Who doesn’t love the smell of a wood fire puffing out of the chimney on a cold, wintery day? And then there is the crackle that can nearly put you to sleep, with light bouncing off the walls and heat warming the room. Lighting a fire is one of the coziest things we do when we’re in the mood to relax.
It’s probably in our DNA, considering that the earliest fire pit ever discovered is 1 million years old, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
And although wood fires were a necessity a century or so ago, they are now considered a luxury, if you ask Tom Rogers of Woodhill Firewood in Irvine, Calif. Not everyone can afford a fine pile of pricey hickory for a hot, crackling fire. The best firewoods are expensive.
“Premium firewood is anything that is cut, split, seasoned and ready to burn,” he said.
The longer the distance that cut wood travels to the point where it is sold, the pricier it is. Hardwood is more expensive than soft. And orchard woods used for cooking cost a pretty penny. Rogers knows all about wood; he has been in the firewood business 46 years.
Fred De St. Jean at Lumberjax in Costa Mesa, Calif., said most firewood dealers like him offer a mix of local woods, which in California include eucalyptus, ash and carrotwood. “My standard is usually 75 percent hardwood and 25 percent soft,” he said, suggesting these are the best buys.
While all wood is the same when it comes to composition, it is how soft or hard the wood is and the way it is split and dried that affect its behavior in the fireplace.
• If you are buying firewood by the bundle or cord, the cost can depend on many factors. Don’t expect a standard.
• A full cord of wood is a tight stack at 128 cubic feet and measures 4 feet deep, 4 feet high and 8 feet long. Make sure you get the full amount you’re paying for.
• Softwoods cost half that of hardwoods.
• “Cooking” woods go for a premium price.
• Location plays a part. The farther the wood travels, the more it costs.
• Fully dried firewood costs more than green. But you can buy green wood in the spring and dry it yourself to use the following year.
• Size matters. Smaller, proper splits of random sizes cost more than larger, unsplit logs.
KINDS OF FIREWOOD
Here are some varieties listed in order of heat value, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. The harder the firewood, the longer it burns. Consider buying a mix: softwoods light fast, but hardwoods burn longer. Firewood, from hard to soft:
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Super-premium orchard woods such as apple, orange, almond, pecan, walnut and olive are usually used as cooking woods.
End pieces are fine for camp and beach fires.
Alert: Never burn Christmas trees in your fireplace — they are highly combustible and can explode.
BUILDING A FIRE
• Remove large piles of ash before you start a fire, but leave an inch on the bottom to insulate the fire box.
• Make sure the damper is open.
• Never burn anything in your fireplace except untreated firewood and kindling.
• Proper kindling includes pine cones, paper, wood scraps, twigs and fire starters.
• Never burn wood that is not properly seasoned. Green wood causes flammable creosote buildup in your flue.
• Start with two to three pieces of firewood stacked with an inch gap between each piece for air flow. A single log is harder to light than a small pile.
• Never let a fire smolder overnight. Smoldering fires clog the flue with creosote and release harmful carbon monoxide into the room. The EPA recommends leaving your glass fireplace cover closed during use to limit carbon monoxide in the room.
CUTTING YOUR OWN
Assuming you have a permit to cut firewood in the wild, or you are cutting wood from your own property, here are a few tips:
• You’ll need a storage area at least 16 feet long for a full cord of wood.
• Make sure firewood is cut to the right length — usually 3 inches shorter than the width of your fireplace or wood stove.
• Split the wood before stacking to speed the drying process. Wet wood is easier to split than dry wood.
• Aim for split sizes from 3 to 6 inches measured across the piece.
• Stack the wood in alternate directions for better circulation.
• Store firewood off the ground to improve the drying process.
• Cover the top of the pile loosely, but leave the sides exposed.
• Make sure your firewood is dry before you use it. Fresh-cut wood contains 50 percent moisture. Fully matured firewood contains 20 percent or less moisture.
• Let firewood cure for at least six months before you use it. Hardwoods can take up to a year to dry properly.
• Properly dried firewood is lightweight, gray in color, sounds hollow and is cracked on the ends.
• Do not store firewood next to your house. It can attract rats and termites and help fuel a house fire.