Watching a fire is hypnotizing, and the warmth and aroma only adds to the feeling. Nowadays, we don’t have to build fires to survive—we build one because we want cheaper heat or to create a mood. So what is the best wood to create heat, and what is the best wood to just build a quick, romantic fire?
Use Seasoned Wood for a Quick, Warm Fire
The best wood is dry, seasoned wood. Wood that is well seasoned has been cut and sitting in a dry location for at least a year—two years is even better. Wood should be kept outside, where it will be out of the rain until ready to use. However, don’t put a tarp over your wood pile since you want the air to circulate throughout the stack. Instead, build a little lean-to that will protect the wood from inclement weather, but still allow the sun and wind to do its work.
Once your wood has been seasoned and you're ready to build a fire, bring in only the amount of wood you will need for just that one fire (you don’t want any creepy crawlers coming to live inside your home.)
The reason you should season your firewood is because fresh wood is mostly water and therefore doesn’t ignite well. Since trees take up water through thousands of tiny tubes (much like a straw in a tall glass of water), it takes a while for those tubes to dry out. If water is left in them, you will have a very smoky fire and it will create a lot of creosote in your chimney. If you use unseasoned wood and do get a fire started, it won’t be very warm because all the energy produced will be used to evaporate any remaining water in the wood. So, use seasoned wood!
A good rule of thumb is to buy your wood a year in advance to ensure what you're putting in your fireplace is well seasoned. Well seasoned wood in your fireplace means less creosote, and less creosote means less worry of a chimney fire.
Now that we have that out of the way, what are the best types of wood for a fire? Which ones produce the most heat? Which ones burn longest? Which ones are readily available?
If you want a slow burning fire that will get nice and hot, choose oak. This type of wood is fairly abundant, especially in the northern states. Keep in mind it's a little harder to start a fire with oak simply because it is so hard, so this is where you will want to have a good stack of kindling handy. Once it is started, however, you will have a good clean fire that will last longer than any softwood.
Hard maple is another type of hardwood that burns as equally slow as oak. The fibers in hard maple are closer together than in a softwood, which makes it dense and therefore burn slower with a steady flow of heat.
Cherry is a great hardwood if you like a fire with a sweet aroma. It does spark a little, but doesn’t produce any smoke. While it doesn’t burn as hot as oak, it does give off a nice even heat.
Birch is a considered a hardwood that creates a lot of heat, but it burns faster than oak or maple. Typically, birch is cheaper than the other hardwoods because of its abundance. Keep in mind that even though it's cheaper than others per cord, you'll need more of it since it burns faster.
Get a mix of hardwoods and softwoods. Use the birch to get the fire started, and then throw on a log of oak to keep it going. There is nothing wrong with mixing different types of woods in a fireplace, as long as they are all seasoned.
Pine is very easy to find and it seasons fast; one year ought to be enough to season pine. The bad part is that it burns quickly and any heat produced dissipates quickly, too. However, it's great to use for kindling and is perfect for a mood-setting fire because it crackles more than other woods. On the safety side, pine will spark because of sap compartments that stay in the pine even after seasoning. That same sap will leave a creosote buildup in your chimney.
Fir, which is a cousin of pine, produces an average amount of heat. Just like its cousin, fir will spark. It will burn a little slower than pine, but not by much.
Comparing premade or man-made fire logs to wood is kind of like comparing hot dogs to steak. Man-made logs can be made from anything including sawdust and wood fibers to dried grass, with usually some kind of additive in there, such as wax, to keep these loose particles together. Read the label and make sure they are made for an indoor fireplace before purchasing them (if you're building a fire indoors.) They are fine for a quick fix if you're out of wood.
Believe it or not, there are many levels to a good fire. Tinder is the first level, then kindling, and then the log. Tinder ignites fast and burns hot enough to start the kindling. Kindling burns just long enough to get the log started.
The best kindling is strips of pine. Split a couple logs from a bundle into one-inch sticks and stack them so that they will dry fast. Stack the first level in one direction and the next in the opposite direction, kind of like Lincoln Logs, to create air flow.
In a pinch you can take some newspaper and twist it to make it a little denser and keep it from flying around inside the fireplace. (Paper is actually closer to tinder than it is to kindling.)