Monday, March 21, 2016

Spring Cleaning (wood-lot finesse and wood-shed style)

This is the time to check your wood shed.

Most of you, I'm sure, are checking your garden seeds, and frolicking in whatever flowers you can find.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it's not quite time to forget winter yet.

While you're waiting for the right day to garden without compacting the earth, don't forget that next winter's chores need to be done NOW, too.
This is the last season for responsible wood-burners to lay up the full supply of fuel for next winter.  Depending on climate, you may already be running a bit late.

As we've discussed before, dry wood is the only wood that can be burned efficiently, and dry wood is not generally found in nature (especially not during mid-winter storms). It takes planning ahead.

A pretty decent woodshed
for very cheap (almost free). 
Think of your wood shed as a similar structure to a food dehydrator.  It has openings above and below the wood, keeps rain off while letting sun and wind have access to the stack.
The more effectively it circulates air around the wood, the more wood you can dry efficiently, and the less wood you'll need to burn. 

Wood over 6” to 8” diameter, in wildfire trainings, is considered “thousand hour fuels” or longer - meaning that it takes months for the moisture level to change significantly.

If you do need to “emergency dry” some fuel for the end of winter, chop it down to about 2” across will help it dry faster (weeks, as opposed to months).
You could chop it smaller yet (pencil-sized fuels dry within hours), but running an ordinary woodstove on nothing but kindling-wood is an easy way to over-fire and void your warranty.

It's much better to put up seasoned, dry wood, well in advance. Gathering it can be part of your winter cleanup and garden prep. 

Our current woodshed (December weather)
If you don't have a good wood shed yet, this might be a great time to pick up a few extra pallets from the home-and-garden supply or nursery, and get cracking.

There are a number of good designs that are simple to build; the following are just a few ideas.

It's hard to beat the basic, time-tested woodshed design:

- a nice big weather-proof roof, with overhang to protect slat sides.

- space for at least 1 year supply (preferably 2 years, if you cure your own wood rather than buying it cured).

- racks or poles to allow air flow under the wood
- ventilated sides or air holes top and bottom (if the shed has solid sides, racks or spacers can help encourage air flow along the sides too).

You can get all fancy and re-invent the concept, adding a clear roof for solar dehydrator effect, or a loft for tools, or side sheds for garden tools and lawn equipment. I have never seen anybody complain about too much shed space.  It does pay to consider the location before building (about 30 feet from the house, or 50 feet if you plan to store flammables and chemicals, and live in an area where wild fires are common).  Consider truck access to load and unload wood and other gear, and the role of the shed as a collection point for clutter (so you can keep the rest of the yard, and view, looking nice.)

A simple but super-effective woodshed: divided,
each half big enough for one full year's supply,
with room for tools & chopping.

A pretty decent woodshed for very cheap (almost free). 
A portable version could be skidded out to the wood lot,
then trailered back in once the wood is dry.
A drawing of our 1-year woodshed
(same as the photo).

This was our wood shed for 1 year.
(It might have lasted longer
if we knocked the snow off the roof more...
but it did the job until we could build better.)

In a few climates you can get away with a wood "rick", a pine-cone stack, like a haystack.  Not ours.

And if you are tempted to do something with tarps as a temporary solution... mostly, just don't.

Unless you can get substantial air movement under the tarp, and keep any condensation on the tarp from running right back down into the end-grain of the wood, a tarp is more likely to make a mushroom-farm than to help your wood dry.
An intelligent, but not sufficient, attempt
to get some wood-drying function from a tarp.
(If the tarp sides were lifted away from the wood,
so condensation and rain runoff would have somewhere to go,
this high-string pup-tent might work.

Fungus reclaiming log rounds left on the ground
(The fungus is not only eating some of the fuel value,
but it will also enhance the wood's ability to hold moisture.
Great for nurse logs, not great in a fuel wood pile.)

Ever come across the solar-distiller survival trick?  If you are in a desert without water, you can try picking a sunny spot, dig a shallow pit, and fill it with green branches.  Seal the top of the pit with a plastic sheet, and place a little cup under the low spot to collect the condensation.  (The transition from hot days to cool night is useful for helping the water condense as the plastic surface cools.)  I don't know that I'd expect it to work terribly well, in terms of collecting enough water to be really useful in a survival situation, but it could be a lot better than nothing.

