Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.
What Is the Best Wood to Burn in Fireplaces?
Hardwood, hands down.
While it takes longer to ignite than softwood, there are many benefits to burning hardwood, especially if you use your fireplace or wood stove often (e.g. to cook over or heat your home).
Hardwoods Yield Hotter, Cleaner, Longer-Lasting Fires
Hardwood is denser than softwood, meaning it burns hotter and longer. Because of this, it's more expensive (if you can't chop your own), but you need less of it, so if you use your fireplace often, the price differential should work out in the long run.
Hardwoods also produce far fewer creosote deposits and less ash, meaning your chimney will stay comparatively free of buildup and you won't have to do as much cleanup when the fire is out (part of burning clean fires has to do with properly seasoning your firewood, which is covered at the end of this article).
Lastly, hardwoods also burn longer and result in wonderful coals.
A BTU (British Thermal Unit) is a standardized measurement of energy used to describe the power of various heating and cooling appliances, but it can be applied to wood as well (1 BTU is about the amount of energy needed to raise a pound of water 1˚F).
Below, you will find a table rating the five types of firewood in this article by how much heat they give off per cord.
What Firewood Burns Hottest?
|Species||Million BTUs per Cord|
This is all to say that if you only use your fireplace once in a while, and more for aesthetics than anything else, you can get away with using softwood. But hardwood is what you want for heating or cooking. And there are literally hundreds of species of hardwood trees from which you can harvest firewood.
Here are five types of hardwood that I have had a lot of personal experience with. In addition to being described in detail, each one is rated for "split-ability," heat, kindling grade, and cook-wood grade.
1. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
Heat: Very High
Kindling Grade: C
Cook Wood Grade: A-
The Black Locust is a medium to large-sized tree, with a relatively short life span. It grows 70–80 feet tall and usually has a trunk diameter between 2 and 4 feet (sometimes up to 6 feet).
Black Locust is one of my favorite trees, and may be one of the most underrated trees in the United States. These trees are beautiful but intimidating, with their thorny upper branches and rope-like bark, but they make awesome fence posts and rails, and they resist rot unlike any other hardwood. The wood is so heavy, and the grain so dense, that an earth-fast locust fence post can easily last 50 years.
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Black Locust is some of the best firewood there is, period. But like all good things, it comes to those who wait. The time it takes for this super-dense hardwood to season can seem like an eternity, but in reality, it’s more like one year. No need to fret, though: Locust that has seasoned for at least three to six months can still be burned, and will burn hot, it just takes a little longer to get going.
Don’t shove too much Black Locust into your woodstove at one time, either, or you might be throwing open all your doors and windows in the middle of February. When I say this stuff burns hot, I mean it. I’ve even heard stories of woodstoves glowing orange because too much Locust was burning at once. For me, this wood can be somewhat difficult to come by, so using it sparingly makes sense for that reason, too.
Black Locust gets a “difficult” split-ability rating for a reason. Despite its small diameter relative to, say, an old oak, the grain tension is so great that sometimes splitting this wood can be a real backache. Expect lots of twists and knots, too, and heavily-branched segments, which make chopping Black Locust by hand an even bigger challenge. But with patience, a little brute strength, and a good bit of know-how, you’ll find that splitting Black Locust for firewood is just like putting together a really interesting puzzle . . . in reverse.
2. Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Kindling Grade: B-
Cook Wood Grade: A
First of all, there are at least 30 different types of oak, including Red, White, Scarlet, Swamp, Black, Cherrybark, Pin, Jack, and so on. My experiences have been mainly with Red Oak, and I want to note that even among Oak trees, there are differences that make determining firewood quality somewhat confusing. What I’m saying is not all Oaks are built the same. (And in my humble opinion, the White Oak is one of the best trees ever—for firewood or whatever else. I wish I had access to more of it!)
The Red Oak is a gorgeous tree, with a long, elegant lifespan. They can grow to over 150 feet, but are typically seen somewhere between 70 and 100 feet tall with trunk diameters ranging from 3 to 6 feet.
In the woods surrounding the property where I live, there are Red and White Oak trees that I can’t even begin to wrap my arms around. Looking up into the under-canopy of these trees feels like going back in time. I would never cut one down, not even if I was freezing; harvesting deadfall, however, is good for the forest and therefore good for the trees.
Red Oak is one of those hardwoods that is awesome for firewood, but really not so great for other things. It rots pretty easily, so isn’t the best choice for fence posts; for fence rails, it does alright if not earth-fast. Red Oak used to be used for roof shingles and exterior siding. Really straight Red Oak splits beautifully into shingles and clapboards. And, of course, Red Oak is used to make really nice furniture (if you’re into that stuff).
While not the best kindling out there, Red Oak split thinly will do in a pinch. The wood burns hot, so it works really well for heating and for cooking. Red Oak also produces a good amount of quality coals, so it’s a good choice for the last piece of wood you shove in your woodstove before going to bed.
