The Wood Shed

The Wood Shed

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

The first time we had wood delivered was in 2018 and we were living in the yurt. We had never really used that amount of firewood before and looked around for where to store it. We found a decaying old frame sitting by some trees that was apparently for stacking wood. It seemed odd at the time. Would we really keep wood out in the rain? Shouldn’t it be, like, dry?

Not knowing what else to do, we moved the frame into the garage and against the wall. This way, in my mind, it would be dry, safe, and sound. When the wood arrived, Ed Stone, one of the island’s wood entrepreneurs, was surprised I wanted to keep it in the garage. He said, “I don’t know why, but firewood does better when it’s left out in the elements.” By that time, I already had wood sitting on the frame, so that’s where it stayed for the season.

After that interaction, I started to notice other homes’ wood sheds. They were all very similar: A small roof, a floor with wide gaps, and no walls. In some cases, a tarp was used on top of the wood instead of a roof.

With the house built and fireplaces in action, I needed to learn more about the raw material: firewood. What does wood need or want? What can I do to treat it well?

Along with local knowledge, I consulted two books:  Norwegian Wood and  The Wood Fire Handbook. This put me on a course to making the most of our wood and one big idea stood out: we needed a wood shed. Firewood burns hotter and cleaner when it’s dry and dry wood comes from wood that can breathe. That’s why it was weird to keep it in the garage. By being out in the elements, it could naturally release moisture or “season”. In fact, rain isn’t a big problem as long as moisture isn’t trapped where it can create mold and decay.

The clock was ticking. We had two cords sitting in the garden, which was fine in the dry summer weather. It couldn’t stay there long in the wet winter.

Dump truck with wood
One cord, delivered

We started to consider what kind of shed we wanted and learned that our friends Paul and Erika recently built a very nice shed that seemed to fit the bill. In fact, they used free plans by Fine Homebuilding  that we could adapt to our needs.

A couple of weeks ago the work started with a shovel and pick. The shed needed to be level and that meant leveling the ground under it. Digging is always hard, but our ground is probably equal parts soil and rocks. One minute you’re digging, the next, you hear and feel a THUD and realize that a 20 pound rock has to be removed to keep going.

We dug holes, placed concrete piers, tried to get them level, and then realized the fence line we used to line them up wasn’t square. We shook our fists at the sky, and then started over. Leveling and squaring those damn piers was painful. All along I kept reminding Sachi that it was only a wood shed.

We finally got it set and the fun could begin. That meant setting the floor with space for air flow.

Then we built the walls all at once and slowly applied them.

Next was purlins, which are boards that sit vertically under the roof. I had never driven 5″ screws through the thin side of 2X4s, but it worked surprisingly well.

With a few more supports and some galvanized roof panels, the shed was ready and we could finally stack the wood that had been sitting in a pile for a few months.

After years of being on Orcas, our wood finally had a home that should last our lifetimes.

caption for image
The Wood Age

The Wood Age

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We didn’t always plan to have a wood-burning fireplace. Coming from the city, where people often have sleek natural gas fireplaces, wood seemed dirty and cumbersome, which it is. After living on Orcas Island for a while, it became clear that wood is a very common form of heat and one that’s as sustainable on the island as it is abundant. It is a very wooded place.

During the design phase of Flattop, we took great pains to design wood-burning fireplaces as the heart of our home along with propane gas connections, just in case. This cold and dark winter was our first chance to learn how we’d use wood and fire.

We knew the indoor fireplace wouldn’t be a primary heat source. We have very efficient in-floor radiant heat that keeps the house warm and comfortable. The fireplace is more like a hobby, or a muse. It warms us, but not only on the skin. When the fire is roaring on a stormy winter night, it’s a feast for the senses. There is nothing like the sound and smell of a wood fire. When the warmth it produces touches the skin, it seems to penetrate all the way to bone. I like to think that we all evolved to feel this connection. Something deep inside us is naturally drawn to the light and warmth of fire.

I sometimes marvel that this wild and destructive force can be alive right in our living room; a tiny bit of the sun, safely tucked into a fireproof box. It could kill us and take away our most prized possessions. But we tame it. We keep it near, but not too near. We feed it, but not too much. We allow it to breathe but in only one direction. We benefit from thousands of years of practice and experiments. Yet, each fire still feels like a challenge. The perfect fire is not something you ever achieve. It is only an aspiration.

And I do aspire. You might assume that millennia of building fires would have taught us exactly how to build and maintain a fire. The basics are pretty simple and most people can build a successful fire. But I want more. I want to maximize and design. I want to experiment and learn the nuances that make a fire great. For most, including me, this means a hot fire that uses wood efficiently and burns more cleanly.

