| December 21, 2016

Podcast

Podcast #263: The Philosophy and Practice of Building a Fire the Scandinavian Way

There’s nothing like the warmth and comfort of a glowing fire, especially this time of year.

What is it about making and warming ourselves with woodburning flame that’s so satisfying? And how can we better master the art of firemaking?

Well my guest today has published a book that’s become a cult classic in Scandinavia and it’s all about wood and fire. His name is Lars Mytting and his book is Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. Today on the show, Lars and I discuss the pleasures of preparing wood for a fire and why firewood is an important part of man’s identity in Scandinavian countries. We go on to talk about the best kind of wood for fires, how to fell trees for firewood, how to season your wood for optimal fire building, and the best time to split wood. 

This is a show both philosophical and practical, and it will leave you wanting to build the best fireplace fire of your life when you’re done listening.

Show Highlights

  • Why Scandinavians still use wood to warm themselves
  • Why warming yourself with a fire is so darn satisfying
  • Why wood burning is a clean source of energy
  • What a man’s firewood pile says about what kind of husband he’ll be
  • The “wood age” of men in Scandinavian countries and what it says about a man’s provider role
  • The sorrow of fathers
  • The best trees for firewood
  • Why you should use both hard and soft woods when making a fire
  • The best time to fell a tree for firewood
  • How long it takes for firewood to dry
  • How to season firewood
  • When the best time is to split your firewood
  • How to tell if firewood is actually dried and seasoned
  • Why splitting wood is so enjoyable
  • How to build a fire that will burn hot, clean, and give off as little smoke as possible
  • And much more!

Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast

Norwegian Wood was a pleasure to read. Lars deftly combines the philosophical and practical in his writing. You’d be surprised that a book just about firewood can hold your attention, but it does. I’m looking forward to building a fireplace fire using my newfound knowledge from Norwegian Wood.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. Well, there’s nothing like the warmth and comfort of a glowing fire, especially this time of year. What is it about making and warming ourselves with a wood-burning flame that’s so satisfying? And how can we better master the art of fire-making? Well, my guest today has published a book that’s become a cult-classic in Scandinavia, and it’s all about wood and fire. His name is Lars Mytting and his book is Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. And today on the show, Lars and I discuss the pleasures of preparing wood for a fire, and why firewood is an important part of a man’s identity in Scandinavian countries.

And then we get into the practicalities of making just a warm fire. We talk about the best kind of wood for fires, how to fell trees for firewood, how to season your wood for optimal fire-building, and the best time to split wood. And then we talk about how to build a fire the Scandinavian way that will just burn clean and hot for you. This show’s both philosophical and practical, and it will leave you wanting to build the best fireplace fire of your life when you’re done listening. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/wood where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper in this topic, as well as learn how to build a Scandinavian fire.

So, you’re the author of a book that I really enjoyed reading. It’s Norwegian Wood. It’s all about firewood and the importance of firewood in Scandinavian culture, and I remember hearing on an interview you did somewhere else, that this was a book that almost didn’t get published, but it’s become this big bestseller in Scandinavia. Why do you think a book about firewood, something so simple, has resonated with so many people.

Lars Mytting: Well, I think they key to it is, that it essentially is very simple. And when something is simple, it generally has a huge appeal. But it’s hard to observe what is really simple. It’s often the things that strike you as something, well very simple or down-to-Earth is often the things that go unnoticed. So, if you look into this, in essence, fire is mankind’s oldest energy, and something that has been a great part of all cultures around the world. So, that is one part of the answer really, that it, deep inside, it affects us all.

Brett McKay: And I mean, I guess it’s particularly important for individuals living in Scandinavia, because it’s bitterly cold there. We were just talking on air that it’s negative 37 degrees Celsius where you’re at.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And so, firewood is, I mean that’s how you all keep yourselves warm. Well, that’s a question then. Why is Scandinavia still reliant on firewood despite advances in heating sources like electricity or natural gas?

