This story was originally published in November 2018.
With winter at the doorstep, there is nothing quite so cozy as curling up next to a roaring fire in a wood-burning stove. Choosing the right logs will keep that warm winter spirit blazing throughout the night.
As a general rule of thumb, dry firewood burns best. Wood is made up of a series of small tubes that carry water from a tree’s roots to its trunk and branches, and these tubes can retain water for months after they have been cut. Seasoned woods, which have been cut and left to dry, produce more heat than green, or fresh, wood. Plus, the smoke produced by burning moist fresh wood is a stronger pollutant than the fumes from their dry counterparts.
The key indicator of a log’s dryness is checking, when the wood splits at the ends.
“That’s a really good sign that it’s drying out nicely,” says Jake Dyer, owner of Southern Maine Firewood in Gorham, Maine. “The easiest way to tell is to check for cracks all in the ends”
Though online and streetside ads for bulk firewood can be tempting, always inspect the wood before committing to your purchase. When you are looking to buy firewood, make sure the area where the firewood is stored is dry and well-ventilated. If the wood is stored outdoors, the best burning logs will be the ones that are kept covered on an elevated pallet. Leaving the logs next to your stove for a few days before burning it will also help to remove excess moisture.
Timing your firewood purchase is also key. “Don’t procrastinate. Get it in the summer,” Dyer says. “The best wood you’re going to get is July and August.” But if you’re looking to purchase after that key window, you can pay a premium for kiln-dried wood that will burn similar to seasoned wood.
Firewood connoisseurs all have their favored type of wood, but in general, hardwood trees — flowering and nut-bearing trees — produce better burning logs than their softwood conifer counterparts.
Oak is a popular favorite and easy to get (paper mills, which compete with firewood distributors for supply, prefer white wood like maple, beech, and ash to the red wood of oak). Because oak is so dense, it provides a longer burn but is harder to light and needs to be thoroughly seasoned before use. White ash, on the other hand, will burn even when green but will burn out more quickly.
In terms of warmth, maple lights quickly and has one of the highest heat outputs amongst common firewood. “It has a higher heat output than oak, which was long thought to be the cream of the crop,” says Michael Scott, owner of Scott Firewood in Waterboro, Maine.
For those concerned about the ethics and sustainability of their timber, the best bet is to buy from a reputable, established supplier. “Somebody who has been business for a long time will stand by their wood,” says Paul Fontaine, owner of Fontaine Tree Experts Co. in Marlborough, Massachusetts, who has been supplying firewood for over four decades.
No matter the kinds of logs you choose, make sure they are sized correctly for your stove (most logs are cut around 16 inches, which works well for stoves sized 18 inches and above; smaller stove owners will have to request special sizing). Pack logs tightly, but not to the point of overflowing. Remember: safety first. Clear the area around and above your stove from flammable materials, and clean out your stovepipe and chimney before lighting your logs for the first time in the season. And be patient — wood stoves are less efficient as quick heat sources because need to accumulate a hot bed of coals before it starts getting warming up. But once the blaze gets going, your stoveside will be a perfect toasty refuge from the winter chill.