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Warmed Over

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

Another firewood, score, and just in time.

Too little firewood, too much maple, that was the issue. While I’ve got nothing against maple, especially in a violin, a ‘59 Les Paul guitar, or a bottle of syrup, that’s hard maple, acer saccharum. The maple around here is predominantly silver maple, which is a soft, weak tree that quickly grows large so is good for shade, but short-lived (for a tree) and prone to decay. Nice for woodpeckers, not for houses and cars underneath, and they’re prolific, so if a tree crew is removing a tree there’s a better than even chance it’s a soft maple. Not a preferred firewood. It burns fast with relatively little heat, and because it rots quickly the window between dry enough and too punky to burn can be fairly narrow. Dense, rot-resistant hardwoods like oak and locust are best. I had some black locust stacked for six or seven years that wasn’t close to rotting when I burned the last of it this past winter.

We burn 24/7 during the winter, to the tune of three(ish) cords a year. It saves around 60% on our gas bill and we enjoy the ambience, but with current natural gas prices if we bought the wood split and seasoned it would make no sense to heat with wood. So, as the number of trees needing to be removed around my house has dwindled, I have become a confirmed firewood scrounge. It’s not a common pastime among my musical colleagues, but I like the exercise and the chainsaws so I’ll stick with it.

A well-used Ford Ranger pickup used to be my main instrument of scrounging, but since it went the way of all ferrous metals I’ve depended for firewood on what has fallen or been taken down within wheelbarrow range (talk about exercise), most of which has turned out to be maple. Firewood takes more than a year to dry, split and stacked, so that it won’t smoke and line your chimney with creosote, and unless you have your own wooded property — which used to describe my yard — there will be peaks and valleys in your supply. Two years seasoning is best, though also on the outside edge of maple’s shelf life, so I’ll split maple smaller so it dries quicker, and burn it after one year. The perpetual goal is triple my yearly consumption split and stacked, most of it hardwoods, which will wait while I burn the occasional softwood that comes along.

At the end of this past winter I was down to four cords of firewood, less than a cord of it oak or locust, so I started scrounging more actively, looking for ways to have green wood delivered. I thought I was set with some trees from a nearby golf course; the superintendent said one of his guys would deliver two cords of logs for $60. When the dump truck showed up it was clear he hadn’t meant FULL cords and the wood was half maple. That’s what you saw piled in the background of a photo in last week’s blog. Maybe a bit more than half a cord. So I called the tree service I use and let them know if a crew happened to be taking down any hardwoods in my neighborhood and needed a place to dump the wood, my driveway would be available.

Firewood economics are interesting. Split and seasoned hardwood can go for $300 a full cord — 128 cubic feet, or a stack 4” by 4” by 8” — although most dealers sell by the third of a cord, which they call a “face cord” or “bush cord.” $100 delivered is a pretty standard price for a face cord, which is plenty for the residential customer who burns a fire now and then for ambience. Most of that money is labor; the trees themselves are basically . . . I was about to say “valueless” but that’s where it gets interesting. How can a tree have no value when lumber prices are so high?

Some people express disappointment when a tree gets hacked up for firewood or hauled off and dumped. "Just think of all the stuff you could make out of that tree! What a waste, just burning it." Like all raw materials, wood’s value is partly a matter of what it is, partly a matter of where it is, and partly a matter of economy of scale. We’ve all heard the stories about trees that are worth thousands of dollars, and if you have a piece of property out away from everything with some nice, large, straight, oak or cherry or walnut trees, those are probably worth something. Same with those old growth logs that have been underwater for a century. But no sawmill would touch that big maple in your yard, mostly because it's half dead and probably full of ants, not to mention the hardware from generations of tree houses. Even if a really nice yard tree is worth milling, unless you can drive a log truck with a grapple right up to it you're not getting it to the mill. So the tree between two houses that is being taken down in pieces before it comes down spontaneously is probably going to get ground up for mulch or compost at the landfill.

Landfills charge between $20 and $30 per ton to dump organic matter. Charge, not pay. Smaller tree service companies may run firewood operations both to save dump fees and to add a revenue stream, but larger companies don't. Tree removal is far more lucrative work and they have enough to keep their crews busy, so they build the dump fees into the bid and handle the wood as little as possible. If they can drop the wood somewhere without a lot of trouble and save the dump fee maybe they will, or maybe they won’t. It all depends on relationships; It will cost the company something in time and fuel no matter where they take it, and unless you can let them leave the chips too they’ll need to go to the dump anyway. While I tip as well as I can I can’t pay enough to make it worth any real trouble. Whether a guy burns for heat, or sells a few cords here and there as a side hustle, the wood basically needs to be free. There actually is competition for easy pickings, which can lead to strange behavior.

