Choosing Wood Carefully

All wood will burn eventually. There is no doubt about it. Create a hot enough fire and you can stick anything in the wood stove. It may not burn immediately or well, but it will burn eventually. However, if you’re heating your home with wood, you don’t want it to burn eventually, you want it to burn now. Burning the wrong sort of wood has these negative impacts.


  • The wood will burn inefficiently, which means you’ll need to cut more wood to obtain the desired number of calories to heat your home.
  • You’ll see additional soot accumulation, which could end up closing your chimney and causing carbon monoxide buildup in your home.
  • The wood stove will require additional costly maintenance because of the way wet wood doesn’t burn.
  • Wet wood tends to mildew, which isn’t particularly good for your health.
  • All of these factors tend to pollute the environment to a greater degree, increasing your carbon footprint.

The problem isn’t strictly confined to wet wood. Choosing the wrong wood can also cause all sorts of problems. For example, if you burn wood from conifer trees extensively, you’ll find that you use more wood and that your chimney tends to soot easily. The creosote produced by conifers is especially hard to remove from the chimney. Of all conifer trees, cedar tends to be the worst. However, even kiln dried construction lumber isn’t good for your wood stove. Although these woods smell wonderful as they burn, you’ll want to burn them with high heat hardwoods to reduce their negative impact. Never burn treated wood in your wood stove. The chemicals in treated wood are truly terrifying and you don’t want to pollute the air with them.

When obtaining hardwoods, make sure that the moisture content is low enough so that the wood will burn efficiently. If nothing else, use a moisture meter to check that the wood is in the 10 percent to 15 percent range before burning. Sometimes wood looks like it’s perfectly dry, yet contains a significant amount of moisture. One of the worst woods in this regard is oak. The wood can exhibit all of the characteristics of fully dried wood, yet contain enough moisture that it won’t burn well.

One of the questions you need to answer when looking for wood to cut is whether that wood is dry. Generally speaking, a tree is starting to dry out sufficiency when the bark comes off easily from the trunk. It should literally peel off in large pieces. Before that time, the tree is still quite green. If you get wood from someone else and that wood has tightly attached bark, make sure you check it with a moisture meter. The wood may be green and you’ll find that it won’t burn well. Some less reputable woodsmen will try to sell you green wood because they have run out of good dry wood to sell.

Cut and split the wood into the size chunks you want to use in your wood stove. Measure the moisture to determine whether additional drying is required. Some woods, such as black locust and most species of elm, are ready to use almost immediately after you cut up the trunk. The wood dries thoroughly without cutting it up. As mentioned earlier, oak always requires a drying period after you cut it up because the tree would rather rot, than dry, when in trunk form.

A few trees will burn acceptably at higher moisture content levels. Maple falls into this category. It doesn’t burn as well as fully dried wood, but it does burn well enough not to cause a creosote buildup on your chimney. Even so, you should never burn these woods with greater than 20 percent moisture content. Lower moisture content is always better.

Another way to tell if wood is properly seasoned is to look it over carefully. Wood that has been stacked for two or three years (the recommended drying time for most woods), is usually blackened on the ends. The cuts won’t look fresh. The wood itself will feel somewhat light; although, some woods, such as locust and oak, are heavy no matter how dry they get.

The weight of the wood is important. A heavier wood normally has more calories to offer when burned. Consequently, if you have two pieces of wood the same size and dried to 10 percent moisture content, the heavier piece is worth more from a heating perspective. Heavier woods tend to be hard to start, burn more like charcoal, and burn long. Maple, box elder, and other moderately light woods make good kindling for starting a fire based on these heavier woods. If nothing else, use some of that pine for starting your fire.

Some woods smell better than others do when burning. For example, oak and maple both smell wonderful. As previously mentioned, all conifers smell good, but there is a price to pay in this case for the good odor.

