I have been harvesting, splitting and stacking wood as long as I can remember. First working as helper alongside either of my dads. Collecting firewood, a chore at both households and quality time (not that I thought of it that way) with dads nonetheless. The grown men handling the dangerous work of felling trees and wrangling chainsaws through the tops and trunks of trees. While we little fish, crumb snatchers, and rugrats cleared the brush and collected the logs behind them. Through the fence rows, ditches, windfalls in the wooded areas around our homes with mud and knee deep snow an environmental prerequisite before setting out. My siblings and I the fine pack mules and artisan stacker’s that we were, hauled those tops into brush piles loaded cut logs into trailers, trucks, toboggans and front loaders to then stack into neat piles for convenient access and curing. Later to handle them yet again… hauling the logs inside and stationing them near the woodstove, once again in neat convenient stacks to feed the fire through the day and night during long cold Michigan winters. Probably then thinking for the first time, there must be a better way.

What rolls down stairs, alone or in Pairs?
I split my logs on site in order to leave something for the woods. The chips and bark better there than in my collection area.

As we grew in age and strength we were introduced to the dreaded maul and wedge. (Pre log splitter days) where the young men become good entertainment for the elders as we learned to wield that tool. The old man, men then in their late thirty’s or early forty’s jibing us as we swung, with names like “Common Alice” and “Swing Boy” laughing… and all the while telling us how to “read the knot”s” in a log and offering tips on where best to strike on a stubborn piece. Only to snicker again when we missed our mark. “Common Boy” “Hit it” and then taking over for a while after either a few successful splits or physical exhaustion.

Of course, I am making this sound like us kids had to do the lions share of the grunt work! It certainly felt that way to us at the time. Our fathers had and still have an incredible work ethic! Even today seem unstoppable in their 70s, still rocking the wood burners. It must be good practice, this firewood experience… exercising heart, body, and spirit. Or possibly …. just maybe they had enough pack mules to keep the work from taking to hard a toll on them? Hahaha! To say the least, harvesting firewood was an incredible character builder for a young man and from the right perspective (in hindsight) part of “life glorious” and as I look back they were good days indeed.

I have attempted to carry on the tradition with my own son. Partly out of necessity, the cost of propane is a shocker every time that pig is filled and… that “something” that is awesome about wood burning in a fireplace. However, I don’t think I’ve been quite as successful at bringing the firewood experience to my boy as my fathers were. You know? The feeling that comes with “Common LETS GO!”. But then again? I may have! and of course, I feel nothing could match those days of yesteryear. Just like our fathers feel the same about those days gone by for them. I suppose one day my boy will share his story with someone. I hope I get to hear it! If you see him, ask him about the wheelbarrow tire he got for Christmas one year! It may kindle an interesting story or two. At least you will get to see the backs of his eyeballs!

Ash
Ash splits nicely on a cold winters afternoon.

The firewood saga continues today and I can tell you wood burning isn’t all romance and coziness for this 50 something modern man… and family man with his life all planned lol. His own pack mule all gown and searching for his own path, yet still at home and very good at making himself unavailable for the experience. I joke, Its really about the schedule, I work in a factory 6 days and Sunday is firewood day, or hurry up and get some other task done day, whatever priority right or wrong in succession press on my lone full day to get something done. Sunday is my sons day to work with The Flint Scottish Pipe Band, that being his priority on Sunday. So… ya know… I get plenty of personal time in the woods and that’s OK. He helps when he can.

Still that angst I remember as a kid still holds true today. Although today it holds a different focus perhaps, the propane truck and that tiny piece of paper that fills me with this rage and in part, dictates my role in a factory. It surely keeps me plugging on, harvesting deadfalls in our woods to add to the warmth of our home. Fortunately for us, there is an abundance in our small plot, for now anyway… with a realization that no resource is in endless supply. The Emerald Ash Borer has worked through and lay waste to our once Ash dominated woodland so for now, easy pickings.

As for collecting firewood today, I enjoy the work, I go at an easy pace and efficiently as I can to find as many moments without the noise of saws and machinery. Savoring the effort of the maul and the focus it takes to make that tool sing. I suppose the maul isn’t singing… its more of a dull thud and satisfying crack as the fibers of the wood give way. My muscles later sing quite loudly I’m sorry to report. But there is something about the muffled sounds of the labor in the woods mixed with the noises inherent in that place. It is peaceful and very Zen-like.

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Looking forward to my old age, I still harbor that old feeling… There must be a better way.

Before we go on I should mention something about safety. A clean chimney is a safer chimney! Chimney fires are no joke! Sweep, clean out and check for wear on your system often! To best fend off the experience do, or hire someone to sweep down your chimney often. Avoid uncured or pitchy wood like pine, be aware that longterm burning with low airflow (using your damper to slow the burn rate) won’t allow temperatures completely burn the gases inside your fire chamber which allows soot and creosote to build itself a nice layer along your chimneys insides and in turn it into a jet engine! Spewing flames out the top of your stack and fireplace opening several feet! Creating excessive heat in places not wanted! Pushing flame into places not wanted! Like the living room or through little gaps in pipe and stonework! The sound, sight, fear, and the danger it triggers in your insides are very real! It could cost you your home, and life. Sweep and inspect your system often!

