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Firewood: A Complete Guide

Firewood is a popular topic in Illinois. Many people here heat their homes entirely with wood heat. But, if you are new to firewood, it can be daunting to get started. There are so many questions when you first begin. How much is a cord of wood? How do I properly dry and stack firewood? How do I know how much firewood I will need? What about the types of wood; which are best to burn? We have created a guide to answering these firewood questions and many more.


What is a Cord of Wood?

The history of measuring firewood dates back to Britain in the 17th century. Firewood was purchased and bundled with a cord, hence the term cord of wood. Nowadays, the standard measurement for a cord of wood is 4x4x8 feet. So, four feet wide by four feet tall by eight feet long.


How Much Firewood Do I Need?

How much firewood you will need is a good question, and it depends mainly on the severity of winter and the size of your home. In a typical Illinois winter, if you use firewood as a supplemental heat source, you can expect to use three or four full cords of wood. If you use firewood as your primary heat source, you will need closer to seven or eight cords of wood.


A well-insulated home will require less heating than a poorly insulated one, requiring less wood. The type of wood stove or fireplace you are using also plays a role. Newer wood stoves are designed for maximum efficiency and use less firewood.


Generally, it is a good rule of thumb to buy more than you will need for your first year. You can always keep it covered and use any leftovers for the next heating season. Over-purchasing is a much better alternative than running out of firewood two-thirds of the way through winter.


When Should I Buy Firewood?

Buying firewood at the right time will save you money; waiting until the last minute is a sure way to pay full price. The best time to purchase firewood is in the early spring; this will allow plenty of time to dry and season in place so it is ready for the winter heating season.


What Type of Firewood is Best?

Each type of wood is measured by the amount of energy contained in the wood. We use the term BTU (British thermal unit) to describe the rate of heat transferred. It is tested by heating one pound of water to one degree Fahrenheit. The amount of wood needed for that test is one BTU. The more BTUs, the better the wood will heat your home.


Typically the harder the wood, the more BTUs it contains. Hardwoods are denser and burn longer and hotter than softwood. So even if you purchase the same quantity of soft wood, it will produce less heat for a shorter time. Softwood, on the other hand, is easier to ignite than hardwood, burns faster, and releases its heat quickly. These characteristics make softwood an excellent fire starter and hardwood best for keeping the house warm for a long time. For most folks, a small amount of softwood for starting the fire and a larger amount of hardwood make for the perfect mixture.


Types of Firewood

Don't worry; you don't need a special degree or extensive knowledge of trees to tell a softwood from a hardwood. One of the best ways to tell them apart is by weight. Hardwoods are denser and heavier than softwoods. Another clue is the rings in the grain of wood. Hardwood trees grow slower than softwood and will have narrower rings. Wider annual rings indicate a softwood tree.


  1. Hard Density Woods: Ironwood, Rock Elm, Hickory, Oak, Sugar Maple, Beach

  2. Medium Density Woods: Yellow Birch, Ash, Red Elm, Red Maple, Tamarack, Douglas Fir, White Birch, Manitoba Maple, Red Adler, Hemlock

  3. Soft Low-Density Woods: Poplar, Pine, Basswood, Spruce, Balsam


How Do I Store Firewood?

Storage is essential whether you are buying green wood and storing it for a long time or buying seasoned wood and burning it that same season. Here are the general rules:


COVERED: Keep firewood covered and protected from rain and snow. A wood shed or large tarp will do nicely.


AIRFLOW: Keep firewood protected from moisture but not tightly wrapped. There must be proper airflow so that the wood dries completely. If moisture can't escape, it will counteract the wood drying process and won't season properly.


OFF THE GROUND: Part of keeping wood dry is keeping it up off the ground by at least six inches. Keeping firewood on a pallet or other structure will ensure termites and other boring insects don't move into your firewood pile.


How Do I Stack Firewood?

Stacking firewood is one of the most critical firewood tasks. After all the hauling, cutting, and splitting work, you want your wood to dry properly. Badly stacked wood will fall over in a storm, stick together in the ice, retain moisture, and harbor insects.


REMOVE BARK: Remove all bark from the firewood before stacking. Bark reduces the BTU level of your firewood and is a favorite home for bugs.


EVENLY SIZED: Cut each piece of firewood to the same length and width. This method ensures all wood dries at the same rate and makes it much easier to stack correctly.


ALTERNATE BY 90°: When stacking the wood, alternate each piece by ninety degrees. Place your first row with all of the cut ends facing north-south. Then place the second row with all of the cut ends facing east-west. The third row is back to north-south, and onward you go. This method creates ideal airflow and a sturdy pile that can withstand gale-force winds. When stacked this way, moisture travels quickly through the pile, which helps during icy conditions. Nothing is more annoying than a pile of wood that is a frozen block of ice.


How Often Should I Clean My Chimney?

Without an important discussion about chimney and stovepipe cleanliness, no firewood primer would be complete. Keeping the chimney clean helps prevent fires. When you burn firewood, soot builds up. There is also a build-up of creosote, an oily byproduct of burning wood. Creosote is highly flammable and burns at over 2000 degrees! If creosote starts burning in your chimney or woodstove piping, it can easily catch the walls and roof of your house on fire.


DIY CHIMNEY SWEEP: You can clean the inside of your home's chimney or stove pipe with a stiff brush made for this purpose. The brush has a flat wire bristle with a long rod. We recommend wearing safety goggles and a respiratory mask when completing this task. When the stove is completely cold, you can use this tool to scrape all the byproducts and soot from the chimney or pipe. Be sure to clean the pipe from top to bottom. This job will likely include a trip to the rooftop via a ladder.


HIRE A CHIMNEY SWEEP: If you aren't up for the task, there are many professional experts available to help. Most reputable companies will also include a chimney inspection with photos so you can identify any repairs that need your attention. Be sure the company you hire is licensed, insured, and bonded in case of damage or accidents.


TIMING: The frequency of chimney/pipe cleaning varies by household. Generally, you would clean a chimney or woodstove pipe a minimum of once per year. If you notice the smoke coming from the roof is darker than usual or see soot around the fireplace, it is time for a chimney inspection. If smoke comes into the room or the fire is hard to keep burning, the chimney is likely filthy, and you should take immediate action.


CONCLUSION

As you can see, heating your home with wood is simpler than it seems. With this new knowledge, you can enjoy many winter evenings snuggled up in front of the fireplace or heating hot cocoa on top of your wood stove. As always, we wish you a safe and happy heating season!


If you're looking for a local firewood provider, Barn Owl carries Quarter, Half, and Full face cords and above. Delivery is available for anything Face cord and above!

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