Published December 2004

One of the nicest things about living in a forested part of America (as opposed to prairie or desert) is that we have lots of trees.  And trees are great for many a reason.  We like to plant them for fruit or to provide food for birds and squirrels.  They gladden our eye when many types turn white and fragrant in spring, and others provide welcome shade in summer, or form living fences and windbreaks.  Probably, at least as important, trees provide wood for burning and heating our homes or cooking hot dogs over a campfire.

Wood was wonderful in prehistoric times when our ancestors huddled in caves, and fire not only warmed our bodies and cooked our meat, but kept skulking predators from dire wolves to sabertoothed tigers at bay.  And it’s wonderful now.  It’s all quite lovely to have a home heated with electricity, or gas, or fuel oil, but none offer the pure pleasure of crackling flames to stare into, or serious heat radiating against bodies chilled by snowball fights or shoveling out the drive.  Which is why so many of us have a fireplace or wood burning stove.  And therein lies a tale.

When Christmas arrives in a few days, some lucky people will receive a brand new chain saw and simply have to hustle off to a friend’s woodlot to cut wood by the cord and save tons of money on heating bills.  Many don’t realize that the freshly cut and still sap-dripping wood that’s hauled home and tossed into the fireplace not only burns poorly with lots of smoke and soot, but produces creosote that can cause chimney fires and even burn homes down.

I make my own “wood runs” in March or early April, bring it home to stack around the inside of my garage and let it slowly dry all summer and fall before burning.  Often, the wood is so dry that my chimney shows no smoke at all, and there’s little worry about creosote.  If you receive a nice new chain saw come Christmas and have to try it out, plan to stack the wood and use it NEXT winter, not this one.  And it’s better to either have it inside, as in my garage where no rain and damp will slow drying, or at least cover the top with a tarp to keep off some rain.

Don’t just saw down any handy tree in that friends woodlot, be selective.  My own absolute favorite burning wood is white oak, a heavy hardwood that produces tons of heat, burns long, and offers up a little very pleasant odor as it burns that brings fragrance to a house.  Other good hardwoods are ash, other oaks, hickory, hard maples like sugar maple, beech, birch, osage orange (it does spark), and apple.

Softwoods like pine, spruce, and fir are good for starting fires when cut into kindling, as is silver maple.  Be particularly careful of silver maple which burns like a match when dry.  Once, many years ago and before I knew this, I started a fire in the stove with silver maple, added several goodly chunks of the same, and developed a fire so hot I had to add water and pull the logs before I either melted down the stove or burned my house down.  Kindling only.

And be even more selective in individual trees before you fire up the saw.  Thin out poor quality trees that are growing near prime straight trees that might be used for lumber some day.  That lessens competition for light and nutrients, and gives a boost to the remainder. Poorly formed, diseased, genetically inferior trees burn just as well as prime ones.  Cut these.  And never pass up a standing dead or fallen tree of good quality that’s still firm and useful for firewood.  These are dry already and using them spares still growing and useful in the future types.  Simple rules for simple pleasures, and fire is definitely one of these.

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