All Hail The Woodstove!

Mainers have a special relationship with their woodstoves — and plenty to say about them. Michael Burke is just getting warmed up.

It’s a hot and muggy day in july, one of those days when to move is to sweat. I have sweat through my t-shirt, my pants, through my hat, through my boots, even. I am covered in wood chips. It’s like being in Vulcan’s forge, laboring away on behalf of the god of fire. It is July, and firewood seems useless.

I’m sawing up trees that have been cut from our land here in Wilton. We don’t have a wood lot per se, but our trees need thinning from time to time, and the thinning has left a cord-and-a-half of trunks to deal with. I am turning the 4-foot logs into 16-inch pieces that will fit inside our woodstove. As I work — and as I sweat — I am reminded of the old line we repeat to each other when we complain about heating with wood: “It warms you four times: when you cut it, when you split it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.” (Henry David Thoreau, that old minimalist, claimed only two warmings: cutting and burning.)

Heating a home with wood is an odd thing, a last vestige of the prehistoric in our otherwise modern lives. Think of it: we willingly bring fire into our homes, right into our living rooms, sharing our space with it. Looking back, this might someday seem as alien as indoor bathrooms did to the Elizabethans: why would you want that inside your house?

But fire and the chambers that hold it — woodstoves, pellet stoves, fireplace inserts — these have a firm grip on us here in Maine, where we have some of the best motivations one can have for heating with wood: high fuel prices, a land mass that’s 82 percent trees, and a frigid wasteland of a month called January.

Heating a home with wood is an odd thing, a last vestige of the prehistoric in our otherwise modern lives.

Of course, not everyone heats with wood, but those of us who do tend to be motivated by a holy trinity of economy, environment, and aesthetics. The BTUs from firewood are much cheaper than those from oil, for starters. A cord of hardwood is the equivalent of about 165 gallons of heating oil. Even with the recent (and welcome) drop in oil prices, I recently paid $2.86 a gallon for oil and $225 for a cord of wood — that’s $472 against $225 (though I suppose you don’t have to stack oil).

Wood, moreover, is a thoroughly renewable resource. No one’s growing any more oil, as far as I know. This is not to say that burning wood is a wholly green affair. After all, wood fires do emit particulate, even toxic, matter into the atmosphere, and the carbon dioxide released by burning wood is actually greater per BTU than for the equivalent BTUs of oil. But as one friend reminds me, while burning wood might add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, “a woodlot puts away a lot more than we burn.” Some cities restrict woodstoves at certain times of year because of the heavy smoke that can build up, but thankfully Maine is a low-density state, meaning that most of us can burn wood without having to breathe one another’s smoke. In general, we can thank Maine’s low population density for making wood fuel a net virtue rather than a net nuisance.

Fires are still a concern, of course — Mainers start some 500 chimney fires each year. And, let’s face it, burning with wood is a lot of work, much more than flicking on the thermostat to start the furnace chugging. But there is a particular and peculiar pleasure to sitting in front of a wood fire. My neighbor, Norm Gould, chalks some of it up to nostalgia. “I grew up with wood fires,” says Norm, a practical native Mainer and longtime Wilton selectman whose cookstove dates back to 1926, “and I remember that there’s nothing like cozying up to one when it’s 15 below outside.”

In other words, no one ever looked forward to warming her hands over a baseboard heating panel or staring transfixed into a hot-air register. Nobody gets home on a frosty day and unwinds with a nice long sit in front of the thermostat.

We met with two wood-stacking pros to discuss why the culture of cutting and stacking wood is such an important part of winters in Maine. Video by Kevin Sennett

Heating with wood is one step along a great cycle — a romantic cycle to some, even to those who’ve traveled around it more times than they can remember. It is a cycle in the temporal sense, as well as the ecologic: a year-round process of growing, cutting, splitting, stacking, burning, and cleaning. It has all the elements of a grand mythic narrative: Struggle. Renewal. The gift of fire. The heroic overcoming of splinters.

By having wood delivered already cut and split, many of my fellow pyrophiles step into this heating cycle as close to the “burning” phase as possible, effectively outsourcing the cycle’s first few steps. We order by the cord, most of us, deluding ourselves into thinking that what is delivered is indeed the 128 cubic feet that a cord is supposed to be. I’ve stacked and measured plenty of cords in my day, and rarely do they come even close. There are a number of explanations for this, but I’ve simply learned to accept the notion of the “cord” as a charming myth.

