Heating with Wood 101, by J.J.S.

 “If I have seen for miles, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

This line sums up SurvivalBlog and the contributing writers: it is a community of concerned preppers trying to share knowledge to help each other out.  My focus today is residential heating with wood as your fuel based on my experience heating with my airtight cast iron stove.  Pretty boring topic for the seasoned prepper, but I think there are plenty of new preppers who have recently seen the light and can feel the stuff hitting the fan and hopefully this article will have a little for everyone.  Personally. I am a new prepper and was astounded to learn that this country and world is in one big mess, financially. I bet that a lot of us reading SurvivalBlog are just like me: Newly Aware and Astounded.

If you live where it can get cold and many of us do you need to think about a heat source.  I would rather save my fuel oil, propane, and gasoline for other uses rather than heating my abode. I like wood myself because it is and should be readily available before and after any kind of world changing event.  If you live in an area that does not have access to much fuel wood than you probably already know that you live in area that will not be very pleasant when the balloon goes up i.e. any kind of larger city so G.O.O.D. and God bless. 

Here is my motive for writing this article related to heating with wood.  What I love about my woodstove is that I use it now and it is very practical for comfort and saving money on my heating bill. But after the SHTF it will become a necessity that could make the difference between living or freezing to death. (I have seen my thermometer hit 39 below)   I have acquired many things trying to get “prepared” that I will rarely use unless the crunch occurs but my wood stove is something I use every day 5 to 6 months out of the year.

But to raise a serious question to all preppers, have you thought very hard about heating your home?  Do you know how much fuel you would need, no matter what type that you would need to heat your house for one, two or three or more years.  Truly I enjoy survival blog but there is an enormous amount of discussion of what is the best gun, knife, caliber, bullet etc… But freezing to death is just as dead a catching a bad case of lead poisoning, probably worse if it involves family and friends.  If you do not have a reliable off grid heat source then I suggest you consider a wood stove before you get your next backup MBR.  Warmth could be a wonderful barter item in a SHTF world.
Let me give you my opinion of what could be the most desirable heating sources to have in order of most important to what you would use if you have no other options.
                1. Wood cook stove
                2. Masonry heater
                3. Airtight EPA approved wood stove or fireplace insert
                4.” Earthstove” or old style wood stove
                5. Makeshift wood stove e.g. Fish house stove, barrel stove, homemade stoves
                6. Electrically dependent wood stove, furnace, or boiler
                7. Open fireplace (but there is good news!)

First, a wood cook stove is a no brainer, if the grid goes down what better way to cook and heat at the same time.  Though I do not have a wood cook stove yet, I am keeping an eye out for one on Craigslist that is reasonably priced.  Next on my list is a masonry heater.  I am only going off of what I have read here and other places but this seems like the cat’s meow for high efficient fuel wood heating.  The one major problem I see is that a masonry heater is very large, heavy, and expensive.  I would love to have one but it would never work in my own house and I am sure that I am not alone.  But if you have a generous budget and the right layout of you home then why not since all of our money won’t be worth much in a few years anyway. 

What I use is number 3 on my list, an airtight stove.  These types of stoves are covered in previous SurvivalBlog articles so I will not get into it to deeply except to explain that the EPA airtight stoves and fireplace inserts use advanced stove design to increase the efficiency of the wood that is burned.  This also gives the benefit of burning cleaner which decreases the amount of build up in your chimney therefore it is safer, also the more efficient burn creates less visible smoke/emissions which should appeal to everyone related to opsec .  When my wood stove is burning effectively there is no visible smoke and surprisingly no smell.  But smoke will be present when you first start your stove or when you add more wood and this is from the moisture in the wood cooking out and is typically blue and rises (even well seasoned wood has some moisture.)  Also your chimney will emit a lot of smoke if your stove is not burning hot enough to ignite the wood gases, this is often grey sinking smoke.  The point being is that the smoke or lack of visible smoke coming from your chimney tells a lot about how well your stove is burning.  My stove is a Jotul Oslo 500.  It is a cast iron stove with a 3 cubic foot firebox with a side door and has the ability to have a cook plate installed.  A large fire box is nice when you want to have a long burn and the side door is where I load all of my additional wood when I have a fire burning or I am putting fresh wood on a bed of coals.  And I am sorry to say I have not tried a lot of cooking on my stove yet but it is in the plans. 

