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The Ultimate Guide to Seasoned Firewood [2020]

Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know

Introduction

Seasoned firewood. A little salt and pepper usually will do. Melt some butter in the pan with a clove of minced garlic, then baste the firewood with the melted butter mixture…

Just kidding! If you’re looking for different firewood options for your fireplace, outdoor fire pit, or wood stove, then you’ve definitely heard of “seasoned firewood.” But what does that even mean? 

Seasoned firewood is wood that’s been left out to dry for a long period of time, allowing the moisture from the tree’s cells and it’s sap to evaporate from the wood. The ideal moisture content for any wood that you burn is somewhere between 15%-25%, so seasoning your firewood is the drying process to get it to that point. 

In most conversations, the word “seasoned firewood” can be used in many different ways. When people talk about seasoned firewood they talk about firewood they’ve seasoned themselves or they received from a friend down the road. A lot of times there is very little quality control and the wood that you may think has been seasoned may still be pretty green with a lot of moisture left over.

What Happens to Your Chimney If You Use Greenwood?

First, green firewood is any wood that has high moisture content and is not seasoned. The tree species doesn’t determine if the wood is green, just the moisture content. You can test the moisture content of the wood with a moisture meter like this one at Home Depot

As I mentioned before, the ideal moisture content in firewood is between 15%-25%. Wood with higher moisture content is very hard to light and burn. Greenwood will sizzle, pop, smolder, and smoke. It’s nearly impossible to create a scolding hot fire with moist wood because the fire never really takes off or gets going. 

All of that is creating a breeding ground for creosote deposits to build up. Creosote is a natural byproduct of burning wood (and the main reason to have a chimney swept each year) but burning greenwood contributes to excessive build-up. First, the moisture doesn’t allow the fire to get hot enough. When this happens the gases and smoke can’t move up and out of your chimney fast enough. So the smoke stays in your chimney much longer than it should. Not to mention all the extra smoke that is made from burning greenwood. 

Creosote is dangerous not only for its many health risks but also because it is the main cause of chimney-related fires every single year. That’s right. Creosote is also highly flammable. So it’s best to not burn greenwood. 

Here are a few symptoms that you may experience when burning greenwood: 

  • Difficulty getting your fire going and keeping it burning
  • Smoky fires with little flame
  • Dirty glass
  • Rapid creosote buildup in your chimney
  • Low heat output
  • The smell of smoke in your house
  • Short burn times
  • Excessive fuel consumption
  • Blue-gray smoke from the chimney

Okay, so now what? 

I know. I told you that you should be extra cautious when buying greenwood, but now what? Greenwood will look fresh. The bark will still be firmly attached and it will feel heavy. The ends of the wood where it was cut may also still feel damp. 

Seasoned firewood will be much lighter. The outside of the wood will be dark and grey and the ends will be cracked. And the bark will be flaking off or even missing altogether. With this guide, I’m hoping to teach you the exact process of everything that needs to go into seasoning firewood properly.

Step 1: Understanding the Wood

Be the wood. Well, you don’t actually have to do that, but you should understand a few basic properties of your wood. How long you need to season your firewood largely depends on the type of tree. For example, with deciduous trees (those that shed its leaves) the sap moves to the roots for the winter. So when the tree is cut during the winter, the moisture content will be much lower and, therefore, will need to season for a shorter period of time. 

A good rule of thumb is that softwoods, like pine, only require about 6 to 12 months to season. Whereas, hardwoods, like oak, need about two years! But once again, the duration of the seasoning process should be as long as it takes to reach an appropriate moisture content. 

Step 2: Sizing, Cutting, and Splitting 

Cut the wood to length

The wood needs to be the right size for your stove, fireplace, or furnace. I like to recommend cutting your wood so that it is about three inches shorter than the firebox width or length, depending on how you like to load your wood. This is for two reasons: 

  1. It’s no fun jamming long pieces of wood into a fire
  2. Smaller pieces are easier to handle and dry quicker. 

Be sure to cut your wood to equal size to maintain consistency. Once you have your trees ready to be sized and cut, it’s important to act quickly. If you cut and pile firewood right away you can prevent (for the most part) any mold that may grow on your wood.

measure for gas logs

Splitting Your Wood

There’s some debate between whether you should wait to split your wood to let it dry a little bit. I think it comes down to personal preference. Most of the time, splitting wet wood is a lot harder than splitting dry wood, but split wood tends to dry faster. Split wood has less bark so the moisture is able to escape easier. Some types of wood are actually easier to split when wet, like oak! If you want an easier cut, just do a little research to decide which ones are easier to split wet versus dry. 

Whenever you choose to split your wood, you should make sure it’s split to the proper size too. For most wood stoves, the best size is no more than six inches measured at the largest cross-sectional dimension. Whereas the length of wood requires consistency, I like to recommend that you split wood with inconsistencies sometimes. This way you can have some smaller pieces for kindling and building up the fire. 

Safety considerations

When splitting wood, be sure to keep these considerations in mind. You don’t want your ax or splitting maul to send wood pieces back into your eye. Or worse (maybe), you don’t want the ax to slip and hit you or someone else. 

