Twenty years ago at a party in Seattle it was fun and lively to get into a backyard discussion with other men on the subject of heating your house with a wood-fueled stove. (Now the talk is about retrofitting your house for earthquake — an expensive and terrifying prospect.) We would huddle in the drizzly rain in our Woolrich jackets with a beer in hand and talk about stove designs, makes and models, catalytic converters, stoves that burnt wood all night and, of course, the best species to burn. Alder, although easy to split, just seemed to melt away, producing negligible heat. Cedar snapped at you. We talked about where to get wood cheap. How to dry it. It was guy talk. Women would listen in and then drift away to another conversation. I never knew a woman who gave a thought as to where household heat came from.
In the Northwest the wood most readily available is Douglas fir. With a sharpened chainsaw used to cut two-foot rounds, and with a single-bitted 3½-pound axe (I warned you that this was guy talk), you could pile up a lot of firewood in a short time. It was great exercise, too. And so satisfying to drive the axe head just where you wanted it to go. Do it right and — plonk! — the round would split in half. I loved every aspect of getting firewood. Felling the tree so that it dropped exactly where you wanted was a much admired art. Cutting the rounds just right for the stove. Making a tidy stack in the woodshed. Clusters of similar species would be bunched together to that I could say, “I remember that tree! It came down three years ago in the Columbus Day storm.”
Heating with firewood was not without peril, however. All chainsaws have a wide kerf. That’s the width of the sharpened chain, so if you cut yourself with it, you remove a chunk of flesh. But the scariest part of it all was the fear of starting a chimney fire. This could easily happen by burning not-dry-enough Douglas fir at a low temperature. The smoke coats the inside of your chimney with resins. Over time it becomes glazed. Chimney sweeping is totally ineffectual. If this glaze become hot enough, it ignites and the “chimney effect” (heat rises, yes?) would set the glazed creosote ablaze. You have now turned your house into something with a vague resemblance to an old-time Mississippi riverboat.
This happened to me once. It was at a party at my house. Standing near the stove I heard this great in-suck of air into the stove and the sound of a raging fire, I went out to the backyard where I could see the chimney and sure enough, it looked scary, sparks and flame clearly visible. I ran back inside, up the stairs, and put my hand on the plaster in back of the linen closet, where it adhered to the chimney. It was warm. Let it burn out or shut it down?
I decided on caution and closed all the air vents into the stove. The fire went out. The party did not skip a beat.
I still heat with wood. I’ve spent a small fortune on flue liners and a new stove. But other than hydroelectric, it’s the ultimate renewable fuel, yes? And it cannot be beat for raising bread dough and keeping dinner warm. Hang a rack over it and you have a clothes dryer. For free!
There is still the wonderful satisfaction of scoring a load of good wood inexpensively. On Craigslist I found a guy who had to get rid of two cords of black locust. And he would deliver it! Black locust is so dense you think you are holding a log of coal. It’s been dry now almost a year and a half. Once the fire gets going you cannot see any smoke emission from the chimney. And on cold dark afternoons when people come over they all back up to the stove and exclaim how warm and cozy it feels. There is something about the heat that comes from a wood stove that makes people very glad to be right there.
By October I fire up the stove. The heat radiating from the wood stove cannot be duplicated by any other heating source. It is so much better than a fireplace, which sucks the air out of the room up the flue. It is better than forced hot air, which just blows heated air around the room. And it is infinitely better than natural gas, which produces, at best, a "general warming trend." With fire in the stove you know where the warmth is coming from. The stove radiates heat, a phenomenon unique to wood stoves. Well, and radiators. Remember them?
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!