Modern stove are usually made out of plate steel, cast iron or soap stone.  Cast iron and soapstone are most expensive but they are known for their durability and heat retention which is very desirable when wanting a good heat source.  Plate steel is cheaper but gets hot fast and then cools fast but might be better to cook on, I do not know for sure.  Plate steel can also warp if it gets too hot.  Soap stone has a great reputation of having “soft heat” that does not get too hot and stays warm longer than cast iron and a lot longer than plate steel, but you are going to pay for it!  

Number four on my list are the older cast iron or plate steel non-EPA approved wood stoves.  To be fair I have never used one of these stove before in my home, I have only been around other people who have had them and I will say that they work just fine. But from what I have read about the advanced burning systems is that the newer stoves make for a much better burning system which is from the higher efficiency and cleaner emissions i.e. less smoke. 

From what I understand the old style stove are around 50 percent efficient while the newer stoves are 70 to 80 percent efficient.  That may not sound like much but if you need to get wood and you don’t want to draw attention to yourself by using a chainsaw and a gas wood splitter, then 20 percent less wood to cut, split, and haul by hand will be a very big deal. 

I have one comment on makeshift wood stoves and cheap wood space heaters for heating residential homes and that is they make me nervous.  If you have nothing else when the balloon goes up then that is what you have to do, but if we are truly prepping than I would plan for something else.  Added note I have never used a barrel stove but the design with the 30 gal barrel inside of the 55 gallon barrel with crushed rock as a heat sink does look reasonable but my reminder to you is that if you run into problems after the SHTF then the fire department might not be as accessible as before. 

Electrically dependent wood burning systems are not high on my list. Number one is that they are dependent on a source of electricity to run blower fans and circulate air or hot water and second they are also around the 50 percent efficiency rate for firewood.  Two good reasons to look elsewhere for reliable wood heat sources.  And don’t be duped into buying a pellet or corn stove because I would not suggest to someone to stockpile tons of wood pellets for TEOTWAWKI and corn will be more valuable as a food source.  Finally the topic of open fireplaces, these are very inefficient, around 10 percent.  The best news about these is there are many manufactures that produce EPA approved airtight fireplace inserts.  Now wouldn’t you want to improve the efficiency of your heating system by 70 percent?  (Just for the record, I do not endorse the EPA, it is just a good way to distinguish the newer style of wood stoves.)

