the homestead

Great For Furniture, Lousy For Heat

We are now firmly into the wood-stove-heating season, and it happens that this year we have a lot of black walnut to burn.  Not anything furniture-worthy, I set all that aside for use in the shop later, but the branches and such.  Since we felled several walnut trees two years ago there is a lot of that “clean up” to burn, and burn it we are.  One thing is clear in my observation — walnut may be great for furniture making and bowl tuning, but as a firewood?  Meh.

For the number of BTUs per unit volume of wood it really fails to deliver.  Yes, of course it burns and provides heat as a result.  But compared to everything else on the menu for wood burning it falls way short.  Plus, it is really ashy, as bad as soft maple.

In fact, walnut comes in dead last in my hierarchy of firewood I can harvest from my own ~70 acres of forest.

The top of that list is occupied by locust, which seems to be almost as BTU-dense as the coal I burn in the shop stove.  It can’t be, of course, but goodness I love the output of heat vs. volume and ash I get from locust.  I’ve got a lot of it including two stupendous fallen trees up near the ridge property line near the cabin.  Even one of those trees will suffice for a complete winter, so I am anxious to bush-hog enough to get my little 4WD truck right up to the windfall.  In fact, the two remaining standing trunks are so big I need to hire my pal Bob to come and bring them down.  I just do not possess the experience, skill, or saw to bring them to the ground.

Next comes oak, which we have a fair bit of but not as much as locust (firewood-wise).  Given the amount of windfall of other species we have up the hill I do not cut much oak.  But when I do, once seasoned it is a premium source of heat.

As is ash, of which I have very little.  The characteristic of ash that makes it a good firewood is that it needs almost no seasoning to be ready for the woodstove.

Cherry and maple are also good source of heat, and we have a lot of both.  The difference between them is that maple is a lot more ashy than cherry for the amount of heat provided. When we burn a lot of maple we have to clean out the stove about once a week.  With cherry it would be every two weeks.  For oak and locust it could be every three weeks.  About equal to cherry is the surprise pick of black birch, which we get a tree or two every so often.

We do not have any tulip poplar so the last spot is occupied by black walnut.  It’s just the way it is.  We’ve got a very large walnut tree that is ailing and through which the power and phone lines travel.  I hope the tree recovers, but if not there’s a huge pile of lousy firewood waiting to happen.


BTW I am almost done splitting and stacking the firewood for next winter and will likely wrap that up with a couple of good days after New Year’s and will weave more occasional firewood processing into my routine thereafter.  A couple hours here, a couple hours there, and the mountain of cut wood will turn into a mountain of split and stacked wood.


A Wondrous Weekend

While this blog is not really about my family, there are times when it needs a good mention.  Such posts may not interest you, but quoting Mollie Hemingway, “My spiritual gift is that I do not care what you think about anything.”

The cabin is hauntingly quiet now after a long weekend with both daughters, one son-in-law, and L’il T filling every cubic inch with love and joy.  Even when he is fussy (teething) L’il T is a joy and truly a Godly blessing.  He is completely captivated by this white fur on my face, stroking it every time I held him.  Heart-melting moments.

One of the motivations behind the visit was a celebration of LtCdr’s birthday, but even more was it was deer hunting season.  He spent several days sitting up in the woods for hours at dawn and dusk, bow-and-arrow at the ready.  Of course, his only score was at dusk on their last night here.  We spent until almost midnight dressing the carcass.  My mouth is almost watering in the anticipation of the venison roasts yet to be cooked.

The skill set related to hunting is not one I possess, so it was a grand time of bonding with the father of my grandson.  Given my age and visual limitations it is not likely I will ever be a good hunter, or even any kind of hunter, but I learned a lot about hunting in conversations with LtCdr over their visit.  No doubt it could come in handy as the nation seems hell-bent on becoming Venezuela, where things got so bad they ate the zoo animals.

