Heat is a necessity for survival, particularly during the winter months. But it can be incredibly expensive to rely on electric heaters or gas heat that costs a fortune. Fortunately, a third option exists that is more economically and environmentally friendly. And as a bonus it is more rewarding and effective than the alternatives. That option is burning firewood for heat.
Whether it’s in a wood stove, fireplace, wood-burning fireplace insert, or even an outdoor fireplace, it can be very advantageous to burn firewood. Here we’ll review the best firewood to burn and everything you’ve ever wanted to know about firewood!
Venturing into the vast world that is firewood burning can be intimidating to newcomers. The concept of burning wood for heat is somewhat simple. But there are a number of specifics to take into account. You want to ensure you’re making the process as effective as possible.
One of the primary reasons people are intimidated is because there are so many different kinds of firewood to choose from. When making your choice of firewood to burn, you’ll see some recognizable names such as oak, pine, and maple for the source of the wood. But you’ll also see specifications of the wood like hardwood, softwood, green wood, and seasoned firewood. With all these different choices and the combinations presented by them, it is no wonder that people look for help when starting out burning wood for heat.
Fortunately, once you learn the different types of wood and how they “stack up against each other”, the decision becomes much easier! In this article, we’ll do just that while also helping you decide whether you should buy or cut your wood, how to store and dry it, and common measurements of wood to keep you informed when going to buy.
Hardwood vs Softwood
All About Hardwood Firewood
What is Hardwood?
The first of the primary distinctions of wood is Hardwood. Hardwood, as you can likely guess, generally refers to a type of wood that comes from trees that produce hard, thick pieces of wood. The trees that contain this density of wood include maple, elm, beech, oak, and many more due to it being the more popular classification of wood. If you cannot identify the breed of the tree, you can use the leaves to determine its wood type. Hardwood trees are broadleaf, meaning that they have leaves that are flatter and broader than average that allow them to better absorb light during warm seasons, but causes their leaves to die in the winter.
Why Choose Hardwood for Burning
First, because the hardwood is so thick it creates a hotter, longer lasting fire than softwood without a lot of smoke or sparks. The lack of smoke is great for the environment and those huddled around it who are breathing in the fumes, but the lack of sparks is also great for the overall stability of the fire. With softwood, you will get more sparks and smoke because it burns more aggressively and quickly.
As an added bonus, when burning hardwood as firewood it will create hot coals which radiate heat for a long period of time. This is especially useful for long overnight cooks as with a softwood fuel source, your fire will likely be out by morning because there are no hot coals to keep the fire burning or to restart it when it goes out from burning too quickly. For overnight burns, slow and steady wins the race!
Another slight downside to softwood is the extra time invested in order to keep the fire burning. Softwood burns much more quickly than hardwood as it is so much lighter and thinner. Because of this you will need about twice as much softwood to match the density of the hardwood, which will result in you needing to do twice as much cutting, splitting, and stacking which is something nobody wants to do.
All About Softwood Firewood
What is Softwood?
The other primary classification of wood is softwood. No surprises here, softwood refers to wood that comes from trees that produce softer, thinner pieces of wood. Some popular softwood trees are fir, red pine, and cedar. These trees can also be identified by their leaves, and usually have “needles” and other thin leaves that can contain a pine scent similar to the smell of a Christmas tree! They also do not lose their leaves during the winter, which is why you will see them outside during the winter to be used for a Christmas decoration or burning.
Why Choose Softwood for Burning
With all the great benefits of hardwood listed above, it begs the question: why would someone burn softwood if hardwood is so much better?
For starters, when buying the same amount and quality of softwood and hardwood you should expect to pay more for the hardwood. Softwood is also much easier to light but burns much more quickly than hardwood. As a result, softwood is great for situations like a campfire where you may be battling outside forces such as wind resistance from nature so you’ll need your fire to be as easy as possible to start. It is also better for when you want to create a short-term fire and be able to easily extinguish it without causing a fire hazard.
On top of that softwood is also much easier to prepare than hardwood, taking much less time to season than hard wood. If you are cutting, preparing, stacking, and burning your own wood, this means more time and effort for you. Without the seasoning and preparation of the wood, you’re going to have “green wood”, which is a poor burning experience and should be avoided.
Aside from their appearances and density differences, soft and hard woods also differ in the way they burn. When asking most firewood burners about hardwood vs softwood, they will tell you that hardwood is the superior firewood, but this isn’t always the case. It comes down to the quality of the wood more than which classification it falls under. This means that a high quality softwood will trump a low quality hardwood. However, hardwood is typically considered the better of the two for burning, disregarding the preparation and quality of the wood.