Now that I have covered stove options the most important topic in any wood burning system is the chimney.  You need a good working chimney to burn wood safely and effectively.  A good working chimney does much more that carry away smoke, a properly built and located chimney provides a good draft and is well insulated.  A good draft, which is negative air pressure created by a chimney, is what pulls air into the wood stove.  Unlike wood furnaces that will blow air into the firebox to generate or increase the fires intensity a wood stove is dependent on good chimney draft to operate optimally.  Air tight wood stoves are passive machines unlike their electrically dependent furnaces.  Airflow into EPA stoves is fairly low which leads to a higher efficiency level.  One thing to keep in mind related to air flow is that air is usually drawn from out of the room/house and then leaves up the chimney, or basically your house needs to “leak” some outside air into the house for the stove to work properly.  So if your house is built very tight you could run in to difficulty with obtaining a good draft.  A lot of the airtight stoves have outside air kits to increase efficiency so I hooked mine up to an outside source when I did some remodeling.  I was not happy with how it worked because if my stove was not burning then cold air would still be drawn into the stove from outside by normal chimney effect and then I would have a 400lbs piece of cold cast iron in my living room.  The problem with the outside air kit is it is an unrestricted air source much like an open window, I guess I would rather have some “leak” from windows, doors, outlets etc. created by my woodstoves draft rather than the open window effect from the outside air kit.  Other factors for a good chimney is that Ideally it should run through the middle of a house to stay warmer since a warm chimney creates a better draft and the cooler surfaces of the chimney is where unburned wood particle can stick to and create creosote.  Additionally to note is that a stove in a basement sometime will not work very well since the chimney does not develop enough draft located that low in the house.  Check out woodheat.org, this is the best web site I could find related to residential wood heating.  The stove in my house is located on a ground level with a class A stainless steel chimney running through the middle of the house.  My suggestion is talk with local dealers that sells wood stoves and have them give you advice on what would work best for you.  Additional note class A chimneys are stainless steel and insulated and are designed to withstand a chimney fire of up to 2100 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.  My final comment on chimney draft was reminded to me the other evening when I went to light my stove.  When I opened the stove door I felt cold air coming down the chimney.  At first I did not think much about it and proceeded to light my fire.  My fire did not take off and then I started to get some smoke into the room.  I then realized that my wife was using the clothes dryer downstairs and that was blowing air out of our house which then affected the draft of my chimney.  So I turned off the dryer, lit my fire without difficulty and after I had a good fire going I was able to turn the dryer on without problem.  I have also noted this same problem lighting new fires when the bathroom fan is running.  The point is that chimney draft is very important and can be influenced fairly easily so be aware of it and place your chimney appropriately.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The next topic is about wood cutting, splitting and storing.  First is cutting, and pre SHTF you will need a chainsaw or even better two. The second saw is to cut out the first one after you have pinched it in a tree (right now there are a lot of wood cutters nodding their heads and sadly I did just this last week when I was out cutting wood).  What type of chainsaw to buy as your main saw is probably as discussed as which brand/caliber gun to carry as your main sidearm.  Let me give the best advice that I got from a book titled The Wood Cutters Guide to Woodland Management and that is there are only three brands of saw to buy and they are Stihl, Husqvarna, or Jonsered.  Everything else falls short of what these saws have to offer as professional wood cutting tools, but other brands would make good cheaper second saws for the occasional wood cutting snafu.  Next is what size, 9mm or 45 ACP? The same argument as before because there are many different opinions but let me recommend a saw somewhere between 50 to 60cc.  Why this range?  It is because the majority of your cutting is limbing the tree and you don’t need a big saw for that and working with a big heavy saw for a long time is tiring which then increases your chance of having an accident.  I got a good nick in my protective chaps one day when I was getting tired and not paying attention, which made those chaps the best 39 dollars I ever spent.  When it comes to cutting through the big part of the tree it is hard not to love a lot of power but what I have learned is that taking the time to make sure you have a sharp chain (so sharpen frequently) makes up for having less power.  The woodland management book recommended running the correct sized hand file through all of your chainsaw teeth every time that you filled up a fresh tank of gas.  So practice sharpening by hand and buy a gauge to check when you need to file down the racker teeth before the cutters. A note on safety is I highly recommend some chainsaw chaps, they have small fibers that bind up the chain of the saw when they come in contact with a spinning chain and they have already saved me from an accident.  I also use a woodman’s helmet with a mesh face shield and integral ear muffs.  I really like to wear this when I am cutting.  Since I first wrote this my safety gear saved me again, I had a big red oak hung up in another tree.  I was able to give it a push and it started to fall but was hooked on a branch from an adjoining tree.  That 5 inch diameter branch pulled off of the tree and came down straight onto my helmet.  It hit hard enough that parts of my left arm went numb for a split second but otherwise I was fine with no lasting damage.  Without my helmet I could have been hurt very badly.

After the SHTF sawing becomes a much bigger challenge because of the sound signature of a chain saw and how far this sound will travel in the new more silent world.  Heck, if I hear a chain saw running close by I hop in the truck to go see if I can “help” and maybe get some free fire wood in the process, just a tip to add to your firewood pile.   But the “help” you would get in the post crunch world might not be so friendly so a good hand saw or felling ax might be a better idea.  I have just started to experiment with some different types of hand saws.  My first has been a Japanese type pull saw.  It is very efficient and easy to use.  My next acquisition has been a one-man timber saw, not my dream way to cut up a tree but if millions of board feet of pine were cut using these in the early 1900’s then I am sure they will still work today.  I also bought a timber saw sharpening set from the Crosscut Saw Company.  Kind-of spendy but if I ever truly need it, it will be worth its weight in gold.  Like much SurvivalBlog advice education is everything and experiment with different types of saws and how well they work before the balloon goes up is important.  I think the sharpening kit could be the most important tools to have since there are often old saws that have been turned into “art” but might need to be sharpened and polished and put to work.  A painted or powder coated saw might not slide through the wood very easily so plan on having some sandpaper or paint stripper handy for refurbishing these old saws.  (Maybe a good post TEOTWAWKI job?)     