A few woods smell truly horrible when burning. For example, I’d rather not smell poplar or paper birch again. Fortunately, both of these woods tend to be light when dried, so they offer few calories than other wood types—making them good woods to avoid.

The best tests of the wood you cut yourself or obtain from a third party is seeing how it burns. A sample or two will tell you about the entire load in most cases. The wood should start relatively easy (keeping in mind that truly dense woods such as locust, hickory, and oak start harder than less dense woods such as maple). It should produce some amount of blue flame, along with the usual orange and yellow. The wood should leave little ash behind (less dense woods tend to produce more ash than denser woods).

The ultimate insult in getting wood from a third party is when they sell you punky (partially rotted) wood. This wood tends to be really light when fully dry. You can’t typically see the rings as well and the wood itself has a papery feel. The wood will start with extreme ease, burn brightly for an incredibly short time, produce little heat, and produce copious amounts of ash.

Sometimes you’ll find that wood sellers talk about a “load” of wood, as if that’s a precise measure of anything. Most places have statutes in place the define wood as being sold by the cord or measured faction (such as a half cord). A cord is 128 cubic feet and is typically stacked 4 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long (although, any stack that measures 128 cubit feet is a cord). Beware of the seller with face cords. In this case, you’re only getting 64 cubic feet. When someone insists on selling you a load of wood, make sure you measure the tightly stacked load yourself and pay appropriately.

In short, if you thought all wood was the same, you’re quite wrong. Choosing the wood you use in a fireplace or wood stove carefully is extremely important. Don’t let someone sell you wood that’s wet, punky, or simply unfit for burning. Inspect the wood for insect infestations and make sure you know what kind of wood you’re getting. What sorts of experiences have you had obtaining wood in your area? Let me know at


Entering the New Year

Today is my first day back from vacation. I’ve been looking forward to telling you everything that has happened during my down time! In fact, unlike many people, I really look forward to getting back to work. Well, the crammed inbox is a bit of a pain, but even the e-mail surplus is a reminder to me that you’re finding the help in my books useful.

Vacation is a bit of a misnomer for me. Yes, I do unplug from the computer as described in my Learning to Unplug post, but there is plenty to do outside. One of the new experiences I had during vacation was working on a large tree. My uncle had an oak with a 44″ diameter trunk fall several years ago. It was time to cut it up this winter. I only have a 22″ bar on my chainsaw and a 22″ bar doesn’t quite reach 22″ into the trunk, so we had a bit of trouble getting the rounds cut from the trunk. Cutting as much as I could and then using wedges to do the rest worked fine. Moving pieces that large is also a problem because you can’t lift them (or barely budge them for that matter). I learned how to use a cant hook to move the large pieces of wood onto the splitter (my uncle has a hydraulic splitter attached to his tractor). I still use a 20 pound splitting maul and splitting wedge to hand split all of my wood. Most people use a lighter splitting maul, but the abundance of white and red elm, black locust, and hickory on my property makes a heavier maul a necessity. Lets just say that between helping my uncle and cutting a bit of my own wood, I didn’t lack for exercise during vacation .

This year we did get to spend quite a bit of time with family and friends, especially since the weather here is Wisconsin is unusually mild. We don’t have any snow on the ground to speak of at the moment and none is in the forecast. Of course, the lack of snow makes travel easy, but it’s also worrisome because our plants will miss the moisture come spring and we could experience problems due to the lack of cover. However, each winter is different and I’m sure we’ll get clobbered by a snowstorm or two before all is said and done.

Rebecca and I also spent time putting a puzzle together (a review will appear later this week) and we had some fun watching movies. Of course, the tea kettle received a workout as we spent time in front of the wood stove enjoying something good to read. Overall, a nice way to rest during vacation. We didn’t just stay at home though. The new Sherlock Holmes movie called to us, so we went to see it at our local theater. Of course, there were visits to Deli Bean (a local coffee shop) and Stone Hollow (our local restaurant), where we enjoyed some nice treats.