A few years back we had the last of the black locust trees in our front yard taken down; tall and spindly but there were three or four of them so there was a decent pile of wood in the front yard that I hadn't yet gotten wheelbarrowed around to the top of the driveway where I split it. I was away from home when a man rang the doorbell and told my wife that he had come for the wood.

“WHAT wood?” asked my wife.

“That wood in your yard,” the man replied. “Your husband said I could have it.”

“He certainly did NOT,” my wife said. “We burn for heat, and we’re going to use all of that wood.”

“It was a Craigslist ad,” the man said, “maybe he didn’t tell you. I’ll just start loading up.”

“No you won’t, I’m calling the police,” my wife said. The man got in his truck and drove off.

Still scratching my head at that ploy. I think when you get out into the country, at least here in the east where trees are what happens when you don’t mow, firewood processing is more a fact of life, while in the suburbs it’s something between a hobby and a subculture and people can get weird about it. Kind of like deer hunting.

Like any connection with nature, the more you think about firewood the more there is to think about. Use of fire as a tool or a weapon is at the root of humanity. Neanderthals probably were the first to burn wood, and although we'll burn whatever we can get our hands on if necessary — peat moss or buffalo chips, for example — wood is our oldest and most evocative fuel. Unless you live somewhere where air quality restrictions have put the kibosh on wood burning, if there's a chill in the air there's probably also a whiff of wood smoke. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t enjoy a wood fire. It goes back to our primal relationship with fire; it satisfies us to control and contain such an awesomely destructive force, just as it terrifies us when it gets out of hand. Fire is a dangerous but essential servant, and we respond atavistically to this chemical process as though it were a being.

Whoops, that’s right, I started out telling you about the big firewood score. I told you about the golf course trees, then this past week my tree service (Jungle Jim's in Monroeville, PA, good folks) sent a truck with a tree they had taken down locally, which was nice of them. It was maple. You can’t be ungrateful when somebody brings you free wood, but split and stacked it took me up to five cords of maple, which is too much. I suppose there are worse problems than having to hustle to get wood burned up before it rots. That's not the only hustle required, though, you can’t even let maple sit in logs or rounds until you feel like working on it; you have to get it split and drying pronto. I tucked into it, which made for a long weekend, bucking, splitting, schlepping, and stacking over a cord and a half.

So when I heard the distinctive bark of a Stilh MS200T chainsaw up in a tree this morning, I was still sore and not immediately interested. “Probably another %#*^$ maple,” I thought. However, after a cup of coffee, curiosity got the better of me and I walked across the street and down the alley to see what was up. Big tree. Three or four cords, probably, whatever it was. I watched from a respectful distance until one of the crew walked over.

“What kind of tree?” I asked.

“Honey locust.”

“Do the logs need a home?”

“Where do you live?”

“That red brick house over there.”

“Can we dump?”

“Anywhere the truck will fit.”

“This is gonna be a lot of wood.”

“Yup. Thanks.”

So, that quickly, I had my exercise program for the next couple of weeks and a year’s worth of firewood laid out in my driveway. I’m still stuck with maple for the next two winters, but year three is taken care of and now I can — must — be selective and only take oak or locust until the maple is safely depleted.

Honey locust is excellent firewood, neck and neck with black locust, which is the king of rot resistance and splits with a sharp glance. Honey locust is a little denser (4100 lbs. per cord vs. 3900 for black locust) and a bit harder to split, and fractionally lower in BTUs per cord (26.5 vs. 26.8 for black locust). It’s beautiful wood, with cream-colored sapwood and bright orange heartwood, looks like a creamsicle when freshly split. Oops, now I’m craving a creamsicle. You, too? Sorry.

I actually do wish I was able to mill it up and make something out of it. The sections that are long and straight enough to mill are mostly too small to yield decent boards, though, and the thick sections are twisted, knotty, already bucked and are probably full of metal. And I have enough to do without building a portable sawmill. Maybe I’ll be able to bandsaw up some firewood pieces when they’re dry. Maybe I could still chainsaw some decent slabs, if I can avoid the hardware.

In the end, a perfect firewood tree. Dense and rot-resistant, being taken down in the right place at the right time, by a crew willing to play ball. No value except for firewood, and only of that value to somebody willing to work for it.

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