“Every man,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “looks at his wood-pile with a kind of affection.” I know from working on our pile with my wife Suzanne that the emotion isn’t gender specific. Anyone who relies even partially on wood fires for winter heat is filled with satisfaction at the sight of a neat stack of split and dry logs.
At age 66 I’m less enthusiastic than I once was at the second clause of Thoreau’s prescription, that the wood should warm you twice, once when burned but also when split. Suzanne still insists on splitting the big rounds with a sledgehammer and wedges, but I’ll confess that I am prone to renting a wood splitter for a day or two to split the winter’s-worth of wood and so save my back.
Living in the Northeast, a naturally forested landscape, means that access to free firewood — free except for the labor invested — is pretty common. Suzanne and I have benefited from following the utility trucks when they are clearing overhanging limbs from their lines on our road. We’ve also taken advantage of the blow-downs from the storms of hurricane season. Currently, we are cutting up a beech tree harvested in this fashion, and have plans to saw up a truly impressive ash tree that toppled during the same storm.
Harvesting your own firewood is not without its hazards. Chainsaws rank among the most dangerous gardening tools and should be approached with great caution. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, offers a “Quick Card” of chainsaw safety tips online, and even an experienced user can benefit from consulting that. In my younger and more careless days I didn’t bother with protective equipment when I used power equipment in the garden; I was fortunate and suffered only from hearing loss as a result. Nowadays, I put on protective chaps, hearing protectors, and safety glasses before I even fuel up my saw.
The intrinsic heat of different woods, the amount of heat they yield as they burn, differs widely. In general, the hardwoods, such as oak, sugar maple, beech and ash, yield the most heat. Resinous softwoods such as pine and cedar are useful when split into small splints for kindling, because they catch fire easily, but they don’t release as much heat when burned as firewood, and their resin content means they are likely to foul the chimney with creosote. Creosote buildup is also a byproduct of burning wood that is not dry, and can lead to chimney fires. It’s a good rule of thumb to let firewood dry and season for a year after it is cut.
Clues that logs are really dry are a grayish color, a light heft and cracks at the ends. If you bang a seasoned log, it makes a ringing sound. To be really certain, you can purchase a digital moisture meter which, if you stick its prongs into the side of a freshly split log, will tell you its moisture content precisely. Moisture meters work best when the prongs are aligned parallel to the grain of the wood. Test in 2-3 places on the newly split side. Such a meter is most accurate when the outdoor temperature is from 50°-90°F. An ideal moisture content for burning is from 15%-20%. Any log that registers over 25% moisture needs additional drying.
If you decide to buy your firewood rather than cut and split your own, keep in mind that the standard unit is a “cord,” which is equal to 128 cubic feet when stacked, typically making a stack 4 feet high, 4 feet deep, and 8 feet long. A “face cord” is a less precise measure of a stack 4 feet high and 8 feet long, and 1 log deep, which is usually less than half of a true cord. Remember too when shopping for firewood that moving wood over long distances is discouraged, as the wood may bring pests such as the emerald ash borer or the Asian longhorned beetle with it. Many states prohibit importing firewood from other states, and other regulations may apply locally. For a review of the regulations current in your region, check the Don’t Move Firewood site: https://www.dontmovefirewood.org/.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.