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burning firewood

What Is the Most Efficient Way to Burn Wood?

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Sep 24, 2020

There is nothing more romantic than the orange-red embers of a fire slowly burning in the fireplace during a cold winter night. The warmth of a fireplace brings a rich, natural heat that only comes from burning firewood. Most homes built today have replaced the natural log fireplace with gas fireplaces. Gas fireplaces are often much less efficient and run the potential risk of filtering carbon monoxide into your home, especially if you opt for a ventless fireplace.

Does your home have a fireplace and a chimney, or are you thinking about installing a small wood-burning stove or fireplace into your home? Some tricks of the trade will allow you to maximize the heat that comes from burning wood. Learning the agrarian art of properly cutting, storing, and burning wood is a great way to sustainably heat a home or add a bit of extra warmth without having to turn up the thermostat.

Chopping Wood

Get the Right Wood

The chances are that your grandparents could walk through the woods and tell you which trees were suitable for burning and which were practically useless. To the modern-day urban person, a tree is a tree. Over time, many of us have lost contact with the natural world and have "outsourced" our needs. This outsourcing has led to the loss of a wide variety of agricultural and outdoor skills and knowledge that used to be a necessity for survival.

best firewood

What Is the Best Firewood for Heat?

When it comes to wood for burning, the white pine or spruce tree in your backyard that blew over during a windy storm won't offer you near the same amount of heat value as beach, oak, or ash trees. BTUs are the unit of measure for heat produced by different types of firewood. Eastern hardwood trees, such as Osage orange, shagbark hickory, and black locust, have some of the highest BTU values of any variety of wood. This attribute means that they will burn longer and hotter and vastly increase the amount of heat in your home.

You can research the BTU values of several types of popular tree species here.

stacking firewood

How to Stack Firewood Wood

You can always order a truckload of pre-cut firewood, or you might want to spend a weekend cutting the logs and splitting them yourself with an ax in hand. Either way, learning how to stack firewood properly is essential to keep it dry, mold-free, and fireplace-ready. Simply put, wet wood isn't going to burn nearly as well as dry wood.

Ideally, you want to end up with wood that has a moisture content of about 20%. This moisture level is best achieved by effective stacking. Proper stacking of wood protects it from moisture (from above and below) and maximizes airflow to increase drying efficiency.

First, you need to choose a spot to stack your firewood where moisture naturally flows away instead of accumulating. Next, you will want to create two "towers" on either side of where you are stacking the cord of wood you just cut to help stabilize it in place. Tip: most of the drying will occur from the cut ends of the wood. Wind patterns usually blow in an east/west direction. So, you will want to organize your stack so that your firewood ends are facing east/west instead of north/south.

Finally, you will want to stack the wood in intermittent sizes and shapes to amplify the number of air passages that can pass through the wood. While it might be a good idea to cover the top of your finished woodpile when you expect rain, you do not want to protect it completely. If you were to do this, you would eliminate any airflow. Thus, it is best only to cover the top of your woodpile while leaving the sides exposed.


What is a Cord of Firewood?

When purchasing firewood, you generally buy it by the "cord" or fraction of a cord. This commonly accepted unit of measure is equal to 128 stacked cubic feet. This volume corresponds to a neatly piled stack of wood that measures four feet high by four feet deep by eight feet long. Another well-known measure, the "face cord," is a neatly piled stack of wood measuring four feet high by eight feet long by 16 inches deep.

How Much Is a Cord of Firewood?

If you purchase firewood in large quantities, you can expect to pay between $120-$180 per year per cord.


How To Start a Fire Safely

Once your wood has dried out sufficiently to burn, the first step in lighting a fire is priming the flue. During cold winter days, chimneys (mainly if they are situated on the outside of your wall) will accumulate cold air, which will draw down into your fireplace and make it challenging to get a fire started without blowing smoke into your living space. You can prime the flue by simply lighting some newspaper, holding it up inside the chimney until you "feel" the airflow reverse. When this occurs, the hot air begins to be pulled up through the chimney.

If you do not have a large supply of kindling or newspaper, you can purchase fire logs. These products are manufactured from compressed sawdust and paraffin and so are very easy to get started. If you are looking for a DIY option, "ocote wood" or pinewood, which is naturally soaked in pine resin, is a great way to get a fire started.

Warming Feet By Stove

Ideas for Efficient Burning

While fireplaces certainly have a romantic feel to them, most fireplaces are incredibly inefficient. The only way to truly feel the heat is by getting close enough to the fire where you can feel the burn. Most of the actual heat escapes up through the chimney. However, the shallow box design reflects much more heat into the home. The Rumford Fireplace is one of the oldest fireplace models, designed back in the 1790s. It is still considered one of the most efficient fireplace models on the market today.

Nectre Wood Stove
Nectre Wood Stove. Photo Credit: Nectre

What Are Some Alternatives to Fireplaces?

If your home does not have a fireplace, it can be expensive to install one. Costs add up, given that you'll have to add a chimney and take proper safety precautions, as well. Instead, consider opting for an energy-efficient wood stove or even the traditional potbelly cast iron stove (that you can probably find at an antique store). These will most likely offer much more heat than a fireplace. For homesteaders and people who live for DIY projects, a rocket mass heater is one of the most efficient ways to heat a home. As a bonus, you can even incorporate an earthen bench that will warm your bottom while you sit and read a book during those cold winter nights.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-06-23T16:59:55+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.