is the best firewood for burning in the home? A guide to seasoning
and storage of firewood and how to build and light the perfect fire.
By Piers Warren, author of British
Native Trees - Their Past and Present Uses
is the natural sustainable choice of fuel for domestic fires –
in use since the first fire many millennia ago. When we warm our
homes with wood, we participate in a natural cycle and an ongoing
continuum of activity that we share with ancient ancestors. I am
amazed at the number of country people who don’t have fires,
whether open log fires or woodburning stoves, because they are “too
dirty” or “too much work”. In fact the procedure
of building and lighting the fire is one of my favourite jobs of
the day, and I love handling and preparing the firewood. I am not
one to pursue a life where all comfort comes from the flick of a
the open fires of the hunter-gatherers, the brick ovens of the first
bakers, and, until the 19th century, all homes. We love to sit in
front of a fire and watch its magical flames speak to us and warm
our souls. Have you noticed that when the TV is switched off everyone
stares at the fire? And watching a fire is certainly far more relaxing
than watching TV! Fires inspire intimate conversation. When we come
in from the cold, we are drawn to the fire. No other fuel is as
to burn wood for heat in your home gives you more freedom and options
for fuel. You are no longer dependent on large energy utilities
and multinational corporations who may or may not be able to supply
power and fuel. Even if you have to buy in your logs at least you
are supporting your local economy. But what are the environmental
implications of burning wood?
When we burn
wood we are releasing solar energy, in the form of heat, that has
been stored in the wood as chemical energy. The process of photosynthesis
converted solar energy, water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and
the organic molecules that form the wood, half the weight of which
is carbon. So burning wood is just the quick reversal of this process,
liberating the sun’s heat when we need it most.
Unlike the burning
of fossil fuels like coal, gas or oil, burning firewood releases
no more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide) than would be produced
were the wood to simply rot on the forest floor. If we are responsible
in the ways we grow, cut, and burn our firewood, wood burning can
actually be a good choice for the environment.
Note that I
mention ‘grow’ our firewood – for of course this
must be done sustainably. There are many parts of the world where
forests are disappearing as growing populations collect daily firewood
without planting new trees. This is avoidable – wood is a
renewable resource, which means that it can be replenished by nature
in a period of time that is compatible with our human use. Provided
they are cared for and managed properly, our forests can be a perpetual
source of fuel, unlike gas, oil, and coal, which we are being depleted
at a rate far faster than the millions of years it took nature to
make them. On the smallholding it is up to us always to plant more
trees than we cut down, and if we buy logs from a wood merchant,
to make sure they come from a sustainable source.
So burning wood
is a good choice from the greenhouse gas point of view but what
about other pollution – surely all that smoke can’t
be good? Smouldering, smoky fires that produce a plume of blue-grey
smoke from the chimney are the main cause of wood heat-related air
pollution. Smoke is made up of many tiny airborne particles and
wood smoke can be harmful when it is inhaled. In some countries
wood smoke has become a major air pollution problem and this has
led to both local regulations and more efficient wood-burning appliances.
One thing to
make clear at this stage is that if you are burning the right wood
in the right way then there shouldn’t be much smoke. As you
probably know from bonfires, a slow, wet fire produces lots of thick
smoke – in the fireplace we are aiming for a quick, hot, dry
burn producing very little smoke. Another thing to bear in mind
is that a smoky fire is an inefficient one – we want all the
released energy to heat our home – not to go up the chimney
in the form of complex particles. Carbon dioxide, the product of
a clean, hot burn, is a colourless non-particulate gas, so a hot
fire with minimal smoke is an efficient energy-converter with less
There are two
main choices – buy it in or grow your own. If buying from
a log merchant (such as Certainly Wood www.certainlywood.co.uk) you should expect to pay in the region of £40–£50
for good truck load – and I mean a heaped Transit load not
a smaller pick-up. Ensure the logs are well seasoned and dry –
I have in the past received logs described as ‘seasoned’
(in that they were chopped a year ago) but soaking wet from lying
about in the rain for weeks!
When I say ‘grow
your own’ I realise not everyone is lucky enough to have a
small wood! I don’t have a wood but I do have a lot of trees
and hedges – and the prunings of these provide a large part
of my fuel each year. Remember when it comes to pruning or felling
you are often thinking a year ahead or more in terms of actually
burning the wood, as it will need time to season.
Where I live,
with no shortage of quiet country lanes, I often find large limbs
blown off trees and lying in, or next to, the road. By taking these
home for firewood I am doing the land-owners and road-users a favour
– but do remember that this wood does belong to the landowner
– so ask permission before helping yourself to logs on your
Sunday afternoon walk through the neighbouring farmer’s wood.
As I own a chainsaw
and associated kit (helmet, visor, ear protection, gloves, protective
trousers and lumberjack boots) I often get free firewood by helping
neighbours. So ask those living around you if they have any dead
trees, stumps, damaged branches etc that they want removed –
in exchange for the wood. At this point I must say that using a
chainsaw is a dangerous and skilled job – so make sure that
you have appropriate training. Many agricultural colleges do short
courses in chainsaw use which are well worthwhile. Any work with
a chainsaw above ground (ie using a ladder or climbing with ropes
in trees) should be undertaken only by a qualified tree surgeon,
or if you have had the necessary training.
So what sort
of wood burns best? Well there is an old anonymous poem which answers
this very question:
Logs to burn,
logs to burn,
Logs to save the coal a turn
Here's a word to make you wise,
When you hear the woodman's cries.
