For people looking to heat their homes efficiently with firewood, it’s a popular question: Which type of wood burns best? Indeed, some types of wood burn warmer and longer than others, but nearly any type of wood will work for a fireplace. When you choose one wood type over another, it’s not a matter of whether your home will be warm, but a matter of how much wood is needed to last you through the winter.
Hardwoods Versus Softwoods
If you are looking for wood that will put off heat for long periods of time, you will want to stock your woodpile with hardwoods. Hardwood logs take a while to be consumed by fire because of their density. However, they create hot coals that will burn intensely for hours. The drawback to hardwoods is that they take longer to become properly seasoned. Some hardwoods take as long as a year to dry adequately for burning — and they can be difficult to ignite.
Common hardwoods are valued for their fire power include oak, hard maple, hickory, birch, ash and beech. Even among common hardwoods, there are some varieties that provide more heat and burn longer than others. Sugar maples will burn longer than red and silver maples; and yellow birch will burn longer than white birch. Black cherry and elm are technically considered hardwood. The softer, commonly used hardwoods do not burn as intensely or as long as other hardwoods.
Softwoods will burn much faster and not as hot as hardwoods. However, they do have an advantage as firewood, in that they only require about six months to thoroughly season. They also are easier to ignite than hardwoods. Among the softwoods, douglas fir provides the most heat value and the longest burn. Other commonly used softwoods include hemlock, spruce and cedar. Many people avoid burning pine because it does not produce as much heat as other woods. Also, it is believed to cause creosote build-up more rapidly in the chimney’s flue.
Finding the Right Mix
In the end, finding the right wood for your fireplace is really about finding the right mix. As mentioned, both hardwoods and softwoods have advantages and disadvantages. The trick to create the perfect woodpile is to use the woods’ advantages to your advantage. Because softwoods ignite and burn quickly, they make for good fire starters. Because hardwoods will burn for a long time, they are great for sustaining your fires. That means that if you have a mix of firewood on your woodpile, you can use your softwoods to create a quick, high flame and then pile on hardwoods to keep your fire burning and providing ample heat for hours to come.
The perfect fire provides ample heat, a pleasant crackle and little smoke. Many factors can interfere with such a fire, leaving you with a fire that hisses and pops, fills your home with smoke and leaves you frustrated. A few tips can help you to build the perfect fire every time and avoid frustration.
Begin with the right tools
There are a few items you’ll need to build the perfect fire. Always start with dry, seasoned firewood. The firewood should be cut to the proper size, which is approximately three inches shorter than your firebox. You’ll need logs — split to 6 inches in diameter or less — as well as some kindling to get the fire started.
Additionally, you will need newspaper or a commercial fire starter, which is usually made of wax and sawdust. If you are using newspaper, stick to plain black and white, non-glossy pages. The newspaper can be wadded into balls or twisted into batons or knots. Finally, you will need long fireplace matches or a long lighter to safely ignite the fire.
Make sure your fireplace is ready
Never light a fire in your fireplace or wood stove unless your fireplace and chimney have been swept and inspected recently. Your fireplace also should be outfitted with a metal grate or andirons to allow air to flow around and fuel your fire. Before you build your fire, make sure your damper is open so you don’t flood your house with smoke!
Build a stable fire
Perhaps one of the most common fire-building mistakes is building a fire on a base of kindling and newspaper. As the fire burns, those bottom layers fall away, allowing the rest of the fire to collapse on top. This can create a hazard, as it can send sparks and bits of log flying, and it can compromise the quality of your burn. There are two primary methods for building a stable fire that will burn efficiently: the log cabin method and the upside down fire.
To use the log cabin method, place parallel logs approximately six inches apart across your andirons or fireplace grate. Place your newspaper or fire starter and some kindling between them. Place two more parallel logs perpendicularly across the top of the first logs, and repeat once or twice more until the fire is the desired height. Your wood stack should have a square log cabin look. Light the fire and enjoy!
As the name implies, the upside down fire takes the traditional fire building technique and flips it. You begin by placing a layer of your thickest logs along your fireplace grate. Then, you add a layer of smaller logs in the opposite direction across the top. You continue layer progressively smaller logs atop the stack until you reach the desired height. Kindling is placed on the top of the wood stack, and the newspaper or fire starter is placed on top of the kindling! Ignite the newspaper or fire starter, and the fire will burn from the top down, creating a steady fire that doesn’t need a lot of tending.
Call the experts!
If you need anything to prepare your fireplace for the perfect fire — whether it’s a chimney sweeping and inspection or repairs — be sure to call the chimney experts at A to Z Chimney Services!
As you procure fuel for you wood-burning fireplace this fall, it’s crucial that you make sure your firewood has been properly seasoned. Properly seasoned firewood — firewood that has been dried to a water content of 20 to 25 percent — allows your fire to burn hotter and more efficiently. And when your fire burns more efficiently, it not only keeps your home warmer with less fuel, it also helps to prevent dangerous creosote from building up rapidly within your chimney flue.
How to properly season firewood
Proper firewood seasoning starts as soon as a tree is cut. Logs should be cut to fit your fireplace, about 3 to 6 inches shorter than your firebox. They should then be split to a width of 3 to 6 inches. Once cut to the proper size, the firewood should be stacked loosely so that air can circulate through the wood pile. It helps to stack wood in a sunny place where the warmth and heat of the sun will help to dry it further. At this stage, the firewood does not need to be covered. Your prepared firewood should be stored in the loosely stacked piles for 6 months to one year, depending on the size and type of the wood.
How to tell if firewood is fully seasoned
You will be able to tell your firewood is adequately dried and ready to burn by examining its color, weight and bark. Seasoned firewood will be grayish in color and will feel light for its size when picked up. The wood will be pulling away from the bark, and it may be cracked in places. If you strike two pieces of wood together, they should make a hollow sound. Once the wood is placed in your fireplace, it should light easily, and the fire should crack and pop pleasantly. If the wood is difficult to light, and if it hisses and smokes heavily when lit, its moisture content is still too high for safe and efficient burning.
How to store your seasoned firewood
Once the firewood has been fully seasoned, it is important to store it properly to keep it dry and ready for your fireplace. Seasoned firewood should be stored off of the ground in a dry place. It should be stored either under a roof or covered with a tarp. Properly storing your seasoned firewood prevents the wood from reabsorbing moisture, molding or rotting.
While properly preparing, seasoning and storing your firewood does take some extra time, it helps you to get more efficient heat from your fireplace, and it helps to keep your home safe from the dangers of creosote, which include chimney fires, carbon monoxide poisoning and foul odors. If you are purchasing your firewood from a supplier, make sure you inquire whether the firewood already has been seasoned, and check the firewood for signs that it is dry and ready for your fireplace.