One of the biggest differences between gas and wood-burning fireplaces is the amount of variety that the latter allows for. Gas fireplaces are fairly simple when it comes to their fuel source; you just use the gas line that your house is already hooked up to. Wood-burning fireplaces don’t have this limitation, so you’re essentially free to use cut wood from anywhere to heat your home. Your own backyard, the neighborhood grocery store…the possibilities are practically endless.
If you favor wood-burning fireplaces over their gas-powered cousins, then today’s post is for you. Here are some tips for selecting the best firewood to use in your home:
Know the Available Varieties
Unless you’re an avid hiker or in the landscaping business, you probably don’t give much thought to the different types of trees in your area. For most of us, a tree is just a tree. But not all wood varieties are created equal, which means that they’re not all going to behave exactly the same while they’re being burned:
- For a fire that smells particularly fragrant, fruit trees are often the way to go. Wood that comes from fruit-bearing trees (e.g. apple trees, pear trees, cherry trees) tend to emit a distinct, fruity odor. On a similar note, walnut wood has a nutty aroma. And burning fir or pine wood can quickly make your whole house smell “like Christmas!”
- For a fire that crackles and pops, you’ll want a softwood like fir or pine. This type of wood splits very easily and tends to dry out quickly, making it relatively easy (and cheap) to burn. Keep in mind, though, that it also tends to produce a lot of sparks and cinders—keep your distance from the hearth, and make sure that pets and children do the same!
- For a fire that burns extra hot and lasts a long time, use a hardwood like oak, hickory, birch, or hard maple. These woods are relatively dense, so once they get burning, they tend to stay on fire. However, these woods are also harder to set ablaze, and they require more time than usual to become “seasoned” and ready for use. Patience is the name of the game for these varieties, so if that’s not one of your strong suits, then hardwoods probably aren’t for you.
- For a fire that produces smaller flames and less heat, softwoods like yellow pine, white spruce, and cedar are a safe bet. They’re easy to ignite, burn relatively cleanly, and are overall pretty “user-friendly” if you don’t have much experience building fires. A softwood fire may not be able to heat your house, but it will provide great ambience…and anyone sitting near the hearth will still feel nice and toasty.
The Drier, the Better
Above all else, firewood needs to be dry, and that usually means that it needs to be old. Wood from a tree that’s just been chopped down will normally contain a lot of moisture, and this means that it won’t burn very well. If you use very fresh wood, you’re likely going to wind up with a fire that fizzles out quickly, doesn’t give off much heat, and produces excessive amounts of smoke. Here’s what to look for when you’re trying to select dry, adequately aged wood:
- The logs feel light for their size and shape.
- The wood is a dark brown or gray color.
- The bark on the logs is peeling off. The ends may also be cracking or splitting.
- The wood sounds “hollow” when you bang two pieces together.
Generally speaking, chopped firewood needs to sit for about six months to a year before it’s truly “seasoned” and ready to be burned. Some varieties may need up to two years before they reach optimum dryness. If you’re buying wood from someone else, don’t be afraid to ask how much time it has had to age. And if you’re planning to gather and chop wood yourself, you’ll want to start building your supply during the summertime—don’t wait until cold weather blows in!
Be Careful (and Don’t Break the Law)
For some people, going out to gather firewood themselves (or at least chopping their purchased wood into smaller, more manageable pieces) is half the fun of using a wood-burning fireplace. If you’re planning to go this route, then please exercise caution! Saws, axes, hatchets, and chainsaws can all be extremely dangerous if they’re not used properly, so always keep these tools in good, well-maintained condition, inspect them regularly, and keep them away from children. You might also consider watching a few tutorial videos online (or speaking to someone at your local hardware store) if you’re not 100% confident in your abilities.
Also be mindful of where you’re obtaining your wood supply. Cutting down trees on property that you own is probably okay, but going onto someone else’s private property and hacking at their trees with an axe will land you in legal trouble. Public land isn’t always fair game, either; parks and forests that are maintained by the state or federal government often have specific rules about taking down trees for personal use. You may need a permit, you may only be able to harvest wood during specific times of year, or you may not be able to cut down trees at all. Do your research before you start chopping!
It’s difficult to say if one type of firewood is objectively “better” than others; they all have various strengths as weakness. As long as a particular log is dry, free of parasites, and came into your possession legally, then chances are, it’s suitable for use in your fireplace. Regardless of what kind of wood you burn, though, it’s important to have your chimney and fireplace professionally cleaned and serviced at least once a year. Doing this will keep both structures functioning effectively and safely for years to come, whether you’re “Team Hickory” or “Team Douglas Fir!”