Help me warm the house up!
September 17, 2009 2:38 AM   Subscribe

I have a two part question about fires and making firewood. The two parts are related so I assume this is fine...

1) I have just acquired my first personal chainsaw, for use in the copse behind my house cutting down smaller trees to make firewood. Previously when I've felled trees, I've had use of a tractor to winch out the log OR an abundance of clear space around the fallen tree to roll it with either my boot or a lever. In my own backyard I have neither tractor nor space - the fallen tree cannot be rolled by the persuasive power of my boot. I can't cut the log into firewood in situ either because my saw would be dulled by sawing into the ground. Any tips from those in a similar predicament?

2) The stove in the house is unlike any stove I've dealt with before! It is really difficult to get wood to 'catch', and doesn't seem to warm nicely. I'm using the trick of leaving the door ajar whilst the wood is just beginning to burn, but still, when it seems to have caught flame if I close the door with the vent on full open, it's fairly often that the fire will die out. In addition the stove seems to have a tendency to let smoke into the room if one opens the door. I realise that this sounds like a blocked chimney but the previous occupant who used the stove often to good effect mentioned nothing. I have cleaned the ash out of the bottom of the stove and used wood from different areas of the woodpile. I still wonder if the wood might be a bit damp but can't really believe that because it's the same woodpile the previous occupant took from. Any thoughts? Should I just try wood from a petrol station to see if it's the wood at fault? How do I know if the chimney is blocked? Smoke plumes merrily out on the few occasions a good fire is going in the stove...

Thanks for any and all help.
posted by dance to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1) Sometimes, power isn't the answer. Use the chainsaw to make most of the cut, and something else to finish. Cut a v-notch with the chainsaw, then use an axe to finish. Just cut the log into small enough pieces to move, then you can move them into a better place and cut normally.

2) Just because the previous owner didn't mention it, don't assume the chimney is drawing correctly. The rule of thumb is that the cross section area of the chimney needs to match the cross section area of the vents -- so if stopping down the vents results in a better fire, that implies that the chimney is partially blocked or simply too small. Clearly, air isn't moving through the flue very well.

90% of chimney blockage in chimneys that were idle for any appreciable period of time is at the outlet -- usually, nest material or other such debris. Hie thee upon the roof and take a look. The other 10% is creosote and other such residues, this requires proper cleaning.

Finally, you might just not have enough heat to really get the chimney drafting. Try burning lossley balled newspaper and watch the smoke. If it just hangs around, but the chimney is clear, keep adding paper slowly -- what you're doing is warming up the air in the flue. Once it's warm enough to draft, you should see the smoke disappear -- this is often quite sudden. At that point, you're drafting.
posted by eriko at 4:16 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would get that chimney cleaned prior to this winter. Its something that "should" be done every year. Once you've had it cleaned, you'll know that any issue you have will either be the wood or the actual stove.

Regarding your chainsaw, learn how to sharpen the chain. Getting it into the dirt is no big deal if you can sharpen the chain. Also realize that you bought the chainsaw to cut firewood and if that means getting it dirty or dull in the process, so be it. If you bought a cheap one at the local big hardware store, chances are it will need replacing every couple of years anyway. Use it as such.
posted by premortem at 4:47 AM on September 17, 2009

I'll add one more point to #1: If you can get a log-jack in, you can raise one end of the wood off the ground (even a little bit). If you can slip something (perhaps a short length of the wood) underneath, you can get an end of the log off the ground for proper bucking. More information is available here.
posted by JMOZ at 5:12 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, both of you, for your excellent quality answers. I'll get that chimney checked out.

Just quickly regarding saws... I can sharpen the chain, but I figured needlessly blunting the perfectly sharp chain was a bit silly. I was also taught never to saw into the ground. But everyone has their own preferences! It's a good saw, a Stihl MS260.
posted by dance at 5:16 AM on September 17, 2009

Best answer: Good god, I could write about this sort of thing for hours. I'll give you some advice on the stove, but please let me advise you on the chainsaw stuff first. If you're not using a chainsaw all the time, you really need to be careful to use it safely and effectively. You can find a great deal of this stuff online, bu I'll throw a little more out there. I know the safety aspect is obvious, but there are a few key things to keep in mind when using a chainsaw. First, always use the chainbrake. If you don't know, it's the big plastic shield in front of the top handle. It's not just an emergency stop, whenever you're walking around carrying a running saw, engage it. Engage it before you start the saw. Get used to using it all the time.
One of the most important things to remember when using a saw safely is the direction the chain is moving, and the forces it exerts in response to that. The chain moves away from you on the top of the bar, goes down the end, and comes back towards you on the bottom. If you use the bottom of the bar to cut, which is most common, the motion of the chain will pull the saw in your hands away from you and in to the wood. If you use the top of the bar, it pushes the saw in to you. The most dangerous portion of the saw is the upper quadrant of the bar tip, if you run that into wood (most often when the end is sticking through a log and you can't see the tip on the other side) it causes kickback, which flings the end of the bar up towards you. The low-kickback chains on most homeowner saws really do reduce that, but they don't eliminate it.
This stuff comes into play when you're cutting, because you have to think about the tensions of wood when you're cutting. If you've got your circumstance of a log lying on the ground, unless it's been there for years and has settled, most of the weight of the log will be resting on a few points of either high ground or low log (a crook, a branch, etc.). You have to find these points and work around them. You basically have a series of bridges and cantilevers to deal with, pulled by gravity. If you've got a log bridge, for example, and you want to cut it, you don't cut down from the top, because as the center is weakened by the cut, it sags down, closing in on the top of the kerf (empty space left from the cut). This will pinch the bar and lock the saw in place. If you cut from the bottom, using the top of the bar, the bottom of the log will open like a hinge and drop down. If you have a cantilevered log, you cut back from the end on the top and the end just drops down as you cut. When you're working with a downed log, you need to find the areas where there is a gap between the bottom of the log and the soil and try and figure the tensions. You make a decision based on that judgment to either cut from the top or push the bar underneath and cut upward (if there's room). While you're cutting, slightly move the saw back and forth and keep an eye on the kerf. If it starts closing at all, stop cutting from that side and start cutting from the opposite side, trying to make the cuts meet exactly. IF you can find a few gaps and cut the log into smaller sections, you can make movable sizes. Also, invest in a cant hook or a peavey (I prefer cant hooks).
If you're not using a saw all the time, it's going to take practice to figure this stuff out, and you're going to be dulling your saw a lot by hitting soil or rocks with it. Get a file guide and the correct files. I suggest this guide, it's pretty simple and foolproof after you figure it out. I believe Oregon's website has some good filing instructions; it's important to do it right if you do it.
Absolutely get a forestry helmet and a pair of chaps, and wear eye protection. Seriously.
As to your chimney issue, it sounds like either a blockage, which you should be able to figure out, or a draft issue, which can be caused by a flue that is the wrong height, has too many bends, or if you have weird differential pressure from your home to the outside. Make sure your damper is opening, as well. You can check out this site for more info.
Sorry for the length, I tried to be succinct.
posted by Red Loop at 5:30 AM on September 17, 2009 [6 favorites]

