Firewood Storage and Seasoning Tips
Brush up on your firewood storage skills, including tips on seasoning firewood and which woods burn best.
Who can resist a crackling fire on a chilly fall night? Autumn is the perfect time to light a fire in a backyard fire pit and break out the hot dogs and s’mores. It’s also the right time to finalize firewood stacks if you supplement your home heating with a wood burning stove.
In my neck of the woods in Central Pennsylvania, many homes have wood piles, a true winter store laid up for the cold season to come. Whether the flames dance in a wood stove or wood-burning fireplace, the secret behind good fires all winter long is properly seasoning and storing wood. These two factors greatly influence how well wood burns, as does the type of wood you choose.
Fresh cut firewood is green and has a high water content—at least 60 percent. Green, unseasoned wood is tough to ignite, and if you do succeed it doesn’t burn well or produce much heat. Burning unseasoned wood also adds to creosote build-up in your flue, which isn’t the safest situation.
Seasoning firewood is a process that takes from 6 to 12 months. The result is wood with a moisture content of 20 percent. The end goal of seasoning is wood that burns strongly, safely and produces heat.
The first step in seasoning wood is splitting logs open. A tree trunk is a giant straw that moves moisture back and forth between roots and leaves. Splitting a log open exposes the moisture-laden innards to air and light, which helps to dry the wood.
If you’re buying firewood, it’s cheapest to purchase unseasoned wood and season it yourself. Aim to buy wood in spring or early summer, stack it, and it will be plenty seasoned for winter burning. Remember to buy wood locally—from within a 50-mile radius. This helps eliminate the chances of transporting pests to areas where they may not currently reside. If you’re buying seasoned firewood, the most important chore becomes stacking it properly.
The goal when you stack firewood is to help wood continue to dry. Follow these tips to make the most of your firewood storage.
- Firewood storage should expose wood to sunlight and air movement, so choose a spot in the sun, if possible. Storing wood under a tree that drops its leaves in autumn works, too, because that spot is sunny for part of the year.
- Choose a site for storing firewood that’s not against a building, such as a shed, garage or house to minimize the risk of termites or other wood-infesting insects attacking your buildings. Many municipalities have fire codes that define how closely wood can be stacked near structures.
- Make sure wood is in a spot that’s convenient to reach during inhospitable weather. At the same time, place your firewood storage in a spot that doesn’t block access to any part of your yard.
- Elevate firewood storage so that wood doesn’t rest directly on the ground, whether it’s stacked on soil or concrete. Set your firewood on upcycled pallets, 2x4s, a tarp—whatever you have that can lift wood and allow for air flow underneath.
- Stack wood to a maximum height of 4 feet. If you have multiple stacks, allow some space between stacks to permit air flow.
Unless you live in a dry region, it’s a good idea to cover stacked firewood. Aim to cover the top of the stack and a few inches down each side. A tarp and bungee cords hooked over logs works well and stays anchored in even severe winds. Some homeowners use a piece of metal roofing that extends a few inches beyond the stack on every side. Keep the sides of the wood stacks open to air movement. If you cover wood too much, the cover retains moisture, which can cause seasoned wood to burn like green wood.
An open-sided shed provides a good spot to store seasoned wood. In our town, I’ve noticed a garage-size cinderblock building with chain-link fence where windows would be. This building is stuffed full of seasoned wood.
Burn seasoned firewood within three years if possible. Wood starts to decay after four or five years in storage. It will still burn after that, but tends to burn faster and hotter.
Which Wood Is Best?
Wood is either hardwood (trees that lose their leaves in fall) or softwood (evergreens like pines). Hardwood is typically denser, burns longer and yields glowing coals that release heat over time, which makes it the wood of choice for wood-burning stoves. It can be more difficult to ignite. These hardwoods burn well when seasoned: all oaks but white, hickory, madrone, locust, walnut, maple, fruit trees.
Softwood tends to burn quickly and very hot with a high flame and coals that go out quickly. With softwoods, you need to tend the fire more often. Kindling is usually softwood, because it ignites quickly and burns high. Choose softwood for fire pits or an open wood-burning fireplace. Be sure to use a firescreen when burning any wood, but especially softwood logs. Softwood often contains pockets of moisture that pop and explode when heated, throwing sparks. These softwoods burn well when seasoned: pines, fir, cedars, redwood, hemlock.