Four Ideas For A Steady Firewood Supply

The good things in life are usually not free, wood heat included. But heating with wood is a tremendous bargain, especially for the homeowner living in a rural area where firewood is handy and can be found for a good price, often free of charge.

HearthStone Tribute Wood Heat Stove from Lehman’s. Click on the photo for more information.

To start saving on that heating bill this winter you’ll need an efficient wood stove. Search elsewhere on this blog for a story on wood stove selection. Lehman’s carries a full line of heating units from inexpensive barrel stoves to ornate and multi-purpose soapstone and cast units.

Once you have a place to burn the wood, here are some places to start looking for the fuel supply.

Your own backyard – I’m talking more about wooded land you might own as opposed to your actual yard, although I have a friend who sold 18 trees from his in-town yard last fall. A sawmill bought the oak and hickory logs for a decent price, then left him with enough wood from the tops to feed his home’s wood furnace for the next three winters.

Most yard trees are not the best for heating. Ornamentals like sweet gum and sugar maple often retain excessive moisture after being harvested. When you try to burn the wood for heat it’ll often sputter and pop and sometimes even bubble moisture out of the pieces. The fire will be inconsistent and need constant attention. That’s not to say I haven’t utilized downed limbs from ornamental trees. I just try to feed a little into an already hot fire, and don’t rely on the wood for a “holding fire” overnight.

A “holding fire” is one that will keep burning, or hold coals throughout the the night while you sleep. Although the home may be chilly when you wake up, a hardwood holding fire will produce coals that will be live for 8-12 hours, making it simple to start the next morning’s fire. Just be sure you have a steel ash bucket for the ashes! (And if you have one, don’t even think of using an ash vacuum to tidy things up until the fire is truly cold and dead.)

On occasion you’ll see a classified ad from a homeowner offering free wood “if you cut and carry”. While it can be a good deal, be sure to consider these things:

  • Will the trees make good firewood?
  • Are there any structures or power lines to contend with?
  • Has the owner already dropped the trees or is that your responsibility?

Is There Bargain Wood To Be Had?
Logging locations
– Another great way to find inexpensive heating wood is to get permission to clean up behind logging operations as they timber off property. Most loggers, at least in our part of the country, operate on a level of production that leaves little time or profit margin for cleaning up tops and, even better, culled logs. Loggers need to get into an area and harvest the good logs and then move on to the next job to stay profitable. Pushing tops into piles to burn or chip, and stacking unsellable culled logs to the side to later rot away is normal practice.

In many cases loggers are working for hire and do not own the land. (But in some cases, especially with smaller companies, or with smaller timber stands, the logging company owner also owns the land.) Either way, ask one of the loggers who owns the property or has right to the tops and any culled logs. It’s not uncommon to be told you can clean up the wood for free. Sometimes the logger or land owner will settle on a flat rate for all the available cut wood left behind by the logging company. If you have a truck, saw and splitting maul or axe and know how to use them, you can gather a winter’s wood in a couple of days.

The brilliant foilage on maple trees makes them easy to find in a woodlot this time of year.

Sawmills – The nearest sawmill might be a cheap source of heating wood. Nearly all mills create a constant supply of slabs (the outer wood including the bark which is removed to get to the quality wood inside the log). Slabs, also called end wood, end cuts or slab wood, burn hotter and faster than split wood, but they can often be purchased for pennies compared to the same quantity of split wood. Even better, mills that cut railroad ties and other dimension lumber will have “cutoffs”, or ends of solid wood from the heart of the log. Not only are these quality fuel, but they’re often block shaped and can be easily stacked for hauling and storage. Sawmills in my area sell these blocks ranging from $10 in summer to $25 in winter for a pickup truck load. All you need to get winter wood in is a strong back and decent pair of gloves. (Editor’s note: There are a several sawmills in Ohio’s Amish Country that do this. Do some research, identify the mills, then use these area tour maps to help you get to your mills as well as local area attractions.)

Your own woodlot – If burning wood for heat is a long-term proposition, consider developing or purchasing a couple acres as a woodlot. Managing the land for hardwood production means initially thinning out undesirable species and stunted or overcrowding trees. Next, and this is a simple explanation, thin the trees out to allow younger trees to get some sunlight. Keep in mind that large open spaces where sunlight penetrates the canopy will often starting developing undergrowth – first in the form of brush, and then cedar and other soft wood trees depending on your specific area – and may need to be mowed occasionally.

In my part of the country a woodlot will grow a decent-sized hardwood tree in about 15 years on average. That tree may amount to a cord or more of heating wood. You can grow a lot of firewood on a couple acres with minimal effort by selectively harvesting each year and letting the lot constantly replenish itself. (Editor’s Note: Here in Ohio, the Ohio County Auditor’s Association tells us that a “cord of wood is 128 cubic feet. Wood must be labeled in cubic feet or cubic inches.”)

As for which trees make the best firewood, here’s a list of common trees ranging from the species with the most recoverable BTU’s (which makes the heat when burned) to the ones with the least BTU’s:

White Oak
Sugar Maple
Red Oak
Yellow Birch
Paper Birch
Red Maple
White Pine

 I certainly wouldn’t recommend white pine as a heat source. Softwoods such as pines and cedars burn hot and fast and contain a lot of creosote-producing sap. Filling a fireplace or stove with pine could cause the stove to overheat and crack, a steel or masonry flue to be destroyed, and most certainly would result in you waking up the next morning with frost on the inside of the windows because the fire burned out shortly after you started snoring.

If you need more information about heating with wood consider a good book or manual on heating with wood. It will provide much more detail than can be had in an article of this length.

About doug smith

Doug Smith is a small town newspaper managing editor. He has also been a freelance writer for rural living, country life, tourism, and hunting and fishing publications for the past 12 years. He lives in an 1880s Victorian-style home in the Missouri Ozarks. He drives an old pickup truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, they have two beautiful and successful children, and he can be found any given day around town wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat.