What is exactly firewood?
One inexperienced may think that any kind of wood can be used as firewood. This isn’t quite true, however – some wood types are much better than others.
And when things come to keeping your home warm in winter, it’s crucial that you choose a good type of wood as fuel for your fireplace.
With that being said, let’s try to understand together what good and bad wood means exactly in the context of burning. Then, we’ll have a look at some of the best and worst options for burning in winter.
Hardwood vs softwood
When talking about firewood, it’s important to distinguish between hardwood and softwood.
Hardwood is a denser, heavier, and often more expensive type of wood. It’s durable, and it also burns longer and produces more heat than softwood due to the increased amount of material in it. Hardwoods are excellent as firewood, though not all hardwood species burn efficiently.
Softwoods work poorly as firewood since they burn quickly and produce a low amount of heat. Thus, always opt for hardwood, albeit you may try to use softwood if you have no other option.
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Seasoned vs unseasoned wood
Even the best hardwood type may be unsuitable for burning. Know why? It may be unseasoned.
Seasoned wood should be your first choice for burning. It is the kind of wood that has been left out in the weather for a long time after cutting. In storage, the wood gets completely dry on the inside, which makes ignition much easier. Not only that, but seasoned wood doesn’t have any residue that could produce thick smoke and cause chimney blockages.
Unseasoned hardwood may be a better option than any softwood, but if you have the option, always go for seasoned wood. Also, keep in mind that some wood types can burn relatively well when not fully seasoned, while others require thorough seasoning to burn efficiently.
The best firewood types for burning
Oak is widely considered the best burning firewood out there. It’s dense, burns slowly, and produces a lot of heat. Not only that, but oak is easily accessible around the world.
With that being said, oak takes longer to fully dry than many other wood types. It’s also more difficult to ignite, so it isn’t the best choice of kindling when trying to start a fire.
Birch is the inverse of oak – it’s rather easy to ignite, but it doesn’t burn very long. Thus, birch is excellent when used as kindling. Less experienced people will also like how easy it is to ignite birch, but keep in mind that you’ll need to refuel the fire more frequently.
Maple is a fairly popular firewood choice in the northern hemisphere where there is plenty of it. Its properties make it similar to oak – it isn’t the easiest to ignite and it burns long. In fact, some maples tend to burn longer than oak firewood! On the other hand, maple produces a bit less heat, which evens things out a little.
Ash is an excellent option if you want a steady and long-lasting fire that puts out a good amount of heat. Not only that, but ash can be ignited even when not completely dry. However, ash burns the best when it has been thoroughly seasoned.
Apple tree wood is quite a long-burning wood, though not as long-burning as something like oak wood. However, its burning time is still decent, and the heat output is good as well.
Some people especially like apple for its ability to put off a nice fragrance. Due to this, apple wood can be particularly suitable for cooking food over an open fire.
Cherry is similar to apple in regard to scent. It also puts out a pleasant aroma, which may make cherry an excellent food type for food making.
Cherry needs careful and long seasoning though. But once you get it thoroughly seasoned, it will delight you with its long burning and high heat output, as well as the aroma we’ve already talked about.
Hickory is similar to oak – it’s dense, strong, and has plenty of material to burn. Thanks to this, hickory burns as good as oak. Some hickory wood produces even more heat than oak, so it’s more efficient and desirable sometimes.
Rowan offers a nice balance of heat output and burning time. Perhaps not having the heat potential of oak or hickory, rowan burns quite a long time. And thanks to its decent heat output, it doesn’t require wood addition too frequently.
Black locust is yet another dense and strong wood type, and it delivers heat output and longevity on par with woods like oak or hickory. The not so good thing about this firewood is that it doesn’t grow in many places – it mostly grows in the Appalachian Mountains, as well as Missouri and Arkansas. With that being said, if you happen to camp in those areas, know that you have the option of burning black locust.
Beech lasts quite a long time, producing a solid amount of heat. On the other hand, beech needs to be completely dry to be ignited, so it isn’t the best option in humid areas. But in the right conditions, beech could be the best firewood type you could use.
Sugar maple is similar to regular maple – it’s dense, burns long, and provides a good amount of heat. Not only that, but sugar maple tends to produce less smoke and sparks than other firewood types. Thus, sugar maple may be an excellent option for you if your top priority is safety.
Firewood types you shouldn’t burn in winter
Burning non-local wood brought from another area isn’t the best idea. While oak, for example, will burn more or less the same no matter where it is, you may encounter another problem with non-local wood – diseases and pests.
These can severely damage existing tree populations in your area, ultimately making it very difficult for you to find firewood. Thus, burning non-local wood could bring many problems in the long term.
There are dozens of endangered tree species growing throughout North America, among them species like the American chestnut, the blue ash, and the Kentucky coffee tree.
Don’t cut down endangered tree species even if you don’t have other options. You may face legal issues, and you also will show disrespect towards endangered trees. Better to prepare beforehand and go camping with your own supply of wood.
Driftwood is a wood type that tends to preserve moisture for a very long time, which makes it hard to light. You’ll waste more time trying to dry the wood than enjoying the heat and light it produces. Driftwood also tends to contain salt, and when burning, the smoke of driftwood may be filled with toxic chemicals.
Laburnum is a terribly inefficient wood type. When burning, this wood produces a lot of smoke. And while the smoke may make it seem that the wood is doing something, in reality, it produces a very low amount of heat. In other words, laburnum pretty much is a waste of time.
Poplar is yet another inefficient wood type. Like laburnum, it produces a lot of smoke, which neither is good health nor looks nice. Aside from that, poplar is difficult to ignite, and it produces too little heat for the amount of smoke, just like driftwood does.
Sweet chestnut is a testimony that high heat output doesn’t always mean that wood is good. While not the most efficient wood on the list, sweet chestnut is fairly decent when it comes to heat and burning time.
However, this wood type tends to split while burning. This poppy nature implies a variety of safety hazards, which makes sweet chestnut unsuitable for pretty much any application, unless you are okay with the wood popping and if you don’t have other options.
And yeah, this thing also produces a lot of smoke.
Driftwood isn’t the only food type that could produce toxic smoke. Woods like poison ivy, poison oak, and virtually any other wood type containing the word “poison” in its name isn’t safe to burn.
When burning, poisonous wood produces smoke containing urushiol, an oily mixture that tends to cause irritation. Not only your skin is at risk but also our lungs and other internal organ systems. Thus, stay away from any type of poisonous wood.
Willow doesn’t emit toxic chemicals, nor does it produce a lot of smoke. It’s just a bad wood because it doesn’t burn as well as the wood types we overviewed in the previous section. Willow burns poorly even when completely dry and seasoned, so it should be avoided.
Spruce is a terrible burning wood because it burns quickly while not producing a substantial amount of heat. It’s very inefficient and requires refueling very frequently, making your pocket unhappy.
Holly is just like spruce – it burns out quickly without producing a sufficient amount of heat. Holly has one kind of upside – it burns even when wet, so it may serve as good kindling if you have no other options. But we’d suggest that you avoid holly altogether if possible.