DRAWING comparisons between a home without firewood and a day without sunshine could be somewhat annoying to the literate reader - but pity the homeowner who, in the midst of January's icy winds, has neither.
The fireplace and the wood-burning stove warmed their way into quite a few hearts last winter; and if early predictions prevail, the upcoming winter may serve to permanently fix firewood on the minds of North America's fuel bill payers. It would help a great deal, however, to fix several other things on your mind before it is numbed by the temperatures, namely: when, where and how to get your wood.
The happy firewood owner is happy because he: (a) has firewood, (b) has good-burning firewood, (c) didn't spend a fortune on it, (d) knows how to build a long-lasting, heat-producing fire, and (e) has something to sit in front of on cold winter nights besides the ubiquitous TV.
Having firewood - any firewood - is mostly a matter of common sense. Quite a few fireplace owners were taken by surprise by last winter's temperatures and duration, dealers say, and hence either ran out or were run ragged trying to find more. It's best to buy a full winter's supply of firewood early - meaning between now and mid-November, when area dealers say the rush generally starts.
The wood can be purchased in a variety of conditions, from various types of dealers and in a number of quantities. The most common quantity is the cord: a 4 by 8 foot stack of 4-foot-long logs, or 128 cubic feet of wood. Many dealers sell 2-foot logs, in which case the cord would be 4 feet high and 16 feet long. Either way it costs between $60 and $75.
Most dealers sell seasoned wood - wood that has been cut, split and allowed to dry out outdoors for anywhere from a couple of months to a year. The more seasoned the wood, the better it will burn. If it was cut down last week, it will burn poorly (if at all), emitting a lot of smoke and some tars and resins that can coat the inside of your chimney - and sometimes start a chimney fire.
One should be wary of unknown, unrecommended firewood sellers who go door-to-door, starting around this time of the year and continuing through November. They'll pull their unmarked truck into your driveway and make you a deal you can't refuse - and that you can neither check out nor follow up. Some of them, says Bailey's Crossroads firewood dealer Wayne Clark, will cut a live tree into firewood on Monday and peddle it on Tuesday.
The best way to check the age of firewood, says Clark, is to take a log in each hand and clap them together. Good seasoned wood will ring; a dull thud could mean trouble.
Clark sells a truckload (about 130 cubic feet) of firewood for $70, delivered from his topsoil dealership at 6337 Columbia Pike. Stacking the wood - which he offers in 80 per cent hardwood, 20 per cent softwood or in all-hardwood packages - costs an extra $10.
(Softwoods, such as pine or spruce, are easy to ignite and burn faster and hotter than hardwoods such as oak, ash or maple. Choosing what types of firewood you want can be likened to choosing a favorite wine, but it's usually best to mix soft and hard woods for an easily ignited, long-lasting fire.)
The rush on firewood, Clark says, starts about mid-November and usually lasts until Christmas. At Al Gheen Tree Service in College Park, owner Gheen says they got quite a few calls at this summer's end from customers who wanted their wood in advance. Gheen's wood costs $75 a cord, $40 for a half cord and $24 for a quarter of a cord.
One of the cheapest prices for firewood - free- can be found at the D.C. Nursery (600 Howard Road SE), if you have a strong back and show up at the right moment. The nursery stocks dead trees cut up by the city's crews. Most of what they have is cut into firewood-size logs (unsplit), which anyone can haul away, says nursery spokesman Hans Johannsen. The only trouble is that "people know about us," Johannsen says. "They keep us pretty much cleaned out."
The District and Montgomery, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince George's Counties have no central storage area for dead trees.Road crews removing dead or unwanted trees from public land will, however, most times cut the wood into manageable lengths and stack it on the site - for whoever gets there first.
"There's such a demand for it," says George Dickens of the Prince George's Bureau of Urban Services, "that when our crews are taking trees down along a roadway, they'll cut it into 4-foot lengths and stack it. And sometimes they don't even get to stack it before people start carting it away."
Until recent years, Rock Creek Park used to allow people to bring saws or axes into the park to cut up and cart away all the dead wood they could find. No more. Spokesmen for the National Capital Parks and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission want it known that no one can cut their own firewood in the area's national parks anymore. Park maintenance crews will, on occasion, cut a fallen or dead tree into firewood-size lengths and leave it along a park roadway (Sligo Creek Parkway and Beach Drive, in particular) for anyone to take, but the spokesmen say that's about the only time one finds free wood.
"About all we can tell people looking for free wood is to find a friend who owns a farm or has a large wooded lot," says Carl Shoening, associate director in Montgomery County of the state Parks and Planning Commission.
As there are those fireplace owners who pride themselves on the roaring fires they build winter after winter, there are also those whose blackened hands and aching backs often get them a rather nonroaring, smoldering failure. A proven method for the non-Boy Scouts: Place two logs on the iron grate or firebasket; lay the tinder (cedar or birch bark, small twigs or the more easily accessible balls of newspaper) between the logs; place above the tinder a small handful of kindling; start building a teepee-type formation of larger kindling and, finally, of small logs (usually two will do).
Ignite the tinder. If you're lucky, the TV, can be turned off shortly.