Common sense is a good idea too. Great ideas like “let’s fill up the fireplace with construction lumber ends” not a great idea! Kiln-dried pine in 2×4 chunks burn amazingly hot … what coincidentally will ignite the creosote and soot lining in your uncleaned chimney. I know this from personal experience. Nothing quite like the terror that is an out of control bonfire in a box! A glowing metal moment!
Then there was this one time… I set out the ash bucket out on the deck to cool before dumping, on a metal grate with legs to keep it off the deck… seemed safe… in a stationary world… but the world is not in any way shape or form… stationary! As Confucius would have it, the bucket was tipped by our dog on her route outside to go potty. The accident went unnoticed at first and fortunately, we noticed wafts of smoke through our window before disaster really set in! A few deck boards burnt well enough to see the ground below them but luckily it didn’t ignite to flame and spread… Pretty close call! Lesson learned on a warning!
Common sense is a bonus when using wood heat.

So.. about that better way?
When we built this house and before I stumbled onto Permaculture, I went out shopping for a high-efficiency fireplace insert. I was ecstatic the day I found the beast! It was a beaut! Wrought iron details embellished a sealed high temp glass door, angled burn box, a gas redirector that created a more complete burn inside the box even at low air feeds. This simple feature also directs heat forward from the burn box into a living area. It boasted a selective air feed to feed the fires from inside air or outside. Multiple blowers to force heated air into the room and a ducting feature that I thought at first would move forced air into adjacent rooms (This feature wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.) … I thought I had it all figured out and after being talked out of one of those big boiler wood burners that work so wonderfully if you have an unlimited supply of wood. I opted for this really great stove.

Over the years I have been thankful for its warm and comforting heat in the living room. We have had many years of enjoyment and cost savings. It really has been a dependable and efficient stove. But…
Today as I go out to collect firewood to heat our home there are a couple of realities that keep whispering in my ear. One: When I’m 80 I doubt I could keep this up. 2: My personal property will not at this rate sustain the tree growth to feed this beast even if at 80 I can still manhandle the logs.

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My baby enjoying the warmth of our insert!

Again… there must be a better way.
It’s not fossil fuel, what we are dependent on if we somehow we don’t find a new way. ..l.. the propane company
It cant be all solar, for one I am not a fan of mining the metals it takes to create the technology. The draw of electric heaters surely would outpace whatever we could bank with solar power. Electric heat would probably just change dependency from the propane truck to grid wires…
That said, I feel we should think about passive solar heat and how to incorporate it into our lifestyle as a buffer.
Wood heat seems the only genuine way to do this thing… regeneratively in this winter wonderland. But how to reduce the consumption? How to reduce the labor?

In past few years I discovered and been absorbing as much information I can on a wood burner called a “rocket stove mass heater” said to burn clean and through “mass” bank most of the energy produced by the burn. The banked heat released into space over time as the mass cools. I have been mulling it around in my head and thinking “Man this must be it” There is a ton of information being accumulated on the webs from rocket mass tinkerers around the world. It seems promising.

The stove at this point is a DIY stove. The market really not supporting the idea at this point with no products to plug into your home. Insurance and local ordinances not backing the idea at all. Hell even fireplaces, in general, are almost taboo for these two establishments and you have to pony up the extra cash and jump through many hoops for the privilege of owning and operating one. So I will assume a Rocket Stove will be a challenging sell to them both. But folks are installing them. These folks seem to stand by the efficiency and safety of the stoves they have built.

The stoves can be quite beautiful and utilitarian depending on your creativity and design intents. The most common creations with the “mass”  made into seating benches. With more elaborate designs creating artistic visual and functional aesthetics in a room. Some are used and designed in a way that the hottest parts of the creation are used as a cooktop, or ovens artfully designed into the scheme of things. Some have been made to warm raised beds in a greenhouse!

The folks who have been tinkering with this stuff sure make it look that THIS is the answer to all my problems!
They claim that I could potentially use the sticks that fall from the trees to heat my home through the winter! They claim that they have to find alternative uses for the dead-fall on their properties, vs it all going into the burn box of a conventional wood stove They claim that a continually burning fire will become a thing of the past! They claim that the exhaust is so completely burned that all that escapes is steam and all the heat is absorbed into the home vs escaping the chimney and heating the outdoors.

Well, this sounds pretty good to me! So convinced that I’m gonna set out to build a test stove to practice for the Real McCoy. I figure, worst case, at least I can say I tried to avoid using propane to heat my home in my golden years.

In these winter months, I will be designing an addition. A greenhouse on the south side of my goat barn. My “test stove” will be built with the intent to warm that space during the winter months along with some passive solar tricks. It should get me started some “hands on” experience and headed in the right direction… But until then, more study is in order. More firewood for the current stove is too! Must feed the beast! Its 3 degrees outside right now and the fire is cooking! I have my doubts about this mass heater… but its worth a try.
I will share what I find that makes sense to my application as I find it. Also, share my plan as it is devised.

Wish me luck!
Have a great New Year!

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