Lars Mytting: We all rely heavily on electricity, and I think it’s fair to say that the most houses use a electric oven for a lot of the heating. But in the cold periods, nothing beats the firewood stove, because it really is not only the sense of hot air that’s to it, it’s so much more that goes into the experience of heating with wood, that it stimulates a lot of other senses as well. And just to mention a few, it’s the simple fact that you can survive and heat your house with something organic that you have collected yourself, and where that carries the marks of your own labor. And it’s a deeply, deeply, well, a deep sense of well-being connected to that, I’d say. So, that’s one of the explanations.

Another one is also that it’s a renewable green energy. And it has it’s sides on pollution, which we will come to, I guess. But it’s probably the simplest form of energy there is, and also a great renewable source.

Brett McKay: Right, trees can grow in wood. Give me, I thought this was interesting you talked in the book about the, how much pollution wood burning gives off, because I remember hearing growing up, well the reason why people really burn fires in fireplace anymore is it gave up too much pollution, there’s too much soot. So we had these cleaner sources of energy, but you argue that, no, wood burning is actually not as, it’s pretty clean.

Lars Mytting: Yes, and it can be surprisingly clean. And it can also surprisingly dirty. It all depends on the stove you have, and also the methods that you use. And one of the great things I think, as a Norwegian, is that we have had a lot of scientific research on how to make stoves that burn as cleanly as possible. So, I think we are in a good position to develop certain technology because we have a population that spends a lot of money into their houses. Nearly all Norwegians own their own houses. And we are quite interested in everything high-tech. And at the same time we live in a cold country and we have a lot of forests, so that are the key elements to it. But the book describes a lot of methods to burn firewood, so that there is smoke visible at all from the chimney. And that is really the target here, to burn so cleanly that you cannot see any smoke or any awful smell from it. And that is completely possible.

Brett McKay: And we’ll get to those methods in a bit here, because it’s very interesting. Even for us in America, if you don’t have a stove, some of the tips here can help you build a great fireplace fire. But, you also talk about the philosophy of firewood. Scandinavians get very philosophical about their firewood. For example, there’s a bit where you talk about how Scandinavian women, sort of a traditional idea is for Scandinavian women to judge a man on the quality of a husband they’ll be by looking at his wood pile.

Lars Mytting: Yeah. That is also actually a thing that I’ve seen in the state of Maine, nearly exactly the same observations. But yes, there is a lot lore and folklore connected to this. A lot of it is obviously on how your wood pile looks like. And it’s quite easy to discern the lazy and the ambitious man just by looking at a wood pile. You will often see, say the type who likes to show off, will like to build a very tall pile which is clearly visible from the road. But all too often, he may become, well the pile will simply fall down, because it has become foolhardy and with too tall.

And on the other hand you have the piles that tells the tale of someone who is either lazy or just cannot, well, follow up on his own ambitions. So you see piles with moldy wood, which has been on the ground too long, and quite imperfect stacks there. So, that type is easy to recognize. But you also have the completely obsessed type, which is someone I would warn strongly against as a husband, which has this very pedantic parts with looks almost like you used, well, strict mathematics to get the pile as perfect as possible. That’s probably a sign of someone with too little connection to the real world.

Brett McKay: Right. Right. And you also highlight this phenomenon in Scandinavian countries of, for men, to go through what they call a “Wood age.”

Lars Mytting: Yeah, that’s right. That’s a quite common description here actually. Usually about elder people, men around 70 years, when they come into the wood age, but in my book I describe the first wood age and the second one. And the first wood age actually starts around 35 to 40 years, which is when generally most of us have a family and children. So, I think it, just that, having children, sort of stimulates the urge to go home and bring heat to your family. Which is, when you look at it, a very, very central element of the firewood culture here. And that has to do with the man’s position in the family. And you may fail at a lot of things in life, but the pleasure you have in seeing your family and children getting warm on something you’ve done yourself, that is deeply satisfying.