Never heed his usual tale,
That he has good logs for sale,
But read these lines and really learn,
the proper kind of logs to burn.
OAK logs will
warm you well,
If they're old and dry.
LARCH logs of pine wood smell,
But the sparks will fly.
BEECH logs for Christmas time,
YEW logs heat well.
SCOTCH logs it is a crime,
For anyone to sell.
will burn too fast,
CHESTNUT scarce at all
HAWTHORN logs are good to last,
If you cut them in the fall
HOLLY logs will burn like wax
You should burn them green
ELM logs like smouldering flax
No flame to be seen
PEAR logs and APPLE logs,
they will scent your room.
CHERRY logs across the dogs,
Smell like flowers in bloom
But ASH logs, all smooth and grey,
burn them green or old;
Buy up all that come your way,
They're worth their weight in gold.
Note that all
woods burn better when seasoned and some burn better when split
rather than as whole logs. In general the better woods for burning
that you are most likely to come by (including non-native species)
and pear – burning slowly and steadily with little
flame but good heat. The scent is also pleasing.
– the best burning wood providing plenty of heat (will also
burn green but you should not need to do this!)
and hornbeam – good when well seasoned
– good heat and a bright flame – burns quickly.
and hawthorn – very good – burn slowly but
with good heat
– also burns slowly with good heat and a pleasant scent.
– burns well but fast when seasoned, and may spit
– good, but hazel has so many other uses hopefully you won’t
have to burn it!
– good when well seasoned
Chestnut – good flame and heating power but spits
– fairly good for heat but crackles and spits
– very old dry seasoned oak is excellent, burning slowly with
a good heat
– burns well with a bright flame but crackles and spits
– avoid all poplar wood – it burns very slowly with
little heat – which is why poplar is used to make matchsticks.
– very good – in fact there is growing interest in biomass
production of coppiced willow as a fuel.
what is seasoning? Essentially it is making wood fit for burning
– by reducing its water content – usually by leaving
it for a period of time in the right conditions. All wood contains
water. Freshly-cut wood can be up to 45% water, while well-seasoned
firewood generally has a 20–25% moisture content. Well seasoned
firewood is easier to light, produces more heat, and burns cleaner.
If you try to
burn green wood, the heat produced by combustion must dry the wood
before it will burn, using up a large percentage of the available
energy in the process. This results in less heat delivered to your
home, and gallons of acidic water in the form of creosote deposited
in your chimney. This can eat through the chimney lining and cause
significant damage. The problem is that as wet wood burns slowly,
with little heat, the chimney flue does not get a chance to warm
up. There is little draw (air moving up the chimney) which doesn’t
help the combustion, and the flue remains a cold surface on which
the creosote condenses. Dry wood will burn hot – heating up
the flue, creating a fast draw, and shooting the smaller amount
of vapours out of the chimney before they get a chance to condense.
The first step
to drive the water out of the wood is to cut it into lengths –
let’s say about 12–18 inches long (or less if your fireplace/woodburning
stove requires this). Tree branches and trunks contain thousands
of microscopic tubes which carry water from the roots to the leaves,
and these tubes can stay full of water for years after the tree
has been felled (or pruned). Cutting the wood to shorter lengths
opens these tubes to the atmosphere which increases evaporation.
second step is splitting any logs that are more than say six inches
in diameter. This increases the surface area of the wood exposed
to the elements and therefore also enhances drying. So the cutting
and splitting of logs should be done as soon as possible after the
wood is harvested – not just before you want to burn it. You
can get mechanical splitters, and attachments for a tractor, when
you have large quantities to split, but they are not cheap.
For the average
user a maul is the tool needed. A maul is a type of axe with a heavy,
wide head especially for splitting logs – you can buy one
from a forestry supplier for about £40 new. A maul does not
need to be particularly sharp – unlike a narrow felling axe
which slices at wood and needs to be sharpened regularly. You can
use a felling axe for splitting logs but it is much harder work
than a maul. The trick with a maul is to let the weight of the head
do the work – swing the maul over your shoulder and let the
head fall on to the log without forcing it down. The wide head will
force the log apart. It’s also important to have the log you
are splitting at a good height – on a tree stump or larger
log about 18 inches to 2 feet off the ground is ideal – this
makes the job easier and avoids back damage.
It takes a bit
of practice to start with, but once you’ve ‘got your
eye in’ you should be impressively splitting each log first
time every hit – and be able to keep this up for a few hours
at a time without feeling exhausted. It’s a task I thoroughly
enjoy – and have always referred to it as ‘earning my
rest of this chapter which covers Storing Firewood, Kindling, and
the all important Building of the fire are covered in the book:
British Native Trees - Their Past and Present
Click here for further information about the book and to order your
above is © Piers Warren 2006 from the book:
British Native Trees - Their Past and Present Uses
is a reassuringly accessible, but authoritative, hands-on and up-to-date
trot through information we need to know about our 21 genera of
native trees. The author's style is a model of simplicity - free
of jargon. The timing could not be better for a book which contains
a whole section on wood burning, including environmental issues."
Forestry & Timber Association
a pleasing book. I was given mine as a present and I shall be buying
many more for the same purpose. The author knows his subject but
he also knows where to stop, which is a rare skill. You learn plenty
within these pages, and some of it is quirky and surprising: but
it's not a lecture! It's a human, friendly, practical sort of book,
and the stuff about how to set and light a fire is worth the price
alone. There's also a good 'resources' section at the end with lots
of websites and addresses of interest to smallholding / conservation
/ tree-loving types. Excellent value for money. "