Finding your own firewood can be profitable for families without money to burn

Posted: Friday, January 23, 2004

NEW MARKET, Va. (AP) Woodstoves are regaining their appeal as home heating prices continue climbing, and families who don't have any spare money to burn are finding it profitable to gather their own firewood.

Aside from the cozy cheer a woodstove gives off, wood burning is an efficient way to generate heat.

''If properly air-dried and burned in an efficient, modern wood-burning stove, the heat from a cord of native hardwood is nearly equal to that of burning 130 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil,'' the Maryland Energy Administration says.

Even more savings can be had if you gather your own. That can mean scavenging from your woodlot, working with friends and neighbors or turning to public lands.

EDITOR'S NOTE Dean Fosdick retired in May 2001 after 23 years with The Associated Press, 15 of those as Alaska bureau chief. He has covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill, volcanoes, galloping glaciers and harvesting Alaska-grown 100-pound-plus cabbages. He can be reached at: deanfosdick(at)

More about sources later.

Ask a seasoned woodsman about the best varieties for keeping the home fires burning and he'll probably suggest hickory or oak long-standing favorites from the hardwood side of the family. Dense wood burns hotter.

Another experienced log-splitter might say simply ''the nearest.''

Both would be right.

Based strictly on heat value, the best firewood species are black locust, hickory, beech and sugar maple. In that order. Adding pieces of white or Oregon ash, live, white and red oak and black and yellow birch to the pile will serve you almost as well.

Each of those varieties is rated high in amount of heat provided, ease of splitting, low smoke and spark production.

There are, however, a few firewood species to avoid.

''You don't want to use pine because of the creosote,'' says Joe Lehnen, an area forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry who works out of Woodstock.

Creosote is an oily substance that can coat chimneys and flues. It often causes chimney fires if allowed to build up.

''You can use a piece of pine to get a fire going in the morning, but don't make it a regular part of your burn during the day,'' says Lehnen, who spends a large portion of his week advising homeowners about managing their woodlots.

Some want to attract wildlife to their properties. A few want attractive leaf colors or a better view. Others hope to sell trees for timber. Still others are seeking the best firewood.

If you're an occasional wood-burner, content to roast hot dogs in the fireplace, then you'd probably do well to buy a few bundles of firewood at a nearby service station.

But if you're feeding a wood stove full-time, or want to cool your fuel oil, natural gas or electric bills, then look to your surroundings. But have someone with a practiced eye walk through your woodlot before you do any cutting.

''I hate to see people drop large saw timber trees (useful for building materials) when they go about gathering their firewood,'' Lehnen says.

You'll save a lot of energy, not to mention your best shade trees, by cutting up your downed wood first, he says.

''Then use the standing deadwood as long as it isn't a cavity tree (capable of sheltering wildlife).

''During the summer, mark any trees that are in obviously poor health. Trees losing their (leafy) crowns are good candidates for firewood.''

Other priority firewood choices are trees that appear hazardous, the so-called ''widow-makers.''

''Any dying trees around your house or where you spend much of your time should be removed for safety's sake,'' Lehnen says.

Involve the family when gathering firewood. Have the kids join you as you meander around the property, picking up small branches or sticks. Break them into manageable lengths and then stack them until cold weather arrives and they're needed as kindling.

Your fires will be that much easier to start and your yard will look the better for it.

Some of your downed trees may have deteriorated too much to provide a good burn, but that's an easy thing to judge.

''Anything that's still good and solid; anything with branches still attached, is salvageable,'' Lehnen says. ''A lot of that has to do with ground contact. Some standing trees can last twice as long five or six years, perhaps.''

On the other hand, burning wood that's too ''green,'' or firewood that hasn't seasoned thoroughly, lowers its heat value. The moisture has to be burned off first, before the residual heat can work its way through your house.

''Figure about nine months (to dry),'' Lehnen says. ''That, of course, depends upon the wood and the moisture content of the wood. If it's already dead, it can be burned right away.''

Not everyone has access to rural properties, of course. That opens the way to gleaning firewood from friends or neighbors who want dead or dying trees cleared from their properties.

Hurricane Isabel provided a literal windfall for firewood around the Atlantic Coast states last year, toppling or damaging trees by the thousands.

And then there are public lands.

''On National Forests, you can go to the ranger's office and get a permit which allows you to cut dead and downed timber in specified areas,'' Lehnen says. ''You're allowed to take a certain number of cords per year.''

Check the appropriate authorities for other free or low cost wood-gathering opportunities.

''What we try to tell people is that their forest is sustainable,'' Lehnen says. ''Their woodlot can supply all the firewood they'll need in a lifetime. There's a lot of burnable wood in a tree.''

On the Net:

Maryland Energy Administration:

Wood Heat Organization Inc.:

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