However, it also illustrates why putting a tarp over a green woodpile can actually slow its drying.  You basically collect all the moisture from the wood (plus the damp ground), and make sure it rains back down right on the woodpile instead of escaping into the air.  Waterproof plastic tarps are sometimes used when cultivating mushrooms, to ensure that the wood does not dry out too fast for the mycelia to take root.  In other words, a tarp over wet wood keeps the wood wet.

If the wood is not wet when the tarp goes on, a few weeks under a leaky tarp, with ordinary ground dampness, and condensation collected by the tarp, will make the wood wet.  The Chimney Sweep Online gives the analogy of leaving a sandwich in your fridge in a plastic bag, or just sitting out on the shelf with no baggie.  Which one will dry out?  Which one will rot into unrecognizable goo?

A tarp can be useful for fending off a nasty sudden downpour (hint: for about half a day, following which you need to remove the tarp again to let the wood dry out)  or possibly as a door-flap for a structure with a solid freestanding roof.  We did use ragged old tarps to make sides for our pop-up-tent wood shed, but we kept the wood well back from touching the sides.

Turkey tail fungus,
a common inhabitant of damp wood piles
(and incidentally, rumored to be a medicinal mushroom)
Otherwise, skip the tarp, put your rain coat on, and load that wood into its proper storage sooner rather than later.  In the balance of things, a half-day getting wet while being loaded into the proper woodshed is not going to hurt your wood that much - not compared to spending the 3 dryest months of summer growing mushrooms under a tarp because you left the job "for later".

Cut the wood to length now, as well, since the end-grain does most of the work of wicking moisture out of the wood.

Damp wood can hold 50% of its own weight in water.  It takes a lot of energy to boil-dry a few extra pounds of water out of every load in your wood stove.  That is energy that could be heating your house.  So by securing your wood now, and getting it properly dry, you can cut your wood consumption by more than half (compared with burning nasty, wet, green wood). I will always load the full annual estimate into the wood shed,  based on that first year when we had to fall-source our wood.  But the earlier I do it, the more is left for next year.

As a chronically lazy person, that is a savings in time, labor, and resources that I can't ignore.  It is well worth skipping the pleasures of procrastination in order to do less total work, not to mention that it's less weight to haul, and easier to split the wood and kindling once they're properly dry.

Who's burning what?
(note multiple plumes across valley,
rainy days are popular burn days)
Most of the Western states will be under burn ban by June, with restrictions on running a chainsaw or other power tools in the woods.  So now is also the time for Western homesteaders to do their annual forestry: tidy up those dead-and-down trees, limb up those trees that are ready for ladder-fuel reduction.

This is a little more than
"one 4-foot pile with 1 person supervising"
Instead of burn-piling it, and making a nasty pall of smoke to dinge up our fresh spring air, bust it into 15" lengths and put it aside for your winter woodpile.
This winter's storms
dropped several trees.
The storm-damaged logs more than
cover next winter's fuel needs.
 And one final thought: I was super-grateful to find these little surprises in our woodpile last winter, when Ernie was in the hospital.

So this year, I'm making a few of them for both of us... or maybe for his folks, who knows.  For whenever they're needed.   Country "sick days."
Country "sick days:" Ready-made kindling,
stashed in the woodpile.

These can also be used as "vacation days," keeping Mama happy while you're gone fishing.

March 24 wood progress.
Front-right is the dry stuff
from inside the pinecone stack,
right rear is the wetter stuff
from the outside and bottom.
I've gotten a lot farther on stacking the woodshed.
As of March 24, this was how far: three rows, just over half a cord, of Ernie's pinecone stack outer layers in back, and the good stuff (dry interior) on the front-right for this year's remaining fires.  We are down to burning every other day, roughly.

As of April 6, I now have all of Ernie's pine cone stack (the wood from the outsides and bottom, that was too wet to burn right now) on the right.  It's a little over a cord, so probably enough for next year. 

I've started stacking this year's windfall on the left.

We found somebody's treat collection in the bent cardboard tube, while cleaning up that left side.

Truffles?  Puffballs?
These dried squirrel-snacks
nearly filled a cardboard tube
we had stored in the woodshed.