Very few of us are engaged with the whole cycle, from wood lot to ash can, but my old friend Bob Kimber is one of those few. A writer from Temple, Bob has about 30 acres in his wood lot, and for the last 40 years, all of his firewood has come from that lot. At 79, he cuts and splits about five cords per year. Since it is his own wood, and since it is Bob, I imagine those cords are exactly 128 cubic feet. Bob cuts the following year’s wood in the fall or early winter, preferably when the ground is frozen, and he splits it by axe in place (“I’ve been known to split pieces as small around as my thumb,” he tells me with a laugh). He hauls it across the road using his old tractor and stores it in a drying shed beside the house, where it is protected from rain and snow, but open to wind.

No one ever looked forward to warming her hands over a baseboard heating panel or staring transfixed into a hot-air register.

Bob has two stoves (everyone has two stoves, it sometimes seems): One is a Thermo-Control hot-water furnace in the kitchen that supplies his baseboard heat; the other is a Jøtul parlor stove in — where else? — his front parlor. Bob and his wife, Rita, embrace the economic, environmental, and aesthetic triad about as thoroughly as one can. Since they don’t have to buy the firewood, their heat is even cheaper than it is for the rest of us. They’ve reduced their carbon footprint by using wood instead of oil and reduced oil consumption even further with the addition of solar panels. And the warmth from wood, to hear Bob tell it, is “just heaven.”

Terry Crouch, another friend and a retired UMaine English professor, starts slightly farther along the cycle from Bob and Rita. He has his own 50-acre woodlot and used to harvest it himself, but these days he hires or swaps wood with “a guy with a skidder.” That guy hauls out five or six cords of logs each year, which Terry then cuts and splits with a gas-powered splitter. He has two stoves, naturally: one a Waterford Stanley cookstove, big enough to hold a fire overnight and to which he rigged a copper coil for heating water, and also a Jøtul, for when it gets really cold. His house is small, Terry says, and well insulated, so five or six cords is all he needs. He heats with wood for all of the usual reasons, he says, including “the magic of fire, the basic primitiveness of it.”

Gretchen Legler — yes, another writer and professor in the UMaine–Farmington BFA program — wades into the wood-heating river downstream from both Bob and Terry, when the trees cut from her property have already been felled and “bucked up” (woodcutter lingo for cutting trees into the appropriate lengths). After that, she and her partner Ruth split it themselves. I asked Gretchen one day why she likes heating with wood. She paused for a second and then said, “Because it’s alive.” Eloquent comments like these are my payoff for quizzing a half-dozen writers for this story.

DEE1501Wood_5_horiz

For my part, I begin my wood season at the stacking phase, right after the “cut-and-split.” The arrival of that first load signals the end of the longest unbroken period of not dealing with woodstoves and fires, all the way from mid-May to early July. All of us who heat with wood eventually have to stack it, because sadly, wood stacking as a profession has not yet been invented.

There are many ways to stack firewood, and according to at least one other stacker, all of them are wrong. If Bob can’t get his wood into his drying shed, he stacks it in single-row piles on pallets around his yard. Gretchen and Ruth stack theirs by first making a large circle of slabs on the ground, then tossing pieces onto the circle until it makes a round mound. Another strategy I’ve seen employed is known to some as “the New Brunswick.” Here, the cut wood is stacked on end in a sort of teepee formation, leaning upwards towards a center point. A stack like this ends up looking like a pile of shingles, or like a hairy character from a Roald Dahl book.

There are also people who make sculptures out of their stacks and creative types who embed images into them. Then there are the Scandinavians, who make what look like tubs of wood, with horizontal pieces radiating out from a center.

All of us who heat with wood eventually have to stack it, because sadly, wood stacking as a profession has not yet been invented.

My own stacks are dull: I pile some of the year’s wood inside a barn attached to my house, which requires no special skill. I also stack a row outside against the barn’s south wall, about 20 feet long and just beneath a window, supported by two end pillars that I make by laying two half-round pieces facing one direction, then two more perpendicular on top of those, and so on to create a stable column. Bob Kimber calls this the “log cabin” or “cribworks” effect. Even after all these years, I still do it poorly, and sometimes the whole thing crumbles, like the inevitable climax of a game of Jenga. If my stack doesn’t collapse, I cover it with clear plastic, so that it’s dry and light when March or April arrives and it’s time to toss the wood into the barn through the window.

