A cup of hot cocoa, a warm crackling fire, and good company. Ah, it must be winter. A fire can be a wonderful source of economical warmth as well as a comforting necessity in colder months. Choosing the right kind of wood to burn, learning how to split it correctly, seasoning and storing it properly will help insure your safety and keep your house as well as your heart warm as the mercury drops.
(Note: This article was originally published on December 13, 2007. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to questions or comments.)
Choosing the right wood
Not all wood is created equally for burning. Some are naturally smoky, some are harder to split, and some are perfectly suited for fireplace burning. Below is a list of different types of wood along with a description of how they burn. Different types of wood will be available in different parts of the country, so find the best wood accessible for you. Generally speaking, hardwoods make better firewood than softwoods.
Black or White Ashburn at medium to high heat and are very easily burned. They emit very little smoke and sparks and are also easily split. Ash is an excellent choice for firewood. Red or White Oakburn at a high heat level and are less easily burned than Ash firewood. They emit little smoke or sparks but are not easy to split. With so much heat emitted, this is still an excellent choice for firewood. Beechis an excellent choice for high heat levels; it doesn't smoke much or spark. It doesn't burn as easily as other hardwoods, but it is easy to split. White, Yellow, or Paper or Gray Birchburn at medium to high heat levels and burn fairly well. These woods are easy to split, do not smoke much or release many sparks. All birches are an excellent choice for burning as firewood. Hickory and Hard Mapleare easy to burn at very high heat levels. In fact, Hickory is the hottest burning commonly used firewood. Both are very difficult to split, however they do not smoke or spark heavily. Pecan and Dogwood are both an excellent choice as firewood. Both burn hot and easily, are easy to split and do not smoke or spark much. Red or Soft Mapleboth burn at a medium heat level. These woods are easy to burn but not split and do not smoke or spark excessively. Cherry or Black Cherryalso burn at medium heat level, though do not burn quite as well as the other hardwoods. Cherry wood does not smoke much but sparks a moderate amount. This is an excellent choice if aroma is important to you in firewood. Walnutburns at medium heat level, is easy to burn and does not throw sparks or smoke much. White or American Elmburn at medium heat levels but are not quite as easy to burn. They are not easy to split and they do emit some heavy smoke, though they do not throw any sparks. Elms are not ideally used as firewood, however they are not the worst of the hardwoods to burn. Sycamore and Gum both burn at medium heat levels with medium amounts of smoke but no sparks. Neither are easy to split and are a both fair sources of fire fuel. Aspen is an easy to burn, low heat firewood that emits some smoke but no sparks. It's not the best fuel for fires but it is easy to split and readily available in many areas. Cottonwood and Basswoodburn at low heat levels but are both easily burned. They are both easy to split and also both emit some heavy smoke Chestnut is the worst of the hardwoods to burn for firewood. It burns at low heat and though it is easy to burn and split, it smokes somewhat heavily and throws a good amount of sparks.
Hardwoods are very dense and therefore make the best firewood as opposed to softwoods. The best hardwoods for firewood are White Oak, Ash, Birch, and Beech. Their overall ratings are the best for burnability, smoke and spark emission and how easy they are to split.
Yellow Poplar is a poor wood for fire fuel. Though it burns and splits easily, it emits some heavy smoke and many sparks. Southern Yellow Pine easily burns at varying heat levels and is easy to split. It emits some smoke and sparks but makes a relatively good firewood. Douglas Fir is easy to burn and burns at a high heat level. It is easy to split and doesn't throw many sparks, but because of its smokiness Douglas Fir is just rated as a good source of fire fuel. Cypress and Redwood are fair softwood sources of fuel. They are both somewhat easy to burn and burn at medium heat levels with some smoke and no sparks. White Cedar or Western and Eastern Red Cedar all burn at low heat but are very easy to burn. They are easy to split, however they emit some heavy smoke and lots of sparks. White Pine, Sugar Pine and Ponderosa Pine all easy to burn and burn at low heat levels. They are easy to burn and easy to split though they smoke some and spark a small amount. Tamarack or Larch both burn at medium heat levels, are easy to burn and split but they both smoke and spark. They are fair sources of fire fuel, but not the best of the softwoods. Spruce is a poor source of fire fuel because it burns at low heat, it smokes somewhat heavily and sparks considerably. Spruce wood is easy to burn and split but is not the best choice for firewood. (1)
If softwoods are your only choice, your best options are Yellow Pine, Douglas Fir, and any of the Cedars.
