Soon after I began heating my shack with a small stove my view of wood, and in turn fuel, changed. Experience alters how we think.
We all know wood is fuel, contains BTU’s, and can get you through a cold winter day. But it rarely does. We burn wood in campfires, bonfires, occasionally fireplaces. We feel its heat from time to time but it’s a novelty, a show. Wood serves us as building material, furniture, but rarely as a source of heat.
The fuel that sustains most of us through a Northern winter, keeps the pipes from freezing, allows our potted plants stay alive, heats the water, and cooks our food is invisible. In my house its natural gas, piped in from who knows where, paid for monthly and automatically online. It combines with oxygen very efficiently in a burner the size of a suitcase in the basement. The exhaust escapes from a small plastic tube out my basement wall. I do nothing but change the furnace filters.
Few people have big wood-burning furnaces in the basement, or wood burning stoves upstairs big enough to distribute heat throughout their homes. For some its electricity, which might be sustainably generated by solar panels, a windmill, or something equally green but likely not. Instead it too is likely produced by burning up some irreplaceable fossil fuel to make people warm and comfortable. And we rarely think about it. We just turn the thermostat up.
Like most things done small, burning wood in a tiny stove to heat a little building puts heat on an observable and easily grasped scale. My Sardine stove, the smallest model made by Navigator Stove Works (NVA) on Orcas Island off the northwest corner of Washington State, is made mostly for sailboat cabins. Turns out it works equally well in tiny houses.
The inside dimensions of the shack are 11’ x 11’. I worried that if I installed a conventionally sized wood burner the heat would drive me out. Plus I wanted to be efficient. So I bought the small stove from NSV but only after a conversation with the owner Andrew Moore. We talked on the phone. As we chatted he looked up heating degree days in Ottawa, Illinois, ran some numbers, and figured if I built my shack with 2x6 studs packed with fiberglass insulation the Sardine would be big enough in the shack to keep me warm through most Illinois winters. It’s dimensions are 12" x 12 "x 11".
He was right. But it takes a while to get the shack warm when the temperature is below zero like it was this week. Wednesday wasn’t easy. Today’s not great. I keep my coat on for a while. Wear these gloves for starters when I write.
My right side gets warm first: cheek, shoulder, thigh. The stove is on my right, up against the east wall which is a sliding patio door. You don’t get instant heat, but when it warms up its damn cozy.
As for the efficiency of the stove, I offer this as an example. Every other day I cut up a batch of split wood from the woodpile into stove-sized chunks and it lasts me a day and a half to two in the shack depending on the temperature. In this cold weather I have been carrying a similar sized batch of logs into the house each night to burn in the fireplace. We burn that same batch up in the house in three hours. Stoves give you real heat. Fireplaces let the heat go up the chimney. If you’re serious about heating with wood buy a stove.
Here’s the thing with wood. It takes work. It has to be cut, split, stored, and dried. It takes planning and preparation to put together a winter’s supply of wood. It’s a year-round deal. Even when its ready to burn you have to lug it to the stove and stoke it yourself. And for this little stove, it has to be cut once again to stove sized chunks. The top of the stove has only a 5-inch diameter opening.
Fortunately, I live on a double lot on the edge of a ravine and have a lot of trees. So far, I’ve burned only wood that has been produced around me, mostly oak. Oak is my main fuel, a hardwood providing most of the BTU’s. It burns slow and long. It’s great stuff. But you can’t just throw a match into a stove full of oak and have a fire.
The fuel that starts the oak comes from everywhere it seems. I kept all the scraps from building the shack in dog food bags. Before I retired, when I moonlighted as a my own contractor, I shoved the bags under the building. SPF (spruce, pine fir) 2x scraps, fir flooring, cedar siding, treated porch plank ends. I kept it all. It’s long gone, as is the dog, but it was wonderful kindling. All that finished dried lumber splits and burns great, especially the cedar. It’s like butter. I could go on. Here’s the formula for a shack fire.
Half a brown paper grocery bag, a handful of pine or some other quick starting, fast burning fuel, a couple chunks of oak, followed when you hear it roar by more oak. Replenish throughout a cold day. You can start that all happening and light a stick of incense with one match. I’ve heard it said that all men are pyromaniacs. However I think people are, men and women both.
It strikes me there is something wonderfully human about starting and enjoying fire. Because once you start it you can sit back and reap the benefit of what you’ve done. It’s immediate success or failure. And the saving grace is if it doesn’t start the first time you get endless chances. There’s no judging when you’re alone in a shack.
This winter a new friend of the family gave me garbage bags full of pine cones. Pine cones make lovely fire starters. I keep an old grease bucket off the farm filled with them. I fill the bottom of half a brown paper bag, stick it in the stove, pile kindling on the bag, and top it with an oak chunk. After the paper lights the pine cones they blaze big and take everything else along with them. You can hear the fire crackle.