Splitting Red Oak is only easy when you’re dealing with a very straight piece, free of twists and with minimal knots. These are hard to come by, but if you have a piece like this, the grain will just pop, and from one piece of Red Oak will be two. Really straight, veneer-quality Red Oak shouldn’t even be wasted on firewood, if you ask me—rive some fence boards or split some shingles or fence rails, instead! Much more interesting.
Typically, Red Oak will be at least twisted, if not full of knots and branches. Large sections of trunk (over two feet in diameter) usually require the use of metal wedges to get you started, but if you’re really good with your trusty splitting maul (this eight-pound maul from Fiskars is my absolute favorite tool!), you can work on the sapwood and often find “weaknesses” in the grain where checks have formed.
3. White Ash (Fraxinus americana)
Kindling Grade: B+
Cook Wood Grade: A
Like Oak, there are different types of Ash trees and they aren’t all the same in terms of firewood. I’m lucky enough to live somewhere that has a good population of White Ash, the best variety of ash.
White Ash has furrowed bark with diamond-shaped ridges and can be identified by its generally large size, relatively low-down trunk division, and oval or egg-shaped silhouette. The White Ash tree usually grows to between 70 and 80 feet, though it sometimes gets up to 100 feet tall. The average trunk diameter for the White Ash is between 2 and 3 feet.
This tree has a very pretty, almost dainty-looking winter silhouette. I like looking at them best, as they’re not so easy to split.
This is another heavy hardwood, sometimes difficult to throw or move around when you’re working on chopping it. Like most wood for firewood, straight pieces are easier to split than others, but when it comes to White Ash, I have almost never seen very straight pieces (the ones I have found, we marked and cut for making tool handles).
Large rounds need wedges and splitting mauls; axes, even sharp ones, will only get caught in the tight grain (trust me). It’s best to split large rounds of White Ash in halves or quarters, using wedges inserted into the checks in the endgrain. Then you can go to work with your splitting maul. Once you have a round opened up, taking out the heart can help; that seems to break the grain tension. Otherwise, you can certainly waste a lot of time and energy, and develop some serious frustration, by just beating on the stuff with your tools.
White Ash burns hot and pretty slow, so it makes great firewood. One winter, we had almost nothing but White Ash for the woodstove, and we did just fine. If well-seasoned, it also pops apart into thin pieces of kindling with barely any encouragement from a sharp hatchet. Kindling split from White Ash catches fire easily, burns hot, and makes really good coals, so those who cook with firewood can rely on White Ash to get it done.
4. Black Cherry or Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Split-ability: Moderately Easy
Kindling Grade: A
Cook Wood Grade: B
The Black Cherry is a relatively small hardwood tree, usually growing from 30 to 60 feet tall, sometimes up to 80 feet. Its blossoms are white and quite beautiful in the spring.
Cherry bark, like the bark of most fruit trees, can be easily identified by the horizontal lines. A mature cherry tree has scaly, almost flaky bark; younger trees have smooth bark, much like a Birch. If you are trying to identify a cherry tree, looking at the trunk bark and comparing it to the bark on the upper branches will help; the trunk bark should be scaly and have horizontal lines, while the bark on the younger branches of the trees should be smooth but with the same horizontal lines.
In my opinion, cherry is a joy to split. First of all, when green, it smells just wonderful, especially during the cold months when everything is easier to smell. When you split a piece of cherry, the inner grain is bright red, beautiful and pungent. If the wood is green, it tends to just “pop” apart if you land your axe or splitting maul where the end grain has checked.
Note: The grain tension can be an issue in larger trunk segments, especially those closest to the base of the tree. These sections of the trunk will take some work, and generally will split more easily if you split the sapwood away from the heartwood first.
If you’re dealing with a piece of wood that has already seasoned a bit, splitting shouldn’t be an issue at all. Cherry trees don’t tend to have very large trunk diameters, typically 1 or 2 feet; the small diameter also aids in the split-ability of this wood. Wedges are rarely needed to split cherry if you are using a heavy enough splitting maul, chopping properly, and the particular piece of wood doesn’t have too many knots or twists in it.
Cherry may not be the hottest-burning firewood, but it can be much easier to split than other types of hardwood, and that means that if you’re chopping cherry by hand, you will tend to have firewood in abundance. In my opinion, cherry has only one rival in terms of its value as kindling, and that would be Sassafras.
5. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Kindling Grade: A+
Cook Wood Grade: B-
Sassafras is a medium, sometimes large, tree. I’ve usually seen them 20–50 feet tall, though sometimes they grow up to 90 feet. They usually have a trunk diameter averaging 2–4 feet. This tree is widespread in the eastern and southern United States.
I think of Sassafras as an unsung hero of hardwoods: Excellent rot-resistance makes it great for fence posts and fence rails, the oils that can be extracted from the bark are good for soap-making, and Sassafras tea used to be made by boiling the outer parts of the roots.
If you can split firewood, you can split Sassafras. It really couldn’t get easier. The endgrain checks readily because the wood seasons quickly, so a few well-aimed blows with a splitting maul will leave a three-foot-diameter trunk section looking like firewood in no time.
