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Firing Log

ancient kiln | 21st century logbook

April 6, 2006

Firewood Rant

Filed under: Firewood — odin @ 9:36 pm

To make wood fired pottery, one must have clay and firewood. Quite the epiphany! Kilns can differ but suitable clay and suitable wood are not negotiable. Lousy wood makes a firing difficult or impossible and an insufficient quantity would be a disaster as well. One thing I’ve learned over six firings — no matter how I try to keep wood costs down, it’s an exercise in futility — you pay money or spend too much time and effort. I’ve finally settled on the notion that I’ll let others do the woodsman bit so I can make pottery.

Some kilns are very efficient and burn only a little wood. This is great for glazed ware. All my glaze develops naturally in the kiln — less wood means less natural ash glaze. I estimate that I burned about 3.75 cords of wood in this last (6th) firing — interestingly, on the fourth day the kiln started taking less wood. I must have reached an equilibrium and had I continued, I think I would have burned only about 3/4 cord per day at that point. I’m lucky though, larger anagama kilns must burn much more wood. With my low ceiling, I think I can get away with a smaller quantity of fuel because the flame is forced down through the work (makes loading a nightmare though).

Even though I’ve learned quite a bit about prepping a wood supply, my wood was not ideal this last firing due almost entirely to my late preparations but partly due to a particular wood supplier. First, I paid a premium price (FN 1) for marginal quality split wood. When the guy came out, I recognized him, and when I looked at what he delivered, I remembered I disliked his last load too. This time, he got his truck stuck and I had to take a break from my own tasks to help him get out. Then he ran over a pile of fence posts (about 50 of them) and in the process, ruined my tall ladder. I didn’t notice that till he had gone. And the wood? A good 70% of it was verging on rotten. I’ve listed him in my address book under “Crap Firewood” — that’s the last load of overpriced underquality firewood I buy from that son of … gun.

Here’s a picture. This is a chunk of alder. Good quality seasoned alder is a rusty-orange color. This piece showing the mottled white is on the verge of being rotten. It takes up space without holding all that much energy:

crummy firewood

In contrast to my cord wood needs, I have a very reliable millend supplier. He gives me good stuff as far as millends go — thick and many long pieces. Still, in the last load I burned up 12 wheelbarrow loads of bits that are too small to use in the kiln. I just piled them up and torched the lot. After discarding the unusuables, I had a dense three cords — probably close to 3.5 cords of regular wood. This is from a “six cord” box — mind you, when the wood is in a jumbled pile, it takes up more space than when stacked (not to mention losses due to discards).

In terms of price alone, the millends aren’t a bad deal — $350 for the load ($117 per suitable cord). The issue with millends is that they require much more work. One person can stack a few cords of wood in an afternoon without much effort providing if it is already split — if you have to split it, you’ll break a sweat. In contrast, it took me two days to process the pile of millends. That’s 6x the effort, to save $18/cord (when bought at the right time of the year, $135/cord is possible). The lesson I’ve learned over and over with wood is this: you pay money or you spend huge amounts of time. The people who do firewood have all the equipment to make the job easy. I’ve heard of machines that take whole tree lengths, cut them into pieces, and spit out chopped wood. They cost $30-40k — not really an option for a guy who only needs a few cords every now and then.

I continue to get the millends because they really punch up the temperature. Alder and birch make up the bulk of firewood for sale in my region. These woods burn nicely, but not with the force of softwoods. I’ve considered importing pine from E. Washington, but it seems such a waste. I would prefer to master the materials I can get locally. It is much easier to work when I don’t have to worry about complicated and expensive shipping arrangements — even if it means two days of sorting millends.

One other point — anyone who has ever built a wood kiln has said “I’ll save money by cutting my own wood.” I did and what I discovered: There are no savings. You will spend in time, far more than you will save. Firewood can be had for $135/cord around here in the fall. Think about it — driving up to the mountains, loading up logs, bringing them home, cutting them to length, and chopping up the wood — and then stacking it — that’s a huge amount of work. If you don’t have a full-size pickup already — then it’s impossible. And if you do — imagine the extra gas it burns the rest of the year. But labor isn’t the only issue.

Chainsaws are dangerous and I have the cut pants to prove it — luckily no skin was involved (and many washings have enlarged the holes). One wrong move with a chainsaw and you’re done making pottery or just plain dead. I’ve been around chainsaws all my life, but I’m not an expert woodsman and I won’t presume to be one. So, even though cutting stuff with a chainsaw is almost as satisfying and burning things, I’ve decided to limit myself to cutting only when absolutely necessary.

chainsaw dangerous

Don’t forget how big a cord is either. I’ve had friends say they’ll drop off a cord for me cheap, and it turns out to be a pickup load of wood. A pickup filled to the height of the bed with unsplit wood is about 1/3 of a cord … maybe. If it is split, then perhaps a half cord. When people who don’t normally deal in firewood try to get into the business, they aren’t aware of how insanely hard a business it is. Firewood is condensed heavy labor and it has been my experience, despite all good intentions, that wood bought from friends is the most expensive of all.

This year, I think I’m going to go to the Demming Logging Show and buy a log truck of tree length firewood (inspect, then bid). I’ll hire someone to cut it and split it for me — I doubt I will save money but I should at least break even. What this will do is allow me to control the quality of my fuel, and have it cut to a length best suited for the anagama as opposed to the average wood stove.

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1. $160/cord (I bought two). A cord is a measure of wood 4x4x8 feet (1.2 x 1.2 x 2.4 m).

4 Comments »

  1. Would wooden palets be of practical use? They used to be had for free from various stores around where I live. I guess it would be a question wood quality, break down labor and transport cost to you.

    Comment by idea man — July 1, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

  2. I don’t think there would be anything wrong with using the wood from pallets. I would want to get all the nails out to avoid filling the kiln with bits of steel — the iron content would probably affect the pottery. The big issue would be the work. One pallet would probably be 1 to 1.5 stokes. Considering the stoking rhythm is once every 5-10 minutes depending on the situation, and the firing lasts many days, the stack of pallets would by sky high. Assuming 6 pallets/hr in a 4 day wood-firing segment, that’s 576 pallets … I’m too lazy to even think about that much labor. ;-)

    Comment by odin — July 2, 2006 @ 10:51 am

  3. you may be better off paying for “stove wood” which is shorter in length. Also seasoning the wood is the most important part, so if you are going to bid on a truck load, make sure to have it split and properly stacked for drying by the early spring. Then it needs to be hauled to the wood shed for final storage. IMO you are better off finding a quality dealer, and yes I sympathize…i’ve had good wood and crappy wood pieces mixed in every time.

    Comment by Henry — January 10, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  4. Hi Henry, I always buy all my wood cut and split anymore. I’d much rather do pottery or firing than wood cutting.

    Comment by odin — January 11, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

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