Comparing the BTUs (Energy Output) of Softwood and Hardwood
Amongst other things, one of the main benefits to hardwood is that when purchased by the cord you will see a result of more BTU’s produced than a cord of softwood that is similar. A BTU (or British Thermal Unit) is a unit of measurement for heat. It’s basically defined as how much heat that you need to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. To break it down even more simply, the more BTUs that is able to be produced per cord of wood equals more energy that is able to be produced when the wood is burned. In order for the wood to ignite, the temperature needs to reach between 300-400 degrees Celsius, depending on its density (hardwood has a higher density and therefore requires a lower temperature to ignite).
More energy is definitely a great asset. And while it does produce more energy burning hardwood, it also is much more of a hassle. Firewood with a higher BTU per cord tends to be harder to split and harder to light. The burning results may be “better” but many people choose to go with a higher middle end BTU firewood. This is so they get both a very efficient firewood while also reducing the possible hassle. It’s the best of both worlds.
Some great examples of higher BTU firewoods are oak, hickory, maple, and ironwood. But if you are someone who would like to go with a middle selection, you’ll want to take a look at birch, ash, elm, and fir. Although higher BTU hardwoods are great for long-term, roaring fires, nothing beats the ease of lower BTU softwoods for shorter and softer flames. Some great lower BTU alternatives are pine, spruce, cedar, and hemlock which will be more than enough to keep you warm while you tell campfire stories. Just be ready to light the fire again in the morning!
Now that you’ve heard the cases for both sides, you probably want to know what the strongest firewood available is so that you can consider it for your fireplace this winter. The title of strongest firewood (in terms of BTU capabilities) is the live oak. Live oak boasts an impressive 36.6 million BTUs per cord (and a price to match!). If quality and efficiency is your goal, look no further than live oak as your hardwood option and enjoy your heat source all night long.
To make your options for choosing a wood to burn easier to understand, here is a chart you can reference to understand the differences between some common woods and why you might choose them:
As you can see, the softer woods are lighter and produce less BTU output than the hard wood. This table does not factor in price, which would be a major factor as hardwood usually costs more than softwood.
Green Wood vs Seasoned Wood
You’ve heard everything there is to say about the types of wood you can choose from, but another important aspect to consider is the quality of the wood. This brings us into something you might run into called green wood. Green wood is something you should avoid at all costs, as it isn’t a type of wood like softwood or hardwood. Firewood can be classified as green wood or seasoned, and you almost ALWAYS want dried seasoned wood.
An important aspect of how well wood burns is the moisture of the wood. When burning wet wood, you are likely to hear hissing, popping, and bubbling because the liquid in the wood is expanding from being superheated.
Dangers of Burning Wet Wood
Wet wood also gives out about 66% more harmful particles for every 10% of moisture content in the wood. A smoke producing fire is typically full of these toxins. As a result, it makes burning very wet wood dangerous to your health in enclosed areas. Because trees are living things, they contain moisture that has to be removed and dry out naturally, often referred to as “drying” or “seasoning”.
When you first cut a tree down, before it can be used for firewood in most cases it needs to be seasoned for a minimum of 6-9 months so it is able to fully dry out. Once it is dried, the moisture pockets that cause the noises are gone and it is able to burn more cleanly and efficiently. This increased the BTU output as well as overall eco-friendliness.
The only negative of seasoning the wood is the time and money is costs to allow them to dry for extended periods of time. This is why purchasing seasoned wood will cost more. However, many believe that quality is more important than quantity in wood burning, so it is worth the extra cost!
Tips for Cutting your Own Firewood
Choosing to cut your own firewood to heat your home can be one of the most rewarding things you can do. Not only do you get the reward of an abundance of saved money from not having to buy your firewood, you also get the pure satisfaction of knowing that you are the contributing factor to your home being heated.
The Best Season to Cut Firewood
The most important thing to first consider is when you would like to begin cutting your firewood. There are many advantages and disadvantages to each season but the season that I recommend is right in the springtime. You will have the advantage of the cooler air to help make the chopping and cutting of the wood less uncomfortable, and it also leaves time for the logs to be seasoned before they are able to be used as effective firewood!
The 7-9 months wait after you cut your logs in the spring should be enough time for most types of wood to dry out and be ready to heat your home when the cold arrives come winter time. Otherwise you will experience popping, lower heat output, and more harmful particles in the smoke.
