A wood stove is never better than the wood that is burned in it. Wood types act a bit differently, some smoulder and turn into big pieces of charcoal, others burn quickly and intensely, but the common factor is that the wood must be as dry as possible. This provides the best heat and easiest lighting, and makes it much easier to burn wood in an environmentally conscious way.
By Lars Mytting, author of "Hel ved"
If the wood is not dry, the heat in the wood stove will be used to evaporate moisture and emissions of particular matter and other pollution increases simultaneously. Ignore all old superstition that the wood should be a little bit "damp". The ideal is as little moisture as possible. The minimum requirement in the trade for calling wood "dry" is 20% moisture, but it is no problem to get it down to 14-15% in an ordinary climate and such an improvement is definitely noticeable.
Wood is CO2 neutral and constitutes a large part of residential heating in Norway. Wood burning today is not about smoky and cracked old wood stoves, but about modern combustion technology, high quality wood and environmental responsibility. At the same time, the modern wood stoves with a glass door provide even closer contact with the magic of the fire. The heating quality from a wood stove is unprecedented – it provides both deep radiation heating against the skin and quick heating of the room. The view of the flames creates tranquillity and room for thought and for tens of thousands of years the fireplace has been a natural place for humans to gather together.
The view to a stack of wood is a view of something safe, and when you have the snug and cozy feeling of wood burning under your skin, you can meet the winter with a different expectation than before.
But many of the advantages are not apparent until the quality of the wood is right, so it is a part of good wood burning culture to put effort into the acquisition and storage of the wood. Chopping wood yourself is possible in most parts of the country and this gives you free or very cheap heating. However, for many people, this is not possible and this article is mainly directed at those who buy their wood.
Buy the wood early
The most important thing is to buy the wood early. We live in Norway and winter comes early every year, even if we always try to block it out of our minds. It's like the winter tyres on the first day of snow – it is safe and common sense to be prepared. There is no reason to panic and go to the petrol station or garden centre to buy small bags of wood at ridiculous prices in the blistering cold. Feel free to contact a professional wood dealer already in spring. There are many of them in Norway and they are experts in their trade. Trading early in the season makes the situation clearer for everyone. Prices are often cheaper then, it is easier to get the wood delivered and the wood dealer can re-stock on their wood. Usually, most wood dealers can deliver dry wood as early as mid-summer. A great solution if you have the means to do it is to buy damp wood early in spring and dry it yourself. This will give you the cheapest price and you will get enough.
Buy in bulk
This takes us to another point: Get a lot of wood. Preferably as much as you can practically store. If the space is limited, an excellent alternative can be to set up a subscription with your wood dealer. When you run out, you either have to get more or turn on the fan heater. In our modern and well-functioning society we are used to having everything readily available at anytime and anyplace, but this can unfortunately be devastating when the forces of nature sets in – because when everyone is cold, everyone wants wood.
It's happened more than once that wood dealers in both urban and rural areas have run out during the harshest cold periods. It is easy to become a victim of people taking advantage to make a profit by turning up the price of wood at the same rate as the degrees are going down below zero on the thermometer.
Estimate your consumption
Keep in mind that burning wood is positive. If wood burning happens in the correct way, so that the pollution is minimal, wood is a CO2 neutral bio energy and an easy solution to a difficult problem in a forest-clad country like ours. The authorities' objective is to double the use of bio energy and in most cases, wood is the easiest and most practical alternative. Norwegian wood has great quality and is local to us – and our forests grow much more every year than that which is being chopped down for materials and firing wood. So instead of turning on an extra fan heater when the electricity grid is already heavily loaded and the price of electricity is high, it is much better to go out to the wood shed and think that perhaps it is too big, but at least it's not empty. Wood is also a decorative feature and after a mild winter you can keep the surplus for next year.
Store it in a dry place
And this brings us to another important point: Storage. There are many possible ways to store wood, from simple wood stacks to grand sculptures. We will only deal with the things that affect quality, and this involves storing the wood in an airy place and protected against moisture. It should be elevated from dirt ground and be protected from rain and snow by a roof. Wood absorbs rainwater quickly and if it remains in damp or wet surroundings, it will get mouldy, which might also reduce its combustion properties. The same principle also applies to damp wood that you dry yourself, but then it is even more important to place it freely so that it has proper flow of air from all sides. It is absolutely not rocket science to dry wood properly as long as it is chopped and stacked early in the spring, preferably while the snow is still on the ground. The low level of moisture in the air will make it dry surprisingly quickly – usually within three months. Sun and heat are two factors, but the element that really dries the wood is mainly the wind.
What does not work
After drying – or if you have bought wood that was already dry – it is a good idea to put the wood in a place that is dry and easily accessible in the winter. If you plan ahead, you can avoid those cold trips in only a shirt and slippers to fetch wood on a snowy, dark night.
What absolutely never works as storage place is a temporary cover which is either:
- made half-hearted
- set up pending a better idea
- set up pending more time to spare or better weather
- tent look-alike constructions made from plastic or tarpaulin
- combinations of the four points above
Especially outside holiday homes along the coast, there are some ugly examples of all these categories and the common denominator for all of them is that they've crumpled under the weight of the snow or that the tarpaulin has ripped or both. No matter what, the wood becomes unappealing and bad within a few months. The problem is not only that the wood gets wet, but also that nature immediately starts its decomposition process. Birch is especially vulnerable to mould and fungi and regardless of wood type organisms large and small, like wood lice and worms, will with time make their dwelling in the wood and all the enjoyment will be gone.
What does work
Luckily this is easy to avoid. If space allows it, a separate wood shed with great ventilation is the best thing. In many residences, the most realistic alternative is to store wood in a place that is less used during winter, for example a play house or veranda. Tarpaulins can make do as coverage for a while, but never wrap the wood so well that it can't breathe, even if it is dry. It is better to place the wood under a projecting roof or to make a simple slanting roof out from a wall. The roof can also be hinged so that it is easier to fill the storage space and it can also be removed during summer. The easiest way to store short wood (less than 30 cm) is in a bag, but one trick to stack loose, short wood against a wall, is to include a few longer pieces of plank at a 90 degree angle from the wall so that they stand straight out. When the wood is placed tightly against these, the stack will lock itself so that it doesn't fall out or over.
If a free-standing, temporary wood shed is a possibility, you can make it quickly and easily from europallets and corrugated iron sheets. Standardised measurements for the pallets are 120x80 or 80x60 – excellent for Norwegian standard wood lengths. The pallets are used as floor and walls and planks attached diagonally on the back lend the construction rigidity. Six large pallets make room for two cubic metres of wood (approx 70 cubic feet) and since they are the same colour as the wood, they don't look too bad either. There are many variations that can be built according to need or aesthetic; most variants will do, as long as the roof is hard and tight and the construction solid enough to withstand wind and snow. A long projection is always an advantage to keep out driving rain and snow.
The view of a stack of wood is a view of something safe, and when you have the snug and cosy feeling of wood burning under your skin, you can meet the winter with a different expectation than before. Part of the joy is that feeling of having things in order, that you are in sync with the seasons. That you have enough wood and that it is good wood. A little bit of planning gives you a great feeling of control -which you can handle and live with the seasons. Then it's no problem that the cold weather tries to make trouble outside, while the oldest source of heating known to man is crackling calmly in your fireplace.
Wood and wood burning can be both a passion and a science. The author of this article, Lars Mytting, published "Hel ved" in 2010, which examines the cultural history of wood and wood from sprout to ashes. The book has now been printed in 145,000 copies and been translated into several languages.