The mild weather also made it possible for me to walk in the woods. During one of my visits to the woods, I kept track of a fox. Cody (see Many Hands Make Light Work) and I had spotted a dead raccoon near a den in the woods, so I perched a distance from the den to see if anything came out. The den had a fox in it last winter and it appears that the same fox is there this winter. So, I sat on my stump for a while and watched. I find nature amazing. The woods provides us with food, heat, and entertainmentwhat more could anyone ask?

However, in addition to these activities, I also worked on some ideas for upcoming books, which is one of the focuses of this post. I’m planning to write some books on self-sufficiency. The books will have the same focus as my blog posts. I want to make things simple and to demonstrate ways you can also receive a financial benefit from your activities. Self-sufficiency is great because you help the environment, improve your health, and get a better product. For many people, these reasons look attractive until you start considering the financial element of self-sufficiency. Surprisingly, many people are unaware of the fact that self-sufficiency saves considerable money—enough that you really need to consider it as a source of income, rather than as a money sink. My new book will emphasize what you get in exchange for your efforts and how to optimize the benefits you receive. If you have some ideas on what you’d like to see in my book, please be sure to write me at

Vacation is a time for equipment maintenance as well. I was able to get a few necessary maintenance tasks done during vacation. Another week off would have been nice, but I did get the essentials done.

One of my favorite activities during vacation was baking cookies with Rebecca. She makes the most delightful cookies and it’s always a pleasure to give her a hand when I can. We made sugar cookies this time around, but next time we may do something a bit more exciting.

Today is the first in-office work day of the year for me. Please be patient if you’ve sent me an e-mail while I’ve been gone. I promise to answer every e-mail that I’ve received while I was gone, but with a little over 900 reader e-mails in my inbox, it takes a while to get the job done. In the meantime, I hope that you’ve had a great start to the new year and I’m looking forward to presenting you will all sorts of really neat posts this upcoming year on just about every topic imaginable!


Learning to Unplug

It’s the last day of the year for me. I won’t be writing any new blog entries in until next year. Rebecca and I take each Christmas off and don’t come back until after Epiphany, which is the actual 12th day of Christmas (just in case you were wondering about the songs that use it). If you send me an e-mail, I won’t respond until January 9th—the first work day after Epiphany. I completely unplug while on vacation and you should too. Here are the top reasons I unplug during my down timeperhaps you’ll find a reason that works for you.

  • Rebuilding Our Marriage: Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m devoted to my wife. I consider my marriage far more important than any other element of my life here on earth. Rebecca patiently waits for me the rest of the year, but vacations are devoted to her and our marriage. I look forward to our time together and count the days until we can spend time doing something interesting together.
  • Focus on Family, Friends, and Neighbors: My family has always been good about working around my schedule. There are times during the year where I simply tell them that a book deadline is far too important to visit with them and they understand. My closest friends and even my neighbors are equally cognizant of my need to work. I try to make up for the lack of attention during the rest of the year with visits throughout vacation.
  • Personal Health: I want to provide my readers with the best service that I can. That means taking care of my personal health: spiritual, mental, and physical. Disconnecting from everything gives me time for self-reflection and helps me to grow as a person. It also provides me with much needed rest. No one can do a job well unless they have received the proper rest and nourishment.
  • Personal Projects: It seems as if too many people wait until retirement to work on anything fun. I’m not planning to wait. During vacation, I take time to work on personal projectsthings I want to do for the sheer pleasure of doing them. I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to retire anytime soon, unless an injury or some other unforeseen issue makes retirement necessary. So, I plan to do a few of these projects while I’m still able to do them. Vacation provides the opportunity.

During this holiday season, whatever your beliefs or wherever you live, I hope that you take time to unplug. Do something interesting, exciting, spiritual, or simply satisfying. The world of work will still be here when you get backyou’re truly not indispensable. It may seem as if the world will come down around your ears if you disconnect, but that’s a lie. I’ve been doing it for many years now and nothing terrible has happened. I have no cell phone, no computer access, no connectivity of any kind to impede my efforts to relax and recharge.

