What is the best firewood for your wood burning stove?
That would be the quick answer.
After that, the sky’s the limit. The London-based Ultimate Firewood Company, which claims to source and supply the world’s best firewood - from Bordelais vine trimmings for the ‘ultimate asado’ to a full kiln-dried bonfire set for Guy Fawkes night – and which is reputed to supply Roman Abramovich with wood for use in the fireplaces on his yacht Eclipse, will express-deliver hand-sculpted logs of high-altitude Hickory and Black Locust and sub-Arctic Beech, all at ten percent moisture. These varieties are already among the most dense and calorific woods available; the cold climates from which they are sourced guarantee even greater density due to the restricted growing season.
However, it is not necessary to use such high-value fuel in your wood-burning stove. Considerations that are important for choice of wood for an open fire, such as the scent of the smoke, or whether or not it spits, are of marginal importance for a closed appliance. Indeed, the qualities that define good wood-burning stove firewood largely depend on your requirements.
Ash, for instance, is routinely treated as the best firewood, a claim which largely rests on its low moisture content , which means it requires relatively little seasoning (ignore claims that it can be burnt green; all wood should be seasoned, and green wood should only ever be burnt in extremis). However, holding out for a supplier of ash when you live in an area densely wooded with oak and beech would be daft.
Some possible questions you might ask yourself are:
What kind of wood is locally available? Wood is not a fuel that it is sensible to transport over long distances. In Scandinavia you would burn a lot of birch and soft-wood. In densely-wooded France you’re spoilt for choice. England, though sparsely wooded, has historically been blessed with plantings in many areas, of ash, elm, beech and oak, all excellent firewoods, though elsewhere commercial considerations have led to large characterless swathes of conifers. The truth of the matter is that, when thoroughly dried, they all make for good, warming fuel, and if harvested sensibly and sustainably, make good economic sense for you, the local economy and the planet.
Am I prepared to process and manage my own wood supply? Self-sufficiency is highly economical and deeply satisfying, but not for everyone – it’s time-consuming, mucky, laborious and involves the use of a variety of potentially lethal cutting instruments. If so, it pays to get to know your wood. Very hard varieties like eucalyptus become difficult to split shortly after felling; holly, a decent burner, is densely knotted and bothersome to process. Alder splits easily, while birch is wonderfully easy to cut and split. The equation between work and reward rapidly becomes apparent for different woods, and you will make your choices accordingly.
Is cost the most important factor? If so, and if you are prepared to scrounge carpentry off-cuts, pallets, old floorboards and other untreated waste wood, you can heat your home for free, or at least very cheaply. As per the previous answer, the more of the work you’re prepared to do yourself, the cheaper it will be to run your stove. Felling, cutting to size, splitting, seasoning, stacking – all these processes add value to the end product and the more of them that you outsource to your supplier, the more you are going to pay.
Have I got the room to store plenty of wood? Ideally, you will eventually be able to store about two years’ worth of firewood at home – this should ensure that even after a cold winter, you will always have some seasoned wood available for your stove, as well as allowing adequate seasoning time for your stubbornly slow-drying varieties like oak and conifers. The more space you have, the less fussy you can afford to be about the exact number of BTUs per cord. If, on the other hand, you have restricted storage space, then it makes sense to plump for woods that will dry out fairly quickly like ash, birch or beech, and generally for denser woods that will give a greater calorific return on volume.
Am I too busy to muck around chopping and stacking wood? If you work and value your down-time, or if you just prefer slobbing in front of the TV, then this is a very reasonable question. There are some great suppliers around who will deliver large quantities of high quality kiln-dried firewood. Many of them also offer a stacking service, and if you only use your stove occasionally, this shouldn’t cost the earth. However, it’s not cheap – it’s a lifestyle choice, to be valued accordingly. On the other hand, even minimal engagement with your logpile – think the Tetris-like satisfaction of efficient log-stacking, or the sensory pleasure of handling rough wood on a crisp winter morning – can be engaging, grounding, satisfying and, in the same low-key way as gardening, good for you.
It is good to have a mix of woods. Fast burning woods (softwoods and thinly-cut wood will generally burn more quickly) will heat a space up faster and are useful for getting a fire going or reviving it. Heavier logs and hardwoods will burn more slowly, yielding greater heat and giving you longer stoking intervals, so that you don’t have to keep jumping up through dinner to stick another log on.
Fires are easiest to keep going with a mix of different woods; stocking your basket with different sizes and types allows you to select the perfect log for your immediate requirements, whether this is quickly cranking your stove up to maximum heat output, or loading it up for a long burn while you go out for a walk. Heavy use of conifers can leave some nasty residues on the inside of your flue, so monitoring the health of your chimney and getting it regularly swept is important, but this shouldn’t put you off using them. Burn them dry and burn them hot!
There are fairly exhaustive lists of firewood qualities available online, which it seems fruitless to add to, but they all agree on one thing, which it is worth endlessly repeating: your firewood must be dry!
P.S. The Ultimate Firewood Company referred to above doesn’t actually exist…at least, not yet.