But when speaking of the coming of the second wood age, when you become a old man, it’s more connected to the feeling that you don’t have any proper, visible work to do anymore. And a lot of older men want to be of use for their family. But there are few areas where they really can do something that is to use for the elders every day. But firewood is such a thing. And a lot of older men who chops wood not just for themselves, but also for well, the greater part of the family.

Brett McKay: And I thought it was very touching how you began the book. You talk about an elderly neighbor of yours that sort of kick started this exploration of firewood who, he was in really bad shape, had health problems. But when springtime came, and it was time to split and stack wood, he got out there and he started doing it, even though it was very hard laborious work, but he felt like he had to do it to provide wood for his wife.

Lars Mytting: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and there are other mechanisms to him, to that story as well. Well, he used to be my neighbor here, and one of the things was that, I think he sort of told his body that we will endure another year. He was quite sick, and the easy thing for him would just be to lay down and well, let the disease take him, but he didn’t. He went out, and through that work which essentially was a preparation for winter, I think he simply told his body that, “We’re going to go on. We’re going to make it one more winter.” And at the end of the book, he essentially lays, he’s building his last wood pile, and he understands also that this wood pile will survive me. But the memory of my labor will still be in it. So, the last scene of the book is of his widow, when she heats throughout the winter on the wood that he made.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that was a really, really touching story.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It made me tear up when I was reading it.

Lars Mytting: Yeah. It touches so many of these iron age reflexes in us, this just being connected to fire which is the age, age old element. I think it stirs a lot of strings in us and one of them, I have two daughters, they’re 14 years old, and there’s a sort of sorrow to my life as a man, that I am, well with teenage girl, as a man, I feel I become less relevant in a lot of their daily business. But, I know a few things that I manage to hand down is something that they will grow up and teach their own children. For example, building a camp fire outdoors. And I believe there can be, well no more basic thing and nothing more connected to survival and life itself than handing down the knowledge on how to build a fire. So, one of my wishes is that they will hand it down to their children and say that, “Well, my Dad taught me this.”

Brett McKay: I love that. So, let’s get into the specifics of fire building. So, there’s a lot of practical knowledge that you put in the book.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, start with, and the whole goal is to get that very burning fire that has little or no smoke. So, let’s start with the wood itself. So, are certain trees better for firewood than others? Are certain trees provide more smoke and soot.

Lars Mytting: The book goes into great lengths in looking at the properties of various woods. But the odd thing is that nearly any tree in the world will burn, and nearly any tree will give a satisfying fire. But the big difference is the density of the wood. In most cultures, especially in cold countries, like in say northern parts of the U.S. and Canada, and also in Norway, all the hardwoods has been favored, because it’s the philosophy of the really cold, old past with drafty houses and very strong winters. And for that purpose, nothing can be very dense wood, like hickory, like oak and beech. But in a modern situation, very often these very dense hardwoods simply burn too hot to be used in a well-insulated house.

So, one of the things that I like with that part of the book, is that it describes how you can use what many would consider inferior wood, like aspen or spruce which is quite dense and which has among many been regarded as quite poor fire wood. But it is in fact perfect to use lighter woods for the periods of the year when it’s not so cold like late autumn or early spring. And also, most fires will benefit from being burned with two different types of wood in the stove at the same time, because they have different combustion characteristics. So, you may burn one log of oak together with two logs of aspen, and as a result have a very clean and intense fire without the house getting too hot.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about the whole process. You talk about, because in Scandinavian countries, people buy wood pellets, some people buy their own firewood. But a lot of people cut their own trees down or fell a tree. I’ve in Vermont, I’ve had some family there, and I’ve had the opportunity to fell trees for wood, maple trees.

Lars Mytting: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brett McKay: Very fun to do.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What was really interesting was you talk about the best time to fell a tree. We felled these tress in summertime. You argue that’s not the best time to fell. When is the best time to fell trees for firewood?

