One of the most enduring wood-chopping images in my mind comes from one of my favourite movies, an MGM musical from the 1950s called Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In the beginning, our hero (the wonderful Howard Keel) is singing a description of his ideal wife. See, he and his six brothers are living like pioneer frat boys in their remote mountain cabin, so his wife needs to be a supremely capable woman. Then as he’s roaming the town ogling various passing women, he sees Millie, our blonde-haired blue-eyed heroine, in a gingham blue dress in a tavern back lot wielding an axe like nobody’s business. And, eyes gleaming, he finishes his song:
Pretty and trim, but not too slim.
Heavenly eyes, and just the right size.
Pretty and sweet – (Millie shoves away a frisky tavern patron)
And sassy as can be!
Bless her beautiful hide, for she’s the gal for me!
I don’t suppose New Zealand has a Howard Keel roaming around being politically incorrect and looking for a capable wood-chopper, but while I’m waiting, I can put the wood to good use.
My house has two modes of heating: An open fireplace and a coal range stove (see above). Open fireplaces lose heat like schoolmarms lose pencils, so I rely on my coal range, which would look more at home in 1900 than 2009. The large horizontal surface is for cooking, the big square hole is an oven, the grill collects ashes, and the actual fire goes in that microscopic space above the grill. Since coal is dear, dirty, and destructive to the environment, I burn firewood. As a result, my knowledge of all things wood-related has expanded like a stomach after Thanksgiving. So. In the event that any of you need to build a fire, here are some tips from the wood tyro:
1. Cross-grain stacking. Firewood is usually stored in a wood shed, and if it’s wet you can speed up the drying process by stacking it so the grains alternate perpendicularly. I learned this from my employers, who got it from young Mormons from Alberta. Spread the love.
2. Wood-splitting. Don’t miss. The little experience I have has confirmed how easy it might be to chop your leg instead of the wood. I have also learnt the difference between an axe (sharp tool to chop wood) and a splitter (marginally less sharp tool that can still do a lot of damage).
3. Dry wood. Duh. What they don’t tell you in the books, though, is that you can burn it with wetter wood, especially in enclosed environments, and it’s still okay. What they also don’t tell you in the stories is that you can bake your wet wood in the oven, and hey presto! Dry wood.
4. Kindling. Possibly even more important than dry wood is dry kindling, because without the latter you have no hope of burning the former. You collect the chips after wood-chopping sessions. You buy fire-starters, which are really dense fibrous blocks that are indispensable. And you save all the paper you lay hands on, including useless school memos, food packaging, and envelopes courtesy of the wonderful USPS.
5. Building a fire. Science can often mislead, but it doesn’t usually lie. The principles of combustion never fail: A fire needs fuel and oxygen, so make sure you have lots of the first on hand. To get the second, stack in pyramids and make sure there’s good air flow. Otherwise you can spend hours wasting excellent kindling and exceeding your daily carbon pollution quota.
6. Maintaining a fire. Again, the books aren’t lying. Campaigners always had people tending the fires to keep it going, and a 20-minute shower is about as long as I can absent myself from my needy house-warmer.
It took me weeks to get it right. The first two weeks I fiddled around so much I would knock in the stove tops, which meant it would smoke, which set off the alarms, which meant whisking away the clothes drying over the stove and opening the windows and replacing the stove tops while the smoke burned my eyes and the flames licked my poker – which is actually a ski pole. But I have the hang of it now, and I rather look forward to my daily wood routine.
And lest you think all Kiwis live like this, know that my house is the exception and not the rule. The urban dwellers, which comprise 90% of the New Zealand population, have normal gas radiators, and the majority of those who burn firewood have freestanding fire ranges that don’t give their owners nearly as much trouble as my coal range gives me. But then again, mine has character. Beat that.