Splitting is easy advice to give, buy a maul and swing hard!  Okay, I have some opinions here also; first a 6 lbs or smaller maul is all you need.  Splitting wood effectively is mostly dependent on velocity over mass.  So the faster you can swing the maul the better chance you have to split the wood.  I have an eight pound mall I barely use; I have never noticed a difference in my ability to split wood between the 6 and the 8 lbs mauls.  I also own a 4 ½ lbs maul and a Fiskars 4 lbs splitting maul.  I don’t like these for splitting big rounds, they just don’t do the job as well as my 6 lbs maul but they are great for splitting kindling or making medium sized pieces smaller by my wood shed before I bring them in the house.  Additional note the Fiskars maul comes in two handle lengths.  Do not buy the short handle maul because the blade is scary sharp and my fear is that it would be easy to miss the wood and put that sucker right through my leg, so I rarely use that maul.  The long handle Fiskars works ok but I would advise you to save your money and buy a generic well built 6 lb maul for general splitting and a 4 ½ maul for kindling.  Also you don’t need a sharp maul to split wood, some sources even recommended dulling the edge to lessen your chance of the maul sticking in some hardwoods.   A final note on mauls is from my friend who has something called the “wedge,” it weighs around 13 lbs.  He tells me it works great for holding open the door to his shop in the summer. 

If you have made it this far thanks!  Let me give you my best tip I can offer related to splitting wood, I got it off the internet.  Take an old tire, one with a wide tread is preferable, and mount it to a nice splitting stump.  When you split your rounds place them in the tire, as long as it is not a tight fit, and swing away!  If you have the right thickness tire the wood does not go anywhere after you hit it and you can hit it three or four time without having to bend over every time and pick the wood up of the ground to hit it again.  This is a back saver if you split your wood in a designated area and after you are done splitting it into nice size pieces you just grab it out and stack it on the wood pile.  Now if the wood fits in the tire to tightly then you will wedge the round into the tire with every swing and then it is really hard to get it out and yes I know this from experience.  I do not always bring my rounds back to my wood pile and spit them in my tire.  I often will spit my firewood out in the woods were I dropped the tree or found my deadfall.  There are two reasons why I do this, first is ease of splitting.  The round sometimes are already lying in a position that they can be split (I have split a lot of smaller piece lying on their side; just slide them up to another piece).  Also in the woods you can use your foot or your maul to right the round the way you want them for the best splitting.  This is another great tip from the woodcutter’s manual and the focus is to save as much wear and tear on your back as possible.  With this approach I routinely drive the maul into the ground, which dulls the edge over time but you do not need a sharp maul to split wood and additionally swinging into the ground is much safer than swinging at something 12 to 18 inches of the ground.  Try splitting your firewood out in the woods sometime; you will be surprised how well it works (another great tip from the woodcutter’s manual.)  After you split that wood, throw it in a quick pile and leave it there for a few weeks or months, this will allow it to lose more of its weight from moisture content.  When you come back the wood will be lighter and easier to handle and haul.  Finally don’t worry about the dull maul that you have been sinking into the ground, the metal if soft enough that a little work with a metal file will get you all the edge you could ever want. 