Lars Mytting: Well, we are quite strict on that here in Norway. But if it’s possible, we like to do it in late winter or very early spring, simply because the trees are naked at the time. And snowy ground is perfect and clean to work on. And also, frozen ground makes it easier both to haul the wood on the ground and also to split it. Because all surfaces are very hard and clean. But the key factor to this is that the drying time of the wood is, well, for most of the inner part of the Northern Hemisphere, the driest months are in spring. So, if you’re ready with the wood when the snow is melting, you have the whole period of spring, summer, and autumn for it to dry.

So, the custom here in Norway is to cut down the wood and give it one season to dry, and then use it the next winter. And in many cultures, this is considered way too short, and a lot of cultures, especially those who favor oak, say that it will need at least two, but three and four years of seasoning will be good. But you will often be quite amazed really on how quickly firewood will dry if you give it proper drying conditions. So I think the key to a lot of these tales needing two or three years to dry is simply that they come from a worst-case scenario where people have given firewood the proper conditions to dry.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and that was a really interesting point you brought home too, was that even if the wood isn’t dry in two or three years, it’s probably not going to get dry. It probably has to dry pretty quickly in order for the wood to actually be dry.

Lars Mytting: Yeah, that makes for the best quality and it shouldn’t be confused with the drying process for building materials, where the aim is to dry quite slow, so that it doesn’t crack. I think firewood is the best when it has been drying as quickly as possible, and the key element to that is to place it at a place with very, very good ventilation. Ideally if you can give it both sun and wind, you will have very good conditions for it. But if you have to choose between them, always choose wind, because wind and good ventilation will dry the surface of the wood and speed up the process greatly.

Brett McKay: And do people as soon as they, typically in Scandinavia and Norway, do they split the logs as soon as they fell the tree?

Lars Mytting: Yeah. That’s quite a difference also between many other countries. If you go further South in Europe, like in France and Netherlands, you would often see that they just cut the logs and then wait with the splitting until the fire is to be used. But the tradition here is very clear to split it as quickly as possible, simply because it dries much better then, and it’s ready for use.

And the other part of that is that, if you can split the wood while it’s really cold, it splits much easier. Many people experience that it’s dead hard work to split the wood with an ax, and the book goes in great lengths of describing, well, techniques to make it easier. But the one thing to observe is that if you cut down a tree and you leave it for one or two months in spring or summer, it will become much, much harder to split, simply because the fibers inside, they create sort of a Velcro effect that adheres the fibers much stronger to each other. So, if you cut it and split it when it’s fresh and if you can, while it’s really cold, it will split with just one-third of the effort that you need if you wait until summer.

Brett McKay: It’s great advice. I’ve always split wood in the summer, and it is dead hard work.

Lars Mytting: Yeah. If it’s fresh, then you have a chance. But if it’s been drying just one or two months, it’s a wholly different game. Yeah.

Brett McKay: We’ll talk a little bit more about splitting wood here in a bit, but so let’s say someone who’s listening, they’re not going to chop down their own trees or split their own wood, but they’re going to go buy firewood. The thing I’ve always had trouble with when buying firewood is the wood says it’s seasoned, but then you put it in the fireplace and it’s just smoke. It’s all it is.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: So, how can you tell when you’re buying firewood that firewood is actually dry and seasoned?

Lars Mytting: The best method, and it’s a bit scientific and boring, really, but that is to take one of the logs from, if you buy it in a pile, take one of the logs in the middle and bring a ax and split it in two, and then use a humidity meter, one of the digital types. They don’t cost more than about ten to 20 dollars, I think. But that will give you a very clear idea of it. But you need to split the wood first, because the moisture can be trapped inside the log. So, that’s one trick, and that gives you a very good idea of how it is. But you will also, with some experience, you can beat two logs together, and if it’s not dry, the sound will be more muffled and dead. While two completely dry logs will give a very thin, hard tone, which is quite easy to discern.