Most people on Orcas Island, and especially those who use wood as a primary source of heat, use wood-burning stoves. Because they enclose the fire in a metal box and feed it oxygen, it burns more cleanly and efficiently. It’s still a hobby for many, but one that errs on the side of productivity versus aesthetics. The toasty feeling of a home warmed by a stove is a special feeling. It can quickly become too hot, but the heat is variable and fleeting.

What we all have in common is our woodpile, which also has all manner of nuance and challenge. There are two major sources of wood on the island. First, there are wood processors with large machines that cut and split wood with great efficiency. Anyone on the island can order firewood that is delivered in a pile, cut to the desired length. Second is the homeowners who process their own wood. When trees fall or are felled, they process them using a chainsaw and wood splitter. I aspire to this, too, but am firmly in the delivery camp for now.

Last spring, we had two cords of wood (Douglas fir) delivered and we quickly stacked them in the back corner of our property for the summer. The wood needed to dry or “season” before the fall and that happens by being open to the elements.

The wood needs to release moisture and the wind is an essential part of the process. Some day we will have a proper woodshed, but for now, a tarp over the top will have to do.

Thoreau wrote, “Every man looks upon his woodpile with a sort of affection.” I know what he means. Our first pile was a practice run. Like the fire it produces, there is no perfect pile, only the aspiration. We did well to keep the wood off the ground and stack it for maximum airflow. I’m sure many island residents would have constructive criticisms. There is always next year.

As the first fall approached, we learned a valuable lesson. Our wood is split into rather large pieces that burn slowly. With the right combination of kindling and other fuel, they could be productive, but it soon became clear that we’d need to intervene. We’ve had a hatchet or two, but for the first time ever, I bought a proper ax and couldn’t help feeling like a lumberjack turning big wood into small wood.

Splitting wood has become part of my exercise regimen and one that I enjoy. There is something meditative about the process and the concentration it requires. There is no room for extraneous thought when wielding a sharp piece of heavy metal in the direction of your feet. And man, is it satisfying to feel, see, and hear the wood shatter into pieces from gravity, a bit of muscle and decent aim. The smell of freshly cut wood is like nothing else. Another feast.

To feed my wood fire aspirations, I’ve been reading books. I loved the book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting. The book is cultural as much as practical and also contains research about wood and the wood lifestyle. This book was where I first learned of The Wood Age.

Elderly Scandinavian men with a passion for firewood are often told that they have entered something called the “wood age,” or that they have been bitten by something called the “wood bug.” The anthropology surrounding a passionate concern for firewood has not been the subject of much study in Norway, but research carried out by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in 2007 appeared to confirm that a “wood age” does indeed exist as a distinct and measurable state. Nine hundred families living in Sweden were studied-the criterion was that all used woodburning stoves-and the results were unequivocal: It is men more than sixty years of age who spend the most time dealing with wood. Only 29 percent of the women in the study took any interest in firewood.

Once again, I aspire.

We will soon order more wood and stack it as we did before. This time, I may split a lot of it, which makes for easier stacking and better drying. This summer or next, we plan to create a more permanent home for the wood, perhaps under a shelter more permanent than a tarp. For now, we have enough wood to burn in the evenings and for the occasional bonfire this spring. Soon, the dry summer will arrive along with its seasonal burn bans. Our wood will be dormant for many months, safely seasoning in the back of the garden. Then, once summer turns to autumn, we’ll once again eye the woodpile with anticipation. The first fires of fall are the sweetest.

Feel the Burn ?

Feel the Burn ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage. 

One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island. 

The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed. 

My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.

In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season. 

That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure. 

It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.

 Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway. 

I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.

With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending. 

As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect. 

Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time. 

Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season. 

In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying. 

We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees. 

In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.

gif of tree falling

Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire. 

The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn. 

This Fireplace Sucks ?

This Fireplace Sucks ?

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Sometime in the middle of the house project, I learned a lesson about chimneys that has fascinated me ever since. We were talking about the metal tubes, or “flues” that would eventually stick out of our roof and vent our two wood-burning fireplaces. According to the fireplace company, the size of the fireplaces meant the flues needed to be eighteen feet high to work. 

What? Eighteen feet? I thought there must be some mistake. An eighteen foot flue meant we’d have two 8 foot metal tubes sticking out of our roof. Why did they need to be so tall? 

At the time, I received the end-all-be-all of answers to this question: physics. Unless we could somehow bend the immutable laws of physics toward our needs, the flues were going to be that tall. Apparently, it’s about “pull”, as in, “Without a flue that’s tall enough, you can’t get a good pull and it will be difficult to start a fire and keep smoke out of the house.” That sounded important, but I didn’t really understand the connection between height and effectiveness. 