Sassafras also has a really fun smell to it, one that really confused me when I first started working with the stuff; I almost doubted whether it was a hardwood at all! The smell is sort of spicy-peppery, and very fragrant. Smell is one way to identify Sassafras, but you can also look at the bark. The inner bark of Sassafras (that is, between the outer furrowed bark and the beginning of the sapwood) is orange-red. Beautiful!
Sassafras seasons faster than any other hardwood I’ve used for firewood. I could split Sassafras in September and burn it in the woodstove in December with no problems. And as far as kindling goes, I know no rival to Sassafras. It splits into thin pieces easily, catches fire quickly, and burns hot enough to get even a piece of Black Locust going.
Note: Sassafras does have its faults, however. Despite throwing high heat, the firewood burns up quickly, and the coals simply aren’t the best. So for cooking fires, choose Sassafras as your kindling, and something else to get the coals you need, like Black Locust or Red Oak.
Green vs. Dried vs. Seasoned Wood
How to Season Wood
Though unseasoned woodcutters (pun intended!) might think you can cut firewood and use it the same day, that isn't the case. Good firewood should be seasoned for over a year, and some woods, like oak, need far longer. In general, softwoods take 6–12 months to season, whereas oak and other hardwoods take 1–2 years minimum.
Here are a few tips for seasoning wood:
- Cut your wood in late winter or early spring, as this will allow the wood to dry nicely during the warm summer months.
- Stack the wood slightly off the ground to ensure maximum airflow. You can do this by stacking it on a pallet or simply on two downed saplings.
- Cover the top of the wood to prevent it from getting wet, but leave the ends of the stack uncovered so that air can still flow. If you go for this method, stack the bark wood-side down. This will help it dry faster.
- OR leave it uncovered and let it season in all seasons! The jury is out on this one, so it's up to your personal preference. If you go for this method, stack the wood bark-side up. This will provide a bit of natural protection.
Note: If you need to cut firewood for immediate use, look for ash or fir. Naturally, these still work best when seasoned, but they do burn better than most woods when green.
Why Does Seasoned Wood Burn Better?
Seasoned wood burns hotter and results in less creosote buildup in your fireplace than green wood. It's also much easier to get a fire going and keep it going with seasoned wood, as it contains much less liquid.
How Can I Tell If My Wood Is Seasoned?
Seasoned wood will look greyish and dusty on the outside and whitish on the inside. It will smell more faint than fresh-cut firewood. The bark may also be slightly loose and missing in spots where it's been knocked off. Lastly, if you knock two pieces of dry wood together, they'll make a hollow sound, whereas wetter wood will produce a thud.
If you want to be extra sure your wood is optimally seasoned and ready to burn, use a moisture meter to check its moisture content.
What Is Fatwood or "Lighter'd"?
This incredible kindling goes by many names, including "fatwood," "fat lighter," "lighter wood," "pine knot," and "lighter'd" (often pronounced "ladder'd" in the South). But what is it?
Fatwood comes from the trunks and crotches dead pine trees, where the sap has collected. When the tree rots and the sap hardens, you're left with resin-soaked wood that is incredibly effective as a fire-starter, even in wet conditions. You'll know it's fatwood by the smell—the most pungent pine scent you've ever experienced!
If you have forested property and are interested in using lighter'd, here are detailed instructions about how to find and prepare your own fatwood.
Note: When working with fatwood, it's wise to prep your blade with WD-40 and clean it with either a degreaser or a gum-remover afterward. Otherwise, you'll end up with a sticky, sappy blade.
A Short Note on Splitting Firewood by Hand
I’ve come to view chopping firewood as one of the many (almost) lost arts—yet another skill that was essential just a little over a century ago, but that has become almost obsolete. Believe it or not, chopping wood is my favorite chore. When I started heating my home with a wood-stove, I swore I would never go back to electric, gas, or anything else. So far so good.
As far as getting the firewood, I guess log-splitters are great and all, but they’re dangerous, burn too much fuel, and don’t afford me enough exercise. And having cordwood delivered? Forget it! If I don’t chop it myself, I’ve only gotten half the value of a piece of firewood: By rights, it should warm you twice.
Whether you’re splitting wood yourself or not, it’s important to understand that not all wood is the same.
Enjoy a Deeper Connection With Nature
There are so many different types of hardwood trees, I could literally write a whole book about them. Luckily, someone has; I take this tree-identification book with me every time I'm out in the forest.
I would also have to travel around the United States, and eventually the whole world, in order to get a meaningful experience with each type. This article was meant to discuss some of the types of wood that I’m most experienced with.
I should probably also note that I don’t run madly through the forest with a chainsaw, cutting down every firewood-valuable tree that I can find. Harvesting deadfall is a sustainability issue, and when good trees come down because of storms, disease, damage or age, there is still a part of me that feels bad for the tree as a living organism—but I love chopping firewood, and winter is cold!
I hope that more people will consider using firewood to heat their homes. The switch has been an absolute joy for me. You get plenty of exercise and fresh air chopping wood, and then there’s the personal connection you can make with the world around you. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know a Poplar from a Maple; I can just barely remember what life was like for me then, but I can tell you this—my life is much richer now.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Which is easier to split, seasoned or green wood?