Just In Time

Our little community is down to one chimney sweep, a not inconsiderable logistical problem when there are probably around a thousand fireplaces and woodstoves in use here.  Getting on Rick the Chimney Sweep’s calendar early is an important consideration, and this year we did not get on the calendar as early as we should.  But just in time for chilly weather he worked us in to clean out our beautiful stone chimney.  Fortunately, our exhaust flue is not prone to build-up and combining that with the choice of fuel — always well-seasoned hardwood — gives us a lot of latitude, chimney cleaning-wise.

The easy part for Rick is to climb a ladder to the top of the chimney and sweep it from the top down a la Bert the chimney sweep from Mary Poppins.  I’m not afraid of heights but Mrs. Barn insists that my amygdala is not as sensitive as it should be so I take more risks than I should.  Thus, she is delighted we can hire someone to work at the height required.

Rick is, among other things, an enthusiastic spelunker so crawling around in the fireplace behind the insert suits him just fine.   He gave our fire exhaust system a clean bill of health and said that we may not even need an annual cleanout.

His ministrations were just in time as the temps will drop precipitously over the next few days with snow coming next Tuesday and Friday.  I expect we will fire it up in the next 36 hours or so if for no other reason than Li’l T and his parents are visiting for several days and we want to keep him warm.

As for the barn, it is easy enough for me to disassemble and clean the stovepipe, which I did last spring.

All set.

PS  I’m about halfway through the task of splitting and stacking firewood for next winter, and by the time I finish with the entire mountain of wood in the parking area next to the barn I’ll be ready through winter 2024/2025.

Seasonal Splendor

Even on a slightly hazy morning, the drive back from the hardware store featured a landscape of almost fluorescent colors on the mountain behind the cabin.

Autmn beauty is a fleeting thing here in the Virginia Highlands, a good year giving us at best three weeks of polychromy.  This year we had about a fortnight plus a day or two.

Hard to not be distracted when this is the view from the window.

During that fat fortnight the drive up the road and the view outside the shop windows was glorious.

Another splendiferous happening during autumn in these parts is the annual making of apple butter the old-fashioned way. Twice we have been able to go to our friends Pat and Valerie to help cook, stir, and can apple butter in accordance with Pat’s mom’s recipe (I think), using a giant copper-lined cauldron resting above a wood fire.  This year we had brilliant, crisp days for the event and garnered almost 150 pints each day.

The assembly line firing on all cylinders.

Perhaps the truest from of magnificence on these days is when we got to scrape caramelized apple butter off the bottom of the cauldron with fresh biscuits and popping the treat into our mouths.

Words do not suffice.


Years ago when my sister’s family was visiting and we were giving the kids a walking tour of the property, one of my nephew’s exclaimed, “Uncle Don, it’s just like you live in a state park!”  As you can probably deduce from some of the firewood-harvesting pics, the topography for much of the property is, shall we say with literary license, exuberant.   One moment of inattention or one spot of poor footing can put you on the ground in a twinkle of the eye.  Given my poor vision with almost zero binocular depth perception and my history of injury I am becoming increasingly attentive to keeping upright in the place I want to be moving or standing still.

Traipsing around up and down and across the hills requires good footing and for all of these years I have relied on an old pair of lumberjack-ish boots.  For standing, these are the most comfortable footwear I have ever worn, but as my excursions into the forest have become more purposeful, they were wanting.  For starters, as the knobby soles became worn they were less able to grab the ground as needed, but even worse is the fact that they weigh about 8 lbs apiece making the traversing of rough terrain all the more problematic.  Hiking around iffy ground with a brick lashed to each leg is not optimal.

Since firewood-harvesting became integral to my routine here I started looking into spiked-sole lumberjack boots (the term for this type of boot or shoe is “calked;” I have no idea of this etymology) as a response to slippery footing.

