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Archive for Thursday, October 5, 2006

Firewood buyers feeling heat from higher prices

October 5, 2006

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— An old saw goes that firewood warms you twice: once when you split and stack it, and again when you sit by the stove on a blustery winter night.

Now you can add a third way: How about the slow burn you feel when you're handed the bill for that cordwood just dumped on your driveway?

Firewood prices have been climbing around the nation along with the overall trend in petroleum costs.

Going into the upcoming home heating season, prices vary from $125 a cord at Calpine, Calif., and Gettysburg, Pa., to $318 a cord in St. Louis, according to Firewood Center.com, which polled its database of firewood vendors. Not included are the smaller, pricier "fireplace bundles" sold at service stations and convenience stores to apartment dwellers whose storage options range from closets to fire escape landings.

"The price has gone up because mills are paying more for their logs," said Calvin Rogers, who runs Triangle Wood Products in Raleigh, N.C. "Diesel fuel is so high. Firewood has gone up every year for the past three years."

Despite that, wood stove sales are red hot. Many are on back order, with anticipated delivery delays of at least several months. More than 98,000 wood stoves were shipped last year, an increase of 24.2 percent over 2004, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn. in Washington. In the first two quarters of 2006, 46,665 wood stoves were shipped, up 44.7 percent from the same period a year ago, according to the association.

"More people are burning more wood," Rogers said, often to supplement heating systems.

Firewood prices have been climbing around the nation along with the overall trend in petroleum costs. Still, more than 98,000 wood stoves were shipped last year, an increase of 24.2 percent over 2004, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn. in Washington

Firewood prices have been climbing around the nation along with the overall trend in petroleum costs. Still, more than 98,000 wood stoves were shipped last year, an increase of 24.2 percent over 2004, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Assn. in Washington

There are many ways to cut higher heating costs, of course. Add insulation. Caulk windows. Lower the settings on water heaters. Or do what Stephen Philbrick of Windsor, Mass., does: cut, split and stack your own cordwood.

"We figure a cord of firewood gives us the equivalent of 150 to 160 gallons of fuel oil, and at this point, heating oil is at around $2 a gallon," said Philbrick, who with his son, Frank, is author of "The Backyard Lumberjack" (Storey Publishing).

"That makes buying a cord of wood at $200 still a good purchase when compared with $300 for fuel oil."

But there are other reasons why the elder Philbrick, a self-described poet, minister and occasional general-store clerk, prefers bringing in his own firewood.

"It's my therapy," he said. "It's a chance to blot everything out with the roar of a chainsaw. I like to do as much splitting as I can out in the woods instead of alongside the house. It's just nice working in the woods."

The Philbricks cite a score of incentives for becoming a backyard lumberjack. Those range from getting a woodsman's workout to carving out a sunnier yard; enjoying the rewards of shared work with friends or family to taking trees for timber.

The evolution of a lumberjack begins with knowing which trees to cut and, perhaps as important, which not to.

A hardwood burns longer and releases more heat than a softwood. But some softwoods - particularly pines - are easier to kindle, releasing a quick burst of flame and heat.

"They are resinous and contribute to creosote formation in the stovepipe so we don't burn them in bulk," said Frank Philbrick, a finish carpenter in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Certain standing trees may be worth a great deal more as timber, and the first rule for savvy woodlot managers, Stephen Philbrick writes, is "waste no wealth."

"Prices obviously vary, but as a general rule the hardwoods are the most valuable, and some species such as black walnut always go for a premium. A tree is well on its way to becoming valuable timber if it's straight, the first crotch is high up, and there are no visible injuries or disease."

Consult your area forester if you have questions about selling trees for timber.

Some species are more difficult to split than others: beech, for example, because of its stringy strands; pine because it's knotty. Some give off pleasant odors when burned (apple). Others burn hotter: hickory, ash, maple and oak among them.

Some firewood vendors sell their wood by the pound, while others price it by the truck or trailer load. Most deliver cords, which measure 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet when stacked.

Firewood should be allowed to dry or season for a year before it is burned. Green wood is wetter and heavier. It also gives off more smoke once you get it going, unless you have one of the newer, cleaner burning stoves with catalytic or secondary combustion.

Trees showing signs of decay, like dead branches, peeling bark or mushroom-like fungus, are ready for the stove or fireplace. Trees so decomposed that they are spongy to the touch are beyond their prime, heating-wise, and are best left as wildlife trees - homes for raccoons, owls and other shelter-seeking critters. They will eventually fall and rot, taking woodlot growth full cycle.

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