Eons ago when people lived in caves, one of their most important tools was fire. Its ability to keep them warm, cook food, provide light, and scare away predators was of the utmost importance. Some kind of a societal upheaval may not necessarily mean returning to a stone age existence, but when the systems that keep our everyday life humming along go down, fire will once again have a huge impact on our ability to survive.
This fact was brought home to my wife and me two winters ago, when a February blizzard knocked out the power to several counties. It was early evening – the lights flickered a few times, and then the house was plunged into darkness. Everything became eerily quiet, save for the wind howling outside and snow pelting against the window.
Then there was another sound – the reassuring popping of a log in our big airtight Franklin stove which continued to throw off its heat, oblivious to the fact that the juice was off. For the next thirty-six hours we used it to keep us warm, melt snow to flush toilets, and even did a some cooking over its coals. While other folks along our country road bundled up in sleeping bags and shivered until the outage ended, the disruption to our lives wasn’t nearly as great.
If you live in a northern climate, staying warm is important for nearly half of the year. Did I say “important”? Make that “vital” because without a way to keep the temperature in your home or bug-out place at a life-sustaining level, you will die of exposure! Your gas or oil furnace will be fine… as long as your fuel supply lasts or the electricity doesn’t fail. These are finite resources, however, and during a long-term disruption of goods and services, your pilot light will go out at some point (probably just when a January blizzard comes howling in).
The only logical solution is to turn to wood heat, or more precisely, a wood-burning airtight stove (fireplaces are fine for ambiance, but horribly inefficient for warming you since most of the heat goes up the chimney). The next question, then, is where will your wood come from, and what skills and tools do you need to convert it to usable fuel for your stove?
The countryside is full of burnable litter. Next time you’re out and about, take a look around. Fallen branches and even a downed tree or two are common sights in any woodlot or park, or along rural roads. Most of it, though, is too small to keep a fire going with the BTU output that’s needed to warm your home. Real “firewood” consists of pieces of thick branches or trunks that have been cut and split to a size of about 16” long and roughly 5” or 6” in diameter. Anything smaller will require re-stoking the stove every few hours, while bigger pieces may smolder unless the fire is wastefully large.
At present, I get most of my firewood supply from a local landowner, who doesn’t like downed trees lying around and sees it as a favor when I clean up the woods for him. After a big summer storm, city folks without saws will gladly offer you a tree that’s toppled in their yard. Likewise, a downed tree across a rural road usually belongs to the first one who’s there to cut it up. During bad times it would likely be possible to barter for timber with a landowner who doesn’t have the tools or know-how to utilize it himself -probably working together and then sharing it. State or federally-owned hunting land and wildlife areas also have downed timber, which can often be claimed by anyone with the gumption to go get it.
If we ever arrive at a point where vehicles and trailers are no longer available, all of your wood will have to be hauled by hand. That means that laying in a good supply now, when you can still move it efficiently, would be a good idea. Having a sizable woodpile to begin with puts a buffer between you and calamity. Get your wood from the more distant locations while you can still truck it, and leave the easier pickings for when you may have to move it manually.
Wheel barrows are, in my opinion, a poor way to transport anything heavy for any distance due to their chronic balance problems. With their single, small, pneumatic tire, they are not made to move loads over uneven ground. Take one into the woods and roll over a few blackberry brambles, and the tire will inevitably puncture and go flat. A better alternative is one of those “game haulers” with large, hard rubber wheels. They’re made for going over rough terrain easily, and can handle a maximum load with a minimum amount of effort (they can also haul around a lot of other heavy stuff that might need moving).
Literally any wood will burn. One year we survived two months of a Wisconsin winter heating with willow – a wood near the bottom of the BTU list. Likewise, this past winter we used a fair amount of box elder – another low grade tree. Woods like this certainly will throw out enough heat to keep you warm, but they burn fast, requiring a larger supply.
The “primo” varieties include oak, hard maple, locust, hickory and apple. Next down the line but still good, are ash, birch, cherry, and hackberry. Unless there is nothing else available, however, avoid any of the evergreen species, since their resin content tends to start chimney fires, spit sparks, and can flash back when you open the stove door.
Firewood should season for at least six months after being cut green (a year is better) although a few varieties, like ash and locust, will burn without much drying.
We’ve just been through a mild winter here. Spring has arrived and, after checking the wood shed, I see that we’ve gone through about six face cords of mixed hardwood (a stove face cord is a stack four feet high, eight feet long, and 16” deep). A bad winter, like last year’s, would probably have required another cord.