The Best Trees for Firewood
Next you’ll want to know what kinds of trees are good to cut for firewood to heat your home and which are not good choices! For heating your home regularly, you’ll want to choose firewood with a middle to high BTU amount. You’ll also want a hardwood, as choosing a lower quality softwood with a lower BTU amount would result in wood burning much quicker and require restarting overnight. Some softwoods also release toxins into the air that can damage your chimney and start fires so they are mainly best for campfires, bonfires, and outside fires in general where the fumes cannot cause damage to the lungs or chimney.
The very best types of trees you can find are oak. Oak is going to be generally the most valuable and also the most efficient wood to be used as firewood. They are a hardwood with a high BTU, meaning they are able to pump out more heat for longer periods than softer woods. If oak isn’t an option for you, some great other choices to keep an eye out for are maple, birch, and hickory. Everyone knows names like oak but there are other great ones such as Osage Orange, Ironwood, Dogwood or even apple trees. Many can can provide a similar experience without the higher expected cost!
Equipment Needed for Cutting Your Own Firewood
Now that we know what kind of trees we should look for, and possibly even picked out one or two already it’s time to think about the equipment we’ll need in order to complete a job like this.
Safety Gear for Cutting Firewood
The most important thing to consider is your very own safety, as it’s easier to enjoy the fruits of your labor with all your fingers and toes! It’s essential for everyone cutting their own firewood to be equipped at least with a pair of work gloves, safety goggles and steel toe boots to avoid injury when using tools.
Another great thing to have are a pair of protective chaps, as in the case that the chainsaw comes into contact with you at any point, they will stop the blade instantly, preventing potentially catastrophic damage. Don’t spend the money you’re saving cutting your own firewood on hospital bills!
Tools Needed for Cutting your own Firewood
A rope to help guide the tree on which direction to fall could also come in handy and save a life. Finally, the most crucial of all the safety equipment is having a friend with you. Accidents happen, and anything can go wrong so it’s great to have somebody with you to prevent any accidents or to respond in the case of an emergency.
When it comes to specific tools to get the job done and actually cut down the tree and split the wood, the very best thing to use is a chainsaw. There are a few different kinds of chainsaws but for cutting enough firewood to heat your home for a winter you definitely want to go with a gas chainsaw.
Battery and electric powered chainsaws are great for small home projects but you’ll need the power and reliability that a gasoline powered chainsaw brings when you’re supplying enough wood for your entire home. Setting everything up and preparing can be a tedious and long task but actually cutting the tree down is fairly simple and straight forward.
Step by Step for Cutting Your Own Firewood
- The first thing you need to do is identify that the tree you are cutting down will work for firewood. Be sure to take notice of the leaves, as they are a good indicator of whether the tree in question is soft or hard wood, which can give you a better idea of what to expect when cutting.
- The next thing you should do is see if the tree is leaning or if it naturally wants to fall a certain direction. Cutting the tree down can be even easier with gravity on our side and we definitely don’t want to have to battle gravity when it’s time for the tree to fall, as gravity wins that battle 10/10 times!
- Next, I would suggest a friend ties a rope around the tree to help to maintain control of it to help guide the tree in the desired direction. From there it is fairly straight forward and all you need to do is cut through the tree and allow your friend to guide it where you would like it to fall.
- Once the tree is cut down we need a way to transport it. One of the best ways to transport firewood is simply with a firewood cart. It’s a cart with wheels that easily allows you to transport high amounts of wood with ease by leveraging one of society’s greatest creations, the wheel.
- Now that we have our logs, our job is to cut the log into smaller pieces with the chainsaw so that you are then able to split that into firewood that will go in your fireplace or furnace. A great size to cut into is approximately 16 inches long, as that will allow it to fit in most fireplaces and woodstoves with no issues.
- The measuring is as straight-forward as you would imagine, but here’s a tip that might save you some trouble: you should only saw three-quarters of the way through the log and then flip it over and saw through the rest. The reason for this is you’ll end up sawing into dirt or rocks which will very quickly and easily dull the chain of your chainsaw, making it harder to cut future logs.
Chainsaw or Axe for Splitting the Wood?
Since the chainsaw is already the best way to cut the tree itself down, many people choose to also use the chainsaw to split wood instead of the axe like some others. There’s no need to have to do all the work yourself when you can use a chainsaw that will power through the wood itself so you don’t have to!
