Jun 25, 2012 by

fireplace insert

Our wood-burning fireplace insert

Having invested about $2,400 in a modern wood-burning fireplace insert, I am aiming to rely mainly on this appliance for heating the upper floor of our house, where we live, mostly. The unit we chose is manufactured locally, 83% efficient, and except for those who depend on solar, wind, or hydro power, likely is cleaner overall than how most people heat their homes. Our insert produces little smoke and particulates when operated properly. Further, unlike fossil fuel, wood is renewable, and burning wood for heat is nearly carbon neutral when considered in the context of a 50-year tree lifetime.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to defend wood-burning fireplace inserts right there, but I did.

When we moved into our home, we had a couple trees cut down (definitely not carbon neutral, but unfortunately necessary for reasons I won’t go into here) and converted to firewood. At about the same time I bought a half-cord or so of dry firewood since the trees we cut down were not dead and so the firewood not seasoned and in need of time to dry. We recently finished consuming all of this initial supply, so it was time to get more.

Seduced by a 10% discount, I agreed to buy three cords of wood from a local supplier. A cord is a well-stacked wood pile 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long. Here’s a picture.

My plan was to store this wood in approximately 1/3rd of our carport, which is two cars wide, so perhaps 20 x 20 or thereabouts. I thought three cords would be a tight fit—but a 10% discount! So I ordered, cost of $630, unstacked. (I think that’s pretty cheap considering we’ll rely on this wood for about 80% of our heat for probably a winter and a half.) The website of the family-run business from which I bought the wood says “[W]e legally obtain our wood, and are environmentally conscious. We do not cut down trees to get the wood, rather we use wood that is not fit to be milled, and would simply be burned in the bush if we did not cut it.”

I was stunned when I saw the pile of wood dumped in the carport and extending down the driveway after delivery. Especially in a jumbled heap, three cords of wood looks like a lot of wood. That’s probably because it is a lot of wood.  Since it cost an extra $45/cord to have it stacked, I didn’t have it stacked. But I lay awake a few nights thinking about stacking that wood. It couldn’t be that difficult, since the guy charges only $45/cord, could it? Would it all fit in the space I had allotted? How high should I make the stacks? Should I put a tarp over it, or would that inhibit drying? Should I stack it all in one direction, or crisscross?

Three cords of wood in a pile


During the several days I contemplated the project, two different people came to our door and offered to stack the wood, for money. I didn’t ask how much as I was determined to do it myself, but I began to wonder: Is this job so laborious and/or do I appear so feeble that word is spreading throughout the neighborhood that easy wood-stacking money is to be made at our home?

At last I attacked the woodpile. I stacked, crisscross fashion, for about two hours, which absorbed maybe 15% of the total pile. My two parallel stacks were perhaps 5 feet tall, 10 feet long, and one piece of wood (16 inches) deep, when disaster struck. The entirety of my stack leaned toward me, paused briefly as I stupidly tried to restrain the inevitable by bracing my body against the collection of independent pieces of wood, then fell over as one toward me. I escaped being crushed, but did not avoid a few leg contusions as I belatedly scampered out of danger. With two hours of hard work totally and instantly eviscerated, I surveyed the situation briefly—nothing whatsoever to make me feel better, the whole stack had fallen over—and then retreated indoors. I went to the computer and searched “how to stack wood.”

I learned a lot, and the next day I attacked the pile again. I used a technique I had read about: Carefully building cabin-like pillars of wood pieces at each end of the pile, then stacking wood in one direction between the pillars, all while paying attention to fit, stability, and plumbness. With bruises still fresh, I regularly test-rocked the stack as it grew to judge its susceptibility to tipping over: Surprisingly stable.

The project took a long time—probably five hours for this amateur—but the end result I found highly rewarding, more so as days go by. If I am glum, I can invariably improve my mood by admiring my stack of wood. I think the effect is partly due to its beauty and my satisfaction with the results of the effort I put in, and partly due to the security in the knowledge of how much heat-energy is stored in that wood. Electricity off for a year? We’ll be fine.

Stacked Wood


Over the several days since I finished the project, the power of stacking wood has grown on me. I like the effects on my body (not counting the bruises when the first stack fell over): Sore forearms, sore back muscle, and general fatigue. In short, stacking wood makes me feel, mentally and physically, like I actually did something. And I like the results. You start with a disheveled, disorganized, heap of wood pieces. You end with an organized, compact but ventilated, efficient and stable stack of wood pieces. (In its simplest, most fundamental form, is effecting this sort of transition not every genetic German’s raison detre?)

So I am contemplating a new “side hustle.” What if I were to become our region’s wood stacker extraordinaire? What if my reputation became the guy who makes perfect—stable and beautiful—stacks of wood, the guy for whom stacking wood is a religion, a passion, a tantra, and for whom getting paid for stacking is only a secondary reward, the guy who stacks for stacking’s sake. The supreme simplicity of this vision appeals to me greatly.

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