness" to the whole process when I go out
there and haul in each load for the stove.
To handle the wood, my old-timer neighbor told me, "First
thing you need is a chain saw. And don't buy a used one.
Get it new, so there won't be any mysteries about how it's
been treated." Chain saws, he explained, have to be
coddled. They dislike sand and dirt and need regular
cleaning and maintenance checks.
Of several good brands of chain saws, the McCulloch was
highly recommended to us and we invested in a Mac 10 model.
We made that choice partly because there's a McCulloch
service center in town . . . a factor that becomes not just
handy but critical if you need repairs in midwinter.
When you begin to use your new tool, remember that its
powerpacked cutting action is equal to the strength of
several workhorses and deserves a lot of respect. Work
slowly, and follow the good and sensible precautions listed
in any chain saw handbook. Many oldtimers say that two
woodsmen should always work together, with one clearing
twigs and branches from the ground to give the other open
space to do his sawing.
My own biggest challenge was learning to cut a tree down
singlehanded, and I'd like to pass on some important do's
First, make sure your chain saw is properly oiled and well
filled with gas. Then give an eye to which way the tree
leans and gauge your cuts to let it fall in that direction.
Or, if your prospect is good and straight, check which side
holds the most and/or heaviest branches.
Unlike the tall pines of Walt Disney movies, thick oaks
with hundred-pound boughs won't give you much cooperation.
Whenever possible, let the branch weight of a tree be your
guide to where it's going to fall. Once last winter, when I
tried to fall an oak against its natural direction in order
to miss a nearby fence, the weight of the tree shifted
halfway through my cutting, pinched the saw, broke its
chain, and bent its bar. Then, as I tried to retrieve my
tool with wedges, the big oak decided to fall anyway . . .
right through the fence.
When you can, begin felling a tree by first removing some
of its branches. Do this with a first-cut into the limb
from the bottom with your chain saw. Then sever it from the
Your initial cut into the trunk itself should be
horizontal, about one-third of the way through the diameter
(see Fig. 1), and into the side toward which you want the
tree to fall. Next saw diagonally downward to the deepest
point of the first saw mark.
Always start with the cut which is parallel to the ground
for at least three reasons:
[ 1 ] It's probably the most tiring of all, and is best
done when you're still fresh and energetic.
 The weight of the tree is less likely to pinch the saw
if you make the diagonal cut second.
 If you were to reverse the order of these operations,
you'd find it more difficult to make the two incisions
When you make your third and final cut (from the opposite
side) don't saw all the way through the trunk. Leave enough
wood to serve as a hinge, which you can sever after the
tree falls (see Fig. 2). Otherwise, when the great mass
crashes to the ground, the branches will act as springs and
cause the trunk to kick back. Many a folk song has been
inspired by the death of a logger who misjudged this
Begin trimming out your fallen tree by cutting away the
small crinkly branches (loggers call these hair). Throw
them into piles and, when you have enough, burn them where
they lie. Cut the bigger boughs and the trunk into
convenient lengths for your stove or heater . . . but don't
attempt to use the section of the tree where a main branch
has grown out of the trunk. These nieces are impossible to
split and are usually too large for the door of a stove.
Leave them on the ground to be burned with the smaller
Among still more "memorabilia" up in our barn I found two
handmade wooden sleds with metal runners that were used for
transporting wood from the forest in the old days. These
served us well for the hauling of fuel until the snow got
too deep. Then I switched to a flat, plastic sled that
glided along the tops of the banks
I pile all our cut logs by the back door . . . and whenever
I feel the urge, I step outside and do some wood splitting.
The colder the weather, the easier the job: When the
mercury drops the moisture in the chunks freezes, and the
smaller sections will cleave with one blow.
Thick chunks are a little more difficult . . . and here's
how I break up hard white oak: First, I examine the face of
the wood for any existing cracks (which serve as my
splitting guide). Then, with a sixpound maul, I start
swinging away at the center of the drum (see Fig. 3)-
Sometimes the piece splits open quickly. Other times, not.
It's satisfying but tiring work.
Wedges (Fig. 4) are excellent tools for a woodsman. If a
log refuses to be split with an axe or maul, place a wedge
along the grain and drive it in with your maul's flat end.
You may have to use two or even three wedges on a stubborn
What about kindling? Automatic heaters-which burn all
nightdon't need it. In fact, one fire built at the
beginning of the season can be kept alive all winter. If
you're using a fireplace or smaller wood stove, gather your
small fuel early and keep it from getting damp The drier
the sticks are, of course, the easier it is to get your
fire going on a chilly morning.
Dry twigs make good kindling, but for a real tried and true
fire starter, split some of your logs two or three times
let the pieces dry well, and split them again into thin
strips. Another first-class kindling source is the log
trimmings from a local lumber mill. Some operations give
these away, while others charge a dollar for a pickup load.
Does all this sound like a lot of work? It is . . . but
it's labor of a very satisfying kind. Axe swinging is a
safe, non-toxic tranquilizer (even when you think you don't
need one) . . . and I find it a surefire way to get lots of
fresh Wisconsin air into my lungs in a hurry.
Perhaps it's those moments between axe swings, however,
that are the most valuable benefit of all. Many of us have
forgotten the delight of examining in close focus the small
things around us . . . and the chopping of wood offers its
practitioner a chance to . . . well, to pause and look.
While I rest between blows I find myself counting the rings
in a large oak, watching a squirrel scamper down a branch,
comparing the bark of a hickory to that of a birch, or
examining the way a branch grows from a tree's main trunk .
. . all manifestations of a rhythm and beauty of growth and
life that somehow refresh the soul.
Smells, too, take on a new importance when you heat with
wood. The job makes you get outside in the snow in spite of
yourself, and you find that you love it. The great winter
outdoors has a fragrance all its own when you're sawing or
splitting fuel . . . a fresh, clear sharpness leavened with
the pungent scent of inner wood newly opened. Inside the
house, the soft odor of burning logs greets you like
incense and wraps you with warmth and comfort.
As I fill our heater, I look upon every piece of split fuel
as a special event of my own making. Each chunk represents
a swing of the axe . . . a movement of my own muscles
transferred directly into heat that keeps my family warm.
It tells me-with certainty-that I'm directly involved in
the trilogy of human needs: food, clothing, and shelter.
The following article originally appeared in the December
1973 issue of LIFESTYLE!, copyright 1973 by THE MOTHER
EARTH NEWS®, Inc. and reprinted here by permission.