Sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold night can be intoxicating. But on the homestead, a fire carries much more importance. In many cases, the sole source of heat can come from the wood stove or boiler. Not all firewood is created equal. There are many factors that determine if firewood is good or bad. Species, health, and moisture content are the biggest factors. Today, we will cover what makes for good firewood, and what questions to ask if you should ever need to purchase firewood from someone else.
Is this Good for Firewood?
The species of tree can make a huge difference when it comes to heat. Good hardwood trees should always be the target for wood used for fuel. Firewood is measured in BTU’s. The higher the BTU rating by species the more heat it will produce.
Some of the highest BTU value trees in the Midwest are Oak, Hickory, Birch, Beech, Locust, Cherry, Ash, Maple, and Walnut. (There are multiple varieties of many of these trees along with pros and cons of each one. We could spend an eternity debating them. If you have a specific variety you would like to know about I would recommend researching them and test burning some pieces to see how you personally like the wood.)
Some hardwood trees to avoid are Cottonwood, Basswood, Catalpa, and Willow as they are low in BTU’s. Also, avoid using softwood or evergreen trees for firewood as they are low in BTU’s and can lead to a build-up of creosote which can lead to chimney fires.
The health of a tree when it was cut can also alter the BTUs in the wood. Trees with insect damage or decay can drastically lower the heat value. Trees that have been laying on the ground for any lengthy period will likely have lost most of its value due to the moisture from the ground causing the wood to rot. If it feels like cork and wants to crumble when you split it, it’s best in the bonfire and not the fireplace.
This may be the most important factor. Dry wood will light easier, burn hotter, and produce more BTUs than wet wood. All wood planned to be used for firewood should be cut to the necessary length, split into manageable pieces and stacked off the ground with a Log Rack.
Cover only on the top side if possible with a Tarp or Log Rack Cover. When stacking in multiple rows, leave at least 6 inches in between rows to allow the wind to move through all the rows. This will accelerate the seasoning period.
The seasoning period will vary dramatically based on how the wood is stored, where it’s stored, the species of tree, and time of year it was cut. When possible, cut trees during the fall/winter to split and store for the following year. Some species may not take this long to dry, but the more dry time it has the better.
If you want your wood to dry faster, try a Firewood Seasoning Shed. These will create dry, seasoned fired twice as fast as the open air. Plus, you can better care for your wood and keep it protected all year round.
I prefer my wood to go to both weather extremes to dry. Freezing in the winter causes the moisture in the wood to freeze and expand giving it easier access to evaporate out of the wood during the summer heat. Staying a year ahead and proper storage will ensure you always have dry wood.
If you find yourself short on time, look for standing dead trees. They will have less moisture at splitting time and will be able to be burned on a shorter timeline.
Some signs that your wood is dry are cracking on the edges, greying or discoloration from longtime exposure to the sun and a loud clanking noise when hitting two pieces together. You can also buy moisture meters (or one like THIS) to measure how much water is in the wood. Dry wood should test below 20%. Fresh cut wood will typically be around 40%, but that can vary some by species.
Signs that your wood is not dry are excessive smoke and water boiling out the sides when burning, fresh bright color and making a thud noise when tapping together.
Chopping Your Own Firewood
After finding the perfect tree using the tips above, get the equipment you need to chop those trees down into more manageable pieces. Be sure to replant trees to make up for the loss!
No matter how many times you’ve chopped wood in the past, you need to have on protective gear. Grab some Heavy-duty Work Gloves and Safety Glasses. If you’re not in a well-ventilated area, you should also wear a Dust Mask to ensure you inhale all that sawdust.
Another piece of equipment you’ll want is a chopping block or another item to raise your log off the ground. This is more safety equipment for your chainsaw than you, but by making sure your chainsaw never hits dirt and rocks, it will last longer.
Cutting the Logs
You’ll want to start by “limbing” the log, which simply means to trim the branches off. These branches can be set aside to cut down to 16″, which is the proper length for most fireplaces and woodstoves.
Once the limbs have been removed, you can move on to cutting the log. You’ll want the pieces to be about 16″, as this is the proper length for most fireplaces and woodstoves. To make it easier on yourself, it is recommended to make marks down the length of the log. Measure to 16″ and cut in a bit with your chainsaw or make a small mark with an ax. Just something so you know where you will be cutting. This will save you so much time!
When cutting down the marks, you only want to cut about 3/4 of the way through the log. Once you’ve reached that point, turn the log 180º and slice the rest of the way through. This will ensure you aren’t cutting into anything but the log and protect your chainsaw at the same time.
Splitting Your Logs
After you have your log broken down into pieces, you have a few choices on how you want to split them up further. This decision will depend on the piece of equipment you want to use:
Chainsaw: You can continue slicing up your logs with a chainsaw using a process known as “noodling.” Lay the wood on its side and cut down with your chainsaw. Depending on how large your piece of wood is, you should end up 2-5 planks of firewood per 16″ long round.
Log Splitter: An easy way to split logs is to use the equipment named after the job! Log splitters come in different styles and sizes, similar to chainsaws. You lay a log in the log splitter and watch as the splitter does the work. The product linked is known for its ability to cut knotty, hardwood, so if you’re looking for a simple way to split, I’d go with a log splitter.
Axe/Maul: If you are an old-fashioned kind of chopper, you’ll want to have an ax or maul. There are several videos and guides to chopping wood with an ax and maul. You can find step by step instructions HERE.
If you don’t have land with trees or perhaps a strong back to process your own firewood, you may be forced to look to someone else to supply your wood. Always ask the following questions:
How much wood am I getting? The only official measurement for firewood is the cord. A cord is defined as 128 cubic feet of wood, typically stacked 4 ft high, 4 ft wide and 8 ft long. Fractions of cords are commonly used as well such as one third or half cord. Terms such as rank, rick, and face cord are not clearly defined and mean different things to different people so it’s best to use the cord so there is no confusion.
What type of wood am I getting? Always best to know this before it’s dropped off as a cord of hickory will produce more heat than a cord of elm.
How dry is the wood? Unfortunately, there are people out there that will try to pass off fresh cut wood as firewood. Ask how long it’s been seasoned and stress that you want to inspect the wood before it’s dumped. This can help you avoid being stuck with wet or rotten wood.
Other considerations in choosing wood:
- Some wood smells better than others. Cherry, Apple, and Sassafras are known for providing a nice scent when burned.
- Certain species are prized for smoking meat. Hickory, Oak, Cherry, Apple, and Maple are all used to add flavor to certain types of meat.
- Some species are next to impossible to split without a hydraulic splitter and others split so easy you can use a hatchet. Hickory, Apple, Gum, and Elm are notoriously tough to split. Maple, Cherry, Walnut, and Ash generally split easily.
- When you have access to multiple types of wood keep them separate to use based on need. I prefer to use woods such as maple, walnut, and cherry when temperatures are in the upper 20’s and 30’s. I save the Oak, Ash, and Locust when it gets in the teens and colder.
- Maple splits and lights easily so it can be a great starter. Take a few pieces and split them up into thin strips to create some great kindling for easy startup.
Stories from the Homestead
Being self-sufficient is a great way to save you some stress, money, and even improve your health. Our homesteading posts are here to provide you with inspiration and confidence to improve your way of life. If you come across any homestead hacks or projects you would like us to discuss, please let us know in the comment section below.
More homesteading posts can be found in our Homesteading Category. We post the first Monday of each month, so make sure to check back in for more homestead hacks!