Getting Ready For Winter

What kind of wood should I burn?

  • It does not matter what kind of wood you burn: as long as it is really, truly seasoned. In the case of hardwoods, especially oak, they must be seasoned for over one full year! That means last year’s wood – NOT this years wood! If you’re wondering about which wood is really the best, or what causes the least creosote to build up, the answer is the same! Properly seasoned wood produces the most heat, and produces the least creosote! It’s not the kind of wood you burn that makes the difference, but whether or not the wood is seasoned. Firewood that hasn’t been split for over a year isn’t worth a darn! On the other hand, dry well seasoned wood is just great! Seasoned wood burns hot and clean!
     
  • If you have trouble starting your fire, or if you have trouble keeping your fire going, you are probably using this years wood – which means that it’s not seasoned. Unseasoned, or green wood, is extremely frustrating and disappointing. If wood is not properly seasoned it will be hard to light. It will keep going out. It will smolder. It won’t put out heat. It just burns poorly and inefficiently. It is also the moisture in wood which causes creosote to build up at an accelerated rate. One fresh-cut cord of oak may contain enough water to nearly fill six, 55 gallon drums. The moisture content in the wood determines how much heat the fire puts out, and how much creosote will build up in your chimney.
     
  • If you are going spend hundreds of dollars on firewood, it’s essential to KNOW that the wood you are buying REALLY IS seasoned! Seasoned wood looks  dark, or gray when compared to green wood  – but if you split a piece of seasoned wood – it’s WHITE on the inside. It’s brittle, or gnarly. It has cracks running through each piece, and a lot of little cracks on the inner rings. Unseasoned wood has a wet, fresh looking center, with lighter (“drier-looking”) wood near the edges or ends which have been exposed since cutting. When firewood is very fresh, the bark will be tightly attached. Avoid these hassles at all costs! When you get cold, you’ll be miserable if your firewood does not produce the heat you need. Only well seasoned wood produces pleasant, trouble free heat.
  • Depending upon when it was cut down, softwoods like fir or pine might be dry enough in just one year to burn nicely. But, a year is not enough for hardwoods: especially oak!  As far as quality is concerned, madrone is unquestionably the best wood!  Madrone is extremely dense, HARD wood. It burns extremely HOT, and it burns for a long time. Next, comes live oak, eucalyptus, walnut, and then all other oaks*. Fir is probably the most trouble free wood you can buy overall. But, if you read further down you’ll see it’s advantages and disadvantages. *White oak is troublesome wood. Though it is often mixed in, it’s a disappointing hassle. Remember that piece of wood that just NEVER seems to burn up? That’s white oak. Stay away from large quantities green wood, and accept as little white oak as possible – though it is difficult to avoid it entirely.
  • DO NOT cover your wood with a tarp …. or you will prohibit evaporation! Use a shed, or buy a prefab wood crib.
  • What REALLY causes creosote to build up? Creosote is the condensation of unburned, flammable particulates present in the exhausting flue gas (smoke). The actual cause of creosote condensation, is the surface temperature of the flue in which the flue gas comes in contact. Like hot breath on a cold mirror, if the surface temperature of the flue is cool, it will cause the vaporized carbon particles in the flue gas (smoke) to solidify. This condensation is creosote build-up. If the wood you are using is rain logged, or green, the fire will tend to smolder. Wet wood causes the whole system to be cool, and inefficient. But, dry wood means a hot fire! A hot fire means a hot flue, and a hot flue means much less creosote.
     
  • Back in the early 1980’s, tests were conducted to discover which kind of wood created the most creosote in a regular “open” fireplace. The results were surprising. Contrary to popular opinion, the hardwood’s, like oak and madrone, created MORE creosote than the softwoods, like fir and pine. The reason for this, is that if the softwoods are dry, they create a hotter, more intense fire. The draft created by the hotter fire moves the air up the chimney faster! Because it is moving faster, the flue gas does not have as much time to condense as creosote inside the chimney. Also, because the flue gas is hotter: it does not cool down to the condensation point as quickly. On the contrary, the dense hardwood’s tend to smolder more, so their flue gas temperature is cooler. Thus, more creosote is able to condense on the surface of the flue. So, saying that “fir builds up more creosote than oak” just isn’t true! It is a misunderstanding to think that it’s the pitch in wood which causes creosote. It’s not the pitch that is the problem, it’s the water IN the pitch. Once the water in the wood has evaporated, that pitch becomes high octane fuel! When dry, softwoods burn extremely hot!
     