After a bit of research, I think about it like this… The flue is like a straw that sucks air out of a home and carries fireplace smoke with it. Like a siphon that sucks liquid, this kind of vacuum can be self-sustaining, but has to be jump started. Thankfully, we don’t have to suck the air from the top because we can push it from the bottom with heat from the fire.

This is why the length of the flue matters. Once the heated air starts rising, it creates a draft going up the flue that pulls fresh air into the fireplace. That supply of fresh air is what feeds the fire. To keep it going, the air needs to stay warm and travel upward for long enough to establish a flow to the top. That’s the “pull”. Once it’s going, the room can stay smoke-free because the fireplace is constantly sucking air up and out. 

If the flue is too short, the flow is difficult to start because the warm air needs to travel upward for a while to get the flow going. That’s where physics comes in. According to a formula I don’t fully understand, the sucking action will happen reliably when the warm air travels about eighteen feet from the fireplace.

This article from the Chimney Safety Institute of America was once of the most helpful I found on the subject. 

This was fascinating and I started to look at every chimney and flue I could find. They were all much taller than I remembered. The physics of heat and air flow were governing so many homes that flue height was unremarkable or even invisible. Like gutters and downspouts, they eventually just blend in. 

Our Yurt-shaped house had one:

For a while I was concerned about the aesthetics of having two shiny metal tubes sticking out of our roof. Would it look weird? Would people wonder why they were there? My fears faded when I looked more closely at other homes on Orcas Island. They all had unreasonably tall flues that I’d never noticed before. 

On Orcas, wood is a very common form of heating. Many homes, maybe a majority, have a wood burning stove that’s a major source of heat in the winter. Multiple companies cut, process, and deliver cords of wood to wood sheds throughout the year. One company, called Axe and Wedge has a well-designed website and a newsletter with nice photography and personal stories. 

Before the house got started, we took out a few Douglas firs that were too close to the foundation. The wood was a much lower quality than you’d use for furniture and we needed to get it out of the way. So, we made a handshake deal with a wood processor. He removed all the logs in exchange for dropping off two cords of seasoned (ready to burn) wood in the future. A cord, if you’re curious, is this big

In the Hunter House in Seattle, we had a natural gas fireplace that was stylish and came on with the push of a button. We thought we’d use something similar in the new house. But then we started visiting more homes and saw that wood stoves and fireplaces were part of island culture. Island homes burn wood. Thankfully, it’s abundant on the island, renewable, and mostly carbon neutral. 

This realization helped me adjust to the idea of the big shiny flues. Along with being essential, they also told a story. This house has fireplaces. It burns wood. The flues became a design accent in my mind and something I looked forward to seeing on our roof.

For us, the fireplaces are not essential and won’t be used as a primary heat source. We have efficient in-floor radiant heat, so the fireplaces are for power outages, occasional heat along with ambience, sound, and smell. I can spend hours poking fires and I can’t wait to do so. 

A few days ago, part of the flues were installed and I love how they look. Soon they’ll get taller and that’s OK with me. This is an island home.

Related: Designing our Blackened Steel Fireplace.

Solo Stove for Backyard Fires

Solo Stove for Backyard Fires

A couple of years ago, I became friends with RJ, our local Fire Marshall. RJ and his wife sometimes (used to) host summer parties that are outdoors and include a fire. This is where I first discovered the Solo Stove. It had the blessings of the Fire Marshall. 

Since then, the Solo Stove has become one of my favorite products because it makes backyard fires easy, safe, and clean. I often tell people that it’s an awesome piece of engineering, for what is essentially a fire pit. It’s portable and makes it easy to have a fire almost anywhere. 

What makes it work is ventilation. It’s designed to optimize air flow and burn hotter than a normal fire. There are holes around the bottom of the stove that pull fresh air into the chamber and circulate it to feed the fire from the bottom and sides. Sometimes it seems like the entire thing is filled with fire.

Solo Stove claims that it’s a “smokeless” fire option and I think it comes close. The heat it produces burns up particulate matter before it rises, which leads to less smoke. It’s made from stainless steel that can take a beating too. 

The only thing I don’t like is that it holds water when it rains and creates a messy slurry that drips when moved. This is the version we have. It’s not cheap, but it’s supposed to last a lifetime. 

Removing and Using Big Trees ??

Removing and Using Big Trees ??

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

Trees, Wood, and Fire

The first time I visited Washington State, I became a little disillusioned. My friend, Chris, and I drove north from Portland through the Olympic Peninsula, which is a drive full of natural wonders, especially for a young guy from North Carolina. What I remember most was the trees. Huge stands of evergreens crept right up to the coast, where they met a turbulent ocean full of giant rocks called sea stacks.

