Five Types of Hardwood Trees to Use for Firewood - Oak, Cherry, Sassafras, Locust, Ash
8 Pound Splitting Maul - my favorite tool!
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. 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, they burn too much fuel, and they 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. Hardwood is what you want for heating or cooking. And then there are literally hundreds of species of hardwood trees from which we can harvest firewood. Here are five such types of hardwoods that I have had a lot of personal experience with.
Black Cherry Bark and Grain
Black Cherry or Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina)
Split-ability: Moderately Easy
Kindling Grade: A
Cook Wood Grade: B
The Tree: 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.
The Wood: 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. 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, maybe 1 or 2 feet generally; 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.
Sassafras Bark and Grain
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Heat: Medium High
Kindling Grade: A+
Cook Wood Grade: B-
The Tree: Sassafras is a medium, sometimes large, tree. I’ve usually seen them 20 to 50 feet tall. Sometimes they grow up to 90 feet, and with a trunk diameter averaging 2 to 4 feet. It’s 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.
The Wood: 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; 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.
Sassafras does have its faults, however. Despite throwing a 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.
Black Locust Examples
Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
Heat: Very Hot
Kindling Grade: C
Cook Wood Grade: A-
The Tree: The Black Locust is a medium-sized to large tree, with a relatively short life span. It grows 70 to 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 U.S. These trees are beautiful but intimidating, with their thorny upper branches and rope-like bark, but they make awesome fence posts and rails, and 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. One of the really interesting things about the Black Locust is that each tree is really part of a larger colony, with their underground root structures all connected. You’ll almost never come upon a single, lonely Black Locust in the forest. Find a stand of them, and be careful which one you cut down! If the “mother” is removed, the whole colony will suffer, and many of the trees will likely die.
The Wood: 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.
Red Oak Bark and Grain
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
Kindling Grade: B-
Cook Wood Grade: A
The Tree: 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. 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.
The Wood: 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 fly 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 2 feet in diameter usually require the use of metal wedges to get you started, but if you’re really good with your trusty 8-pound splitting maul you can work on the sapwood and often find “weaknesses” in the grain where checks have formed. When splitting any firewood, it’s good to take advantage of where the tree was weak and the grain has checked. Taking a good look at a large round of Red Oak so that you can understand how the tree grew and “put itself together” can also go a long way in helping you to take it apart.
White Ash Examples
White Ash (Fraxinus americana)
Kindling Grade: B+
Cook Wood Grade: A
The Tree: 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, sometimes 100 feet tall. 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.
The Wood: 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.
This is the book I use to help me identify trees when I'm traipsing about the forest
There are so many different types of hardwood trees, I could literally write a whole book about them. 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, and I tell you, life is much richer now.