  • Which kind of wood is better? That depends on what you want. If you are a first time fire-burner, or if you only want to burn a couple dozen fires a year: definitely go with a DRY softwood, like fir. Your odds for being happy are infinitely higher with fir, especially if you are just now buying wood for this year.  The fresh aroma of fir creates a lovely holiday ambiance! Fir seasons quickly, and when it is dry it is truly delightful, trouble free wood!  It’s easy to get going. It smells great. It’s easy to split for kindling. It creates BIG, friendly, luxurious fires! But, it doesn’t last as long as oak or madrone! You must feed a stove more frequently to keep it going with fir, and there is no guarantee that there will still be live hot coals in the morning. Cord for cord the hardwood’s may be a better deal.
  • Hardwood’s, like madrone, live oak, eucalyptus, walnut, black oak etc., are the choice of the serious fire burner. You may pay $300 for a cord of oak, and only $250 for a cord of fir. BUT, because the oak is more dense, it weighs much more than the fir. So you actually get more for your money with hardwood. In fact, you may get almost twice the fire for the money! Because hardwoods are denser, they provide more available fuel in the same space. So, hardwoods burn longer. If hardwoods are properly seasoned, they do burn very hot. (Look for oak mixed with madrone.) The fuel available in hardwood enables stoves or inserts to sustain high temperatures for significantly longer periods. Also, unless the stove is shut down tight, hardwoods may keep a hot live coal bed for days. So as a rule, airtight stoves, or inserts, perform best with dry hardwoods. It is, however, always important to have a large supply of really good kindling – because hardwood is difficult to start. Having a quantity of fir on hand is great source of good kindling.
  • When buying firewood, remember that first and foremost, it must be properly seasoned. The best way to get seasoned wood is to buy THIS years wood for NEXT year! For a scrupulous first time wood buyer, a moisture tester may be a good investment. Wood sellers will often tell you that even though this wood was split this year, it will be just fine. Except in the cases of fir or pine, that is not true. Look for gray, or darkened, brittle wood that has a lot of cracks in the inner rings. Seasoned wood looks gray, or dark and dingy because it has been sitting sitting in the sun, drying, and collecting dust for a while. But, if you split it: it’s dry and very WHITE inside! Unseasoned wood has the fresh clean look of new lumber at a building supply store. Unseasoned wood  has that same fresh look on the INSIDE when it’s split. Though seasoned wood is darker on the outside, it’s bone white on the inside.
     
  • Once wood gets over 4-5 years old, it does start to deteriorate, so the best wood is 2-3 years seasoned.  If you find good dry wood of any kind, you will really enjoy your fireplace! But, if you get stuck with green wood, you will be one very frustrated wood burner. Most wood for sale is “this years” wood. If you get serious about wood burning, you must always think one full year ahead! You should always buy this years wood for for NEXT year. Good buys of seasoned wood do come along, but they are often not advertised, because the serious wood burners already know where to go. If you are a first time wood burner, either buy dry, split fir, or hunt down really dry, cracking hardwood. You won’t be sorry if you spend a little more money – just to make sure that you get trouble free firewood.

Andrew Twidwell About Andrew Twidwell
ABT Plumbing serves Nevada City, Auburn, Grass Valley, all of Nevada County, Rocklin, Roseville and Placer. Emergency plumbing 24/7, repairs and installations. It's as easy as ABT ... 699 S. Auburn St | Grass Valley, CA | 530-272-9120

About Andrew Twidwell

ABT Plumbing serves Nevada City, Auburn, Grass Valley, all of Nevada County, Rocklin, Roseville and Placer. Emergency plumbing 24/7, repairs and installations. It's as easy as ABT ... 699 S. Auburn St | Grass Valley, CA | 530-272-9120
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