Workin’ A Woodshed

An attached woodshed is a grand luxury appreciated by few in these days of pellet stoves and those natural-gas, faux fireplaces that bring ambiance and warmth behind a glass-faced firebox with ornamental, fire-charred, ceramic fire logs “burning” inside.

By definition an attached woodshed is a roofed structure joined to a dwelling with interior entry that spares occupants the inconvenience of stepping outdoors to fetch fuel for the fire. Yes, it’s true that such “outbuildings” and the route to them are typically unheated. But that’s just a minor inconvenience compared an outdoor wood crib or stacked pile that entails shoveling and slippery footing through icy winters.

Into my woodshed I have over 23 years thrown in 161 cords of wood dumped in front of its five-foot-wide sliding door. Call me traditional. I heat my old home primarily with wood, and do truly appreciate the convenience of such a functional space for wood storage. A slate-roofed ell extending north about 35 feet from the back of the kitchen, the route to it takes me through a shed between a water heater and cast-iron cookware pantry.

The dimensions of our woodshed are 21 by 15 feet, including an old 10-by-4 coal bin along the south end, it butting up to an enclosed 18-by-3 walkway to a plastered, 50-square-foot, four-hole privy at the rear. Imagine that, back in the day, you didn’t even need to step outside or shovel a winter path to a cold, breezy backyard outhouse. All it took was a short, cool 35-foot walk out the back kitchen door.

Though the privy hasn’t been used in 100 years, it’s still there for posterity, I guess. A blast from the past. A conversation piece. The next homeowner will probably either remove it or convert the entire ell into modern, heated living space after installing a new furnace and upgrading 35 or 40 drafty windows with something modern, air-tight and efficient. Not us. We’re retired.

I’d hate to compute the number of miles I’ve walked between that woodshed and our soapstone woodstove, which has never skipped a beat. What I know is that the distance from the stove-side wood cradle to the pantry door is 15 feet. It’s then another 13 feet through the shed to the woodshed door. From that threshold to the back door leading outside alongside the privy, it’s 21 feet. So, that adds up to a round trip of 75 to 80 feet, the second half loaded down with a heaping armload of heavy cordwood piled head-high on my right arm. The daily chore keeps my blood circulating, my legs moving, and my forearms and biceps just active enough to prevent winter rigor mortis from setting in. Chalk it up as good, old-fashioned country living.

My annual heating season lasts about seven months. The daily trips to the woodshed represent only a sliver of the labor required to heat with wood. I don’t cut my own wood. I buy it cut, split and delivered, seven cords a year. My work begins after the vendor dumps a load in front of the sliding, five-foot woodshed door. I must then throw it inside, forming one massive pile cascading down from the outhouse hallway’s wall and another lesser mound of smaller fireplace logs in the nook between the outhouse and back door. By May, most of it is burned.

The most strenuous work is throwing the wood into the woodshed and raking up the aftermath debris from the backyard. But there is still much work to do after the wood’s inside. I perform weekly sorting and reorganization chores, piling totally dry pieces in one pile and heavier, semi-seasoned chunks in another. That done, it’s easy to keep a good mix coming in for placement in the stove-side cradle, where the heat of the stove drives out moisture from damp pieces.

Additional daily chores inside include removing ash into a coal hod each morning and sweeping up debris on the floor every time you replenish the wood supply. Once a week, I empty the coal hod into a pile outside next to the brook. It’s a routine I’ve performed for most of adult life, 23 years at my present Greenfield address.

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m getting old and that it’d be easier to heat with oil, cheaper and more responsible to go solar. But I love dry wood heat, a luxury that can be visited when chilled and abandoned for cooler space when warmed to satisfaction.

Keeping a good, hot fire is no less of an art than maintaining an organized, functional woodshed. It seems I’m always sorting through wood in various stages of seasoning to produce optimal, hot, steady fires that limit creosote buildup in the chimney. Hot fires over 400 degrees Fahrenheit produce far less creosote than slow, smoldering fires registering less than 300 degrees on the stovetop thermometer.

You have to live with slow, dampered-down overnight fires when sleeping, but there’s an art to that, too. That’s where big, bone-dry all-nighter logs come in handy. I separate them out daily and keep them handy in the woodshed. Placed on red-hot coals before retiring for the night, these large, heavy chunks – preferably high-BTU woods like oak, hickory, black locust, or rock maple – are reduced to hot embers that easily revive a morning fire. Just open the damper, triangulate three hardwood logs seasoned grey and dry, and wait for the flames to joyfully dance. From that point on, an attentive firekeeper can effortlessly maintain an efficient fire by paying attention, never allowing it to burn down too low.

Focus pays dividends. Neglect causes problems.

Complicating matters this winter has been the right Achilles tendon I ruptured while pheasant hunting two days before Thanksgiving in a dense swamp. The first two weeks were the toughest. Hobbled and unsure of the extent of my injury, I continued to lug wood from the woodshed daily, being extra careful not to take a misstep. I had good and bad days before finally getting to a doctor two weeks after the injury and returning with a protective walking boot.

Although the imbalance of the boot’s three- to four-inch heel lift took some getting used to, it compressed my Achilles to promote healing and, better still, soothed my re-injury anxiety. I learned to cope with the awkward device and became more and more mobile as the days progressed. By week seven of the boot, I was able to start removing a layered lift a week until all four were gone.

Now, though still wearing the boot, my foot is flatter and walking is much easier. Through the whole ordeal, I’ve managed to cut that mountain of woodshed cordwood in half without further injury – a miracle in its own right. Through experimentation, the boot gave me more and more confidence and reduced my peril.

So, I guess you could say I got through it without catastrophe. Another of life’s unexpected misfortunes mostly in the rearview. What can you do but grin and bear it?

Uh-oh. My wife has bad news. The dishwasher didn’t drain after a sub-zero overnight. Must be the hose that drains through the dishwasher is frozen. Shoot! I thought the installer took care of that. Oh well. Never a dull winter moment in an old New England home.

Gotta go. Where the hell did I put that old brown hair-drier?

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