But the fun trick, which I really enjoy, is to use dishwasher liquid, and this doesn’t work on all types of wood, but it works brilliantly on leaf trees like birch. And the trick is to put some dishwasher liquid – Too many Ss here for a Norwegian – put on one end, and blow through the other, and this may sound like it’s a complete fairytale, but it actually possible, to blow through the whole log, and so that bubbles appear in the other end. But, that doesn’t happen if the wood is fresh. If it’s completely dry, then it will work, because all the cells through the wood has been opened up. So, that’s one of the, well,  great party tricks that I like to advise anyone interested in this. Try the dishwasher trick.

Brett McKay: I’m going to try the next time I buy firewood, and the guy tells me, “Oh, it’s been seasoned for two years.” I’m like, “Oh.”

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And the other tip too, you advise in the book is like, don’t buy dirty wood, like covered in mud or dirt.

Lars Mytting: No. We touched that subject a while ago, but the thing is that, if wood has been left on the ground and started to, well, not been given proper drying conditions, it may start to form a type of mold and bacteria inside. And when it’s dirty, it’s a quite clear sign that it’s been lying on the ground for some time. And for some types of wood, especially birch, you may experience a very strange phenomenon that it never dries at all. And what has happened then is that the wood has started to, well, mold and bacteria has started to grow and eat the tree from the inside. And that process, actually, produces moisture. So, it will never be dry no matter how long time you give it. And the native Norwegians, the Sami people, they actually have a word for that phenomenon, and it’s called the … which means “dry wood that will never be dry.”

Brett McKay: Right.

Lars Mytting: And to the native people of the North, they know if there are some experts here, they are the real one.

Brett McKay: Right.

Lars Mytting: They know how to, well, make a campfire in the strongest of winds and the most fiercest conditions. So, I’ve picked up one or two tricks from them. Yes.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about splitting wood. We talked, it’s dead hard work, you should probably do it in the winter time, early spring, where it’s easier to split.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But even though it’s dead hard work, people really enjoy splitting wood.

Lars Mytting: Yeah.

Brett McKay: I mean, what do you think it is about the task that makes it so enjoyable, even though it’s physically laborious?

Lars Mytting: Yeah, I think because it’s if there is one really magic moment in this work, it’s the part when the ax hits the wood and it’s being split, which takes about one-tenth of a second. But that is the moment where it goes from having been a part of the tree to becoming a log of firewood, if you understand what I mean. In that split second, it’s two-fold during the split second, but in that moment, it goes from just being a well, round trunk, and it becomes firewood. So, and somehow, it’s like working on an assembly line. But, it’s different all the time.

So, it’s monotonous work, but it never gets boring somehow. So, and you feel the effect of your work and you see the result of it, it grows minute by minute. And I think, well, that’s a great satisfaction that’s also quite a contrast to many other things, of a modern life. Because in so many aspects of a working life, you can always improve on things. I mean, if you work in an office or if you work with something creative, you can always do things better and you can respond to e-mails late at night, and you can always go on with the struggle to make things better and better. But with this simple process, it’s done. It cannot be improved. You’ve split it, and then it’s perfect. Even if it’s not perfect. It gives this enormous sense of peace of mind that you cannot improve it. It’s done. It’s perfect. And when you do this work all day frustrations from the day go into the firewood, and you know that they will go later into the stove. And the wonderful thing is to burn those logs is been really troublesome and simply wouldn’t split, they too must give in when you throw them in the stove.

Brett McKay: Do you really remember those troublesome logs?

Lars Mytting: Oh yeah, I recognize them. Yes, yes. When I work my way, say in reverse, I sort of fold back month for month the labor I had the previous winter, and I recognize those logs that just wouldn’t split and the strange ones, or perhaps the one from a quite rare sort of tree. These days I’m actually burning a tree that I had to cut down from a neighbor of mine, an elderly woman who had a big apple tree. And it’s fun really, because it reminds us of the situation when we did that work, and it’s very, very good firewood. So it’s almost like when you look at the wood pile, it’s almost like you’re looking at some geologic layers of your own labor. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I can totally see that. I can totally get that. So, we talked about stacking wood. Ideally you want wind and sun, but if you’re going to choose one, choose wind.