A household could get by on a lot less, though. For one thing, we have a large stove and heat the entire place with it. The fire is usually lit in November and doesn’t go out until late March. A smaller stove heating a smaller area would take far less fuel. And if our wood supply had been limited, instead of basking in 70 degree temperatures all winter, we could have stretched the supply by burning less – in an extreme case, just enough to keep the place at 50 degrees. This would have been uncomfortable, but it would have enabled us to survive.
If you envision doing your cutting with a chain saw after society falls apart, picture those last precious (and irreplaceable) drops of gas disappearing into its tank. Even if you’ve stocked a large supply of fuel and bar oil, gas has a shelf life, and how many chains do you have? The other problem with a chain saw (besides the fact that, being a machine, it will need unobtainable replacement parts at some point) is that it makes noise. This broadcasts a message to anyone within a mile that someone’s cutting a pile of firewood that could be pilfered from the producer as soon as he’s finished the work.
Long-term survival requires stepping back into the 19th century and taking up the hand saw. Do you have one capable of cutting through a 30 inch tree trunk? Probably not, but realizing the need for producing burnable chunks suitable for splitting that will hold a fire all night should inspire you to get one.
A crosscut saw capable of handling tree trunk needs to be either a one or two-man model 48” – 56“ long. If you’ve got a partner, go with a two-man type. I’ve got one that can be set up either way, with add-on handle on one end that converts it from a solo saw to a duo.
There are two basic tooth types – “Lance” and “Tuttle”. The former is designed more for softwoods, so go with the latter. One company that carries a good assortment of saws in various designs for serious cutting is the Traditional Woodworker (www.traditionalwoodworker.com).
Also consider buying a second smaller, less cumbersome saw with a standard tooth arrangement for doing the medium cutting jobs. This one would probably have a 24” – 30” blade with 4 ½ to 6 teeth per inch. Such a saw could also be used in a pinch for the big stuff. For cutting up smaller branches for kindling or your cooker (which will be discussed shortly) bow saws work fine. They’re cheap, so get a couple of different sizes and a number of spare blades.
But having an assortment of saws isn’t going to keep you cutting indefinitely. No matter how good the steel is, that blade is eventually going to get dull. A good stock of files will be important for keeping your saws working efficiently.
Do you know how to sharpen a saw? Are you familiar with things like “Fleam”, “Rakers” and “Jointing”? Do you have a tooth setter in your tool box? Becoming proficient at sharpening your cutting tools is a skill you can’t overlook (the afore-mentioned saw dealer also sells an excellent book by Harold Payson on setting and sharpening hand saws). And besides keeping your own tools chipping away efficiently, being the local “saw sharpener” can make you a vital asset to a small community of survivors.
Axes can play a role in firewood production, too. They’re not as efficient as a saw, but a century ago lumberjacks used them to take down mature trees. Felling a tree with an axe, however, requires a lot of skill as well as effort, something you will soon discover when tackling anything bigger than a mid-sized aspen. I’ve found that the best use for an axe is limbing a downed tree. Just remember to stand on the opposite side of the trunk, and chop off the limb from the root end of the trunk towards the top.
Like saws, axes come in several styles and sizes. The “limbing” axe, with a 25 inch handle is also good for cutting up small limbs on a chopping block, while a full-sized axe can be used for splitting smaller pieces with a straight grain or, if you have to, felling a tree.
One more thought on axes: Like any edged tool, keep it sharp! The old saying, “a dull knife is a dangerous knife” holds true for axes as well (and you can do a lot more damage to yourself with one).
To round out your wood processing equipment you should have a good splitting maul, two or three wedges and a sledge hammer. If you’re lucky enough to get into some straight-grained ash or oak, the maul alone will do the job, but often you’ll need the encouragement of a wedge or two to get many pieces to split to the size you desire.
Not all wedges are the same. Get one that has a narrow entry edge for efficiently starting a split, and a wider one to open it up when you bury the first wedge (which often happens). I like the model made by True Temper which has two built-in “wings” near the top for my second wedge. The wings open the crack far enough to allow the head of a sledge hammer in, so you can continue to pound on the wedge until the split is complete.
A couple of final thoughts on cutting firewood: If you don’t know what you’re doing, standing timber can kill you in a heartbeat. Any written description here of exactly how to take down a tree would not be adequate, so go out and find someone who works in the woods, and ask if you can tag along sometime to learn how it’s done. Some of the important things they’re likely to point out are:
- The “hinge” (the uncut area between the notch and the felling cut) controls the direction which the tree will fall. If you cut through it, the tree can go anywhere (including in you lap).
