Not all wood burns the same or is equally good for your wood stove or fireplace. This guide to the best wood to use in a wood stove or fireplace addresses the best wood to use and other types to avoid.
Hardwood is generally better to use for firewood, though there are a significant number of long-time wood stove users that are happy to burn pine if it is thoroughly dry and well-seasoned. There’s more on that perspective below.
The more you know about the wood you burn, the more efficient and effective your wood stove or fireplace will be.
Differences Between Hardwood and Softwood for Burning
It helps to understand the lingo when discussing the best wood for wood stoves and fireplaces.
Hardwood vs Softwood
These are common descriptions of firewood. While these terms do apply to a wood’s sturdiness, the terms can be misleading at times.
Some species that are classified as “hardwood” may be softer than you would expect, and some softwoods turn out to be sturdier. But the softest hardwoods are weaker than the hardest softwoods. How confusing!
What you should know is “hardwood” and “softwood” are categories that each include a range of hardness and softness in wood, which is measured by the industry standard Janka Scale. But what qualifies as “hardwood” and “softwood” begins on the cellular level.
Hardwood trees are more complex in their cellular structures than softwood trees, which affects how they grow and branch out, the speed at which they grow, and the sturdiness of their wood. Ultimately, it impacts their usability as firewood.
Here’s a list of differences between the two to better understand what the categories entail:
- Hardwood is denser than softwood, so it is heavier.
- Hardwood cannot be cut or chopped as easily as softwood.
- Hardwood trees grow more slowly than pine, fir and other softwoods.
- Hardwood trees are deciduous. In other words, they lose their leaves annually. Softwood trees have needles instead of leaves.
- Hardwood trees branch out in various directions, while softwood trees grow straight up.
- Hardwood trees do not have resin, but softwood trees do. This is important for considering their use as firewood.
Seasoned Wood vs Kiln-dried Wood
Some readers might be surprised to learn that some firewood is kiln dried. You can probably find it near where you live with a quick online search. It might cost more, but has advantages discussed here. Kiln dried wood is often sold for commercial purposes – to restaurants that cook with wood stoves, or to sellers of wood bundles such as campgrounds and gas stations near camping areas.
Seasoning wood means storing the wood to dry. When wood is freshly cut, it is holding approximately 60% of its water content and won’t be usable for a fire until the moisture inside drops to about 20% or lower. You’ll need to let the wood dry for 6 months to 1 year for it to be “seasoned.” Some species may take longer, and your climate plays a role too.
Kiln dried wood is exactly as it sounds: a kiln was used for the drying process. The difference between this and seasoning is that the kiln allows the user to be in control of how quickly the wood dries, whereas it is easy to lose track with seasoning.
Depending on how the wood is stored, seasoning may also invite pests to live in the wood. With a kiln, insects and their eggs in the wood are killed.
Here is an interesting option for drying wood – a solar kiln for about a half-cord of wood.
The Best and Worst Wood for Firewood
Here are our lists of what you should and shouldn’t use for your wood-burning stove and/or fireplace:
What to Use
Deciduous hardwood is the best choice. Hardwood is dense, burning at a slower pace that makes a long-lasting fire as a result. It does not have resin ducts like softwoods. These ducts and the resin in them can cause sparks in your stove or fireplace. Hardwood produces less soot than other types of wood.
You’ll want to make sure the hardwood is seasoned or kiln dried before using it.
Below is a sample of the best hardwood to choose from, which can all be located around North America:
- Ash (top recommendation)
Of this list, you will find that ash, maple, oak, and hickory will give you the most satisfying results with slow-burning, long fires and high heat.
Ash and maple are similar, but ash has three particular advantages that make it our top recommendation.
- Ash takes less time to season due to its low moisture content when cut.
- It produces less smoke than oak and hickory.
- It splits easily.
Comparably, oak is a mainstream favorite. Although it can take up to 2 years to season, it is otherwise easy to light, available in abundance, and lets off a mild, pleasing aroma when burned. Hickory is similar to oak, only it is harder, weighs more, and gives off a stronger, sweeter aroma.