So, let’s talk about building a fire. We’ve cut our tree, we’ve split the wood, we’ve dried it. What’s the idea way to build a fire that will just burn hot and clean, and won’t fill your house up with smoke?

Lars Mytting: The essence to it is to make sure you have as dry firewood as absolutely possible. And many people say that firewood shouldn’t be too dry, and that is has an optimum humidity. That it should have some humidity. But I never found any proof that that is of any benefit. So, my advice through a lot of research is to have it as dry as possible.

And the interesting key element to building a fire is to know exactly what is burning. And it may surprise some to know that smoke is not some exhaust like you have from a car. The smoke itself is the energy that we want to burn. So, when you see smoke, you actually see some gases that you want to burn. And if smoke comes from a house, it’s wasted energy. It’s about the same as petrol leaking from a car. So, the key thing to observe is to know how the firewood behaves. And the first step when burning wood is the gas stage, where the heat brings out all the gases from the log. And when you see a flame, what you see is actually smoke burning. And when the log has run out of gas, it goes into the ember stage, where the embers are glowing, and that is the remaining part of the log, the carbon. So, to make a successful fire you should know the basics of this combustion process, and I describe it in detail in the book.

And the other thing is, to many people’s surprise is that the optimum way of burning a fire is, when starting a fire, is to burn it from the top and down. And I think that’s probably contrary to what you learned, perhaps.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, I was taught you start off with the kindling and the tinder, and then you add the fuel logs afterwards. But you’re saying, you want to put,

Lars Mytting: Yeah. And there are two good reasons for that, because we, the generation before us, and all of those earlier on, they were used to either open fireplaces or closed box stoves. But for the modern, clean-burn stove, and also for outdoor fires, it’s actually better to start the fire by building a base of logs in the bottom of the stove, or the ground if you’re outdoors. And then, make a small fire on top of that, because what happens is that, smoke or gas will come out from the logs underneath, and they will obviously go up into the air. But by having the fire on top of the logs, the smoke that goes out will catch fire. So, instead of releasing pollution, you just burn the pollution and turn it into heat. And it’s described a method in the book which has been, I’m proud to say that it’s been met with really great enthusiasm, both by our outdoor people and also who had trouble lighting a fire with difficult stoves. So, that’s really one of the great things I like with the book, that it brought forward that method.

Brett McKay: Lars, this has been a great conversation. Is there someplace people can go to learn more about your work?

Lars Mytting: The book has, after the publication, it’s been, especially in Europe it became quite a lot of phenomenon really. I’ve described a bit of it on my website, which is in Norwegian, so people has to work their way through it, but nearly all I know, and what I learned after the publication is actually gathered in the U.S. edition of the book, which was because after the Norwegian publication, I had a lot of feedback and positive reactions from readers. And I made, for the U.S. edition, I made a revised and expounded editions where I integrated all the new knowledge that I had. So, basically all I know is in the book.

Brett McKay: Lars Mytting, thanks very much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Lars Mytting: All right. Thank you. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest is Lars Mytting. His book is Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. It’s available on amazon.com. Go check it out, it’s a really good read. A lot of philosophical tidbits about the wonders and pleasures of fire, but also a lot of jam-packed with practical information on how to build better fires to warm yourself. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/wood, where you find links to resources to delve deeper in this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website, artofmanliness.com. Our show is edited by Creative Audiolab here in Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you have any audio editing needs or audio production needs, check them out at creativeaudiolab.com. We appreciate your reviews on iTunes or Stitcher. It would really help us out a lot, so if you could just take a minute, please go do that. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

Last updated: December 4, 2017

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