One of the more overlooked tasks involving firewood (if you're not buying it at a supermarket from the front display) is what it takes to prepare it. “Firewood preparation?” you might ask. Yes. There's actually a process if you plan on having your own stock pile.
This doesn't mean you have a lumberyard of wood on standby (unless you're a doomsday prepper). Firewood preparation is good for any decent amount you'd consider using for an outdoor fire pit when friends come over and you feel like opening a bottle of wine, or for a family fireplace running day to day through the winter.
Firewood Preparation to Keep That Fire Burning
These are a few tricks I've learned over the years that have helped me out. Some may have better solutions to a few of the firewood preparation problems I've encountered, but these are the lessons I've learned firsthand.
From the Field to the Home
If you collect firewood from the field (or like me in California, from anywhere you can including parks when they're doing clearing), it's important to think of usable and manageable sizes. You might not think it makes a difference at first, but depending on your fireplace, the length of individual pieces prior to splitting will drastically change your workload. If you fall your own tree, cut it up into movable or workable pieces. On a hill, cut larger pieces down to something you can pull with a rope (or carry like a he-man).
The optimal length of wood (pre-split) is usually somewhere between 10″ and 14″. Make sure to check your fireplace and see what fits easily inside without packing it tight. You want to leave some breathing room on the sides. The first step of firewood preparation involves using your chainsaw and cutting off appropriately-sized pieces of wood. If you are cutting over dirt, cut the log down to just under an inch of remaining wood. Then, after applying the chainsaw's brake, you can kick the wood (with the bottom of your heel, silly, not your toe…that can hurt) and break it off. This will save you from getting dirt in your awesome saw.
Another factor in firewood preparation is wood type. Eucalyptus is a very difficult wood to split with an axe as it twists when it grows and the fibers that make up the tree can be hard to separate if the piece is too long or wet. Pine grows relatively straight and is much cleaner to split. A bonus factor to note is the BTU potential is different for different types of wood. Eucalyptus burns hot and leaves little ash. Pine also burns hot, has slightly more ash but has an almost magical smell as it burns. Fruit trees, I've learned, don't burn hot and leave a lot of ash. Ash is basically a byproduct of unused fuel, so this wood could be seen as less efficient.
Dry your Wood
When I first started collecting wood, I thought it was all immediately ready to use. Not so (my father really liked to rub that lesson in). Living trees hold water almost like a sponge. After being cut, depending on your region and/or season, it could take weeks or months to dry out. Wet wood is almost rubbery and I've even bounced an axe trying to split it. I've also had a 52,000-pound log splitter fail to push through a piece of wet eucalyptus. That was scary.
As you can imagine, it also takes more effort to burn which in turn reduces head output and in some cases increases smoke production. A dry wood fire of good, hot-burning wood will actually produce less smoke and ash as a higher amount of the fuel is successfully being used to make heat. Who knew!? In firewood preparation, the best way to dry wood is to stack it in rows and give it plenty of air and sun if possible. My two palm trees act as perfect braces for my wood.
Helpful Splitting Note
When I first started splitting my wood with an axe, I threw a piece on the ground and whacked and whacked and whacked at it until I went inside with only four split pieces of wood. t was inefficient. To help your back out, get a larger piece of wood to act as a splitting block. This will raise your contact point to a more advantageous elevation, helping deliver more energy from your swing to the actual log. It also makes it safer and reduces the chance of chipping your axe on a rock or flinging strange debris into your eyes.
Second, take a second (see what I did there?) and look at the piece you want to cut. If you've let it dry, it should have cracks or seams in it. Place the wood on your chopping block so that one of these seams faces you directly. Drop your axe, during a chop, on one of these seams. It's a natural split point and should alleviate the amount of inertia needed to split your wood.
Finally, wear safety glasses or a good safe set of sunglasses. You might also want to wear gloves and most importantly, make sure you cut in a safe area away from the house and that there are no little curious children walking around you. When chopping, wood tends to explode in all directions. This might mean towards your eye, a window, or into a happy little toddler wanting to see what mommy or daddy is doing. You can't take back some easily preventable accidents when it involves children. Little people tend to want to be close to cool stuff, even if it's dangerous.
After you split your wood, depending on how much of a mountain of wood you split, be sure to stack it. Not only does it look neater, it also keeps your firewood preparation area clean and allows the wood to further dry. If you live in southern areas or dry desert areas, this makes it easier to check for and prevent snakes from hanging around. A pile of wood is like a cheap motel for rattlers. Like the kind of motel on the wrong side of the tracks, if you know what I mean.
Firewood preparation is not only satisfying. It's cheaper, fun and can be a good form of exercise and meditation. If I've had a hard day, going out and chopping a few pieces of wood helps clear my mind and take a bit of the negative energy away.
Not to mention the great smell burning pine has when sitting with my family or friends.