If you are just burning wood you should really have the chimney swept twice a year... once is an absolute minimum.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:09 AM on September 17, 2009

Nthing the advise about protection. I worked with a man who had a scar from his eyebrow down to his jaw and then across his cheek from a chainsaw bucking up and hitting him in the face. It was only because he was very close to a hospital that he survived and didn't end up looking like Frankenstein's monster. And nthing the chimney cleaning. A lot of house fires are caused by a dirty chimney catching fire. This isn't smother love, it's sensible precautions and maintenance.
posted by x46 at 6:25 AM on September 17, 2009

Smokey chimneys, in my experience, are often caused by a lack of airflow on the suction side. Meaning, crack a window or door (several inches at least) before you start the fire. Modern houses are sealed up tight and there can be issues with air having enough places to enter the house, to replace the air that is going up the chimney.

Once the fire is going, it should have enough "strength" to draw it's own air, and you should be able to close the door or window.
posted by lohmannn at 6:26 AM on September 17, 2009

Response by poster: Some more fantastic advice. Just to reassure everyone that I have actually used a chainsaw daily for a year now without injury. I wear the protective gear and consider my actions before making them. But I still really appreciate reading these answers and there are still definitely things to learn and tips to glean. I do not consider myself an expert - more a beginner whose change of resources and environment has thrown him a little.
posted by dance at 6:43 AM on September 17, 2009

Just a couple of things to add to what's already been said:

1) When you fell a tree, depending on the shape of the tree, a lot of it will still be off the ground, i.e., held away from the ground by the branches on the side toward the ground. By choosing your cuts carefully, you can often cut up 75% of the tree without touching the ground with your chain. Once you've done that, you will usually find that you can cut mostly through the remaining chunks, and then roll them a bit to get the last part without sawing into the ground. I've cut up a lot of trees that way, and never had a canthook to help me. I have, however, had a plain old digging bar that came in handy for the occasional leverage.

One other tool you're almost certain to need is wedges. These can be used to influence the direction of the felling. More often, you'll use them to keep a cut open in a thick log so that gravity doesn't trap your bar in it. Metal wedges give you more leverage, but plastic wedges have the advantage that, if you accidentally hit the wedge with the chain, all hell doesn't break loose.

2) Definitely get you chimney cleaned and inspected. Older chimneys can have faults, such as loose mortar, etc., that present real fire hazards. An experienced sweep will be able to give you a good idea why your chimney isn't drawing properly.

One thing to check other than the chimney: Many older stoves have a catalytic convertor that should only be engaged once the stove is quite hot. If yours has this and the lever for it is in the On position, that would definitely cause the symptoms you describe.
posted by bricoleur at 6:45 AM on September 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Leave some logs on the ground then fall the tree onto that. Then you wont cut into the ground.
I know you didnt ask about safety but it cant be overemphasized. Weekend chainsawers horrify me. (Sorry for lecturing you if you are in fact skilled & experienced)
To get your stove to draw , start a roaring blaze with newspaper & small kindling first.
posted by canoehead at 8:20 AM on September 17, 2009

If you're having trouble moving the logs around in your backyard, consider buying a Peavey to help you roll them around.

Also, Red Loop is right on in all of his advice.

Also, you are probably already doing this, but you should make sure you're seasoning your wood well (for 2-3 years) before you burn it. I only suggest this because you say you've only been chainsawing for one.
posted by Aizkolari at 9:59 AM on September 17, 2009

I had a chimney brush on a long rope (long lengths on either side of the brush) that I would just pull through the chimney to clean it. It's cheaper than paying someone.
posted by mareli at 12:13 PM on September 17, 2009

Regarding your fire problem - assuming there are no chimney issues, the type of wood you're trying to burn makes quite a difference. Creating a good fire is a progression from easier to harder to combust materials, with the temperature of the combustion chamber increasing along the way. I usually go paper > kindling > small starter wood [2-4cm or so] > starter logs > hardwood.

You'll need to keep the door ajar up until you're on the small starter wood or so depending on your burner. For starter wood I normally use poplar or willow. Once you have that burning good and hot, you can start putting in the heavier stuff.

Knowing when the chamber is hot enough to close the door completely comes with experience.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:17 PM on September 17, 2009

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