Enjoyable woodstove or fireplace fires start with good wood. Unlike oil furnaces, where a phone call gets the tank filled, or natural gas heaters with their seemingly endless source of warmth, woodburning has pleasant rituals of gathering and storing the fuel that warms the home. Your input at this stage affects how well the wood seasons. Dry wood is the single most important factor in ease of starting fires and controlling creosote buildup in the chimney.
Ideally you should let wood season at least six months after it is cut and split before burning it. If you have the wood delivered, be skeptical of claims that the wood is seasoned. Check for cracks on the ends where the wood shrinks as it dries. The wood should also look weathered, and, particularly with oak, it will have lost the strong earthy smell of freshly split wood. Although it takes practice, you will eventually be able to feel the difference in weight between fresh and seasoned wood.
If you are reading this article in August or even later in the year, you may want to consider getting twice the amount of wood that you need for this winter. Use only half this year, and the wood for next year's fires will start without using handfuls of fatwood and it won't sizzle like a steak while the moisture content is driven out. You will also get more heat out of each piece so you'll use less wood over the course of the year. Just remember to get wood for the third and following years in plenty of time for it to dry.
Wood is usually sold by the cord, a simple measurement that few people really understand. A cord is just a stack of wood 8 feet wide by 4 feet high by 4 feet deep. If you pay for a cord, make sure that is what you get. Wood thrown in the bed of a truck that measures 8 feet by 4 feet x 4 feet will be much less than that when stacked neatly. Sometimes wood is sold by the face cord, a stack 8 feet long by 4 feet high by however long the wood is cut.
For those who want complete control over the process, that means firing up the chainsaw and heading out into the woods. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, using the chainsaw safely is number one in this endeavor. Get a good book like the classic Barnacle Parp's Chainsaw Guide, talk to professional woodcutters, or get information on using the necessary power equipment from the dealer before approaching that first tree.
Safety gear is mandatory, including eye and ear protection, a helmet, and sturdy boots, preferably with steel toes. Although not cheap, chainsaw chaps or pants are designed to stop the saw should you mistake your leg for a limb. They are invaluable if their protection is ever needed.
After you get the wood home, whether you've dragged it from the woods or had the local woodchuck deliver it, you're ready to store it. The ideal storage spot is sunny and lets air circulate to dry the wood quickly. Some people can stack wood without support so that it looks like a work of art, but for most of us, some sort of rack is necessary to keep the woodpile neat. Racks also raise the wood off the ground to provide better air circulation and minimize insect infestation. Using canvas or plastic tarps or a section of metal roofing on top of your woodpile keeps rain out to dry your wood more quickly.
There are a wide variety of rack styles. The most common rack is made from tubular steel, which is sturdy, lightweight, and durable. It is generally available in face cord (8 feet by 4 feet) or half face cord (4 feet by 4 feet) sizes. You can also buy steel brackets to which you add 2x4s to create the length and height rack that you need. These work great if you have an unusual size space that you want to fill. You will also find racks with decorative design elements that may be desirable if you store your wood in a visible spot.
Many people find it convenient to have a place to keep wood close to the house. A woodbox on the porch or patio can store several days worth of firewood so that you don't have to go to the main woodpile during bad weather. A lid keeps the wood dry if your porch is not covered. Decorative racks and traditional steel log hoops are also good choices for holding wood where you want something that looks good.
You'll want a log bag or wood carrier to get your fuel from woodpile to hearth. The canvas log bag is a sturdy old standby that holds as much wood as you can carry, looks good by the hearth, and has ends that keep barks and chips from falling on the floor during transport. Leather or canvas log slings let you carry any length log to fill a hearthside rack and are also available with stands that turn the sling itself into a holder.
That's a quick tour of firewood from source to woodpile to fireside. Are you ready for the upcoming season? Watch for future articles for tips on starting fires, fireplace safety, and problem solving for woodstoves and fireplaces.