In regard to fuel I have an embarrassment of riches. A fishing buddy gives me the wood scraps of an annual project he does in his wife’s store. My brother the woodworker, a.k.a. cabinetmaker, fulfiller of family project requests, gives me wood scraps from his shop. All manner of wood: chunks, slices, grooved surfaces, mistakes, ugly pieces, of every species. I’m having a hell of a time burning the walnut though. There is something wrong with burning walnut. I find myself setting it aside, protecting it from the stove.
“David that walnut’s too small to do anything with. Trust me, if it was bigger I wouldn’t have tossed it in the scrap bucket.”
“I know Denny but its walnut. It’s too pretty and fine. “
“Too pretty and fine for what? You going to make a miniature dollhouse? Burn it. It’s good hardwood. It will keep you warm. What’s oak then? Oak’s a great wood and your burn it all the time. Burn the walnut. It’s not so different. That’s why I give it to you.”
If I had walnut trees growing all around me I might feel differently. But I have oak trees. I just planted one. Two have come up volunteer, planted I’m pretty sure by forgetful squirrels. As the big oaks age the young oaks grow. I have a good feeling about burning oak in this stove. Like it’s meant to be. Burning walnut? It still feels like a sin.
A very nice woman gives me corn cobs she picks up in her field. Corn cobs are perfect for extending a fire when you’re at the end of your time in the shack. Rather than firing up more oak I throw on corn cobs for a short burst of intense heat. Among the fuels I use in the shack, cobs have the most passion. They heat up fast, give you everything, and then they’re done. And sustainable? The number of cobs burned for fuel in America is infinitesimal. If you live anywhere in Illinois outside Chicago there are acres and acres of cobs all around you. The farmers ignore them, discarding them back on the field to enrich the soil. All that good fuel, just laying there. With a pile of cobs as big as one crib’s worth, a mountain of cobs like those produced when we shelled out the my Dad’s corn crib each year as a kid, I could heat this shack for three years I think. I’ll never get the chance to prove that.
And so I have a good feeling about this stove, the future of the shack, and the sustainability of this little local system. Cut wood, burn it, write in the shack when its warm. This deal could go on way longer than me. For example, as I type these words there is a sizeable dead branch hanging outside the very window I see through when I look above my computer screen.
At one time I would have looked upon it sadly as the diminishment of a once thriving tree. Now when I see it I think of where I will put the ladder and make the cut with the chainsaw so the branch falls at the edge of the ravine, ready to be cut into pieces and carried to the woodshed. It’s a subtle change in thinking but important. What once was a tree is now stored fuel, ready to heat me up next winter. Life is a cycle. Too bad humans don’t serve some similarly useful purpose, stacked up and waiting, ready to provide someone benefit after they die.
Thoughts About The Blog
To be honest I hesitate to write about Dave in the Shack. The blog is nothing but a digital chimera that carries these words. I suppose I could care less about the details and structure of the blog, but I can‘t imagine how. My kids encouraged me to write it, not that it took much encouragement. Aside from the name of the blog, and the picture of the shack, Dean and Maureen chose the colors, the font, and the template. All I do is write my thoughts, copy and paste a Word file into the blog, insert a picture or two, and post it. Then you read it. Which is only right. All that matters is the writing and reading, just as in music it is playing and hearing. writing is a personal human interaction, and an important one at that. The vehicle doesn’t matter. Although digital beats paper all to hell I must admit. I wouldn’t be mailing this to you at 49 cents a pop that’s for sure.
I know how many blogs I write and how many people open the link to it through a digital report I get each week from Blogspot. This is my 32nd blog post of 2017, down from 44 posts each of the two previous years. Readership varies widely. I always make triple digits, besting 99 readers. My highest read blog before a few weeks ago was “A Week Away” about fishing in Canada. 963 people opened that link to supposedly read that Ontario tale. I have a sneaking suspicion from the comments that piece made it to younger readers, who share things on FaceBook more readily.
That was the most read blog post until I posted “Food and Shelter” the week before Thanksgiving. Something amazing happened with that post. It was shared on FaceBook 50 times or so and has so far been opened by 10,057 individuals. That’s shocking. That post about homeless people and homelessness is ten times more popular, if you gauge popularity by supposed reads, than anything else I’ve written in five years. Heck let’s face it, anything I've written ever. If only one day each of those readers would buy my book. But I’m making progress. I doubt more than ten people ever read any grant I ever put together for YSB.
If I knew what was so compelling about that homeless story I would write more like it, but I don’t. Thank you however for reading it. The next post, “Getting the Tree”, had my second highest readership ever at 1,303, and now the blog is returning to normal. I have a good feeling about you though, one of my loyal regular readers. The relationship we have feels sustainable, not unlike wood. But for those readers who sometimes still ask if it’s OK to share my writing, let me say once again loudly.
I’ve learned two things about writing. Nobody likes your stuff more than you, and every writer wants more readers. If you think your friends would enjoy one of these posts by all means share it. More is better. That is what the internet is for.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I hope the new year finds you filled with hope. The past 365 days were wonderful for me. I hope both you and I have a similarly great 2018. It’s the year I get published I think. But then I said that last year. I hope everything you desire happens in 2018. Happy New Year.