For those proud owners of a log burner, building up a good stock of firewood is all part of the fun. However, it’s not just a case of throwing any old pieces of timber and twigs into your stove and hoping for the best!
As part of our blog series with expert woodsman, Vincent Thurkettle, this week we asked for some advice on how to find and gather the perfect firewood.
If you want to hear more from Vincent, read his previous blog post on How to Create Your Own Kindling and Firelighters.
Or, take a look at his book, The Woodfire Handbook, to help you become a master of your stove!
Perfect Firewood Logs by Vincent Thurkettle
‘Logs to burn; logs to burn;
Logs to save the coal a turn.
Here’s a word to make you wise
When you hear the wood-man’s cries;’
So starts a merry little poem. I have found several versions of this poem and know that many firewood merchants distribute copies of it to their customers. The recipients are then thankful for having been given the very essence of ancient wood lore: the key to successfully buying their firewood. I love this poem, honestly I do. You can almost see the stout, ruddy-faced, tweed and corduroy figure, with whiskers of course, hearty as a town crier delightedly reciting this verse to his expectant, note-taking newcomer. It appears a singularly cheerful baptism in fire craft – except, it isn’t.
There are probably two simple reasons why these poems are so popular: firstly they are fun, well-written and relentlessly up-beat. But secondly, they have no competition.
Every time that somebody tells me they know of a firewood poem, I feel like a real frump pouring cold water on their enthusiasm. My mother says I am occasionally a bit of a misery, but this time I feel fully justified.
My main issue with these poems is that they completely miss the point. Even for an experienced woodsman it is extremely difficult to identify the individual tree species within a heap of firewood logs – how much more so for those who are new to wood fires. Also, the poems are solely written for those people with an open fire. The actual tree species hardly matters for the vast number of people who burn their logs in a wood burning stove or boiler – where only dryness and origin are important.
I was pleased to read the other day that I’m not quite alone in feeling that the poems, lovely as they are, are over-rated. In his book, Epitaph for the Elm, Gerald Wilkinson observes, “Such verses are not as ancient as their language pretends and there is little wisdom in them.”
So, where does that leave us when needing to buy firewood? Your focus should be on – the quality, quantity, price, dryness and origin. The questions to address are: how much wood do I need? How much wood can I store? Should I cut it myself or buy it as split logs? Shall I buy in green and store the wood to dry out, or should the logs be ‘Ready to Burn’* seasoned and dry? Was the wood harvested sustainably? And shall I buy by weight or volume? Only then consider your preferred wood species.
*There is a Woodsure scheme where logs are labelled as Ready to Burn at 20% moisture content, or lower.
Collecting Your Own Wood
You may be able to gather some or all of the firewood you need yourself. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I would like to open with the caveat that almost all wood you see, anywhere, will actually belong to somebody.
When I worked as a forest manager we would often find people loading the boot of their car with logs. When challenged the usual excuse was that they had, ‘just seen the logs lying around and assumed that nobody wanted them’.
Very often people will be only too pleased to let you tidy up some logs or branch-wood that they don’t want, but, to save any embarrassment, do ask first. A significant proportion of the wood that I burn each year comes from neighbours who are having tree work done, skips, beach driftwood, old fencing, windblown twigs and branches, tree surgery off-cuts and from contacts I make through belonging to a woodland charity and the Royal Forestry Society.
Some of my favourite days have been going out into the forest with my children and a picnic to collect our own firewood. The children would beg to ride in the trailer as soon as we were on the forest roads and then they’d bump along happily until we reached the heap of wood that I’d bought.
I would cut the trunks into short poles, then the children would race to load the trailer – urged on by the promise of some chocolate on the way home should they flag. Such balmy spring days – the trees echoed with birdsong and excited high-pitched chatter and the woods were vibrant with the saturated greens of fresh-flushed leaves: this never seemed like work to me, it was just, life.
Something that matters to me is the density of the wood I collect, and this is not often talked about. The reason for this is that my storage space is limited. The density of firewood can vary enormously from the super-dense species like oak heartwood, hedgerow elm, hawthorn and yew, to the more balsawood-like species – poplar, willow, silver fir, spruce and hemlock.
Just lately I have collected from these two extremes. I grow Christmas trees and often cut the stumps high when harvesting them. I leave these spruce and fir stumps for at least a year in situ and then cut them as firewood when I feel that most of the sticky resin has evaporated or dried out.
In contrast, I was recently asked to help clear up a dead oak tree that had fallen. The upper part of this tree had been dead a very long time to the point where the bark and sapwood had fallen away from the branches. The bone-hard fissured heartwood remaining is extremely dense. Oak like this while standing is said to be ‘stag-headed’.
The firewood I get from my Christmas tree stumps is often just starting to rot and is probably no more than 25% as dense as the stag-headed oak I was given. And the point of this is that the spruce and fir stumps will take up four times as much room in my woodshed as the oak for the same heat.
The Identification of Firewood Logs
Notwithstanding what I have just said about density, and the importance of the logs being dry (<20% moisture content), it does not really matter what tree species the logs are from. But people do like to know what type of logs they have, so this is how to learn identification.
A woodsman will first try to identify a tree by its overall appearance. If there is any doubt, they will then inspect the summer leaves or winter buds, the nature of the twigs, and how the leaves or buds are arranged on the twigs.
With many tree species the bark is distinctive. Pay particular attention to the bark when you are looking at a tree, as it becomes important later when you are trying to identify your firewood. Logs are not easy to identify. After looking at any bark on the log you should then look at the annual growth rings and how clearly the inner heartwood and outer band of sapwood are divided; the medullary rays – ribbons of cells that radiate from the centre of the tree and transfer the sap radially – are sometimes distinctive too.
A log’s colour, weight, and even sometimes the smell of its bark or fresh-cut surface may also help to identify it. The subject is huge – there are, for instance, thought to be over 800 types of oak.
Another problem even for the experts is that nature will not be pigeonholed and many species frustrate the botanist’s simple classifications: there are hard softwoods and soft hardwoods; there are deciduous conifers and evergreen broadleaves; some broadleaves have cones and some conifers have fruits.
But, thankfully, we don’t need to know all of this to enjoy our wood fires. When you are confident that you can identify the wood of trees such as ash and oak, beech and maple, willow and poplar, and, critically, deciduous hardwood from coniferous softwood, then I would say you know enough to comfortably get by.
My Favourite Firewoods
I could, and might one day, spend hours drafting a poem on the virtues or otherwise of logs from the different tree species. But for now, please settle for a simple list. I view the logs in my woodshed broadly as excellent, good or poor – and poor really only means low-density. I burn all of my logs within a wood-burning stove and when dry, kilo for kilo, all tree species’ logs have roughly the same calorific value. Tree species matters much more for an open fire where sparking and ember creation are important.
So in my list, excellent would include: oak, beech, hornbeam, elm, field maple, hawthorn and fruit woods.
Good firewood would include: alder, ash, birch, eucalyptus, hazel, holly, plane, sycamore, sweet chestnut and walnut.
Poor firewood would include: willow, aspen/poplar, horse chestnut, lime, tulip tree, true cedar and larch. The other conifers all sit within poor firewood, and in descending order might be: pine, spruce, thuya, cypress, fir, redwood, hemlock.
On second thoughts, I am not sure that I could ever make a poem out of that!
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