How to Get the Best Firewood for Clean and Affordable Energy

Find out where to harvest or buy firewood, plus how to split, dry and stack your logs for the most efficient wood heat.

| October/November 2011

Log Splitting Tire

Using a tire to hold the wood while you split it for your firebox will save you lots of time and energy.


Firewood is better than money in the bank. It’s the tangible result of your labor, and it represents warmth and security through winter. If you know how to dry firewood properly, wood heat can be a clean, renewable energy that’s more accessible than solar or wind.

The three essential ingredients for efficient and environmentally appropriate wood heating are good stove technology, good fire-building techniques and good fuel. We’ve covered the first two topics in the past (see “Resources” at the end of this article). Now let’s look at what you need to know to have the best firewood.

Knowing how to dry firewood correctly is essential: Every serious wood burner must understand that wood dries slowly. Good firewood should have a moisture content between 15 and 20 percent, and it takes a long time for newly processed wood to dry to that level because the native moisture content of trees ranges from 30 to 50 percent. The efficiency losses resulting from burning wet wood can be as much as 30 percent, so drying firewood properly prevents a lot of wasted wood and results in wood that burns much more cleanly!

Here is a one-sentence prescription for good firewood: Logs should be cut to the correct length, split to the right size range for your heater, and stacked off of the ground in single rows in the open in early spring to be ready for burning in fall. 

However, hard species such as oak and hickory usually take longer than a summer to dry. Bigger chunks of firewood dry more slowly, and if you live in a damp climate, your wood will take longer to dry. If you don’t have an open, sunny location to stack your wood, it may take more than the summer to dry. Unless your conditions for drying firewood are optimal, you should prepare your firewood a year ahead. 

How to Dry Firewood: The Basics

Firewood that isn’t dry is slow to ignite. It smokes and smolders in the fire, causing both indoor and outdoor air pollution and leaving creosote deposits in the chimney. But that’s not all.

mike picard
12/26/2011 5:09:28 PM

I like much of what John said. He speaks with experience from living with eastern hardwoods. But I agree with Sherwood. I prefer to keep my wood as large around as I can fit into my stove. this gives me a longer burn per piece, and I handle fewer pieces. I also have to split less of my wood. I also agree with the tossed pile vs neat stacked rows. The tossed pile is what I use ouside my home. It's faster and easier to build. Even wet aspen will dry within 2-3 months in our climate in a tossed pile. I live in a high valley in the Colorado rockies. Very dry air and lots of sun. I don't cover my wood pile, or keep it in a shed, even in winter. The pieces stay dry enough here that I can start my stove with 4 full round logs and a handfull of newspaper. My drawback is that I don't have good oak or maple available to burn. I use softwoods and aspen. As a result I burn up to 15 cords per winter. We have lots of wind here and that affects our heating needs. I buy my wood by the truckload, usually cull logs from area mills, or cull logs from loggers. They deliver, and I cut to length and split when needed. I spend less for 15 cords that will keep the house warm for 9 months, than I would spend for 2 months of propane to feed my furnace. My home is 4,250 square feet, and I use one old Earth Stove to heat the whole place. One other change we made to improve our heating efficiency is we piped in outside air for combustion. That made a huge difference by keeping the warmed air inside the home instead of going up the chimney.

sherwood botsford
11/19/2011 9:38:08 PM

Drying your wood for two summers is worth while. I go through about 6 cords a year. (I'm in Alberta -- 10,000 degree heating days per year! and a 2500 square foot house.) My woodshed has a partition down the middle, November is my wood month. The leaves are off the trees, making it easy to see in the woods. The ground is frozen meaning that driving over it with a tractor won't compact the ground. The wood I chuck into the west half of the shed will be used starting in Fall of 2014. Meanwhile, right now I'm using the east side of the shed. Before fall I'll move the leftovers, as much as will fit easily onto the breezeway between the house and the garage. This will give me wood until some time in late fall, dpending on how many cool nights we have.

sherwood botsford
11/19/2011 9:32:22 PM

I don't seem to be able to create separate paragraphs, so extended comments are tricky. I also disagree with John on the desirability of small chunks. I have a modern stove. I find that large chunks make it much easier to get a long burn. Large chunks are also less handling -- A cord of 6" billets is roughly 300 chunks. Make those into 3" billets and the count goes to 1200. And it takes about the same amount of time per chunk to handle wood. So my advice is to make most of your wood the maximum size that you can fit two of into your stove. Make it smaller only as needed.

sherwood botsford
11/19/2011 9:27:34 PM

I disagree with John about stacking for faster drying. It takes far longer for moisture to move through the wood than it does to evaporate. ANY method of stacking that has reasonabe open air exchange with the world is sufficient. Keeping the rain from re-wetting it is more important. Further: Stacking is a PITA, and a lot of extra work. Far easier to make a corral out of old pallets, snow fence, or a roofed shed, and just throw the stuff in there. A loose stack has more air space in it, and is far quicker to work with. It can be useful to make a neat stack across the entrance to keep the loose chunks from rolling out.

scott ellis
11/6/2011 4:54:25 PM

Great article for those of us just starting to heat with wood. Just a small correction to your article: The volume of a cord in inches is stated as 1728 cubic inches however there are 1728 cubic inches per cubic foot (12"x12"x12"=1728") and there are 128 cubic feet per cord (4'x4'x8'=128'). Therefore 1728 cubic inches x 128 cubic feet = 221184 cubic inches per 4'x4'x8' cord.

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