Rebecca and I will spend the next two weeks putting puzzles together, baking cookies, working on crafts, and sitting by the wood stove reading. We’ll spend part of the holiday in church, addressing our spiritual needs. Yes, there will even be some movie watching on our television, but that’s going to take second place to getting reacquainted after months of hard work writing, gardening, and generally making a living. Of course, I’ll need a little exercise after my lack of restraint in holiday eating (I hope my doctor doesn’t see this), so I’ll do a little wood cutting too. I’m sure that we’ll spend plenty of time with family, friends, and neighbors as well. See you next year!

Flying Squirrel Antics

This is the time of year that I spend a good deal of time in the woods cutting fallen trees as fodder for my wood stove. Not only is cutting wood good exercise and a cost effective way to heat our home, but using wood can be better for the environment because it’s a renewable resource. We do our best to replace the trees that we use to heat our home. In fact, some areas of the woods that we initially began using 15 years ago are already growing back quite nicely.

Some people get the idea that I keep my nose to the grindstone while out there, which would be a true waste. For one thing, not paying attention to what’s going on around you is a really good way to get hit by a falling tree. They all have to fall sometime—there isn’t any unwritten rule that states they’ll wait until I’m no longer around to hit. However, the thing I like best about being in the woods is seeing all of the animal life. You might think that Wisconsin in the winter is a dead place, but life abounds in all its forms. So, it was with a great deal of glee that I watched flying squirrels glide between trees the other day.

It’s a common misconception that flying squirrels actually fly. They’re fantastic gliders, not fliers. A flap of skin between the front and back legs provides lift for them to glide between trees quite swiftly. In fact, of all the squirrels, I think they move the fastest (we also have red and gray squirrels around here). Trying to grab a picture of them is a near impossibility. I’m sure someone has done it, but they’re more skilled than I am .

I haven’t seen much of Woody, the pileated woodpecker this year. He often watches me work on trees. I can differentiate this particular woodpecker from the others in our woods in two ways. First, the bands of colors on Woody’s head are different from other woodpeckers in our woods. Second, he has a habit of looking at me sideways with the right eye. I’m not sure if his left eye is damaged or it’s simply a characteristic of this particular woodpecker. What attracted Woody is unknown to me. Most woodpeckers want nothing to do with me (granted, Woody does keep his distance and isn’t in any way tame).

Of course, there are always rabbits, endless assortments of birds, and all sorts of other animals in the woods. Sometimes I’ll see opossum. On one occasion I saw a fishersomething that is extremely rare from what I’ve been told. The fisher seemed to be chasing after rabbits, but it was far enough away that I don’t know what it was chasing with absolute certainty. On rare days I’ll see a deer, but because I make so much noise cutting wood, such sightings are incredibly rare for me. I’m most likely to see a deer on days when I go to the woods for the sheer joy of observing nature, rather than cutting wood.

Some people question why I’d go to the woods to sit on a tree stump in the middle of winter when I could be inside safe and warm. Nature offers considerable entertainment for anyone willing to take the time to view it. During this particular day, the antics of the flying squirrels had me chucking quite hardily. You just don’t get that sort of entertainment on television. Do you ever observe nature and all it has to offer? What are your favorite sights? Let me know at


First Snow


Awoke to white,
what a delight,
the first snow holds us enthralled!

The season’s promise,
is there upon us,
as we prepare for a long winter’s nap.

First comes the fire,
an evening’s desire,
in a woodstove stoked with aromatic wood.

Then comes the cheering,
celebrations endearing,
as friends surround us with glee.

Amidst the swirling,
of flakes now whirling,
I see the ecstasies of days to come.

Copyright 2011, John Paul Mueller