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Posts Tagged ‘firewood’

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Not my favourite time of year. Last time I posted we were enjoying the end of a warm Autumnal November. Now we’re at the end of a drenched December and January that seems an impossibly long time ago and everything is just so Wet!

It’s been unseasonably warm (I’m told we should learn to expect that as the climate changes) and that doesn’t help at all as all my carefully prepared stacks of firewood have been exposed to continually moist air.

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The must-have present this winter for the firewood hunter gatherer of the family is the book attractively entitled ‘Norwegian Wood’ a well written story of woodsmen, firewood and beautiful Norwegian piles of firewood stacked outside and covered in snow.

But here in the British Isles our firewood no matter how carefully split, stacked and dried during our relatively long summer is exposed to moisture laden gales – now replete with everyday names. Today we’re enjoying ‘Storm Henry’ at a relatively balmy 12 degrees above zero (C).

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The result – my carefully seasoned, split and stacked firewood is shockingly wet! Almost 30% on this piece of oak chosen at random from the stack outside my front door. That’s a lot more water in the log than I’d like to have – 300g of water in a 1kg log and all of that has to be ‘boiled’ off up the chimney. That’s all energy not available to heat the house, resulting in a cooler stove and potentially more tar blocking up the chimney as inefficient combustion at cooler temperatures mixes volatile chemicals and moisture.

So what went wrong? Nothing other than our British ‘maritime’ climate. We just can’t do Norwegian Wood over here. It’s too warm and too moist. Wood is hygroscopic – in other words – it will absorb moisture from it’s environment. If the atmosphere is above zero (C) and moist then dry wood will become damp. There is an equilibrium moisture content, and at a few degrees (C) with the relative moisture content of air up to between  90 and 100% (the air is saturated with moisture) as it has been for months now. Then my air dried logs will be returning to somewhere over 20% and perhaps as high as 30% depending upon how quickly the moisture is absorbed and how long it stays moist.

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What can I do about it? Not much outside. With so much rain and overcast days there is little hope of using the sun to dry the wood. Even expensively (environmentally as well as financially) kiln dried firewood will become damp in this weather. The same applies to the net bags of logs left standing outside filling stations or garden centres. If they weren’t damp when they were delivered they will be by now.

All I can do is ensure that I take my logs into the house and give them a day or two beside the fire (but not too close of course) before I burn them.

By chopping my firewood into smaller sizes and letting the warmth run through them I can reduce the moisture content to below 20% which enables a more efficient combustion in the stove as well as reducing the moisture released up the chimney.

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So don’t forget to bring your logs inside at least a day or two before you need to burn them, chop them up good and small (you’ll get warm all over again) and run your stove hot enough for efficient burning.  But most of all I hope your logs are nice and dry wherever you are burning them this winter!

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I’ve been thinking about firewood quite a lot recently – and not just as an excuse to post my favourite view of the commons with my favourite landrover, well one of my favourite landrovers, in the photo. We’re still waiting and hoping for Winter to be overwhelmed by Spring, but despite the longer evenings and the sun higher in the sky it snowed again last week. It’s been the coldest March for at least 50years around here.

With it being so cold we’re still burning a lot of wood and dry firewood is at a premium right now. I’ve ended up burning some of the wood I’d put aside to make my my first charcoal of the season –  it’s never easy to predict just how much firewood you will need each year.

To eke out my supplies I’ll take advantage of any dry seasoned wood I come across. The load of well seasoned Sweet Chestnut in the back of the Landrover had to be removed while I was mending the stock fencing and it seemed a shame to waste it.

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As I’m burning the last of my stored and seasoned dry firewood it’s a very good time to be starting to prepare next years and I’m also trying to get ahead with preparing some wood for my charcoal making through the summer.

Just about any wood will burn once it’s dried out or seasoned though some woods will burn more easily due to their density and smell more attractive as they burn. This is a collection of Beech, Rowan, Birch and Sweet Chestnut being split ready for the sun to season it – provided of course that we do get any sun this year. These are all good firewoods but they are not dry enough to burn efficiently yet and need the summer and strong sunlight to reduce the moisture content.

Just to hammer this home – if you try to burn 10Kg of only partially seasoned wood at 30% moisture – then you will have to boil off 3Kg of water. Boiling off the water reduces the temperature and efficiency of your fire as well as condensing with other volatile chemicals in your chimney to form creosote.

Much better to let the summer sun dry your firewood to 20% moisture content or below if possible – but it’s hard to go much drier because of the ambient moisture content in the air. Even if you do dry the wood completely, unless it’s stored in an atmosphere with zero humidity it will start to soak up moisture again quickly.

