Sitting beside a cozy, crackling fireplace can be one of life’s most satisfying experiences. You may not have given much thought to your firewood, but the type you choose makes a difference in the quality of your fire. Let’s shed some light on the subject.
The type of wood matters
The best fires burn slowly and provide even generous heat. That requires seasoned firewood with a moisture content of no more than 20 to 25 percent. The best firewood does not contain large amounts of oils and resins.
Denser firewood, such as various breeds of oak, birch, hickory, white ash and ironwood, burn more slowly than other woods and generate heat more evenly and for longer because they contain less sap and resins. The ashes left after these woods are burned will contain pebble-like chips called clinkers.
Softer woods, such as pine, balsam, cottonwood, aspen, cedar, juniper, alder and hemlock, burn more quickly than their harder counterparts. That means they generate less heat. These woods burn down to a fine ash and can coat the inside of your chimney with a by-product called creosote. This substance can cause dangerous chimney fires.
This doesn’t mean there is no use for softer firewood. You can use small amounts for starter kindling. Or use these woods in the fall or spring when you want a fire that burns for less time than you would want in winter.
Never burn treated or engineered woods, like lumber, particleboard, pressed board or wood that has been painted or stained. These contain chemicals that produce noxious smoke and gases.
Cut and seasoning of wood
Even if you’re cutting the right type of firewood, it’s important to properly dry it. This process is called seasoning. Firewood should be cut six months to a year before you plan to burn it. The wood should be cut to the proper length, usually a couple of feet long, and split. This allows for the best seasoning. Allow firewood to dry out by storing it a few inches off the ground. (Because hardwoods weigh more than softer firewood, make sure your wood rack is sturdy enough to hold the logs.) Store the wood beneath a shed roof or cover the top with a waterproof tarp to keep moisture away, but keep the sides open to the air for drying. A woodpile attracts insects that destroy wood, so do not store firewood next to your house.
Properly seasoned wood is grayed, especially on the ends. You want to hear a clunking sound when you knock two pieces together. Wood that hasn’t dried long enough will make a dull thud.
The basic measurement of firewood, called a cord, is 128 cubic feet, or eight feet long, four feet high and four feet deep. A face cord is the same length and height but only as deep as single cut pieces.
If you buy your firewood, look for the characteristics of proper seasoning. Ask the seller when the wood was cut and what kind of wood it is. Expect to pay more for an all-hardwood cord.
Creosote, which arises from burning paper or improperly seasoned logs as well as softer firewood, builds up in your fireplace flue and chimney. Creosote fires can burn as hot as 2,000 degrees and spread to other parts of your home. That’s why it’s important to have a certified professional chimney sweep regularly clean your fireplace.
Because of the risk of creosote buildup, avoid burning large amounts of paper. Also, use artificial logs only sparingly. Burn only one at a time and only in an open fireplace. Be careful in prodding them with a poker, as these logs may break apart.
Working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are essential equipment if you’re going to burn fires in your fireplace.