Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cabin Life: Five Cords Of Wood A Year, Part Two

CherryIt’s twenty-four degrees below zero outside, and even though it’s warm in the cabin, I’m still going to be wearing longjohns under my jeans all day.  I had a problem with the wood stove last night.  One of the metal grates that keeps the fire and coals up above the ash trap got knocked off kilter.  Not wanting what was sure to be a very hot fire sitting in the ash pit all night, I attempted to put the grate back into its proper place.  Even with a big metal poker and heavy leather welding gloves, I still managed to burn my thumb pretty bad.  The smell of burnt leather and flesh made for an aroma that was… unpleasant.

Last week, I wrote about my plans to build a new wood shed this summer.  I estimated that I will burn a little more than four cords of wood this year, and so I would like to cut, split and stack at least five cords of wood for next winter.  My supply this year is getting pathetically low.  I have a lot of extra soft wood that I can burn when the hardwood runs out, but on nights like the last couple, I want nice big hunks of cherry and maple roasting in the stove, not pine and poplar.

A lot of people commented that my estimate of five cords of wood seemed awfully high for a small, one-room, four-hundred square foot cabin.  They are correct in that I am over-estimating for next year.  I think it’s better to have too much than not enough.  Especially since I am facing the dilemma of not having enough this year and the fact that fire wood doesn’t really go bad if it’s stored properly.

There are a number of reasons that I think I need so much wood.  The first and foremost on my mind is that my stove is a piece of junk.  I may upgrade this summer in an effort to get more efficiency.  The stove I have now is actually a coal stove which gets horrible draft.  The one upside to this stove is that fire box is huge, allowing me to load up the stove and keep the fire going for as much as twelve hours.

But there are a few other reasons I’m going to need so much wood, and they can all be boiled down to one big statement:  My cabin was not built for someone to live in.  It was built to keep a few guys warm on weekends during hunting season.  From the half dozen single-paned windows to the complete lack of insulation in the walls, this place is more than a little drafty; it’s basically a tent made of wood.

From what I can tell, my cabin is the second or third structure to be built on this particular site.  There’s an old stone foundation that is larger than my place, and under my cabin is a big slab of concrete.  The cabin I live in was built sometime in the nineteen sixties or seventies, and it shows.  My bed is in the corner against the outside walls and there is a noticeable difference in temperature from one side of the bed to the other.  The walls are cold to the touch.

I keep one of the windows open a crack all the time to let in fresh air.  This is an inconvenient safety feature since I burn wood, candles, oil lamps and propane inside.  Without the fresh air feed, I’m not sure how long myself and the animals would have lasted.  But even if I didn’t crack that one window, I think there is enough of a draft coming in through the others that we would probably be ok.  The front door swells and shrinks dramatically with temperature changes.  When it is warm, the door barely closes.  When it’s cold, I have to latch it just to make sure a light breeze doesn’t blow it open.

And then on top of all of that, there is the floor.  I hate the floor in here.  The cabin is built up on cinder blocks placed on top of the old slab.  Then someone just piled field stones all around the base of the cabin to create a wind-break of sorts.  It is ineffective to say the least.  The floor is not insulated underneath, and even with the field stones, there is a steady breeze blowing only about an inch and a half directly under my feet.  This is the kind of place where you will be very unhappy without some good slippers.

The lack of insulation, the bad windows, the poor stove, and breezy floor are all factors in why I burn so much wood.  I’ve added weather stripping and a few other things, and I could do some remedy work like getting better windows or adding insulation, but that seems like a lot of expense.  And with the way the floor already slopes, I think it’s probably not a good idea to do too much work to this place.  It’s not worth the cost or the effort.  I guess I’d just rather build a big woodshed than a new cabin.

Justin A Levine

Justin A Levine

Having grown up in the southern Adirondacks, Justin has always been at home in the mountains of New York. After graduating from Paul Smiths College, he began his career in the environmental field working for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. After a brief five year detour to Florida, Justin returned to the Adirondacks and is currently living off the grid in a small cabin with no running water or electricity.

Justin continues to work and play in the outdoors, and maintains a blog about living off grid, hiking, and being outside in the Adirondacks called Middle of the Trail.




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15 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    What we did with a camp like that was just lay high density foam on the floor and just put old barn planking over that, you probably have to cut the bottom of the doors. Furred the rafters down insulated and plywood that . Same with the walls. Can heat the place with a candle now. Didn’t cost a lot and still looks quite rustic. A lot of old junk hanging on the walls and some burlap curtains and its home sweat home

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  2. Paul says:

    “I keep one of the windows open a crack all the time to let in fresh air. This is an inconvenient safety feature since I burn wood, candles, oil lamps and propane inside. Without the fresh air feed, I’m not sure how long myself and the animals would have lasted.”

    Get a battery operated CO detector and be careful in there.