When the wood is dry enough it will burn much more efficiently and deliver more heat – the volatile chemicals are also more likely to be burnt increasing the efficiency of the burn and reducing the deposits in the chimney.

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Once your wood is drying nicely it needs to be stacked to protect it from the rain – but still allow the sunlight to continue drying it and the wind to blow through it.

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In our climate some kind of roof on the stack is necessary as well as a base to lift the stack off the ground and prevent moisture from wicking up into the wood from the ground. This stack is self supporting in the Bavarian style with a double wall of split logs curved around at the corners. The pallets on top allow an air space for the wood to continue drying and stay dry until it’s needed.

With so many other jobs to attend to it’s hard to give the firewood the attention it deserves. But we’ve struggled to heat our cottage this winter and that’s a good reminder that I need to give my firewood every chance to dry if I want to stay as warm as possible through next winter.

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During our recent cold snap the temperature reached -16C overnight, a very cold snap indeed for us in the south of England, and in the shed in the morning it was still -10C so a bit too cold for turning on the polelathe. Time to build up the fires inside and the quality of the firewood makes quite a difference to the ability to keep the house warm when its that cold.

I’ve found that the choice of  firewood for the coldest part of the year is well worth putting some thought into.  In recent years I’ve taken to putting aside some of my driest best firewood for the cold snaps when they come.

My mother was a talented caligrapher and some years ago she sent me a version of the old poem ‘Wood for Burning’  – and there is no smoke without a fire as they say – it’s as a good a guide to choosing your firewood as you can get, so here is her version again in case you missed it last time around.

(Caligraphy – Olive Allery 1928-2011)

All wood will burn and per Kg they all give about the same heat, but everyone has their favourite firewood.  Oak, Beech and Hawthorn are common favourites but why is Ash said to be the best?

I think the answer lies in the density and moisture content of the wood. The denser the wood the more heat it can release when it burns but in my experience the densest timbers can take years to season. When you try to burn them the high density of the wood slows the burning process down and if they still have too high a moisture content they burn even more slowly and don’t provide enough heat.

The obvious solution is to split and dry your firewood in the sun then store undercover for some years until you need it. That’s fine, but not everyone has enough Oak woodland or a barn for a log store to enable firewood to be stored for years in advance to season and dry. Knowing which woods will need less seasoning and can even be burnt green can be key to keeping warmer in the winter.

Winter felled Ash is relatively low in moisture content in comparison with other woods and it’s medium density open grain means it will dry faster than the denser woods – hence the references in the poem to burning ash wet or green.  Also it tends to grow straight grained, is easy to chop and split and it doesn’t smell bad on the fire so it comes out as a good all round compromise.

Mind you, I don’t get a lot of spare Ash – it’s too good for turning on the polelathe, so my favourite logs to burn are a combination of Birch with Oak or Beech. The Birch starts the fire and burns very hot and fast, when mixed with Oak or Beech the fire burns both long and hot. Oh and Birch does smell good on the fire as well!

 

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I get to thinking about firewood quite a lot at this time of year.  Our main heat source in the winter is wood and knowing how to get the most efficient burn makes quite a difference to the temperature in the cottage, and to the amout of wood I need to shift on a daily basis.

There is a lot of folklore around firewood. Not without reason either as in the days before central heating (whats that?), double glazing (must do something about that soon) and cavity wall insulation, having poor firewood could mean freezing to death or even burning your house down rather than sitting next to the fire in a cosy warm room.

The good news is that all wood burns. Even better, all wood delivers about the same heat energy per Kg. It’s just that some woods are less dense so  a 1 tonne pile of  birch will take up twice the volume of 1 tonne of oak, for example. If  you notice that you burn your way through more birch, willow or softwoods than oak then that’s the simple explanation, you need to burn roughly twice as many logs. Most other woods are somewhere in between in terms of density. Since most firewood is delivered in volume – it’s something to be aware of.

Of course it’s not quite that simple as any wood you care to burn will also contain moisture. Even the floors and doors in the house will contain some moisture which is dependent upon the atmospheric moisture content – the wood will adjust which is why things tend to shift through the year from summer to winter as it swells and contracts. When it’s cut wood has a moisture content somewhere between 30 and 60%. Some woods are wetter than others depending upon the season of cutting and the type of tree. Ash has a relatively low moisture content which combined with it’s medium density and a relative lack of tars probably accounts for it’s reputation as the best firewood of all.