The real purpose for splitting wood is to dry and season your firewood for successful and safe heating.  Live or wet wood will have moisture content over 50%.  For the best burning firewood your moisture content should be 15 to 20%. Firewood with high moisture content does not light easily, does not put out much heat, and produces a lot of creosote that can collect in your chimney which creates a fire hazard.   To get this low moisture content your best strategy is to split and stack your wood in single file rows where it gets exposure to the sun and the wind.  I personally stack my wood in double rows so there is less chance of the piles tipping over.  How long to season your wood gives a variety of answers.  First, is it a live cut or a dead fall?  Dead falls are always my first choice to cut because some of the drying is already done.  But the most important factor for effective drying is the species of wood that you are trying to dry.  (My apologies to readers outside of the areas that do not have hardwood forest like I have access to, I know a lot of trees like larch and Doug fir are burned for heat in the redoubt.  I mostly burn deciduous hardwood, but I will try to explain that I think of my local hardwoods as different levels of “hardness” and use and dry them accordingly.)  First for drying my hard hardwoods I like to have these stacked and drying for at least two seasons/years.  This is my oak trees both red and white.  Every time that I have burned oak that has not had two years to season I am reminded by a sizzling smoking lousy burning piece of wood.  All other species for me have done well with only one drying season, therefore this wood cut and stacked in spring or early summer have all burned very well that fall and winter.  But I am several years ahead in my wood supply so all my wood gets 2+ years of seasoning (I like it very dry). 

Now I will try to explain how I burn my wood stove.  First we all need dry wood, but next I get specific about what type of wood that I like to burn and at what time that I burn it.  First I like to have a good supply of “soft” hardwoods.  I consider this to be firewood like poplar, basswood, cotton wood, or any wood with wide growth rings.  These are all low BTUs woods but what I like about them is they dry fast and light very easily.  When I first started cutting wood I was after oak and iron wood because it had high BTUs, but my Grandma said “you need some other wood like poplar to get the oak started.”  And boy was she right.  I use these softer hardwoods to light my morning fires and restart fires that have burned down to only glowing embers.  Also for ease of staring my fires I cut over half of my soft hardwoods into 10 to 12 inch lengths.  This works well for stating my fires since I build a small square “tower” of wood inside my stove with usually only one piece of crumpled newspaper at the bottom.  I also cheat a little and add a couple pieces of fatwood to help my fire get going.  Fatwood is a natural fire starter that you can buy at local hardware stores, I get mine at Menard’s and it is about a buck a pound.   I build my fire typically with 6 pieces of soft hardwood and 2 pieces of medium or hard hardwoods.  The starter pieces I split by my wood shed in my “kindler” which is the back tire of a lawnmower mounted 28 inches off the ground on top of a bur oak round.  It is a smaller version of my wood splitting tire where I can split the wood and hit it multiple times without having to pick the split pieces up off of the ground.   This set up has save me a lot of time and wear and tear on my back since it is at a good working height for making small pieces of wood and the tire holds it in place while I swing my  4 ½ lbs pound mall at the wood.  I like to get the pieces down to one to two inch square pieces.  The reason I started burning my stove this way is that it gave me the quickest lighting fire without having to use a tremendous amount of really small kindling to get the fire burning hot so that the secondary burn began inside of the firebox.  Secondary burn is the burning of the wood gases usually seen as smoke (though some smoke is always moisture).  The sooner you have secondary burn the more safely and efficient your stove works.  Or in prepper terms the sooner you have secondary burn the less smoke you produce thus lowering you signature related to OPSEC.  To find old tires go to your local land fill or watch for them at garage sales.

My favorite type of wood to burn is dry or seasoned wood.  As stated before I like some soft hardwoods for fire starting purposes, but it is also excellent wood for general burning especially if I am at work and my wife is tending to the fire.  Poplar and basswood tend to light up really fast and get burning nicely without much futzing.  This is nice for my wife since throwing in 3 or 4 pieces of oak or iron wood can leave her with a smoldering smoky fire without much heat and no flames if she does not have a lot of embers to work with.  These smoky fires are also the type of fires that deposit significant amount of creosote in chimneys.  “Hard” hardwoods are great to use when thrown on a robust bed of red coals or mixed with several pieces of softer wood.  So my advise is don’t be a firewood snob and turn your nose up to “inferior” species of trees when accumulating your winter pile because I have found that my wood stove does not care what I burn in it, it all makes heat. 

