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Michael Perry: Warmth in store with full kindling box

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The kindling was dwindling. In fact the old coal scuttle (are there new coal scuttles?) we use to carry kindling was down to sawdust when I started the fire this morning. Instead I used strips from a cardboard egg carton, an old wilderness trick I picked up from survivalist chicken farmers. It works, but your wood better be dry, and it better catch on the first try. There is no coaxing egg carton embers to life.

You want good kindling. It makes all the difference. You want thin strips of crackling dry wood to Lincoln-log atop the crumpled pages of the weekly shopper so that within seconds of the match-scratch, flames are curling and weaving betwixt the sticks, building the heat and momentum required to ignite the bigger chunks, some of which — if the resident wannabe lumberjack got behind again this year — may be a tad damp.

Good kindling is one of my favorite simple things and we are always running short. As with too many things in my life, I run on a just-in-time inventory system, meaning I am forever stumping down to the pole barn through snowdrifts to cut and chop another batch because we’re out of egg cartons.

Today — for a few months anyway — I changed all that. I went down to the pole barn with the empty coal scuttle, made enough kindling to fill it, then didn’t stop. I set up a production line composed of a roller stand and the radial arm saw, zipping board after board into brief lengths. Then I placed a sturdy, scarred old wooden table in such a position that when I split the wood atop it, the strips tipped into a large wooden catch-box on casters.

On my “just-in-time” runs, I always end up whacking some board with the chop saw, then kneeling on the concrete floor to do the splitting, an uncomfortable position worsened by being in an un-insulated steel shed in winter with the kids cold in the house, or me late to leave on some road trip but yet to dispatch my duty as the familial fire starter.

Today’s session proceeded at a relaxed pace with the pole barn door wide open. There was residual snow in the grass but temps were balmy after a week of freeze. Wearing heavy leather gloves (typing is my life), I used my “boy’s axe” (says so on the sticker I never took off) to do the splitting. I purchased it on purpose because a splitting maul is too heavy, and hatchets are like a sports cars… fun and zippy but tricky to drive. The boy’s axe is heavy enough to force the split but light enough to make easy work, and the length is perfect for balance. I grip it halfway down the haft with the butt end tucked along the length of my forearm to my elbow. I don’t so much swing it as simply dip it into the wood like a pump jack: tunk, tunk, tunk and the strips peel away.

The table was a key luxury. So much of the ease and efficiency of manual labor is predicated on surfaces. What a pleasure it was to stand up straight and just chop, chop, chop, knowing that with every descent of the blade I was prepping warm mornings weeks from now. That the kindling run would now be but a quick dash. That the overflowing cup is a messy blessing but the overflowing kindling box is simply warmth in store.

An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio”( Read more from Michael Perry at

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