Fireplace fun; winter is time to get serious

#224 in a series of true experiences in real estate
January 1998, Hills Newspapers

At my house we enjoy fires in the fireplace pretty much anytime of the year, but in winter we get serious. On either side of the hearth is a constantly replenished assortment of logs and kindling, baskets and cardboard boxes of dry fuel at the ready.

Friends know of our fireplace obsession, of course, and this year several gave us fire-related Christmas gifts, my favorite of which is the “Split ‘n Kindle Set.” The set consists of a lightweight ax and, weighing only slightly more, a short-handled maul, both new and sharp and gleaming.

Our friend Jody who has trimmed and cut down trees for us, climbing high into the tops and making us gasp, arrived with this terrific gift about a week before Christmas. It happened that another friend, Michael, was there and when he saw what the box contained, he jumped up and down like a little boy, then asked if he could try it out. Off he raced to the backyard to split everything in sight.

Michael was joyous. Apparently these were great tools. We asked if Michael had his own. Oh, yes, he said, at least a dozen variations, but he’s always interested in trying new ones, and these were good. We would love splitting wood, he assured us, and Jody agreed.

Jody knows how we feel about fires. He’s seen how we stack and cover our wood, protect it from the elements. He’s seen my garage with its stockpile of kindling. And he’s brought us contributions, most recently oak and cedar he got from someone who didn’t want it. Jody loaded up his truck and brought it right over. Then he built wood stackers in the yard for me, crib-like structures to contain the bounty. He even showed me how to crisscross the end pieces to give strength to the piles.

A couple of days after Jody brought the Christmas present, a package arrived in the mail from other friends. Inside were pinecone color kits. That’s what I call them. These are cellophane-wrapped pine cones, two or three to a packet, that have been coated with some sort of color-making compound. Added to the fire, a packet slowly transforms into a ball of deepest azure blue flame reminding me of the pure light from a welding torch.

I wish I knew what to put on pinecones to get this effect. Maybe I could make my own packets. I added a basket of the pine cones to the hearth side collection.

Then Michael showed up again. He said he had something in his truck he thought we could use, went away for a minute and carried in a redwood slab, a slice from the trunk of a redwood tree, the kind people use for stepping “stones.”

It is a chopping block, a support for standing logs on while splitting them. Michael had picked a slab that gently slopes, he explained, so that any piece of wood, square on the end or not, would stand upright. He demonstrated, then he went home.
That was when I tried the ax and the maul for the first time. I grabbed a chunk of cedar, a piece about the size and shape of a shoe box, stood it on end, raised the ax up and brought it down fast. Clunk! And a piece split off from the whole. It was wonderful. I did it again.

Just a few tries told me that good aim is a real help in splitting. My aim is fair, and with concentration I did better. The pieces of wood I was working on didn’t really need to be split; they were small enough to burn as they were. But I like fooling with the fire, poking it, provoking it into constant flames, and small pieces of wood work best. Besides, I was greatly enjoying the chopping.

I chopped lots of different pieces. I tried the maul on large pieces of oak. Sometimes I could barely make a dent in them. Sometimes I didn’t hit hard enough. The maul bounced off or the blade got stuck an inch or so down from the top of the piece and had to be pounded through or wrenched free.

My back began to ache, so I switched to splitting cedar shingles. My collection of wood roof shakes is extensive. Last summer my neighbor replaced his shake roof. Tons of bone dry, brittle shingles were there for the picking. Anet and I, hammers in hand, knocked the nails out of them and neatly stood them on end in containers. Now these containers are stored in my garage, easily carried one at a time to the fireplace when needed.

The shakes are about 20 inches long, about as perfect for kindling as can be, especially those that splintered along their length when they were removed from the roof. Others came off whole, and because they are as thick or thicker than a slice of bread, they take longer to catch on fire. These, I figured, could use some splitting.

And so I started in. What fun, what pleasure. Stand up a shingle, hold it with one finger, bring down the ax into one of the little grooves on the top edge. Whack, split. Whack, split. In a few minutes, I have a pile of inch-wide redwood fire starters.

Jody also brought one day a quantity of boards, probably fir, about the same length as the shakes. They look like something someone intended to use to build wooden boxes. I remembered them and rushed to the garage to bring a few to the chopping block. Oh, yes, these split like butter. Lovely little slices, just right for using on top of the redwood when starting a fire.

Back and forth I went, splitting. Flakes of cedar. Split, sliver, split. Blades of redwood and fir. All this firework activity makes me feel like a pioneer. Gather, sort, protect. Set aside fuel for the family, warmth on a future day. Cruel rain, howling wind, cold snap cannot touch us.

Happy New Year to you all.

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