Setting up the log to split with a chainsaw is the same as with an axe. You want to stand the piece of wood up straight and then simply power down the middle with the chainsaw. It’s important to take it slow and allow the chainsaw to do the heavy work, not you.
It would be wise to also be wearing the same safety equipment as you were before, especially protective chaps because you can be holding the chainsaw close to your body at times and if it catches the wood the wrong way, the chainsaw or wood shards can come flying at you. That’s it! Now that you are finished with all of the cutting and splitting required, you should be ready to get into the process of seasoning your firewood for the winter to come to make sure all your hard work was worth it.
Seasoning or drying out your firewood can be a very simple task for seasoned veterans who know the intricacies of the practice. But can be very confusing for some and if done incorrectly or inefficiently could leave you needing to abandon your current stock and buy your firewood this upcoming winter!
How long to season your firewood
Before you even think about drying your wood, first you need to find out about the type of wood you’re drying. Many woods have different qualities and some woods such as black locust or cherry have such low moisture contents that they will gain minimal benefit from air drying. However, a wood like elm or cottonwood which have much higher moisture content and benefit more from longer drying times will need to be air-dried for an extended period of time to be the best quality wood possible.
Another aspect that is important to consider is how long that type of wood takes to dry out. Some softwoods require as low as only 6 months to fully dry out. But if you’re waiting for oak it could be up to two years due to its density! The reason that this process can take so long is because it’s not just about the outside bark of the tree being dry but the actual moisture levels of within the wood are what matter. The entirety of the firewood needs to be fully dry otherwise the wood will burn unevenly, inefficiently or even not at all. The moisture in the wood will be heated by the flame (if you can get it to light!), which will cause it to crack the wood and make popping and crackling noises as well as create a more harmful smoke than drier woods.
Where to season your firewood
Since we now know what type of wood we’re dealing with and all about that type of wood, we need to get into actually beginning the process of seasoning it!
First off, we need to find a suitable location for our firewood. It’s essential that we find a place that is outside, if there are a possibility of termites being present you don’t want them anywhere near your house. It should also be as dry of a climate as possible, as it goes without saying that additional moisture in the air makes it harder for wood to dry once cut! Another important thing to do is to leave space between the stacks of wood and any walls. Each side of the stack needs to have free air circulation to ensure that the wood dries as quickly as possible, as without it the wood will simply soak.
How to prepare your firewood for seasoning
Now that we have our location we should gather and stack the wood pieces on top of each other. The actual dimensions of your wood stack aren’t important unless you’re measuring your haul or selling it. So just ensure that the wood isn’t stacked too high that it will fall.
Under each stack you should have two saplings cut to go under the stack acting as a base. This is to prevent the firewood from touching the ground and possibly becoming wet or contaminated from something on the ground. The best time to take advantage of seasoning wood is during the summer. The heat from the sun is a great asset in drying out the firewood more quickly than other seasons like fall or winter where evaporation takes longer and it is more likely to rain or snow. You’ll be able to fully take advantage of drying wood in the summer if you choose to cut your wood in a time other than spring, or if you are seasoning a hardwood like oak that will take 1-2 years.
Since we need to keep the wood stacks outside while they dry it is crucial that the top of each stack is covered to protect from snow and rain. The ends of the stack, however, need to be uncovered to allow for air to circulate through so the moisture can easily escape.
There are many different ways to stack firewood for drying. You’ll need to assess your available space to determine the best way for you.
Check the moisture level with a wood moisture meter
Wood can all look extremely similar at times, and the same definitely applies to wet and dry wood. The very best way to tell if your firewood is completed the seasoning process is with a wood moisture meter. This is a device that you simply stick into the wood and it is used to easily detect the amount of moisture remaining! With this device it’s incredibly simple to tell when your firewood is ready to be used.
Selecting a location and way to store your firewood may seem like something that shouldn’t and doesn’t require much thought, but overlooking the significance of storing your wood is an easy way to spoil your whole haul! In general it is best to store and stack the great majority of your firewood outside in a dry location. This is for the same reasons as when you are seasoning or drying out your wood because it prevents moisture accumulation and dries it out. To summarize, the best way is to simply stack the wood outside with two saplings under each to prevent the stack from touching the ground. It’s also important to ensure the stack is not touching any walls and also has a cover on top of it to serve as protection from any rain or snow.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to choosing to store your firewood outside. Once you begin to split your firewood it will no longer be able to stack in the same way without any assistance. Along with this, bringing in new firewood from your supply outside will be much too cold to put in your fireplace because it will cool the fire down too much. The best way to combat this and ensure you always have a steady supply of readily available wood is to maintain a two to three day supply indoors at all times so that it has time to warm up.