What to Avoid
Most who are knowledgeable about firewood recommend avoiding these woods, especially for use in an indoor fireplace. See an alternate view below.
1. Coniferous trees—or, softwood. From these tree species, we get
Homeowners are often tempted to use any one of these, but especially pine, because of how easy they are to cut and the fragrances they let off. They are also cheap or free and abundant.
But these softwoods have two main issues: they don’t maintain long fires, and they have sap or resin.
Resin is a sticky substance that is found on conifer tree bark. It protects coniferous trees by sealing any areas where their scale leaves, cones, branches, and/or bark have shed. Resin is highly flammable, generating sparks and a quick, hot fire. It also leaves behind creosote—a dark-brown oil—that will build up in your stove or chimney. This oil will discharge an odor and might eventually set your stove or chimney on fire. It is the number-one cause of chimney fires.
While softwood is dangerous in the home, you may find them useful for an outside firepit.
2. Poplar wood. Although a hardwood, poplar is on the softer end, being comparable to pine or cedar wood. It is not worth the money since it burns too quickly. The moment you put in a load, you’ll have to put in another.
3. Beech wood. Just like poplar wood, beech is a hardwood. For many, it may seem strange to have in the “avoid” list, but we chose to do this for good reason. Beech may burn well, but it has a tendency to spark, which makes it dangerous indoors and better for the outdoors.
4. Green wood, or unseasoned wood. “Green wood” is not a type of wood but a state of being. It means the wood you’re using has just been cut and still holds approximately 60% of its water content. Damp or wet wood won’t burn effectively or at all.
5. Driftwood. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), driftwood will release toxic chemicals when burned. It will also release salt, which will cause the fireplace to corrode.
6. Plywood, particle board, and the like. Burning anything with glue on or in them will create harmful fumes. You won’t want to burn painted wood for the same reason.
7. Pressure-treated wood. Lumber is usually treated with chemicals, such as arsenic, that make it pest- and fungi-resistant. If set aflame, you’ll be putting your health at risk.
Some Like Pine in their Outdoor Stove or Boiler
We’re not advocating the use of pine indoors – or anywhere, but we like to cover a topic fully with all points of view. Here is a comment from a long-time wood stove user about pine that summarizes its strongpoints.
“Pine…properly seasoned is the best kept wood stove secret in the world. I get at least one log load of pine every year. 10 face cords for $150!!!! Cut , Split, Stack and see you in 2 years minimum. Norway Spruce actually comes in harder than Silver Maple and Cherry!!! Love it in the Fall and early Spring. Amazing kindling as well. Great to take the chill out, stretch fires in the afternoon so you save your hardwoods. Moved some Pine around last week…came in at 8% on my moisture meter. All around…Fantastic wood for any wood stove.”
When well-seasoned, pine starts easily and burns hot, so if you want fast heat, it will deliver. Those that use pine often start the fire with it and then switch to hardwood once the stove has a layer of coals glowing.
Check out the link for similar comments from other stove owners.
We recommend that if you’re going to use pine, only burn it outdoors. Get a meter and make sure it is dry. And clean your stove and chimney more often than you would when burning hardwood only.
How to Season Firewood
Seasoning wood increases its efficiency and provides a cleaner fire when burned. If you are cutting your own wood but don’t know how to season it, here’s a basic outline, in order, of what to do:
- Stack the freshly cut wood. Keep the wood elevated off the ground since the bottom needs to be dried, as well.
- Separate the logs into multiple stacks. One large stack won’t allow enough breathing space for the middle logs.
- Helpful tip: make sure your wood stacks are outside your house and garage. Otherwise, you may invite termites into your living space(s).
- Keep each row of logs level.
- Keep the stacks as dry as possible. Cover the tops of the wood stacks to keep the rain or snow from soaking them. The covering should be a tarp or a wood or metal overhang.
Do not dry your wood for longer than needed. If you are concerned your wood is over- or under-dried, you can invest in a moisture meter. You can find one here.