By Katy Kelleher
From our January 2023 issue
It’s the Maine state tree, but it’s super resinous and, like softwoods generally, produces poor heat output and little in the way of coals. However, it catches easily, smells lovely, and can be purchased cheaply or foraged with little effort. Bad choice for daily burning, but it’s great for kindling, and many people keep it on hand for campfires or to supplement their cords of hardwood.
Perhaps you’ve encountered unsplit birch logs, bark unpeeled, sitting in unused fireplaces as décor? It looks nice, but birch too is a lousy choice for a main heat source, mostly because it burns fast and offers less heat than other hardwoods. Still, it lights easily and smells great, so it’s nice to have some on hand.
Prized for its straight grain, which makes it easy to split, ash is the rare low-moisture hardwood that still burns nicely and none too smokily when green. Seasoned is still better than newly felled, although neither produces great coals. Very mild smell.
Not as dense as oak or as splittable as ash, seasoned maple is still a popular choice, burning slow and steady, with excellent coaling. Red maple works too, but doesn’t burn quite as hot. A downside: sugar maple is rather smoky, though the smell is sweet.
A wet wood, oak burns low and smokily if it’s still green, but when it’s seasoned, it’s hard to top for BTUs, burning hot and creating long-lasting coals, thanks to its dense grain. It’s one of the most popular woods for burning and plentiful locally. Watch out for red oak, though, which has a reputation for smelling sour.
Tom Doak, executive director of the nonprofit Maine Woodland Owners, suggests a dark horse: applewood. Fragrant and easy to light, it rivals oak for BTUs per cord. Its popularity with chefs and bakers is only one reason it’s hard to come by as a heating wood. “Apple is an excellent firewood,” Doak says, “but who wants to cut down an apple tree?”
Before you buy firewood, learn the lumber lingo.
The typical unit of measurement for retail firewood, a volume of dry wood that, when stacked, is four feet high, eight feet long, and four feet deep (or 128 cubic feet). Sometimes this is also called a “full cord” or a “bush cord.”
Smaller than a full cord, a volume of firewood that, stacked, measures four feet high, eight feet long, and as deep as the length of a log — usually 16 inches, though some suppliers sell shorter lengths and thus smaller face cords (consider the size of your stove when buying). This volume of wood is also called a “rick,” though that more often refers to the stack itself.
Logs from a freshly harvested tree, sometimes still dripping with sap. When burned, unseasoned wood gives off more smoke and generates less heat than seasoned. Though it’s cheaper, it builds up more dangerous creosote in your chimney.
Wood that’s been allowed to sit for months (or years) in a dry, covered area, meaning it has less moisture and burns hotter and longer. It’s lighter to stack too.
Instead of letting wood dry slowly, some suppliers bake logs in a kiln to reduce moisture quickly. Not only is kiln-dried wood easy to light (and more consistently dry than wood advertised as “seasoned”), it’s almost guaranteed to be pest-free.