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People new to wood heating often learn hard lessons from their first pile of firewood. For efficient burning, most firewood needs six months to a year to dry sufficiently in a process called seasoning. So, if you wait until fall to cut your own wood, you're too late. And if you wait until fall to have wood delivered, it may not be seasoned well enough (if at all), despite the dealer's assurance. Still, you can find good firewood in the fall if you shop smartly. Some basics: First, the term "seasoned" is a relative thing - suggesting a wood's dryness compared to its high water content when "green," or first cut. Second, a cord of wood, the advertised selling volume, can be defined in various ways. Third, it's helpful to know the burning qualities of wood species available in your region.
Classified ads may offer to deliver "firewood," and sometimes "seasoned firewood," for prices from $90 to $150 or more per cord. Looking for value, you may be tempted to shop by phone for the lowest price, and you decide to start with just one cord because you don't know how much you'll burn. You ask for maximum lengths of 16 inches because your wood stove is small. The dealer arrives in a pickup truck loaded with firewood. You watch him toss the wood into a heap in the shadows and then hand him $90, pleased with your bargain. The next morning, you stack your wood in a row that measures almost 4 by 8 feet, dimensions you'd read somewhere made up a cord of firewood. Your woodburning neighbor stops by to look at your wood, shakes his head, and explains that a full cord should measure 4 by 8 by 4 feet, not by 16 inches. That guy in the pickup sold you only a third of a cord. You phone to complain and are told that the dealer delivers face cords, sometimes called fireplace cords, a legitimate selling unit that measures 4 by 8 feet by the length of the cut wood. Thus, in order to get a full cord from that dealer's $90 price, you'd have to pay $270. And darned if the fire from that wood doesn't just steam and smolder sullenly, as it labors to boil off its own bound water. Choosing a Firewood Dealer Your best firewood advisor could be that experienced woodburning neighbor who is well satisfied with a local dealer. Lacking that neighbor, you'd be prudent to visit the dealer's woodpile and examine the wood, especially when you've waited until fall to order. Some dealers cut and split a mountain of wood months before delivery, thus offering well-seasoned wood. Others may be cutting and splitting logs barely ahead of demand. Here's how to recognize seasoned wood: The ends look dry and show many shrinkage cracks. Whacked together, seasoned pieces of wood resound like bowling pins; whereas water-laden, green woods emit a dull thud. Another clue: In humid climates, seasoned woods often become gray - sometimes even dark gray - resulting from mild mildew. On the other hand, avoid old, gray, rotted wood, it will be lightweight.
If you have a wood stove, be sure to specify the maximum length your stove will accept - 18 inches or less for smaller stoves. That's important because many dealers cut for average lengths of 20 inches. Also emphasize that you don't want many 6- to 10-inch stubs, because they don't stack well and don't burn as efficiently as longer pieces. Again, inquire how the dealer determines cord volume. A full cord will fill to overflowing the bed of a 1 1/2-ton dump truck - a small dump truck. When dumped, its heap will measure about 4 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter - a large heap. For stoves rather than fireplaces, the dealer should have split all logs of more than a 4-inch diameter. Even so, you'll probably find many large halves of tree trunks that will be too heavy to handle with one hand. If you'll be feeding a wood stove, some of those bigger pieces will need further splitting just to fit inside, let alone to be manageable by all who tend the stove. Further splitting has another advantage - it exposes additional wood surface for air drying, which over time further reduces the water content. The lower a wood's water content, the better it will burn, giving off more heat and less steam.
Seasoned wood not only burns hotter, it also burns more efficiently, sending fewer unburned volatiles up the chimney flue to condense there as creosote, which is a tar-like substance that creates a significant fire hazard if it ignites. Imagine your chimney top resembling and roaring like an inverted rocket, threatening to breach the chimney's mortar joints and thereby ignite your adjoining house wall. A scary experience, to say the least. Seasoning Firewood First, you want to promote evaporation of what is known as free and bound water. Second, you want to prevent the wood from picking up moisture from rain and snow, and this requires shelter - the airier the better. Third, you want to prevent the wood from wicking up ground moisture.
In warm weather it doesn't hurt to leave firewood exposed to rain as long as direct sun dries it readily. However, except in very dry climates, exposed firewood in shade tends to remain damp after rain, which promotes rot, reducing wood density and heating value. For quickest seasoning, split any logs of more than a 4-inch diameter, especially those with resinous, watertight bark, such as the birch species. Their bark retains moisture, which means that larger birch logs can rot quickly unless split into quarters. To promote air circulation and thus fastest seasoning, stack the wood in a loose, even chimney fashion, two logs side by side, then two more perpendicular on top of them and so on. Also, elevate bottom logs on thin masonry blocks or scrap lumber, both to prevent wicking of ground moisture and to promote circulation. Because carpenter ants like damp wood to excavate galleries for their nests, avoid placing a woodpile near your house and never in your basement.
Wood can also contain termites and powder post beetles, which enjoy dining on house structures. So before moving any wood near your house, wait for consistently subfreezing temperatures that keep insects dormant. And bring only enough wood indoors that you plan on burning within a very few hours. The fire of seasoned wood wastes little energy boiling off water, which can represent 40 to 70 percent of an unseasoned log's weight. The goal of seasoning is to bring the wood's water into equilibrium with ambient air, typically under 10 percent water by weight. Because warm air has greater capacity to absorb moisture, savvy wood burners ensure that their wood has been cut and split in summer, at latest.
Heating Values of Different Woods During burning, dry wood emits heat in relation to its weight - not its volume. Pound for pound, wood species of differing density but equal dryness produce the same amount of heat. Thus, because less dense wood has less material available for combustion, you may need two cords of a lightweight wood to produce the same amount of heat as a heavy, denser wood. (Comparison note: A full cord of good wood, burned in an efficient wood stove, will yield roughly the equivalent of 190 gallons of fuel oil or 25,000 cubic feet of natural gas.) Foresters and firewood dealers refer to woods either as hardwoods or softwoods. Hardwoods come from deciduous trees - broad-leaved trees that shed those leaves in fall.
Softwoods come from coniferous trees - cone-bearing evergreens with needle-like leaves. Although there are exceptions, hardwoods are so named because most are denser, heavier and thus harder than softwoods. Because most softwoods (conifers) are lightweight and have a high resin content that produces more creosote in the chimney, they are not recommended for burning in regions where dense hardwoods are available. So, when cutting your own wood or shopping by phone, it's helpful to know relative heating values of local wood species. By phone, inquire what woods will predominate in the delivery. That question alone might give pause to a dealer who might otherwise try to dump low-heat woods on you. Neil Soderstrom is the author of Heating Your Home with Wood and Chainsaw Savvy. He's considering writing a book on doing your own firewood.