Leonel Reyes cuts firewood at Jillson's Farm in Sabattus, Maine, on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018. Reyes said the wood will be used to heat the farm store, run the wood-fired evaporator during the spring maple syrup season and to heat the home of farm owners, Pat and Ed Jillson. Credit: Daryn Slover/Sun Journal via AP

This story was originally published in September 2020.

When used properly and safely, firewood is an excellent renewable source for heat. In fact, 13.5 percent of Maine’s households heat with firewood, according to the most recent information from the Maine State Housing Authority.

If you are new to wood heat, don’t assume that just because your house has a fireplace or wood-burning stove inside and a chimney sticking out of the roof that you are ready to strike a match. Here are a few things to keep in mind before committing to heating your place with wood. Think of this as firewood 101.

What is firewood?

In its simplest terms, firewood is any wood gathered to use for heating fuel. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations describes it as “wood in the rough.” Generally speaking, firewood is not highly processed and is in some sort of log or branch from. Firewood can be seasoned or unseasoned, hardwood or softwood.

Know your wood

All firewood is not created equally. You want firewood that is seasoned. Seasoned wood is from trees that were cut down and left out to dry for at least six months. Most seasoned wood is at least a year old, and the moisture from the tree’s cells and its sap has had a chance to evaporate.

Non-seasoned wood is commonly called green firewood and is often newly cut so it still has a high moisture content. Not only does green wood produce less heat when burned in your wood furnace, but it can also cause a flammable substance called creosote to build up on the inside of your chimney. A buildup of creosote is a leading cause of chimney fires.

It’s also important to know what kind of trees your firewood came from. Hardwoods like maple, beech, ash or oak and most fruit trees produce a hotter and longer burn time. These trees also have the least amount of pitch or sap so are cleaner to handle.

Softwoods like aspen or willows make poor firewood as they burn fast and give off very little heat. At the same time, it’s not a bad idea to mix in a small amount of other softwoods like spruce, fir or pine with your hardwoods. Those trees burn fast and can be a big help in getting your denser wood to start burning for the day.

How much wood do I need?

Firewood is sold in units known as cords. A stacked cord of wood measures 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. The general rule of thumb is to plan on using three cords of firewood to heat 1,000 square feet of living space over a typical Maine winter. That of course will vary depending on the efficiency of your stove, how well the heat circulates in your home and how warm you want to keep your living space. When in doubt, buy more wood than you think you will need. You can always use the leftover wood the following year.

How do I get my firewood?

If you own land with standing timber and know how to safely use a chainsaw to fell and cut up a tree, you can harvest your own wood. Or you can hire a professional to harvest your wood. For most people, however, the easiest way to obtain firewood is by ordering from a reputable dealer.

Sales of firewood in Maine are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which has a list of firewood dealers in the state on its webpage. The department site also has information on types of firewood in Maine.

Another good way to locate a reputable firewood dealer is to ask people who have been purchasing firewood for several seasons. Don’t be afraid to quiz a wood dealer on where, when and how he harvested the wood being sold.

Jared Sirois has been cutting and delivering firewood in northern Maine for years and said he has heard stories of people being cheated by unscrupulous dealers.

“It’s a big thing with people taking advantage of folks who don’t really know how to buy firewood,” Sirois said. “There are people who don’t know what a true cord is and will just throw it behind their shed without measuring it.”

How will my firewood arrive?

There are many options when it comes to what form your wood can be delivered. What you choose depends on how much work you want to do. You can buy tree-length, which is exactly what it sounds like. Your wood will show up as long logs with the branches removed. With tree length wood you or someone else is going to need to cut it up and split it into a size that will fit into your woodstove.

Some dealers will deliver wood that is known as “cut and split” in the length you request. Dealers who sell cut and split wood often deliver it by dump truck, which can leave you looking at a mountain of firewood needing to be piled in an orderly stack that is accessible all winter.

How much will I pay for firewood?

Prices for firewood in Maine currently run between $250 and $300 per cord for seasoned wood that is cut, split and delivered.

Where do I store my firewood?

While it may be tempting to bring as much firewood as possible into your home all at once, this is not a good idea. With each piece of firewood you bring into your home you run the risk of bringing in unwanted hitchhikers like ants, spiders or other insects.

The better plan is to store your wood outside, protected from the elements under a lean-to or even a tarp. Then you can bring in wood a few pieces at a time as you need it. Avoid storing the wood directly on the ground to prevent moisture from building up on the bottom layers of wood. Instead, use a wood pallet or some type of elevated platform to support your wood. Just make sure it’s in a spot you can get to all winter long.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.