Trying to burn water is going to reduce the efficiency of the combustion as heat is diverted to turning water to steam and the wood resists burning when its too wet so you have to increase the amount of air flowing into the fire and up the chimney which only further reduces heat flowing to where you want it. Steam in the flue combines with the unburnt wood products in the partially combusted smoke and can condense as creosote, with the danger of blocking the flue and causing a chimney fire.

Burning the driest wood you can get makes your fire most efficient, reduces the amount of wood you need to cut (or buy in) and store, saves you time and money and releases less emissions into the atmosphere. Most of all on a really cold night you’ll be cosier and warmer.

There are more ways of cutting, splitting, stacking, seasoning and storing firewood than I could possibly cover in a short post that is already getting too long. But if you have the inclination you can find an old post of mine looking at firewood stacks in Southern Germany here – Firewood stacks of Mahringen pt II.

If you don’t happen to have a spare barn to act as a logstore then it’s no problem to stack the wood outside. The key to drying wood outside is to make the most of the sunshine (as I was reminded recently it dries wood for free and with no carbon emissions) and allow the air to circulate through the stack. I have pallets on the top of this stack to provide an air gap between the wood and the ground sheet which is protecting it from the rain, as well as a raft of old posts on the bottom to improve the drainage.

When you come to burn it, if your firewood is not as dry as you’d like then you can do some simple things to help. Make sure you bring firewood into the house before you want to burn it – preferably stack it by the fire for a day or two if you can do so safely. The smaller you chop the wood the quicker it will dry before you burn it – and the more efficiently it will burn once it’s on the fire.

You’ll find that the lower density woods are easier to dry out in a hurry so if you do have to burn wetter wood than you’d like you’ll find chopping up Ash, Birch, Willow etc into small sticks and drying on top of the stove before burning is a better bet than trying to burn green Oak.

To keep a fire working at optimum efficiency you should be continually adding small pieces of firewood to it. But generally that’s a bit like hard work and we all prefer to put a big log on now and then through the evening. If your fire is just for effect then that’s fine but if you are relying on it to heat the room, house or your water then big logs are bad, and big wet logs are the worst.

 

The combustion is most efficient when just the right amount of air is mixed with the fuel to burn up all of the fuel with the minimum amount of heat escaping through the flue with the water and carbon dioxide. An open fire is normally quite inefficient compared with a stove as it normall draws too much air into the fire and much of the heat is lost into the chimney and more warm air is drawn out of the room. But not all stoves are very efficient and some open fires can be almost as efficient as a stove.

In our living room we have a ‘Jetmaster’ open fire and even though I’ve been using it for 18years I’ve only recently learned that a part of the reason for it’s metal fire box construction is that it has a convector heater built in as room air is drawn under the firebox and up through a void at the back, coming back out through radiating fins at the top of the firebox and into the room as hot air! This, together with the variable damper, can raise the overall efficiency of the fire to 50% – which is exceptionally good for an open fireplace, though nowhere near the 72% of our woodburning stove.

I trust you are all enjoying the warmth of your labours in front of your fires right now!

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This has to be the best time of year for walking in the woods. The display of colours from the Beech trees is magnificent this year and nowhere better than the Forest of Dean where we’ve been for a few days up on the edge of the Wye Valley, but I’m afraid my photos don’t really do the colours justice. Mind you the weather didn’t really cooperate, though warm it’s been dull and dank if not pouring with rain most of the time.

As well as walking through the Forest we explored a few paths up and around the River Wye, through the Gloucestershire countryside and came quite unexpectedly upon an old orchard where management has clearly been on the sparse side for many years. Several of the trees were quite overgrown with Mistletoe – though maybe it’s actually a Mistletoe orchard?

Away from the Forest the footpaths seemed quite thin on the ground and never quite linked up but we did find some great old hedges with lovely ancient oak trees.

This one has grown a monster burr, you can see from the gate in the photo that the burr is a few feet in diameter and it actually reaches most of the way around behind the trunk.

Back in the forest I was (as usual) astounded to see so much lop and top left lying around felling sites, and not just softwood but hardwood as well. On this site several beech trees had just been cut up and left where they were felled. I know I’ll be told that it’s all in aid of biodiversity and the bugs like it, but I mean!  In today’s times of austerity we’re all having to tighten our belts and how many bedrooms does a bug really need?  This is a renewable energy source just wasted and I’m sure that the biodiversity of the site would actually benefit from the removal of some of the excess brash and still leave plenty of spare bedrooms for the bugs!

