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How to choose your firewood

Nelson Espeland III

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 • 8:27pm

Many of you know I spent the weekend at our country home where we do everything old school; from what we eat to how we stay warm, that’s how we kick it. I spent a lot of time chopping wood and couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to write a column about choosing the right firewood. So much of our lives, this time of year, is spent on keeping warm, putting oil in the furnace etc., complaining about not being warm.  I’m typing this laughing. So, what better time to discuss firewood than now?  From chopping firewood (or buying it) to burning it, we know a few things about firewood we'd like to share.

So here are some tips, from my own experience and some interesting stuff from professionals like the Weather Channel, to help you choose the right type of firewood to storing the productivity of your wood stove or fireplace this winter! But before we start with the tips, know that burning  wood can be an awesome choice for the environment too. Another awesome fact that has to do with preserving our environment--burning firewood releases no more harmful greenhouse gases than would be produced were the wood to simply rot on the forest floor. If we choose responsibly in the ways we select, cut, and burn our firewood, wood burning can actually be a healthier choice for the environment.

Before we talk about choosing and cords etc, I have to share this with you. Did you know, and we admit we learned this from the Weather Channel, that the heat produced by burning firewood is actually the energy of the sun? That’s pretty powerful stuff! You can find the ultimate source of all energy on planet earth in that flame! The WC explains, “Through the process of photosynthesis, arguably the single most important thing that happens on our planet, trees are able to store solar energy as chemical energy that we can use for heat when the sun abandons us to the cold dark days of winter. Burning wood is just the quick reversal of this process, liberating the suns heat when we need it most.”

Who said columns about firewood are boring?

Now some people, like me, cut their own wood and have homes in the backwoods of the countries. If you are like me, and prefer to chop it yourself, here’s a great post from Backwoods Magazine on how to start harvesting your own firewood. But from the sake off writing a column and not a book, this column will be more focused on how to buy your own  wood, how to choose it, what it means to be seasoned, and how to store it. Harvesting it yourself is a column in itself, but check out that column I linked to if you are considering chopping on your own.

What is a cord?

Wood is measured by the “cord”.  A “full” cord is an 8-foot-long stack that’s 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, but since 4-foot pieces aren’t typically what people use in the fireplace or wood stove, firewood is rarely sold in that size, which lends to more confusion.

Adding to the confusion are the various terms like “face” cord and “furnace” cord that are sometimes used to describe a variation of a full cord (where the piece lengths are shorter than four feet). Other terms often employed are face cord, rick, or often just a truckload.

Of course, stocking up on firewood is an investment, so you want to understand exactly how much wood you’re getting and how to compare various pricing. The Wood Heat Organization offers a formula to help you do that, and suggests avoiding wood that’s not a variation of a full cord (that means, no buying a load from the back of a pickup truck). Since a rick is defined as a pile, and truck sizes vary tremendously, it’s very important that you get all of this straight with the seller before agreeing on a price; there is much room for misunderstanding.


It all starts with the quality of the wood you choose. The Weather Channel, and anyone who’s been doing this for years, will tell you that quality, well-seasoned firewood will help your wood stove or fireplace burn cleaner and more efficiently, while green or wet wood can cause smoking problems, odor problems, rapid creosote buildup and possibly even dangerous chimney fires.

Seasoned Wood.

Freshly cut wood can be up to 45% water whereas well-seasoned firewood generally has a 20-25% moisture content. Remember, moisture in firewood is bad. So, if you have sell-seasoned firewood it is easier to start, produces more heat, and burns cleaner. The tricky part is that the water must be gone be gone before the wood will burn. So you need to be a planner.  If your wood is cut 6 months to a year in advance and properly stored, the sun and wind will do the job for free. Awesome! BUT, if you try to burn green wood, the heat produced by combustion must dry the wood before it will burn, using up a large percentage of the available energy in the process. This results in less heat delivered to your home, and literally gallons of acidic water in the form of creosote deposited in your chimney. Not good.

There are a few things you can look for to see if the wood you intend to purchase is seasoned or not. Well-seasoned firewood generally has darkened ends with cracks or splits visible, it is relatively lightweight, and makes a clear "clunk" when two pieces are beat together. Green wood on the other hand is very heavy, the ends look fresher, and it tends to make a dull "thud" when struck. These clues can fool you however, and by far the best way to be sure you have good wood when you need it is to buy your wood the spring before you intend to burn it and store it properly.

Storing Wood the Right Way

Storing your wood can be as important as choosing it. The first thing to remember is—never let it touch the ground. You want to reduce exposure to ground moisture by putting something between the ground and the wood, such as a tarp, wooden pallet, or drainable gravel or rock.

While keeping it off the ground, make sure you stack it on something level. Rows of wood will stay upright and remain sturdier when placed on level ground instead of tilted areas. Another rule to consider is to limit your stacks to no higher than 4 feet (1.2 m) tall. Stacks taller than this become wobbly and unsteady. Rows of wood may fall over if stacked too high.

Put your stacks of wood a few inches (or several centimeters) away from walls and other stacks of wood to increase air flow to the wood. Allowing more space between stacks gives the wood more breathing room. Cover your firewood with a tarp, leaving the sides exposed. A tarp situated over the top of the firewood stack is ideal because it can protect the wood. Increase air ventilation to the entire stack and row of wood by leaving the sides uncovered and exposed. Finally, store your firewood in a well-ventilated structure. Wood needs air to age and dry, so it must be exposed to air.  So make sure your shed, garage or other structure is well-ventilated. Wood needs air to age and remain dry; lean-tos, patios or carports and actually great structures to store firewood because they are not enclosed and provide adequate ventilation for proper storage of firewood.

And remember, don’t leave too much space between piles of stacked wood so pets and kids can’t get in there. Be safe and stack as closely together as possible. Stay warm and safe my friends, and remember, if you  have any questions about firewood, how to live off the land, or insurance, give me, Nelson, a call at Allstate-The Espeland Group at 908.233.6300!



Our family has partnered with Allstate for over 80 years to help people with their auto, home, life and business insurance needs. Our quality, service-oriented agency is not only owned and operated by a family, our customers tell us we make them feel like family too. I’m proud to work with a company who’s been serving satisfied customers for over 70 years. Customers count on outstanding financial strength and superior claims service to help protect what they value most. Allstate delivers on their promise. In fact, their outstanding financial strength and superior claims service received an A+ (Superior) rating by A.M. Best. Quality service, strength and satisfaction – that’s something I’m glad to be a part of. - Nelson Espeland III

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of TheAlternativePress.com or anyone who works for TheAlternativePress.com. TheAlternativePress.com is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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