Of course, the point of all of this cutting, splitting, and stacking is to eventually burn the wood and thereby heat the house. Like wood stacking, the choice of just how to do the burning can be contentious, personal, and fraught with implications of propriety, dignity, and snobbery. Choosing a woodstove is not as complicated as, say, choosing a cell phone, but people do have strong feelings about their stoves. Among my acquaintances, I count people who have spent considerably more on their stoves than on their cars.

The choice today is mostly between pellet stoves and conventional woodstoves. One hears less about more obscure wood-burning devices, like those backyard furnaces that were popular for a while, then fell out of favor because of how much smoke ends up drifting next door. There are basement systems, too, furnaces that run on a combination of wood and oil, slowly burning 4-foot logs and switching to oil when the wood burns out. But these seem somehow extravagant and unnatural, like waterbeds, and anyway, they’re not the kind of thing you can gather the family around.

Marty Farnum, the co-owner of Farmington Northern Lights Hearth & Sports, says woodstove sales have remained steady over the last decade, but he has noticed an evolution in customers’ choices. “After about 30 years, people start moving to pellet stoves, then eventually to gas,” Marty says. The switch doesn’t save money, according to Marty, or have much in the way of environmental benefits, since pellet stoves emit about the same levels of carbon dioxide as regular woodstoves. No, the culprit here is stacking.

“After 30 years, a lot of people just don’t want to do it — or can’t,” says Marty. Pellet stoves have been big out west for years, he explains, but caught on slowly here, where wood seems so abundant. “It’s tough to beat wood when you’re surrounded by trees,” he says. In Marty’s mind, pellet stoves are fine, but they can’t touch the original for a deep, just-in-from-shoveling thaw-out session.

“There’s no other way to get that bone-penetrating heat,” he says.

In my 26 years in Maine, my house has seen at least six stoves. When we bought the place in 1987, it came with a huge, heavy Vermont Castings Defiant — an appropriate name, if you’re trying to move the thing — along with an old Ashley with a replaceable sheet metal liner. We added a small parlor stove knock-off, and later, we managed to ruin the Defiant — a long story involving an ice dam in the chimney, tire chains, and a kerosene blaster. We replaced it with a Jøtul 3, then added a Regency insert in the old den fireplace, the bricks and chimney of which were too rotten to use anymore.

Among my acquaintances, I count people who have spent considerably more on their stoves than on their cars.

Like everything with old houses, it can eat up a lot of money to lower energy costs, ease one’s environmental conscience, and improve the aesthetics of an old fireplace. We hired a mason to rebuild our chimney from the floor of the attic up. Then we got our local stove shop to run a stainless steel liner all the way down and around some bends in the old flue, and we painstakingly attached it to an insert they installed. After all this, we now have a solid, safe chimney and a lovely fireplace that we basically use on Christmas morning and maybe a few especially cold days. I’d say six times a year in all. But hey, the thing looks great.

At the risk of drawing extravagant conclusions from little evidence, it seems obvious to me that to heat with wood is to make a kind of personal statement. It says something to the world about what kind of person you are or want to be, about your values: that you are willing to work for the pleasures of that bone-penetrating heat, that softly radiating heaven. That you’re not afraid to bend and straighten a million times as you cut and stack, that you enjoy this ritual of handling wood and want to keep it a part of your life. This, at least, is what I tell myself on those July days, awash in sweat.

So maybe there’s another motivation to add to the threesome: the tactile. We touch a lot of wood when we heat with it, regardless of where we start our cycle, and that touch connects us to our beginnings. We handle the wood, we feel the fire, we see the flame, and we smell the smoke. We can even hear it if the stove doors are open and a screen is set in front. Gretchen’s comment rings extra true in those moments: “It’s alive.”

There are days, of course, when I resent the endless tending, the weekly removal of ashes, the hassle of splitting and stacking, the ever-spiraling price of wood (though it’s still cheaper than oil). But there are other times when I will pull a slab from the woodbox and admire it a little — the grain, the color, the scent, even the clean, smooth lines of a good split — before I lay it like an offering onto my fire.


Michael D Burke

Michael Burke is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of The Same River Twice: A Boatman's Journey Home.

1 Comment

  • April 3, 2015

    Jason Macchioni

    I’m moving to Portland area to live with my family while we search for a place of our own. A wood stove or fireplace is very high on my list of Must Have!