It has been beautiful in the daytime here in the Appalachian Mountains, but it gets cool at night, and a good fire is so cozy. Winter days can be more comfortable with a fire in the wood stove and summer nights are just more fun with a bonfire. But not all wood is the same, so let’s talk about choosing the best firewood.
Which wood is best for fireplaces? Which wood has the best heat value? And how can you make your own firestarters? I’ve got the answers right here!
Choosing the Best Firewood for Heat Value
Not all wood is created equally. Some will burn fast with little heat, while some burns slower and puts out more heat. Here’s a list of the best types of wood to use for the best heat value:
- Hop Hornbeam
- Rowan (Mountain Ash)
In general, one cord of wood can equal 200-250 gallons of fuel oil. Wood is not cheap anymore, at least not like it was when I was younger. A cord of wood can run around $200 for aged oak, less for some other types. Be sure your wood is aged from 6 months to a year. Green wood can have a lot of moisture in it, which can cause spitting and crackling. Bubbles or steam indicate a moisture content of 25% or more. While that may be romantic, this is often an indication of sap besides the moisture.
Sap, or resin, can cause buildup of deposits on the inside of your flue, creosote being one. These deposits can catch fire easily and are a cause of many chimney fires each year. Be sure to have your chimney inspected and cleaned yearly. Stay away from pine and it’s relatives. They contain the highest sap content.
While green wood is not good to burn, it can be much easier to split. Split your wood in the summer and stack it with a tarp over it to keep rain off. You can discourage bugs from inhabiting your wood pile by sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the perimeter. Any bugs that crawl through it will carry it with them and work it’s magic. Apply it to cracks and crevices if bugs seem to be a problem. (Find diatomaceous earth here.)
Coppicing is an old method of producing firewood from an existing tree. Typically a tree is cut down and left alone. When the stump has no tree to put it’s energy into, it can produce shoots, often called water sprouts or suckers. Some trees are better at suckering than others. These include:
- Hop Hornbeam
- Sweet Chestnut
Sweet chestnut is the tree of choice in England. Coppicing has been done with these trees for centuries. Coppicing has not found a place here in the US yet, at least not on a large scale. Some trees can be harvested in a few years, such as birch, which can be cut into brush bundles in 3-4 years. Some varieties, like oak, can take decades. Most trees will produce usable coppice wood in 7-20 years.
Easy Homemade Fire Starters
To get your fire started, you can take paper or cardboard and light it beneath twigs. Then add more wood, gradually getting sticks that are bigger around, until you get to a log. Sound easy? It really can be, but sometimes wood can be harder to start. I make my own fire starters from scrap shavings and old candles.
DIY Fire Starters
Place a few muffin liners in a muffin pan. Fill them about half way with wood shavings. Melt some wax and drizzle it over the shavings. Allow them to harden and store them in a quart jar. To use them, place one under some crumpled newspaper with a few twigs placed over it. Light the edge of the muffin liner and it will burn readily. I take these camping just in case the wood is wet when I get to my campsite. Scrape off the wet wood on some twigs and use the firestarter to get your fire started. The wood will dry out the rest of the way and burn nicely.
Another simple fire starter you can make requires a few things you may already be throwing away or recycling. Save your empty toilet paper rolls and dryer lint. Wrap dryer lint in some newspaper, scrunch it up, and insert into toilet paper tubes. These can be stored in a jar or zip-top plastic bag until needed. (Note: If using these DIY fire starters, you’ll want to make sure you’re using natural laundry methods so you don’t have chemicals from dryer sheets or other commercial laundry products present in the dryer lint that’s burning.)
Using Your Ashes and Char
When your fire is done and all the heat is gone, you can sprinkle the ashes in your garden. Don’t apply more than a light sprinkle a few times a year, or the soil pH may end up too high. Wood ashes can also be sprinkled on wood or concrete in the winter to prevent slips and falls. The larger pieces of charred wood can be placed in your compost for a while to absorb nutrients and micro-organisms. This is known as biochar and has been used for centuries. (Read more about Biochar.)
Whether you use firewood for heating or for fun, it’s best to be safe. Keep water or sand nearby. Get a fire permit or let the local fire department know you’ll be burning. Many municipalities have a limit on recreational fires of 3 feet by 3 feet. Keep kids away from the fire. Use a screen if you can. Many fire pits now come with screens.
Don’t build a fire too high or use gasoline to start it. (You don’t want to know what can happen!) If you’re burning outside, have a safe zone of green grass and rock around it, just in case stray sparks drop to the ground. And lastly, don’t build your wood pile over a few months and then just set fire to it. Animals have a habit of seeking shelter in woodpiles and can be caught by the smoke and flames. Move your woodpile before starting your fire.
Have fun with your fire!
Have you used fire for heat or recreation lately?
image credit to Horia Varlan