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Hard to imagine that August is just around the corner. Time to start thinking (grumbling?) about getting in another winter’s wood, getting the last of the gardening done (the rule is that Sept. 1 is the first frost date in our area) and generally accepting the fact that summer 2007 is on the downside.
It was always the great debate in my neighborhood as to how to handle the winter woodpile. Most of my neighbors were of the opinion that you should stack split wood with the bark-side up, ostensibly to ward off rain and to let the wood dry “naturally,” whatever that meant.
I always stacked my wood with the split side up, having read somewhere (Farmstead magazine, maybe?) that doing so would speed up the drying process and give you more dry wood per stick. The debate centered on whether the bark protected the wood or just held the moisture in. I always thought that it was the moisture in the wood that mattered most, not the water on it.
Back in my freelancing days (which means I didn’t have a job and just puttered around with writing and other odd pursuits), I had plenty of time to cut, split and stack wood. I made it a point to have my hardwood pile in place (and split side up) by July 4 each year. Rain or shine, next winter’s woodpile was stacked and ready by the time the fireworks went off.
One of my neighbors at the time absolutely insisted that piling the wood split side up was wrong (mostly because he’d never done it), so I invited him over on Aug. 1 for a little test. I invited him to pick any stick out of my 10-cord pile, and then, using only a match, light the wood on fire! He was amazed to see the not only was a thigh-sized chunk of birch, maple or beech dry and seasoned after only one month on the pile, but that it could be made to burn without kerosene, newspaper or kindling.
If anything, wood so dried would have less water in it and therefore would burn faster and hotter, meaning you might need an extra half-cord to get through the winter, but the advantage (other than less weight to carry back and forth from the woodpile to the stove) was that there was less creosote buildup in the chimney.
I can tell one and all what a joy it is to get up on the roof in February with a rope and a brush and have to spend a brisk Sunday morning cleaning chunks of thick, black creosote out of the stack. With drier wood there is less buildup, and that’s a good thing when the wind is howling and the chimney is nearly clogged solid with he nasty stuff. Keep in mind that to do a good job you must put all fires out, wait for the chimney to clear of sparks and smoke, and then climb up on the roof (which is invariably covered with snow) to push, pull and struggle with a brush, a shovel and a dustpan. Of course, creosote dust and ashes will go flying through the house like an desert storm, creating more problems for (and comments from) the person responsible for keeping the inside of the house clean.
Of course, you could go the old-fashioned route and simply let nature take its course. For example, this same dubious neighbor would never clean his chimney and therefore would have at least one rip-roaring chimney fire each year, normally in early fall, when last year’s creosote buildup was dry and crusty, a volatile fuel just waiting for the season’s first fire. I could often hear the chimney fire before I could see it – the loud rush of air created by the burning creosote would catch everyone’s attention, and seconds later a burst of smoke and flaming creosote residue would blast out of the chimney like a rocket. The neighbor and his family would pull up some lawn chairs, crack a cool drink and sit there watching the pyrotechnic display as if it were the most entertaining thing they’d ever seen, oohing and ahhing as huge chunks of burning creosote would fly into the air, bounce down the (cedar shingle) roof and roll, flaming and smoking, across the dooryard.
It was quite a show, I’ll admit, but once in a while a piece of burning creosote would catch on a warped shingle and start a fire. The neighbor would turn the hose on, put the smoldering pieces out and go back to watching the display. I don’t think he realized how close he was to disaster (living in a 100-year-old farmhouse with an equally-old chimney that hadn’t been repointed in 75 years, a cedar roof and a roaring chimney fire going!), but as far as I know he never had to call the fire department.
Of course, others have, and they have been much worse off for it. One family I know let their chimney deteriorate to the point that you could see through it from various points inside the house, and one cold, raw New Year’s Eve the creosote buildup ignited and the house ended up burning to the ground – they lost everything!
Of course, drying your wood split side up is not going to avert creosote buildup or prevent chimney fires, so this is a good time to take care of those things or at least be thinking about them. Inspect your chimney before the end of August, make the necessary repairs to the chimney lining, bricks or mortar, and make it a point to burn seasoned hardwood rather than wet wood or softwoods (which tend to create more creosote and therefore increases the risk of a serious fire sometime during the winter – most likely when no one is home to monitor the situation). Of course, now’s a good time to install smoke detectors as prescribed by your local fire chief, and to replace inoperative units and batteries as an annual precaution.
For more on annual wood-burning advice, contact your local fire department. To continue the debate on piling firewood split side up (or down), contact your neighbors!
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