Wood is one of humanities greatest and most basic resources. It has a wide variety of uses, ranging from serving as material for living room furniture to being used in the construction of obscure British sports cars. One of the most common uses for wood is as firewood for fuel; for heat or for cooking.
Interestingly there is a significant amount of science behind the type of wood used in a fire. The firewood that you, or anyone, chooses to burn in a fireplace or stove will have a huge impact on the fire you will have.
Some woods will burn hotter for longer, and thus be more efficient for certain tasks; while other types of wood will burn very quickly. All types of firewood have their purpose when it comes to lighting and maintaining a fire.
What Kind of Wood Should I Use in My Fire?
The short answer, a mix of softwood & hardwood, depending on your fire and its purpose.
The Difference Between Different Kinds of Firewood
Wood, regardless of what kind, can be classified as either a hardwood or a softwood.
Softwoods come from coniferous trees. What is a coniferous tree you may ask? Well, to put it simply, a coniferous tree, or conifer, is a tree that produces cones. Like pine cones. For the most part conifers are evergreens. So, pine, spruce, cedar, fir, and so on. There are also some conifer trees that are not evergreens, such as larch trees, which, even though they keep their needles, don’t stay green all year (they turn yellow).
Softwood has a lower density, so you will need more space to store a given weight of softwood compared to hardwood. Additionally, softwoods have a higher water content, so if you cut down a soft wood tree for firewood expect the weight of your fresh fuel to decrease quite significantly as it dries ready for burning. (Don’t burn green wood, even if you can light it)
Pros & Cons of Softwood Firewood
- Easy too light.
- Burns cleanly.
- Quick burning with a large hot flame.
- Produces a pleasant aroma when burnt.
- Burns away quickly.
- More wood is required for fuel.
- Fire will need more maintenance to keep it burning.
- More storage space is required since it is less dense.
- Gummy and will dirty stove/fireplace quickly.
Using softwood for fuel has many benefits, as well as a noteworthy list of draw backs. For example, softwoods contain resin, which is very flammable. So, as you can imagine, softwood is very easy too ignite. It also isn’t very dense, contributing to the ease of ignition. In other words, if you build a fire using softwood you will have an easier time lighting your fire.
Softwood also burns cleaner, which means less black smoke, and fewer ashes to clean up after you’re done with your fire. Softwood will also burn much more rapidly, which on the plus side will produce hotter flames. Finally, generally speaking softwoods produce a very pleasant scent when burned, which is always nice. Who wants a fire that stinks, am I right?
Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and burning softwood has its downsides as well. For example, since softwood burns quicker you will go through a great deal a fuel when compared to the amount of heat or cooking power you are generating with your fire.
Softwood also contains sap, which, besides making reading a magazine in bed after handling it almost impossible, it will also gum up your fireplace and chimney as it burns. So if you burn a lot of softwood you will need to clean gunk out of you chimney and fireplace more often.
Finally there is the crackle and pop. That oh so lovely crackle and occasional pop emanating from a burning fire is created by the sound of pockets of water trapped inside the firewood exploding and releasing bursts of steam. Softwood contains a large amount of trapped water, and thus will crackled and pop quite a bit. This will actually increase the risk of your fire causing a house fire, since a large pop from a trapped bit of steam inside of a piece of softwood could send sparks and even pieces of burning wood out of the fireplace and into your home.
So, what about hardwoods? Hardwoods have different characteristics compared to softwood. Hardwood comes from deciduous tree. Trees that, again put very simply (your author, while many things, is not a botanist) trees that release their leaves in the fall, which fall to the ground. This includes basically all nut trees, and most fruits as well. Hardwood is very dense, meaning you can store a large weight of hardwood in a smaller space compared to softwood; making it quite space efficient.
Pros & Cons of Hardwood Firewood
- More efficient.
- Less fuel is required.
- Burns longer and hotter, so your fire needs less maintenance to keep burning.
- Requires less storage space since it is denser.
- Creates very slow burning hot coals, great for cooking with.
- Slightly more expensive.
- Difficult to light.
- Heavier per volume.
Should you burn hardwood? Well, if you choose to burn hardwood you will be rewarded with many benefits, and a hand full of draw backs, just like softwood. Hardwood, as mentioned above, is very dense. The denser the firewood the longer and hotter it burns, the less fuel you need.
Hardwood will generate a lot more heat per volume than softwood. Hardwood will generally generate twice as much heat as a similar sized amount of softwood. Hardwood will also burn down too long lasting and very hot coals. Softwood will as well, but those coals will burn away much quicker; hardwood coals burn for a very long time and are fantastic for cooking.
Of course hardwood, just like softwood, has some downsides as well. For example, it is much more difficult to ignite. Lighting a hardwood fire will take more effort, and time. Also, hardwood can be much more expensive to buy if you are looking to purchase your firewood. It is more expensive because hardwood is more desirable in the manufacturing of a large number of different products compared to softwood.
So, what is the Best Firewood for?
So back to the question, what type of firewood should I use for fuel? The best answer is both. Softwood makes great fuel since it’s inexpensive, can be easily lit, creates hot flames, and burns quite cleanly. Hardwood makes for the most efficient fuel, since it burns very slowly at higher temperatures than softwood, but is also very difficult to light.
Firewood for Indoor Fireplaces & Stoves:
If you are looking to build a fire, either in your living room, or indoor fireplace, or in an enclosed outdoor fireplace my recommendation is to build a fire using a fire starter such as paper or dry grass, kindling (see below for more info), and softwood to establish a burn. Once going switch to hardwood. This will give a hot fire that uses the minimum amount of fuel.
Firewood for Outdoor Fireplaces:
If you are planning to build a fire in an open, or exposed outdoor fireplace I would recommend a 50/50 mix of hard and soft woods on account of wind. Of course never light a fire in a wind storm, but even on a calm day a breeze will be present.
I would suggest building the fire using a fire starter, such as paper or dry grass, kindling, and softwood logs. Once burning I would alternate between adding one log of softwood and one log of hardwood so that your fire is comprised of roughly 50% hardwood and 50% softwood.
Why? Well this is so you can use the easy to burn properties of the softwood to your advantage to combat a breeze from literally blowing your fire out, and add the efficiency advantage of hardwood to cut down on the amount of maintenance and fuel you will need.
Firewood for Building a Cooking Fire:
Are you looking to cook on your fire? In that case I recommend starting your fire the same way as I suggested for indoor fireplaces, starting with softwood and switching to hardwood once burning. However, rather than constantly adding fuel to your fire to maintain flams, let the fire burn down to slow burning coals, since they are much hotter than flaming woods, adding fuel only as needed to keep the fire from burning out.
As a final note, what about kindling? What is it? Kindling is just small, thin pieces of wood cut down to make it easier to get a fire started. If you buy kindling it will have been made out of scraps of softwood.
If you plan on making your own kindling the best it is to use softwood as your material, such as pine or fir. Using hardwood for kindling is not a great idea, not only because it will be hard to cut, but it will also be much too difficult to light to be any good as kindling.
How to tell the Difference Between a Hardwood and a Softwood
For starters, the weight of the pieces of wood can be a key give away. Should you have a piece of hardwood and a piece of softwood roughly the same size in hand the hardwood will way much more than the piece of softwood.
Another quick trick for telling the difference between a given piece of hardwood or softwood is to dig your finger into nail into a flat part of the log. If you can mark it easily with your nail then it is a softwood, if not is a hardwood.
Would you like to learn more how to identify hardwood and softwood? Check out this article I wrote in which I detailed just how to tell the difference and identify what type of wood a piece of firewood is.
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