If you have a woodburner or open fire, you will no doubt have been chopping, gathering and storing logs ready for chilly nights. But do you know the best woods to burn, the ones that will burn hottest, last the longest, or give off the least smoke? And what about how to source logs responsibly, or how best to store them? Here’s our midwinter guide to fuelling your flames and a few extra tips for Christmas cosiness.
Although some woods can be burned when green (just cut), firewood must usually be seasoned (left to dry out) before burning. Most un-seasoned wood will smoulder rather than burn, leaving an acrid smell and sooting up your chimney. Well-seasoned logs will look grey and cracked, feel relatively light and sound hollow when knocked together – and will be more expensive than just-cut wood. How long you leave them to season depends on the timber – dense hardwoods such as oak and hornbeam should ideally be left for two summers and a winter; faster growing broadleaf trees such as ash and birch may take as little as one spring and summer.
Buying and storing
According to JPA consultant and recent woodburner convert Chris Hawley: ‘A hardwood/softwood mix is fine, although hardwood is best and will burn the longest. There are no accepted standards for load size but you are best off finding a local supplier to deliver in bulk rather than buying in bags from garages, assuming you can store it.’ A list of reputable log suppliers can be found through the gov.uk website (address at the end).
Logs are best stored outdoors under cover and stacked in a way that allows air to circulate easily. Chris has just built a simple structure from old pallets with a bitumen roof to house his winter wood store (see above) but a tarpaulin cover would be fine. He advises that logs should ideally be from sustainable sources – for example, softwood thinnings or from neglected woodland being brought back into management through coppicing, thereby helping biodiversity and supporting the local economy. ‘I would say the fuel wood industry is growing at the moment to meet increasing demand, although the supply chain is not yet that well developed,’ said Chris.
So what are the champion woods to choose? Here is our quick guide to the heroes and zeroes when it comes to keeping you warm.
Ash - the best of all, some say. Can be burned green, but even better when dry. Good, steady heat.
Oak - the mighty oak is mighty good in a fire. It will burn slowly and give good heat, but it needs to be well seasoned.
Beech - burns as well as ash, but not when green.
Blackthorn - excellent all-round burner, gives good heat and little smoke.
Walnut, plum, cherry and apple also burn well and give off a lovely aroma. Chunky pieces of old rhododendron are good, too.
Ones to avoid for being poor burners or for giving off acrid smoke: willow, poplar, laburnum, alder, spruce and chestnut. You should also avoid prolonged use of some resinous woods such as Eucalyptus, cedars and pines as they spit a lot and can leave deposits in the flue.
As for getting a good fire going, how about using pine cones as firestarters? They work on their own, but are even better dipped in wax (remove tealights from their metal cases and melt them in paper cupcake cases on a tray in the oven. Pop a cone in each, moving the wick to one side for easy lighting). If you want to stick to traditional newspaper, twist and knot it to make it more effective (bit of cooking fat on it boosts things nicely). And how about these for odd kindling tips – you can use crisps as firelighters, due to their fat content, and tumble dryer lint is useful as it is very flammable.
Finally, if you want to know the right wood for Yule logs, check out the website link at the end (you'll find it depends where you live). There’s also a site listing the many unusual uses for wood ash. And while you are enjoying the warmth and crackle from your lovely logs this winter, here’s a poem to mull over.
Beech-wood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new-cut holly laid beside;
Chestnut's only good, they say,
If for years 'tis stored away;
Birch and fir-wood burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last;
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
Dangerously the sparks will fly;
But ash-wood green and ash-wood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.
Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter's cold;
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold;
It is by the Irish said;
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread,
Apple-wood will scent the room,
Pear-wood smells like flowers in bloom;
But ash-wood wet and ash-wood dry
A King may warm his slippers by.