Finding a storage method for indoors is incredibly easy to do, as there are numerous stylish and amazing storage containers and racks built specifically to hold firewood. There are thousands of different designs, shapes and styles of storage for firewood fit to serve basically anyone’s needs!
Bark Up or Bark Down – The Age Old Debate!
Where and how to store your firewood are important questions to ask yourself. But it’s also important to consider how to place your firewood within the container or rack. A common question that is asked by wood burners is whether you should store your split firewood bark up, or bark down. This sounds very simple and silly, many people may even carelessly just throw their firewood in without noticing what they are doing.
When deciding if you should place your firewood bark down or bark up, consider the surrounding environment. In an inside environment it really does not matter much what you decide. This is because the climate is relatively controlled.
But many believe in an outdoor environment it is essential to place your firewood bark up. The outside environment can cause extra moisture to accumulate under the bark. And this could possibly cause fungus to grow on the wood. Placing the firewood in with the bark facing up can help to act as a shield from the bacteria. It can also prevent possible moisture that can deter the progress of drying.
Cords, Half Cords and Ricks of Firewood
Whether you are buying or selling firewood, it is very important that you are well-versed in the types of measurements of wood.
Cord of Wood
The most common measurement of wood you will come across is most likely a cord of wood. A cord of wood is not measured by how heavy the wood is. It isn’t even how many pieces of wood are stacked together. Instead a cord of wood is actually measured by the length, width, and height of all the wood that is stacked together.
A complete cord of wood should measure eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet high. While a cord of wood is not defined by its weight, on average a cord of wood will weigh over two tons. That will buy you a lot time by the fire!
Plan accordingly if you’re not getting the cord delivered. Because of the sheer size and weight of the wood, an average sized pick-up truck will need to make two trips to transport a full cord. From there you’ll want to transport your wood using a wheelbarrow or garden dump cart to it’s final storage location.
Half Cord of Wood
A half cord is exactly half of a full cord of wood. This measures out to four feet long, four feet wide and four feet high.
Rick of Wood
Another measurement you will come across when dealing with different measurements of firewood is a rick (or face cord) of wood. A rick of wood is different from a cord or half cord of wood. This is because instead of measuring in three dimensions it only measures in two.
A rick of wood is eight feet long and four feet high. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a width. It just doesn’t have a defined one so you will see large variation in pricing and quantities. The width can range from as low as 16 inches to as high as 24 inches.
Because of this it can be both tricky and risky to buy a rick of wood as you may be getting one third of a full cord or you may be getting half a cord of wood! Therefore, we recommend you stick to just the 2 standard measurements of a full cord or half cord.
Measuring your Firewood
Now that you know what the common measurements of wood are, you may be wanting to measure your own wood supply or even may be wondering how much wood you’ll be getting from each tree you cut down.
How Much Firewood in a Tree
As you may have already guessed, trees come in many shapes and sizes. Bigger trees definitely tend to give more wood than smaller trees. But with some simple measuring you can easily and rather accurately predict how much wood you will get from a specific and/or group of trees. The only tool you need for this project is a common cloth measuring tape.
How to Measure a Tree for Firewood
- Measure four and a half feet up the trunk of the tree, which will be the point where we’ll measure the circumference of the tree.
- Wrap the measuring tape around the tree to measure the complete circumference of the tree.
- Divide the circumference by 3.14 and that will be the exact diameter of the tree.
- Use the below chart to determine the amount of wood the tree will yield.
As you can see, if your tree is only five inches in diameter then you can only expect .02 cords from that tree, but if the tree’s diameter is 22 inches then you can expect a full cord of wood from the tree! As you can see, bigger (or in this case, wider) is better!
How Long Will My Firewood Last
Every wood burner should know is exactly how long their wood is going to last. And the answer really depends on a few variables such as the location and size of your home. But it also boils down to how many appliances you need to fuel. There are many people who need their wood stoves to heat many floors in entire homes all winter long. This can easily use up to 9 or 10 cords in a winter or even more!
However, some people have smaller homes will use it less often. They may also have fewer appliances and only need to use two or three cords every winter. On average about five cords of wood should get most people through Winter. And if not it, will definitely last long enough to allow you time to purchase more if needed. Just be sure you don’t run out entirely! If you are choosing to purchase one cord at a time you can expect it to last anywhere from two weeks to a month on average.