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    • Justin says:

      Hey, I do have a smoke detector and a CO detector. I’ve never had any problems, the place is so drafty that having the window open is probably not even necessary.

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  3. Paul says:

    Justin Also, if some of these Cherry logs in the picture are yours, don’t cut them up for firewood. Sell them at the mill and buy yourself a new stove. If it is an consolation I was wearing my long johns in my so called heated office at work earlier this week!

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  4. Kathy says:

    Stay warm Justin…I give you a lot of credit living off the grid and these past few weeks have been brutal…hang in there because come spring and some warmer weather…it will all be forgotten and you’ll enjoy this setting so much more!!!

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  5. Larry varley says:

    No, do not cut up cherry logs for fire wood…Use Maple Ash or Oak..Sell those Cherry logs ..You will be suprised at the $$$ thay will bring in…

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  6. John Jongen says:

    Another thought: bolt down full sheets of Plexiglas over the inside window openings that can (optionally) be removed in summer. It provides an insulating air/dust/noise buffer and some added security from would-be vandals. Good luck Justin. Stay warm and safe.

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  7. Howard Jackson says:

    My first real winter hiking trip (early 70’s I think) consisted of going over Algonquin and down to Lake Colden. At that time there was a caretaker (Charlie?) living in a rustic cabin. It was so bitterly cold* he took pity on us and let us in to warm up. His stove consisted of two 55 gal oil drums, one for the fire box and the second just above the first – actually a part of the chimney system – was a heat radiator. Worked really well. I’ve seen the hardware for such a double barrel stove online and it was pretty cheap.

    *How cold? Well the next day the radio reported -38 degrees Fahrenheit in Saranac so being in the mountains we always thought it was (semi) legitimate to round it to -40 when we told the tale. That sticks in my head because corresponding with someone in Germany I discovered -40 is the same in F and C!

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  8. Brad says:

    Since you are already planning for another year – if you are not going to do windows, floor, insulation – think ‘tuneups’ – build an insulated box under your bed, throw a couple of insulated panels on the two side walls – did this once, amazed at what a difference it made! We also did a PVC pipe fresh air intake to the stove, also noticeable.
    Have some ideas about more/better LED light!

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  9. joan streetman says:

    Vermont sells a small stove that has a catalitic converter I bought several years ago and it is very small andtakes very little wood and once you stoke it with foot long wood it burns for hours and roast you right out of your place. My husband said when I bought it you are crazy with this small stove but boy was he wrong. We had to open the front door to let air in as it was so warm in our place in the mts in Penna. I sold it while I was up there before I moved south. Sure do not need one here in TX

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    • Frank says:

      I have an EPA stove in my home. They are great and efficient .i use a lot less wood than my old stove and enjoy being able to watch the flames. The problem with them is they take along time to heat up so I’m hesitant to put one in the camp.

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  10. M.P. Heller says:

    I burn anywhere from 7-10 cords a year. I heat 4000 sq ft with wood. I buck, split, and stack it all here at the house. If you ever want any help next fall getting the shed filled just reach out. I’m pretty easy to find. Doubtless someone here knows how to reach me.

    I agree on the save the cherry for something else, but my reasons are different. My biggest reason is basically I need to max out my BTU production, and while cherry does indeed burn good and hot if its seasoned properly, it doesn’t burn for that long compared to a hard maple or oak or ash. My favorite wood to burn for heating purposes is a well seasoned hard maple. Second best would be white oak, followed by ash and red oak. Black oak is good too, but it doesn’t like to play nice with the maul or splitter.

    Keep in mind if you end up having to burn a lot of resinous softwoods in the late part of the season to get yourself through the heating season; to be extra vigilant with regards to buildup in your flue.

    Also with regard to cherry wood. If you have down time and are looking for another pursuit, consider getting yourself a mill of some kind. Even a Granberg will produce decent results if you learn how to use it well. As mentioned, the sawmill will pay you for the cherry if its good quality, but rough cut lumber is worth way more than unmilled logs. Partner with a buddy that has a deck planer and you can both make more than the sawmill would pay for the unmilled cherry.

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    • Frank says:

      Your right about softwood but if its good and dry it burns really hot and gives up all its btu fast. When I get to camp and its really cold I start with the softwood just be carefully you don’t crack your stove. After the stove warms up I switch to my hardwoods to build up the coal base. With a house your size your stove probably is never cold so probably not worth burning softwood.

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  11. Mary C Randall says:

    hope your finger is okay years ago I burnt my hand real bad. I used the leaf of an aloe plant mainly vit e and I have no scar. Stay warm and I do not have a better comment on the floor- good idea.

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  12. Scott says:

    Look into some hay bales this summer. Place the hay in the gaps between the cinder blocks. Try to stuff as many in there as possible. They just can’t get wet, so you might want to put plastic down on the slab. My two cents good luck. I enjoy your blog

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