Best Burning Woods for Your Fires

by Teresa O'Connor

There are few things in life more comforting on a chilly night than a roaring fire with aromatic wood. To make sure your fires burn brightly, pay attention to the type of wood you use.

Blazing Fire

Keep in mind these tips about the woods that burn best:

Tip 1

Green wood doesn’t burn well
The secret to a good fire, say the experts, is wood that has been seasoned for more than a year. In the case of oak, you'll want to season the wood at least two years, sometimes longer. Much of the wood for sale now is actually green, and needs another year to season. Often this year's wood is really intended for next year's fires.

Seasoned wood burns better than green wood because it produces more heat and less creosote build-up in the fireplace. Green—or unseasoned wood—is hard to light and difficult to keep burning. If your wood smolders and burns poorly with little heat, it's probably green wood. That's because unseasoned wood has a lot of liquid inside. Green firewood contains up to 25% moisture content that, when burned, can cause corrosion in the flue.

Tip 2

Seasoned wood has a look
You can tell if wood has been seasoned by looking at it. On the outside, the wood will look gray and dusty from sitting around for a while. But on the inside, it’s dry and lighter than the outside. New wood, on the other hand, looks like it came fresh from the lumber mill with the same color throughout the wood.

If you can't get your hands on seasoned wood, then look for ash or fir. These woods will burn better than many while still rather green; although they all will burn best when seasoned.

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Tip 3

Hardwood v. Softwood
For the serious fire lover, you may want to invest in hardwoods like madrone, live oak, ash, hickory, walnut and fruit trees like apple or cherry. Hardwoods are denser woods that burn hotter and longer than softwoods, but you'll need to let them season more than a year. Ash is an exception and can be burnt a bit earlier although the wood burns best when seasoned.

You'll find that hardwood is more expensive to purchase than a softwood like pine and fir. Hardwood, however, burns longer, meaning you don’t need to purchase as much if budget is a factor.

If you just burn a fire every once in a while, try a seasoned softwood like fir. You'll like how easy it is to get started and the smell is wonderful. But these softwoods won't keep burning as long as hardwoods, and you'll need to keep feeding the fire.

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Tip 4

Seasoning firewood
My friend, Dave Emberton, is a professional carpenter and furniture maker who really knows his woods. He kindly allowed me to photograph his amazing hardwood collection.

To help season his firewood, Dave cuts the wood to a slightly smaller size than the container he stores it in, in this case a firewood rack. The rack itself is raised off of the ground to help the drying process. Wood that is seasoning also needs to be exposed to sunlight and wind. While a tarp is necessary in wetter climates, be sure to also give the wood pile exposure during drier weather.

From the looks of Dave’s woodpile—and his seasoning techniques— he should be all set for roaring fires for many years to come!

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Tip 5

Tinder, kindling and seasoned wood
Building a fire requires three things: tinder, kindling, and seasoned firewood. Tinder can by anything from small twigs, dry leaves or crumpled bits of old newspaper placed towards the bottom of the firepit or under a metal grate. For kindling, try smaller sticks or chipped wood pieces; some can be placed with the tinder, but a few pieces should be placed with the firewood. Next, “nest” well-seasoned wood to the mix, leaving space for airflow. Finally, light the tinder in a few different spots to start the fire. You’ll be roasting marshmallows in no time!

When cutting wood for kindling or small logs, especially for campfires, my husband likes the convenience of the easy-to-carry Fiskars hatchet and how well it cuts without much effort. The hatchet comes with a sheath to protect the blade.

Tip 6

Twelve great woods for fires

  • Apple: Great for cooking, this wood burns slow when dry and has a fragrant scent.

  • Ash: One of the best woods for a steady fire and good heat. Although ash will burn when green, it burns better when seasoned.

  • Birch: This wood smells great and has good heat, but it burns quickly. While it will burn unseasoned, it can cause gum deposits in chimneys over time. So, avoid frequent use of non-seasoned birch.

  • Blackthorn: Considered one of the best, blackthorn firewood burns well with a low-smoke profile.

  • Cherry: Season this wood well and you'll have a slow-burning wood that smells wonderful.

  • Hawthorn: This wood will burn slow and hot, great for wintery fires.

  • Maple: Found in different regions of North America, this is a popular hardwood for fire burning.

  • Oak: When seasoned well, oak burns slowly and steadily for a long time.

  • Pine: This softwood burns well and smells festive. Try it for kindling or for outdoor fires.

  • Sycamore: You'll be rewarded with a good flame and moderate heat if you season this wood well.

  • Walnut: This hardwood burns long and hot with limited smoke. Walnut works well in wood-burning stoves.

  • Yew: A pleasant smell comes from this slow-burning wood that gives off plenty of heat.