Remember, not all firewood is created equally

If you have trees in the backyard, value and protect them. Trees filter and transport water through forest ecosystems. Their roots reduce erosion by binding the soil. They minimize flood damage by soaking up heavy rains.

Their shade helps cool the house during the summer. They provide essential building materials. And they provide a remarkable source of energy.

In 1850 wood met 90 percent of the energy needs in the U.S. Today wood remains a major fuel in developing nations and in many homes across the U.S. I use wood to heat part of my house because it’s inexpensive, readily available and aesthetically pleasing.

Choices

But heating with wood is not as simple as it might sound. Selecting a safe and efficient wood stove and chimney system is just the first step. Rely on professionals for advice to choose a safe and efficient wood burning system.

Becoming familiar with the heating properties of various woods is equally important if you want your wood burning experience to be a pleasant one. If you already heat with wood, you know that each species of tree has a distinct set of characteristics that define its wood-burning personality.

After a few seasons of cutting, splitting, and burning wood, these traits become evident. Some split easily, burn slowly and throw lots of heat. Others are nearly impossible to split, burn too fast, and throw little heat. Start with a load of “bad” firewood, and you’ll sour on the whole idea of burning wood in a hurry.

Dimensions

Firewood is generally sold by the cord, but most sales are not for a full cord of wood. A cord is a stack of wood that measures eight feet long, four feet high and four feet deep. More often woodcutters sell “face cords” — stacks of identical length and height but only two feet deep. In other words, a face cord equals half a full cord.

Another confusing pair of terms is “hardwood” and “softwood.” These words reflect the physical structure of the wood, not its actual hardness. Balsa, for example, is a hardwood. Softwoods are evergreen trees — pines, cedars, spruces, etc. Hardwoods are broad-leafed deciduous trees such as oaks, maples, hickories and elms.

Properties

Even a rudimentary knowledge of the wood burning properties of various species of wood can make burning wood more enjoyable. Everything that follows, however, assumes that the wood is well seasoned. Seasoned wood is dry wood, wood that has lost most of its moisture to evaporation.

Ideally, wood that is cut in the fall should be stored under roof or tarp and dried till the following fall. Here’s a simple way to test how well-seasoned a load of firewood is: Mark a few pieces, weigh them and record their weights. Repeat this for several months. When the weight remains constant for two or three months, it’s dry enough to burn.

Best choices

According to foresters, the following trees make the best firewood: apple, red oak, maples, beech, ash, hickory, walnut and black locust. They all throw lots of heat and make nice beds of coals. Unfortunately none is easy to split, though the drier the wood, the more easily it splits.

Black cherry, sassafras, white oak, red maple and flowering dogwood are rated good. Their coals don’t last as long as the best woods, but they burn completely and cleanly.

Aspens, poplars, elms and sycamores get only a fair rating for heat value. They burn hot, fast and completely, but make few coals. Plus, elms and sycamores are difficult to split.

Conifers split and ignite easily, but they throw much less heat than hardwoods. They also pop and spark, so they pose a fire hazard when burned in an open fireplace.

Personal preference

Softwoods do, however, make good kindling. When I have a choice, I burn cherry, apple, red maple and sassafras. I like cherry and sassafras, despite their lower heat value, because they split easily and they are pleasantly aromatic. Apple can be tough to split, but it, too, has a pleasing smell.

By understanding some of the characteristics of wood, you can be selective when choosing firewood. Base your selections on heating value, ease of splitting and aroma, and you’ll agree that not all firewood is created equally.

(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail at his website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.)

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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