  1. Wear the necessary safety gear – protective goggles, steel toe shoes, and gloves. Don’t wear loose clothing or jewelry.
  2. Have a clean workspace – I like to split wood in an open field away from my house and cars. 
  3. Practice the Right Splitting Technique – always aim at the front and center of the log because overshooting can cause the handle to hit the log. And that can definitely hurt. 
  4. Keep your ax sharp – You need to keep your ax or maul in good shape. That means sharpening and also keeping the handle in good shape too.

Step 3: Stacking & Storing Your Wood

When you stack the wood, you should make sure that the wood isn’t sitting directly on the ground or right up against a wall or fence. This is because the pieces on the ground will get wet and stay wet, and the ends against the fence won’t dry well. This will just give you improperly seasoned firewood that burns unevenly. 

Location, location, location

Where you choose to store your firewood should be thought about a lot. Your wood is going to be there for a long time and you want to use the wood when the time is right. When choosing the location, think about the sunlight. Think about if the location is going to keep you from accessing some parts of your yard (if you even care about that part). Think about when you’re going to use it – will it be convenient to grab when it’s cold outside? 

Never put your firewood against your house, garage, shed, or any other building. Unless you want termites, of course. The wood needs to be piled in a place where the sun can warm it and the wind can blow through it. The sun evaporates the water and the wind helps to blow it away. 

Stacking

Even though you shouldn’t place the firewood directly on the ground in the soil, you can place a tarp or a plastic sheeting underneath. But raising the stacks of wood off soil is much better since it allows the air to flow beneath the wood. You could even sacrifice a few pieces to serve as the bottom “legs” of a makeshift rack for your firewood. 

You should try to pile your stack to about 4 feet tall and in a single row. If you don’t have enough space to dry in a single row, you may be tempted to stack a few rows together. That may be okay, but you should be sure to give some space between the rows so that the wind and sun can run through. 

Covering vs. Not Covering

I’ve seen people who leave their woodpiles out all year long. They say that the wood is dry enough by the time they want to bring the wood into the woodshed. Leaving your firewood completely uncovered is the ideal way to go, but it isn’t exactly ideal when you factor in rain, snow, and ice. 

I’d recommend leaving your wood uncovered for a few weeks at least before covering it, though. This way your firewood can get a head start in the seasoning process. Then, simply add a good cover on the top of your firewood to protect it, but be sure the cover is slanted to shed moisture away from the base. Also, make sure the cover is above the pile so that the wind and sun can still work their magic in helping you season your firewood. 

Additional Considerations

  • Store your wood with the bark side down to help encourage even more moisture evaporation
  • Stored wood will start to decay after four or five years and burning ease and efficiency begins to drop
  • Cut, split, and stack your wood in the early spring so the seasoning process can work through the summer
  • If you don’t have woods that you can cut down, and you need to buy the wood, you can buy greenwood in advance and season it yourself
  • Don’t mess with wood that has been treated with pesticides or insecticides.

How to Tell When Wood Is Seasoned? 

We know that burning greenwood is not a good thing and can be dangerous. Here’s how you can tell when the wood is seasoned properly: 

  1. Color – seasoned wood is much less vibrant than greenwood
  2. Weight – Seasoned wood doesn’t have as much moisture content and is much lighter than greenwood
  3. Hardness – drying wood makes it much harder. 
  4. Bark – the bark on dry wood is loose, or maybe not even there. 
  5. Cracks – You should be able to see cracks on the dry pieces of wood, extending from the center of the log and reaching towards the edges. You should know that not all dry logs will crack, while some green logs will crack. 
  6. Sound – wet wood will produce a dull thud when struck against another piece. Dry wood will sound hollow. 
  7. Smell – greenwood will smell stronger. As the wood dries, the sappy scent fades to a light woody smell
  8. Split test – you can split the wood to see if it feels dry on the inside. You should also be able to see if the wood is easier to split. Remember, most dried out wood is easier to split than greenwood. 
  9. Flammability – Greenwood will be hard to light. It will smolder and create a lot of smoke. This tells you that it needs more time
  10. Moisture meter – The easiest and last of all is the moisture meter. This easy tool will allow you to check the moisture percentage within the wood. So when in doubt, or even much before that, use a moisture meter!

Drawbacks to using Seasoned Firewood? 

Okay, so now that you spent two years of your life reading this whole guide and preparing your firewood to be able to burn properly in your house, now’s the time to learn the downsides of using seasoned firewood. There are a lot of inconsistencies in naturally seasoning your firewood. And because of this, here are some of the most common issues that I hear when it comes to seasoned firewood: 

  1. The smoke smells bad – you may get a musty smell in the wood when you burn it. This is from the moisture that is still in there. 
  2. Bugs, mold, and fungus – As firewood sits outside and air dries, it can attract bugs, mold, and fungus. You don’t want that in your fire and definitely not in your house. 
  3. It takes so long to season – it can be hard to wait two years for anything to happen. Until then, you’ll need to buy your firewood already seasoned. 

To altogether avoid either of those problems you can buy kiln dried firewood, which is fully seasoned firewood that’s been dried in an oven. Kilns allow the person drying the wood to control the environment, such as temperature, humidity, and steam levels. Most importantly, though, the kiln allows the wood to dry to the ideal moisture content much faster than simply air drying.

Where to Buy Seasoned Firewood in Roanoke, Lynchburg, & Blacksburg

If you’re not up to doing it yourself, no worries. You can always look out for someone that seasons firewood. Just be careful, and refer back to this guide when you need to verify that the firewood is in good condition. 

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