It’s hard to top the cozy feeling generated by the sight, sound and smell of a wood fire burning in the fireplace on a cold winter night, sending warmth through your house as the firewood crackles and the fire creates an ever-changing display of hypnotizing patterns that can entertain for hours on end.
But to create a real wood fire, you’ll need firewood. (For more on saving time and effort splitting wood, see our Beginning Farmer’s Guide to Log Splitters.) And choosing the right kind of firewood is an important decision to ponder. Just as some types of wood aren’t suitable for making some products, some types of wood aren’t suitable for use as firewood. However, with so many different types of wood, trying to learn which trees make good firewood can be a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. To help you avoid this trial-and-error process, here are some tips to help with your firewood selection.
The Best Firewood
I should preface this by saying that there are many trees that make quality firewood, and narrowing a list down to just the very best will naturally exclude some very usable trees. Also, what constitutes the “best” firewood can vary depending on how you plan to use it. If you use firewood as the primary heat source for your house, you’ll want a very high-quality wood that produces a lot of heat; if your main interest is creating a fire to add ambience and atmosphere to a winter evening, you might be able to settle for a lower-quality wood. With that said, a handful of trees stand above all others when it comes to producing quality firewood.
The most well-known firewoods are white and red oak trees. The wood from these oak trees is prized for its strength and density, and that density makes it one of the very best at producing heat.
The wood from the hickory family of trees, which includes pecan trees, is also very dense and prized for use as firewood, being of very similar quality to oak.
One lesser-known tree that makes great firewood is black locust. The species has a fairly limited range, growing in just a handful of states through the Appalachian Mountains and into Missouri and Arkansas, but produces a very strong, dense wood that has made it famous for making fence posts. Not surprisingly, the same density and durability that makes black locust good for fence posts also makes it among the best firewood trees.
Other Good Wood to Burn
White ash, sugar maple, and birch trees also produce excellent firewood, albeit not quite as good as oak and hickory. But all three have their advantages:
- Sugar maple has a good reputation for burning with few sparks and little smoke.
- White ash weighs less than most other types of quality firewood and is easier to split into burnable logs.
- The bark of many mature birch trees is quite flammable, making it easy to start fires.
The Worst Firewood
Coniferous Trees in General
As a general rule, most coniferous or “softwood” trees—the types of trees that have needles rather than leaves—are not well-suited for use as firewood. As their “softwood” nickname implies, coniferous trees as a whole tend to have softer, less-dense wood than deciduous trees, which have leaves, meaning they provide less fuel for the fire and usually don’t produce as much heat. That’s not to say they can’t be burned, but coniferous trees also contain pitch and are notorious for creating a buildup of creosote while they burn, which can stick to the walls of your chimney and become a fire hazard. They also tend to produce more sparks and smoke, which can spoil the mood that you’re trying to generate by starting a nice, cozy wood fire.
Hemlocks in Particular
One coniferous tree that you probably don’t want to try burning at all, though, is hemlock, as it’s roughly akin to burning a rock. The wood of hemlock trees (not to be confused with the poisonous plant of the same name) features very, very hard knots that make them difficult to split into burnable logs. But even if you get a hemlock tree to the point where it could be burned, it will produce sparks that will quickly discourage you from ever burning that type of wood again.
Some Deciduous Trees
There are also some deciduous trees that don’t make good firewood. Aspen, basswood, and willow trees all have very soft wood that is of generally poor quality for burning and producing heat, though they are still superior to most coniferous trees because they don’t spark as much.
As you can see, there’s plenty to consider when evaluating the best and worst types of firewood. (Once you’ve found trees you want to use, learn how to cut and store the wood.) Which trees you choose will depend at least in part on their availability in your area, but if you secure a winter stockpile of oak, hickory, maple, ash or black locust firewood, you’ll be rewarded with many warm, smoke- and spark-free fires on cold winter evenings.