Sea Stacks
Sea Stacks

I’d never seen trees that tall, much less on the coast. Looking back, it was a scene that felt like a movie.

less on the coast

The disillusionment came as we drove inland, away from the coast and into logging country. There are few landscapes that look more bleak than a recently cut forest and I came face to face with miles of of it. My first reaction was sadness and disappointment. I wanted the western side of Washington to be the lush and green place from my imagination.

logging country

A few years later, I moved to Seattle and started to understand more about the logging and timber industry. Specifically, I came to see managed forests as large and long-lived crops that are a renewable resource and a significant part of the local economy. What I saw on that trip was part of the harvesting and replanting process.

Over time, I developed a fascination with the trees of the pacific northwest and especially Douglas Firs which are found all over western Washington.

Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun
Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun
Douglas Firs Lit by Afternoon Sun 1

Once you become familiar with their shape, they appear everywhere, including countless tattoos, the license plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia. Sachi has picked on me for years about always wanting trees on my shirts, hats and walls. It’s kind of a thing for me.

plate of Oregon and the flag of Cascadia

In moving to Orcas Island, we found ourselves in a place covered in firs that are both beautiful and an essential element of self-sufficiency. Over our first winter, we noticed that nearly every house we visited featured a wood burning stove or fireplace, along with a carefully built stack of wood.

Before long we had our own stack of wood and fired up our Blaze King wood stove on winter nights. I was the fire master and loved the process of building and tending the fire. I loved the warmth, which felt different from the hot air that flowed through the vents from a heat pump. It was like my skin evolved to respond to that kind of warmth and there was nothing else like it.

stack of wood and fired up

When spring rolled around, I missed having the fire and realized something about our plans for the new house. We had a gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.

Having burned wood for the winter, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience. Dealing with wood and building fires, in my view, seemed like a great use of time. Besides, the other option was to use expensive propane from a tank on the property. I preferred the wood.

Seeing smoke rising from chimneys made me wonder if burning wood is friendly to the environment. I worried that we’d build a fireplace and then, ten years later, regret it when wood seemed irresponsible. A bit of research soothed my worry.

In terms of efficiency, it’s true that fireplaces are not the best heat sources. They produce warmth, but are mostly for aesthetics. A room with a roaring fire feels and smells like home and that’s what we wanted. Our house will be heated on a day-to-day basis through more efficient means.

The reality of burning wood in terms of carbon dioxide is fascinating. As a tree grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and carbon from the soil. When the tree dies naturally and decays in the forest, the carbon it absorbed is released. In burning wood, that same carbon is also released, so it’s similar to what would naturally happen in the forest. Burning wood doesn’t create new CO2 and is considered by many to be carbon neutral [source]. Burning wood can cause air quality issues, but the population in our area is low enough for it not to be a problem.

Long story short, I won’t feel irresponsible for burning wood in our fireplace. And that’s fortuitous, because it’s becoming clear that wood is something we’re likely to have for years to come.

The area surrounding the Yurt is home to a couple of large Douglas Firs and I fell in love the first time I saw them. It made me happy to think about these big trees being my trees. I imagined lighting them at night and making them part of the experience of the new house.

big trees being my trees

As the layout and position of the house became clearer, the trees started to become an issue. I was adamant, for a while, that the trees had to stay. But the reality was they needed to be taken down. They were too close to the house and represented a hazard. A single branch could do serious damage, which we saw firsthand after one windy winter night at the Yurt.

We asked an arborist to take a look and he said the trees were a risk and that building so close to them could slowly kill them and make removal even more expensive and difficult. He and others also said the trees were “gnarly” and not good candidates for lumber.

Over time, I came to terms with the idea that the trees, my favorite Douglas Firs, had to go. Thankfully, they were a small part of a forest on the property.

After the Yurt was removed, there was room for the trees to fall and I was excited to learn how it all worked. Basically, the excavator holds the tree while another person cuts through it. When it’s ready, the excavator simply pushes it over.

excavator holds the tree

Of course, I had to get footage from the drone.

get footage from the drone

Then, a person walked down each trunk, cut off all the branches and cut each tree into sections that were moved into a pile by the excavator, which is where they are today.

walked down each trunk

Before the wood can be used, it needs to cure for a year or so. Then, we can save some for projects and turn much of it into firewood.

Before the wood can be used

I like the idea of the trees from our property keeping us and fellow islanders warm for winters to come. I dream of cold rainy nights with the fire roaring. I look forward to stepping outside and hearing the sound of wind breezing through the evergreens by the house and feeling like I finally live amongst them. My trees.

Tree Removal Highlight Reel

Tree Removal Highlights (and a drone crash)