When you rely on wood for your heating and cooking, you realise that there is a vast amount of knowledge that was once common but is now largely forgotten, all of which is really quite vital to your success. Our first year has been a steep learning curve, but we’re now getting on top of the wood supply situation. The intention is that our birch woodland will supply all our needs, but at the outset we’d no idea what they were exactly, other than some figures suggested by other people’s suggestions.

What we’ve discovered is that if you are cooking, heating water and a home from one or more wood stoves, you will use really quite a lot of wood. Its hard to say exactly how much we’ve got through, but in terms of volume, it must be at least 10 cubic yards, if not more. Much more probably. Certainly it equates to one small birch tree a day. The trouble is that if you are starting out, but have your own woodland, your first year involves either buying wood in, or managing with what you have. We went for the latter option – a mix of our own cut wood, and softwood from fallen trees and scrapwood.

There seems to be a general feeling that cutting down trees is a Bad Thing, and I suppose it is if you don’t allow for regrowth, but we are coppicing the birch, and trees that were cut a year ago are already throwing up new stems 4 foot high. That and a programme of new planting should keep our supply going. Judging by the size of trees in the wood, we are aiming to cut the coppice at 8-10 years, and adult trees at 15+ years. In theory we have just enough to do us. Certainly a managed woodland is one of the few properly sustainable fuel sources.

Birch as it turns out is quite a forgiving firewood if cut when the sap is down in the winter. A day inside, a day near the fire, and it will burn fairly well. Properly seasoned it is great stuff, if a little quick burning. This and a combination of old pallets and scrap wood for firelighters have seen us through, but it makes for very inefficient burning, hence the quantities needed to keep us warm.

Our biggest problem has been storage. Wood everywhere, but all damp, and little use. With hindsight, a woodstore would have come higher on the list, and saved a lot of swearing, but we got there in the end –

IMG_4984Wood needs wind and sun to dry properly, so lots of ventilation, and in this case, a south facing location. This we hope will hold a years worth of split wood, and we’ll need a more basic shelter to put cordwood under before it’s cut up and split. Lots of log stores are open fronted, but the wind and rain prevail from the south west here, hence the enclosure.

IMG_4985Typical drying times for wood are usually given as at least a year, if not two, but if you’re in a hurry, take heart from some experiments carried out by Jonathan Rouse for an article in the Ecologist in which he discovers that split wood does 90% of its seasoning in the first 3 months, but over a 7 month period will dry to the same point as cut logs.

This was done using pine, so the rates will be different for other woods. However it has pushed us to split all our wood at the outset, and store it split rather than as whole logs.

The difference in the performance of our range is really noticable when using very dry wood with a high energy density such as oak. We’ve seen temperatures almost twice what we’d expect from unseasoned birch. This winter we’ve larch, spruce, horse chestnut – none of them terribly great firewood, and birch which is far better, all ready to put away for winter 2014-15.  Having that choice of woods means we can select for fire starting, a hot cooking fire, a slower burning fire that needs less attention during the day. All different needs, fulfilled by different types and sizes of firewood.

So what did we learn?

  • If you’re short of time, split your wood down as small as you can.
  • A day out in the wind and sun makes a huge difference before you put wood inside
  • Even a day drying by the fire will improve damp wood, so dry tomorrows by the fire that is burning today.
  • Get a woodstore ready at the outset, even if its a basic legs and a roof affair.
  • Small birch with bark on is great for cooking – the bark gives really quick instant heat.
  • If you can get a hot fire going with some dry softwood, then you’ll probably get less than perfectly seasoned hardwood to burn. Damp softwood is worse than useless.
  • A big pile of dry twiggy material is brilliant for lighting fires, so gather it up in summer when its properly dry.

Of course, having a huge store of 2 year seasoned firewood makes all this redundant, but if you are just starting out, you may not have the money to buy it in (it costs a fortune in the UK at the moment), so you’ll have to make do with what comes along, and put some aside to season.  If you are looking to buy woodland for fuel, or are planting your own, then certainly err on the generous side, because unless you live in an especially well insulated or small home, your useage could well be higher than you bargained for.