Monday, January 3, 2011


While I am all for saving the rain forest, woodland stewardship and planting trees to ensure the survival of the planet an' all that, there is a strong case for cutting the buggers down as well. It’s called the wood-burning stove.


It is the domestic version of ‘blokes setting fire to stuff in the garden’

(It's just the angle that makes it look like a trailer full of flame)

We have a wood burner which we borrowed from our friend Angie about five years ago. We offered to buy it from her a few times but she kept saying “No” so we stopped asking – but carried on using it.

It is made of cast iron and fire-brick and when we first got it I loaded it up outside to check that I had put it together properly and that the door seal was OK. Then I sat around enjoying the balmy September evening and wondered how long it would be before we had a chimney in the house, which I had been led to believe was an essential element in the satisfactory use of a burning wood stove in the home.

It is rated at about 8kW. I have only the vaguest idea of how you convert logs per hour into kilowatts – probably something to do with how many calories it takes to raise a horse through one degree Celsius – but it does the job. Mind you, the under-floor heating gives it a head start. So it does not have a massive job to do.

The underfloor heating matrix, long since buried
under several thousand tonnes of flooring.
‘Our’ stove is made in Belgium, sold in France and has instructions in English cast into the door. These include advice on suitable fuels (wood and coal) over-firing (don’t) and safety for chattels (if your furniture starts smouldering it is too close).

We get our wood from a number of sources. The easiest is to buy it from a reputable dealer.

Our neighbour, and former owner of our property, Juliette, says that oak is best. Difficult to argue with that as oak is a dense hardwood, plentiful and cheap. She adds that it should be dried for two years, which again makes sense as:

a) it burns better when dry and valuable heat is not used to turn water into steam

b) it shrinks slightly so, as it is sold by volume, e.g. a cubic metre, the ‘cube’ will contain more wood and less water.

c) it is lighter to move around – and one thing you learn is that wood is NEVER put in the right place first time – and sure as oeufs is oeufs it will need moving.

Then it gets a bit weird as Juliette goes on to add that you should only burn oak which is grown on the south side of a hill. Hmmm. But as Juliette has often expressed bizarre opinions as fact, and they have turned out to have merit, we take this seriously too. Unfortunately most fuel dealers do not include that particular piece of intelligence in their marketing material (usually consisting of a road side sign saying ‘A Vendre - Bois de Chauffage’)  and those I have asked look at me as if I am mad. This is a common reaction during my forays into French France, and I have become quite used to it - water off a duck’s back. Bof!

Incidentally ‘A Vendre’ which means For Sale (OK smarty pants, you knew that but this is also for those that may not, so bear with me…) is commonly abbreviated by combining the A and the V thus:

Considering that much typography in common usage is BLOODY DREADFUL AND MAKES ME WANT TO SCREAM, this is both elegant and economical – marvellous!

The other principal source of firewood is our own trees which occasionally fall over or need trimming. One of the mature oaks had the misfortune to be struck by lightning twice. The first time was many years ago and the tree was pronounced ‘nearly, mostly dead’.  The second time was last year and a VERY LARGE branch fell into our pond. We felt that without this counterbalance the rest of the tree was in danger of falling the other way into the road some 10 metres below and something had to be done. It was way past my modest lumberjacking skills so we got John and Kate Harlow to come and decapitate it and then log it into chunks.

John not falling

Top of tree falling
Other sources of firewood include accumulated scraps, palettes, off-cuts, bits of old shuttering and stuff which is just too beaten up to be any use for anything else. Many a happy hour is spent chopping small bits into smaller bits for kindling.

We haven’t needed to buy any wood for a year or so, but the ‘lightning’ oak is just about finished and we bought a couple of steres last month. The bois de chauffage dealers charge what they think they can get away with, starting at around €50 per cubic metre (stere). The final price will depend on a number of things, supply and demand, time of year, type of wood, how long it has been drying, delivered or collected - and length. Short lengths take more cuts and therefore more work and the price goes up. We usually get it either in 1m lengths or 50cm. The most recent is lot is 50cm. 

This is a nuisance as ‘our’ stove  can only accommodate very thin branches at 50cm length, as soon as they have any substance they can only be a maximum of about 45cm (life’s a bitch). So I have to chop them up a little bit more. This is made considerably easier by the deft application of a chainsaw. I have amassed three of the things and they are very lovely, but still hard work after a few hours.

Chopping 5cm off each log is not only annoying but it sounds daft, after all what am I supposed to do with a great pile of 5cm thick coasters? Nevertheless it must be done (but I cut the things in half to prevent coaster overload). In addition to being annoying, it is labour intensive as each piece has to be lifted onto the saw horse, cut, the saw put down and the two piece stacked somewhere else. Believe me the novelty wears off pretty quickly.

The really thick logs need splitting and I bought a log splitter on ‘special’. Every time I see my neighbour and part-time bois de chauffage dealer Alain (think Eddie Grundy) and his mate smashing their ancient cast iron wedge into tree trunks the size of 45 gallon oil drums with a sledge hammer, I think ‘good move’.

One sleepless night I was thinking this through and an idea started to form. Next day I skipped merrily to the wood shed [You don't have a wood shed. Ed.] and with the aid of some sturdy planks and four masonry clamps knocked up the prototype of the Log-O-Matic.

This reduced the repetitive bending and lifting and placing of logs on the saw horse. With a couple of deft strokes a whole stack of logs are cleft in twain.
It was then that the versatility of this device really stuck home and I used it to massacre a great pile of skinny branches donated by our wedge-weilding neighbour Alain…and the Twig-O-Matic came into existence.

Everyone who saw it said ‘You ought to patent that…’ in the way people do. There is a reflex action which occurs immediately after these words have been uttered. The lungs and vocal chords continue to function without the further input from the brain and an additional sound is emitted by the speaker. It is it complete bollocks of course but it always sounds like ‘… you’ll make a fortune.” 

Of course, I can’t be arsed and the prototype becomes the production model in a production run of one.

Two years later, sitting with feet up in front of ‘our’ wood burner idly leafing through the ‘pub’ (publicity material kindly dumped by the barrow-load at our house by the post-person) I see the very same device in the French woodchopper’s version of the Innovations catalogue retailing for just €99.99.

And so the world turns. Somewhere, some poor bugger is frantically marketing the Log-O-Matic and making a few quid on each sale and I am reaching for another beer by my fireside... and wondering how I got to be such a lucky sod.

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