Burn it Down
Plan ahead for your warmest winter yet.
Fire is one of the great consolations we get for the dying of summer and the onset of colder weather. Whether you enjoy the winter season or not, everyone seems to agree about fires and their many charms. The smell of burning wood; the cracks and pops when a sap pocket bursts open; the hypnotic flames that seem impossible to look away from. And of course there’s the disproportionate sense of accomplishment and prowess that comes from building a fire. Even when using lighter fluid and newspaper, something inside you declares, “I HAVE MADE FIRE!” Why does that feel so good?
Fortunately, we no longer depend on fire to heat our homes or cook our food. But that doesn’t mean fire shouldn’t be a regular part of your life. After all, no group of friends ever gathered around the gas furnace for a memorable evening spent together. If you set yourself up right, you could be in for the best winter of your life – and you might even save a few bucks on your heating bill while you’re at it.
Step 1: Get yourself some wood
There are two basic ways to go about this. Obviously, you can buy your wood. Or, if you happen to live near a forest, you can gather your own. There are a few tricks to keep in mind with each method.
If you’re buying wood and you plan to burn a lot of fires through the winter, avoid the grocery store bundles. At $5 apiece or more, they’re fine for the occasional fire but are far too expensive to use on a regular basis. Your best bet is to buy by the cord. This can seem daunting if you’re new to this sort of thing, but most wood retailers will deliver for a small fee, and many sell in quantities ranging from a very manageable ⅛ cord on up to full semi truck loads. For a single household, usually ½ to 1 cord will do nicely for a season of frequent use.
If you have the option, gathering your own wood is a great way to increase the satisfaction factor from every fire. As the famous Henry Ford saying goes, “Chop your own wood and it’ll warm you twice.” If you’re within striking distance of a national forest, you can purchase a permit from your local forest service that licenses you to go to designated areas and collect wood. In general, the permits cost around $10 per cord and often allows you to collect up to two cords per outing. It’ll also cost you a day to do it, but not many activities have the potential for a such a memorable experience as taking a day to drive out to the forest, cut down a tree, chop it up, and carry it home for the winter.
Step 2: Break it down
This is the fun part. First, make sure you’ve got the right tools for the job. When splitting a large quantity of wood for storage, you want a good heavy axe or splitting maul. We like the American Felling Axe from Best Made Co. for its heft, build quality, and versatility: it can be used for felling medium to large trees as well as for splitting wood. For finer work like splitting kindling, use a good sharp hatchet.
Some notes on technique (or, how not to split your foot in half). Place the wood to be split on a raised stump, about knee-height. Place it back from the front edge, so the axe has something to hit in case you miss (not that you would). Your swing should have a two-stage motion: first, swing up and over your head for momentum and speed; then, as your hands come together and the axe head starts to come down, bring the axe handle downward so that the head carries straight down onto the wood. Not only is this the most efficient strike to split wood, it will also keep the axe from swinging around and hitting your legs or feet.
For particularly large or knotted sections, it’s often best to use one or two splitting wedges and a sledge hammer (or the back of a splitting maul, if you have one). Tap the wedge(s) in close to the outer edge to create a crack, then slowly work them in toward the center as the crack widens until the section splits in half.
Step 3: Store it
For storing, your wood should be cut into relatively large, uniform pieces; don’t worry about further breakdown until you’re ready to burn. The most important things to consider for storage are moisture and airflow. Your goal is first to dry the wood out as quickly as possible and then to keep it that way. If possible, your wood should have a roof over it, especially if you live in a rainy climate. But in general, walls are not necessary and can in fact inhibit drying airflow. Try to keep the wood off the wet ground, either with a pair of poles laid on the ground or with a slatted wood floor.
Bark is designed to keep moisture in, so if your split wood still has bark on it, stack the wood bark-side down to aid evaporation. According to ancient Scandinavian wisdom, your stacks should have gaps large enough for a mouse to crawl through. Anything tighter will keep the wood from drying.
Step 4: Burn it
You’ve done all the hard work, and now you can enjoy a whole winter of burning fires. There are seemingly countless methods for building fires, but how many do you really need? Here are the two methods that are, we think, the only two any man needs to know.
Attributes: Bright, Hot, Quick-burning
Collect kindling into a bundle and place in the center of your fire ring or fireplace. Using 3-5 small sticks, create a teepee around the kindling. Light the kindling. Once the sticks take the fire, create a larger teepee with larger sticks, repeating as the fire burns.
The Log Cabin
Attributes: Steady, Efficient, Longer-burning
Collect kindling into a bundle and place in the center of your fire ring or fireplace. Light the kindling. Place two large pieces of wood in parallel on either side of the kindling, then stack two medium-sized sticks perpendicularly across the lit kindling. Repeat this stacking pattern with larger pieces as the fire grows.
And there you have it – you are now equipped for a full season of fire burning. Meaningful conversations and romantic encounters are up to you.