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.
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.
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.
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.
About a year ago, I wrote “Trees, Wood, and Fire” and mentioned how our perspective on the fireplace had changed after living on Orcas for a while:
We had a natural 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 on Orcas, 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.
This decision turned out to be the first of a hundred decisions about the fireplace “unit” for the house. The story of getting it right provides a real-world look at home design and what it takes to create a one-of-a-kind feature.
The Big Idea
Early in the design process, we saw an opportunity to have a two-sided wall (interior and exterior) that serves as a home for cooking, heating, and entertainment. Inside, we would have a fireplace and TV. The outside would have a second fireplace and grill.
Here’s how it was framed:
Below is one of my first 3d models of the unit from July of 2019.
It’s a relatively simple idea that is also an important one. The fireplace unit will be a central part of the house and the heart of our activity. Getting it right was more of a challenge than I would have imagined.
At the beginning, we had to think about the big questions like how it looks, what it’s made of, and how we plan to use it.
Initially, we focused on the interior unit, with fireplace, TV and storage. It would be the most visible element of the house and set the tone for everything else.
I looked forward to the design process and, as usual, assumed it would go quickly and easily. What happened in reality was a long process of iteration; one design after the other. Between us and John, there was always a new idea.
Let’s look at a few versions of the interior and how they evolved. As you’ll see, it’s mostly a process of subtraction, which I think is a good sign.
The first concept was a unit that was placed in front of the wall, protruding into the room. It was mostly covered in steel, with a recessed section for the the TV, etc.
It seemed like a good idea. The TV would be beside the fireplace and not above it. But, it was boring and we saw opportunities to to add a bit of style.
Then we had a revelation. What if the unit wasn’t a big wall of steel with recessed shelves? What if, instead, the drywall behind the unit was more visible and the elements were simply placed in front of the wall? This seemed like we were on the right track, as it made the space feel more open.
We tried a number of different configurations with shelves and cabinets. The one below was one of my worst attempts, but it got us further down the road.
We soon realized that we needed to get specific about what components would live in the unit. This way, we could use start designing with the right dimensions. I sent this to John:
For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. Instead of a big monolithic piece of steel, it was becoming a more open and purpose built unit.
This model became our more stable version and one that hasn’t changed significantly:
The same is true for the exterior. After a few tweaks, it was stable and we were feeling good.
The Pressure Is On
We told Drew that the design was close to final and that we were ready to get the work started. He called a friend from out of town who planned to come do the metal work. This meant that we had to have everything buttoned-up so we didn’t waste this person’s time.
The day before the metal worker arrived, we had a call from John, who was having second thoughts about the steel. Before pulling the trigger he and I agreed to at least entertain the thought of using brick as the main surface of the unit. Initially, Sachi was happy to consider the options and I created a model as a test:
That evening, Sachi and I had a design discussion. She was not fully invested in the brick and wanted to stick to the steel surface. I could see her point. Within a few hours, the brick discussion had ended and the arrival of the metal worker was imminent.
We told Drew that we would have final designs ready on Friday morning, less than 48 hours away. Our goal was to meet on site and work through the entire design.
John took on the challenge and, over Wednesday night, designed what became our final specification. We reviewed it, made a few tweaks on Thursday and spent Friday going over the details with the crew on-site. Things looked to be buttoned up and we left feeling good.
Of course, we were not done.
The following Monday (yesterday) ended up being full of more questions about the unit. The vision was clear and agreed upon, but some details needed attention before work could begin.
At the last minute, we ended up adding an access door under the grill and using stainless steel on the front of the grill cabinet.
Right now, we’re feeling relieved and above all, confident that we ended up with a design that we love. Decisions on details will keep coming for a while, and that’s all part of the process of getting it right. We iterate our way to what we want.
I’m excited for the day, probably in just a few weeks, that I can show you the final product.
I Can Recommend…
Show: We’ve been binging Ratched on Netflix. It’s loosely adapted from the Nurse Ratched character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Dark, stylish, and full of monstrous characters, it’s a recent favorite.
Movie: I first learned about the Safdie brothers from their direction of the movie Uncut Gems (which I recommend). Their specialty is gritty, pressure-cooker dramas that keep your attention. The strangely named Good Time is another Safdie Brothers film that is a wild trip, full of action.
Photo:We had a strange mix of fog and smoke that made for interesting scenes on the water.
That’s what I have for now. Cheers!
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.