After much browning of the interwebz I found this pair of “calked” boots built on a hiking boot platform, thus reducing their weight by around 50%.  They are comfortable, lightweight, and grab the ground like they were, uh, spiked to the ground.  They have transformed my time in the woods or when bush hogging the hillsides, or even just mowing the yard (although I must be attentive to where the water hoses are so as to avoid stepping on them).  In these arenas, they are perhaps my most important tools.

Pollen PPE

Given my longstanding allergies to pollen and my fortnight in the hospital with pneumonia this past July I am increasingly attentive to what I breathe, especially when doing yard work.

For several years I wore a fitted industrial respirator when mowing and trimming, but even then I often had several days of wheezing and sneezing afterwards.  While in the hospital in July I noticed that several of the caregivers wore powered air filtration helmets.  They seemed like a near perfect solution to my problem.  Their units were designed for medical/laboratory conditions and cost roughly $3k so that was not where I was going to go, but then I recalled the filter helmets often worn by wood turners and began my exploration there.

My first choice was the Axminster APF10 unit from England.  It seemed to have the most streamlined configuration and the most comfortable fit.  On inquiry I was informed that the company did not ship to the US so I had to remove them from consideration.  (I am uncertain as to their current shipping regs; I might still like to get one, so if you are going to the UK and would be willing to pick one up for me there, let me know.)

In the end the only option left to me was the Trend Airshield Pro unit, which I did order.  In some respects it is a fine unit, in other aspects not so much.  There are other options, generally for the sandblasting and welding arena, but the prices for many of those units ($1500 and up) put them outside my immediate consideration.

When evaluating the Trend Airshield primary functionality, keeping the nasties out of my lungs, it does an excellent job.  I have worn it several times mowing with nary a sneeze, wheeze, nor runny nose in the aftermath.

Alas, the unit is clearly designed for a static posture in use, in other words being used by someone standing in one place, not moving or bending very much.  It is very top-heavy so the motions involved with mowing or trimming are problematic.  It has fallen from its perch several times in use.

Getting the headband to fit properly remains a challenge, at least for my head, despite adjusting everything there is to adjust.  On a comfortability scale from 1 to 10, I would rate the unit a minus 3.  To get it snug enough to stay put while I am mowing or trimming or brush-hogging it is painful to wear as the front band imbeds into my forehead.  I am working on devising a padding system to make it tolerable, but I am not there just yet.  It seems that there is something just not right about the configuration.

As for the final consideration, namely price, at around $350 it seems expensive but a cost I am more than willing to bear given my respiratory allergies and desire for wheeze-free living.

Big Doin’s In Little Homestead

At long last Mrs. Barn has agreed that the time has come for me to build her a year-round playground.  This required a new terrace to be cut into the hillside just above the garden plot, which in turn required a bulldozer to accomplish same.   Since I do not own a bulldozer, rendering me as less of a man I know, I asked around and three friends independently gave me the name SteveB as the guy to do the job.

After several weeks of back-and-forth phoning he finally showed up a few weeks ago to do the deed.  There is nothing quite so much fun as watching a good ol’ boy and his bulldozer at work.

I literally set up a lawn chair in the bed of my pickup and sat watching him all day.

It took him about six hours, back and forth in the space, to finish the job.

Working just by eye he created a long, wide, flat platform and when he surveyed the project afterward, he confirmed that it was not perfectly flat; it was a couple inches higher at one end than the other.  For a 150-foot-long run that struck me as pretty good.

The greenhouse I will be using as my model, belonging to my friend F.

So, what will go there?  For starters I will be copying my friend F’s greenhouse, hoping to get that built over the next few weeks, weather and family commitments allowing.  Once that is up and running I expect Mrs. Barn to spend almost every day there through the winter since she loves puttering in the dirt and hates the gloom of short days and cold weather.

Once he was done with the new terrace SteveB he moved across the creek to smooth out the gnarly terrain in the space where we had felled a number of trees eighteen months ago to give better sunshine to the garden plot on that side of the creek.

That outcome was every bit as successful as the terrace, and we now have a wide range of options for using this plot of land.  I’ll probably start with a parking spot and a small bed of gravel.