My final thought about firewood is on how easy is it to split.  Firewood will not season correctly if it is not split and will not burn well in an airtight stove if it is not dry.  Species like American elm and box elder are awful to split and I avoid them, sadly around here these are the two species that your buddy always needs help getting rid of and wonders if you “want the firewood”.  But looking at the glass half full these rounds are not impossible to split just not easy or as fun as some red oak or black ash.  What I do is cut the rounds shorter, around 12 inches and then splitting is easier, maybe still not easy, but easier.   It is good to learn how to recognize different species of trees so that before you cut up or buy a bunch of rounds you know what you will be getting into when it comes to splitting.  (If you think some fresh cut rounds are elm smell it, if it stinks it is probably elm hence the nickname piss elm.  Red elm also sinks but it has a deep red color and this species of elm splits very easily and makes great firewood.)  Box elder has a grayish bark and often has streaks of pink in the rings of the wood when looking at the end of a round. )

Final thoughts
1. Get a wood stove and a good chimney and put it is the right place in your house or retreat.  I have had mine for 5 years and the money I have saved on fuel oil has paid for the stove the chimney and the chainsaw.  It is about 150 gallons of fuel oil for every cord of wood I burn.    
2. Stock up on lots of leather work gloves.  Handling wood can eat up a pair of leather gloves quicker than you like.  I think work gloves could be some of the most valuable barter items in a post SHTF scenario and often not cited as items to stock up on for barter purposes.  Leather repair could make a great post SHTF occupation so keep that in mind. 
3. Cutting wood is hard work.  You could cut out the gym almost altogether if you frequently cut, haul, and hand split your own firewood.  Several articles on SurvivalBlog have addressed physical fitness and wood burning would then be both beneficial for the purposes of one’s health and practical for heating.
4. Shooting practice!  I always carry a pistol with me when I cut.  An inside the waist holder works best tucked in the small of my back because carrying in a holster on my hip got my gun full of wood chips and gave it a scratch on the barrel (now it looks tuff ;)) For my safety I do not have a round chambered while cutting wood because sometimes I get hung up or fall down etc. but I then practice drawing, pulling the slide, and shooting in one smooth motion.  I do that because I know of a guy that shot himself in the heel getting into his vehicle and I have practiced where I can chamber a round pretty quickly if a threat presents itself in the woods (rabid skunk?).  For the target practice a knotted up round makes a great target.  If you are on someone else’s land check with the owner first before you start shooting a lot. 
5. Stock up on ibuprofen and other OTC pain meds.  Cutting wood is hard work and you will get sore.  Once again great barter items because post SHTF will be a lot of hard work.
6. Always be on the lookout for wood sources, it could be neighbors cutting down trees or checking with local farmers if you can cut up some deadfallen trees on their properties.  Compost sites are also great places.      
7. Stress reduction and improved mental health.  I truly enjoy cutting wood.  Time in the woods is relaxing and peaceful while being and feeling productive.  I think God wanted us to heat with wood, to give us a task where we can see and feel the product of our hard word and labor.  There is nothing like the smell of fresh split oak, you gotta try it, or the feel of the radiant warmth from a wood stove.
8. Cost can be expensive, but check Craigslist for airtight stoves.  Many people have become disenchanted with wood burning and “just want to get rid of it.”  I often think it is because too many people try to put the stove in the basement and then the chimney does not work correctly.
9. Cost estimates:
Jotul wood stove $2,500 (can find much cheaper versions used, check online but truly good stove are hard to find used.)
Chimney with instillation $1100 spend the money here and get a good chimney installed correctly that will burn correctly which will keep you safe!
Chain saw Stihl 270 $425 back up Poulan chainsaw $50
Kevlar chainsaw protection chaps $39 woodsman helmet $50 (both have paid for themselves!)
Pistol(s) for target practice $400-600 tell your wife you NEED these.  Ammo? I presently can’t find it
Splitting mauls $160 remember two is one and one is none and possible barter items
Hand saws and sharpening kits $280 the sharpening kit was $160 pull saw $90 but can buy timber saws at flea markets for under $40
Gas, oil, transportation, etc… $???

Rough total: $4,600 (could be a lot less expensive if you buy used equipment)

Savings: I burn about 2-3 cords of wood a year to supplement my fuel oil furnace which I think saves me about 350 gallons of oil a year, maybe more.  At $3 dollars a gallon that saves me over $1000 dollars a year.  I have had my stove for five heating seasons and have probably broken even at this point.  Best news is my stove is still in great shape and should last many more years.