- More branch weight on one side will influence a tree to fall in that direction.
- A dead branch near the top that comes loose due to vibrations while cutting can be lethal (that’s why they’re called “widow-makers”).
- Be aware of wind direction. This can influence a tree’s fall – especially if it’s leafed out.
Fire is important for more than just keeping your core temperature above 98.6 degrees. In the event of a prolonged TEOTWAWKI  catastrophe, everyone will need some way to cook food and boil water. White or bottled gas, however, is not the answer, since eventually your supply will run out. At that point you’ll once again have to turn to wood.
A traditional campfire will work, but is hugely wasteful of your hard-earned fuel resources. The best option is to use something that will give you a big boost in efficiency over an open fire, and that “something” would be a well-designed wood-fired cook stove.
Some Preppers’ stocks of provisions include large amounts of freeze-dried food which doesn’t need to be “cooked” per se, but does require a cup or two of boiling water. The most effective way to do this is with what is known as a “Kelly Kettle” (sometimes called a “volcano kettle”).
The Kelly Kettle is an odd-looking stainless steel stove that resembles a cross between a miniature milk can and a bowling pin. It has a small fire chamber in the base which draws air from below, and the heat rises through a long chimney. Surrounding this chimney is a hollow jacket that holds water. The heat coming up it contacts a far greater surface area of the water than it would if it were merely concentrated on the bottom of a pan, and brings it to a boil in only a fraction of the time.
Another thing that makes the Kelly Kettle a great survival tool is the fact that it can be fueled with just about anything that burns. Collect the wood chips from where you’ve been cutting and splitting your stove wood, break up small, fallen branches or twigs, or use pine cones or even bark – it’s all the same to the Kelly Kettle. The bottom draft arrangement (the same principle as a Dakota fire) will make just about anything you put in it burn hot and fast.
For your actual cooking needs or for heating larger amounts of water, a special stove based on the Kelly Kettle will work far better than an open fire. The only problem is that as far as I know, there isn’t such a stove on the market. This means you’ll have to make your own.
There’s a plan on a survival blog for a pipe stove with a “rocket elbow”. I followed the basic design and tweaked it just a bit. My version consists of an eleven inch length of 6” stove pipe nested inside a twelve inch piece of 8” stove pipe. A vent (1 ½” diameter piece of exhaust pipe) goes from the bottom of the inner pipe and sticks out an inch past the outer one. This tube serves both as an air intake and a chute to add fuel.
The interior pipe is closed off at the bottom using a removable standard 6” stovepipe cap and then cement is poured in the space between the two pipes. This acts as insulation as well as giving the stove more weight, and hence, more stability. Several one inch deep scallops are cut into the top rim of the outer pipe to allow smoke to escape, and what’s left supports the utensil you’re cooking with. Like the Kelly Kettle, the fact that it draws air from the bottom and has a long chimney, will make the fire burn with a hot, focused flame. A stove such as this also allows one to utilize easily collected scrap wood as fuel.
Following the basic design concept, it might be possible to build larger stoves for bigger cooking tasks. The only drawback I’ve noticed with mine is that because it uses small pieces of wood that burn quickly, it needs to be fed often and hence, can’t be left unattended for long.
A bonus to cooking with wood is that the ashes the fire produces can be used as soap to clean up with. Since they contain lye, merely mixing them into a paste with clean water and using it as a scouring compound will allow you to keep utensils clean long after your supply of soap has run out.
The best “starter” wood to get a fire going – whether it’s you cooker of wood furnace – is dry cedar. If you can find an old telephone pole lying around somewhere, saw it into short lengths and then split each round into thin pieces. Unless you hit a knot, the straight grain of cedar splits easily into extremely thin sticks which take a flame in seconds. I call this stuff “fire candy”. It catches quickly and burns intensely for starting a fire, as well as rejuvenating one that is nearly out. If you can’t find cedar, something like well-dried aspen or willow is also a good starter.
Don’t forget that before you can burn anything, you’ll have to have a way of starting your fire. A large stockpile of traditional matches, metal matches and butane lighters take up little space and have no maximum shelf life. If you run out, though, you’ll have to resort to a fire bow or a magnifying glass.
And for each fire you light, you’ll need some tinder to get it going. A supply of newspapers and dryer lint will work, but know that when it’s gone you’ll have to rely on fuzz sticks or natural materials like mouse nests.
If and when TEOTWAWKI  arrives “keeping the home fires burning” will be right up there with food and water. Prepare for it now!