I suspect it’s all caused by the relentless intensification of forestry during the latter half of the 20th century, very much the same as with agriculture. The more wood you produce the lower the price goes and the more wood you need to produce to keep making money. So you get a bigger loan, buy bigger machines with more computers and GPS that work all day and night to keep paying off the loan and it’s no longer cost effective to remove the brash or even some of the trees.

But it doesn’t have to be like that especially with the price of firewood on the rise. Woodsmen like me keep operating costs down by working for themselves, avoiding loans and using a minimum of equipment. There are plenty of volunteer groups, charcoal burners or firewood operators in Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire who’d be more than happy to clear up sites like this after the contractors leave and reduce our fossil fuel imports and carbon footprint at the same time. I think we ought to be putting pressure on the FC to reintroduce licences for collecting brash and firewood.

Back on the river the sun crept through for just a few minutes. Bizarrely, in view of my previous rant, a small team of tree surgeons were carefully deadwooding some of the river bank willows (lest they fall on the tweed hat of a fly fisherman perhaps?) and then removing all of the wood from the site with a 4×4 and a trailer – from the sublime to the ridiculous?  No bugs welcome on this river bank then?

On the way back I couldn’t resist stopping at a hedgerow full of fat juicy sloes! Normally we only get to pick a few small ones, hard as bullets but these were big soft juicy gobstopper size sloes just demanding to be soaked in Vodkin.

Just a few minutes picking yielded enough for a few litres of Sloe Vodkin and as I write they are in the jars already after a quick session in the freezer just to finish off the softening up process. The jars are Labelled ‘Hole in the Wall’ as we found them on the walk back from a tiny hamlet labelled ‘Hole in the Wall’ on the map, just above Ross-on-Wye.

As we neared the end the sun rushed rapidly down below the horizon, another classic Walk with Trees in the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean.

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Finally the unseasonable warm spell seems to be on its way out, the temperatures are falling towards normal levels and we need to light the fires in the mornig and evenings. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the warm weather and it’s my favourite time of year but it can’t last and as our clocks have changed, the evenings are dark, dank and gloomy, lighting a fire shifts the damp mood and warms the spirit as well as the body.

I’m not looking forward to it but I have done more preparation this year just in case it’s another long cold winter. I got badly caught out last year without enough dry firewood to last through the cold spell and it was very noticeable just how the output from our stove and open fire reduced with increasing moisture content. Just when we needed the heat most! I don’t remember the actual figures but some like an increase of 10% in the moisture content of the firewood reduced the heat output by more like 20% and if your fires are struggling it’s not a warm cozy experience.

This year I’ll be keeping the best of the firewood for the coldest part of the season and most of the firewood I’ll be needing is cut, split and stacked to help it dry just that few percent more. Last year I ended up using too much of the wood for my charcoal bins and I’ll try to avoid that temptation this year though I do need to do one last burn.

It’s a great time of year for walking in the woods so we are off to the Forest of Dean to walk about the Wye Valley for a midweek break, then its back to the shed for more wood and landrover exploits.

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Only a few weeks ago, back when it was still very cold and wet and it seemed that Winter would last forever, was just the right time to get rid of the stack of firewood we cut and extracted on the Lynchmere commons over the year.

This timber is partly a by product of the heathland management but it mainly comes from the management of the woodlands where there is a steady supply of  dead and diseased Silver Birch trees. Silver Birch makes great firewood. It’s much better to cut the trees before they fall over so they can be used as firewood in the local community and every log that replaces a lump of coal or reduces gas or oil use is helping to reduce the effects of climate change as burning wood from sustainable woodlands (where each tree is replaced by a new one) is carbon neutral.

We run one day a year, the ‘Log Day’ when members of the Lynchmere Society can collect a boot load of logs free of charge. As you can imagine it’s a popular day and helps to make membership more popular in the local community. It’s a good deal for our members but I think coming and collecting some firewood, rather than having it dumped on the drive in a dumpy sack, also helps people to understand how important it is that our woodlands are managed properly and the product (wood ) used efficiently. It also reduces transportation to use local firewood – and helps keep locals people gainfully employed.

I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to connect up trees. woodland management and wooden products with the timber that they buy in the DIY centre. I can understand why people object to trees being cut down, but I don’t understand why they are still happy to buy cheap imported wood products transported halfway around the world rather than support improved management of our own woodlands. In a small way our Log Days are a tool to help connect the use of wood products with woodland management.

With the price of firewood rising and a permanent queue for installation of wood burning stoves this year was certainly no exception and I think probably more popular than ever.

Despite the terrible weather the best part of 20 tonnes of firewood disappeared in about 3 hours. Time to start all over again!

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