Different trees offer varying qualities of firewood

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Learn how to select firewood to keep you warm this winter.
Learn how to select firewood to keep you warm this winter. Photo by: aaronernestoortizlopez (on Flickr)
Last Updated: 
October 31, 2005

EUGENE – As sunset keeps coming earlier and the mornings are becoming cooler, autumn seems inevitable. Soon, it will be time to start heating the house. If you have a fireplace or heat your home with a woodstove, you have to either cut or purchase firewood.

Dry, seasoned firewood burns most efficiently, giving the most heat and the least smoke. In an ideal world, you’d buy your own firewood about a year before burning it. Dense, small diameter material – such as branches from oak or madrone trees, (small unsplit rounds) – may need more than a year to be fully cured.

“If you can cut it and split it, you can burn it,” quipped Steve Bowers, forester with the Lane County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service. “But there’s a big difference in the ease of splitting and the heating value with green versus dry firewood and between different types of wood.”

Unseasoned wood is not suitable for open fireplaces, stressed Bowers. “Fireplaces don’t draft like a wood stove, so you need dry wood if you want to experience an even-burning fire. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing more pellet stoves: too many people have been dissatisfied with the quality of wood they purchased. It is often not cured well.”

Here’s Bowers’ run-down on the splitting and burning qualities of each of the major types of firewood most commonly available in Oregon.

Douglas-fir: This ubiquitous tree has medium heating value, doesn’t make too much ash, and is probably the best of the conifers for firewood – better than some of the hardwoods. Older trees or tight grain Doug-fir is easy to split. But some of the younger, second growth, smaller diameter trees can be extremely difficult to split.

Red alder: Seasoned alder burns warm, but fast. Wet alder puts out a lot of ash and very little heat. Alder cuts and splits easily with an axe. Fir and alder are competitively priced.

Lodgepole or ponderosa pine: From the east side of the Cascades, lodgepole burns hot and fast, and it cuts and splits easily. Ponderosa from the west side burns hot and fast, but may be difficult to split and full of pitch.

Oak: Properly seasoned oak is hard to beat. It holds a fire, doesn’t spark, and much of it splits moderately well. But, it won’t produce much heat and will produce lots of ash if it isn’t adequately seasoned. Be careful, as oak often grows where poison oak is rampant. If your wood comes in contact with the resin from this pernicious plant, you can develop a rash.

Oregon ash: Wet or dry, ash wood will produce a decent fire, but with a lot of ash. Most ash cuts and splits relatively easily as long as it is still green.

Big leaf maple: Maple is pretty close to the quality of ash and has similar cutting and splitting characteristics. It burns slightly cleaner, sparks a lot more and doesn’t heat quite as well.

Madrone: When seasoned, this hard, dense wood burns very hot and produces long-lasting coals. Having little bark, madrone is clean to bring indoors. Some madrone is knotty and difficult to cut and split. It is expensive to purchase, but a little goes a long way in heating.

“With today’s firewood going for consistently over $150 per cord, burning purchased firewood for economic reasons has become a specious argument,” said Bowers. “But if you have access to firewood cutting areas and enjoy the work, then go for it. It’s good exercise and one gets a sense of satisfaction at being able to see a day’s work piled up in front of them.”

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Steve Bowers