Splitting your wood
Splitting wood is by no means easy, but with a few tips it can be possible for any person of any size to split firewood. Begin by cutting the wood into "rounds" to a length that will fit into your fireplace or wood stove. This length is usually between 12-20". The shorter the rounds and smaller the diameter, the easier the wood will be to split.
You should use a dull axe or maul to split wood so that it will not stick into the wood. The purpose of the axe is to split the fibers apart, not to cut any wood. Freshly cut wood is hardest to split, so if you can, let the wood dry a little before you split it.(3) Be sure to wear safety gear such as work gloves, protective boots, and eye protection when you are splitting wood. You can put the log on a level spot on the ground or a better choice would be to use a broad, flat piece of wood to chop on top of (4). While log splitting technique is a matter of personal preference, your stance can have an effect on how successful you are. Woodheat.org offers this description of how to split wood :
"Stand with feet shoulder width apart facing the round. Measure your distance by placing the maul where you wish to strike with arms fully extended, then step back a third or half step. This will encourage you to lean forward a little as you complete the swing and it will add power. Hold the maul horizontally near waist level, elbows comfortably bent, one hand at the base of the handle, palm facing toward you, the other hand at the neck, thumb next to the maul head, palm facing away from you.
Flex your knees and bend slightly at the waist. Abruptly raise the maul overhead, extending arms high, straightening back and knees, and rising up on toes to gain maximum potential energy. During this up swing, allow the hand next the maul head to slide down the handle to meet the hand holding the butt of the handle."
On your downswing, allow gravity to do most of the work, much like you would a hammer. You can add some finesse with your arms as the axe falls to add a little more power. Do not lose sight of the target as you raise and lower the axe/ maul. Visualizing the axe going all the way through the log just like a martial artist imagines his hand going all the way through a board will encourage your successful split of the log (2).
If you are having a hard time splitting the wood or if it is a knottier or tougher wood, a wedge and/or hand sledge hammer may be needed. A wedge can also be used if your axe or maul gets stuck in the wood. A wedge can be tapped into the wood with the hand sledge to assist in splitting the wood. Multiple wedges can be used in conjunction with a sledge hammer to split the wood if an axe is not working(4).
Storing and seasoning your wood
Seasoning your firewood is the process of drying it out in order for it to burn at its best ability. Some woods can have up to 50% of its weight in water when freshly cut. If wood is burned when it is still too "wet," the fire will be smokey and slow burning, if it burns for long at all. Water content of seasoned wood should be under 20%.
There are many different aspects of seasoning that you can combine to suit your needs and circumstances. It is best to chop wood that is already naturally on the dry side, such as during fall or winter months. Splitting the wood also helps speed up seasoning because the wood dries out faster through broken cells along its length, rather than through its bark (5).
Once split, wood needs to be stacked in a single row in a spot where sun and wind can help dry out your wood (6). Stacking the first layer of wood on cinder blocks or wood palettes can help prevent ground moisture from seeping into the wood and causing mold. Some people like to criss-cross the wood every couple of layers to encourage air circulation and drying. Make sure that your firewood stack is very sturdy so that wind will not blow it over. Stakes and twine can be used to secure the edges of your stack if necessary.
Some sources say to cover your wood stack to protect it from rain while others say a few bouts of rain are not enough to slow the seasoning process. Depending on your situation, a woodshed or lean-to can give your wood the best protection from rain and snow. Do not lay a tarp directly on the wood as that will increase the chance of moisture getting trapped underneath and rotting the wood.
Once stacked, the wood needs to season at least 6-9 months in order for it to dry enough to burn well. Denser woods like oak can take longer to dry than some of the softer woods. You should cut the wood in the spring of the same year or in the fall one year prior to when you want to burn it in order to give it time to season. Seasoned wood will start to show large cracks and will make a distinct hollow sound when two pieces are knocked together (5).
Once the wood is seasoned, it will be ready to burn whenever you need a little extra heat. Hopefully you will be able to find a suitable wood to buy or cut in your own area to provide a good source for a winter's worth of warmth.
Photo credits: Wood pile with red barn- MaryE All others - Susanne Talbert
About Susanne Talbert
I garden in beautiful Colorado Springs, half a mile from Garden of the Gods. Since we bought our first house two years ago, I have been busy revamping my 1/4 acre of ignored decomposed granite.
My garden passions include water gardening, vines, super-hardy perennials, and native xerics. By day, I am a high school ceramics teacher as well as a ceramicist and painter.