I seeded both patches of dirt and there are now flourishing stands of pasture grass there.


Mundanities, Vol. 5

One of the curses(?) of occupying a space as large as the barn is that there is often little incentive to throw things away when their useful life is over.  Even if some artifact is no longer functional, you see, its carcass may serve as the raw material for some new application.  Such was the case with this simple project.

After many years of faithful service the old garden cart simply rotted away.  The wood panels forming the box of the cart were friable to the point of needing no tools for the disassembly, gloved hands were all it took to take the detritus and toss it into the fire pit.  The wheels and axel, however, remained robust albeit a bit rusty, and were kept in waiting in the basement of the barn for several years, just waiting for the new generation of use.

Once I got a new hefty riding lawnmower I realized that the homestead needed a tow-behind wagon for moving mulch, compost, etc., for Mrs. Barn’s gardening efforts.  So I made one.  Simple, sturdy and functional.

I ripped a pile of PT-SYP and assembled the unit with deck screws.  I will make and affix the tail gate at some point soon, depending on weather and other projects.  I’ll also fit it with a tarp liner so dirt and gravel can be hauled without falling through the cracks.

It was satisfying to get such a nice project in just a few hours of low-intensity work, requiring little precision and only a framing square and screw gun for assembly.

Wall O’ Wood

It’s time for the ceremonial portraits of this winter’s firewood.  Even with the side crib already almost half-full after last winter, it took four days for me to load the pickup and move wood from the stacks of seasoned wood into the crib and on to the front porch.  I’m working as hard as I always have but the output is diminished.

After the performance of the cabin envelope last winter following the complete re-chinking the previous year (that alone cost twice as much as my first house) and the crawl space sealing and insulating the year before, I am fully confident that even with a severe winter we are all set.  In previous winters it took almost two full side cribs plus the porch-full to keep Mrs. Barn warm enough, this past winter it took the porch-full plus half a crib-full.  I’m liking that trend line.

We’ve got new high performance windows on order to replace the 80s era windows now in place, windows with the particular feature of providing wonderful ventilation year round, open or closed.  Depending on the performance of the supply chain we will be getting the new windows installed just before the dead of winter.  Keeping fingers crossed.  With new windows, the cabin should be cozier than ever.

Tomorrow I start splitting, stacking, and seasoning the firewood for the coming winters.  There’s still at least two or three dozen heaping trucks full of timber on the ground.  If I get done with everything already on the ground, I calculate 4-6 winters of firewood a-waitin’.

‘Tis the Season…

… to harvest firewood for the coming winters.

The pile as of two days ago.

This coming winter is already taken care of, so now I am working on winters 2023, 2024, 2025, etc.  This week I have done nothing but retrieve a small portion of the windfall over the past year, yielding a heaping pickup every day.  Thus far my mountain of firewood to be split and stacked is about 1-1/2 winters, maybe more if the new cabin windows make the same difference as did the two previous projects — insulating and sealing the crawl space under the cabin, and replacing all the chinking between the logs.  These two ventures resulted in cutting our firwood needs by almost 50% last winter.

The road up to the previously felled timber is blocked by windfall trees which must be cut up and removed to even get to the upper inventory. Each of these trees renders almost a full pickup load of cut bolts.

I haven’t even made it to this tree yet, with its 40+-feet of clear trunk almost 24″ in diameter. If it were less logistically challenging, I would contemplate getting this one milled into slabs.

I’ve retrieved four truckloads, with at least another dozen still awaiting my ministrations.

This maple log was a particular challenge as I had to use some block-and-tackle to enable my little pickup to drag it uphill and on to the road so I could work it.  This made me appreciate my little Stihl saw all the more.  It is small and lightweight but can handle an 18-inch bar due to its narrow chain.  I keep the chain sharpened several times a day and have to swap out the current chain because I’ve worn it to the nub.

This week also brought the first swatches of color to the local flora.