Solved! The Best Wood for Burning in the Fireplace
Learn which species will imbue your hearth with warmth and beauty while minimizing hazardous creosote buildup.
Q: My wife and I just bought our first home, complete with wood-burning fireplace. We’re excited—but unsure exactly what kind of wood to stock. What do you recommend?
A: Congratulations on your new home and fireplace. The ambient glow and cozy warmth will make even the coldest nights a pleasure. On a practical level, a wood-burning fireplace may also help you lower your heating bills a bit, and will certainly come in handy in the event of a power loss.
Choose wood that provides maximum burn-time while minimizing the buildup of creosote. If left unchecked, the walls of your chimney will become coated with creosote—the highly flammable, blackish-brown tar residue of wood burn. This lining restricts air-flow and creates a fire hazard; creosote is also toxic and could negatively impact your health. So while you can clean a chimney with creosote remover, it’s wise to use wood that produces less of the noxious substance.
In general, hardwoods like oak, ash, and beech are more difficult to ignite, but they last a long time. Softwoods like fir, pine and cedar make more smoke, and therefore more creosote. That said, these evergreens contain fragrant resins and oils that easily ignite and are perfect for kindling. You can also try a commercial brand like Fatwood Fire-Starter ($44.95 for a 35-pound box at Plow & Hearth).
Always burn wood that is dry to the touch and seasoned (prepared for burning by allowing excess moisture to fully evaporate). Freshly cut green logs produce more smoke, making them hazardous, especially indoors. And only burn logs that fit easily into your fireplace. Logs thicker than five inches in diameter should be split before use. If you cut your own wood, remember it can take six months to two years to fully dry, depending on species. Wood purchased from a supplier should be fully seasoned and ready to use.
Purchase well ahead of the winter rush. There is no fixed cost for firewood; price fluctuates due to market factors, including weather, supply, and demand. A cord is the standard unit of measurement for firewood, and is equal to 128 cubic feet. Some suppliers also sell smaller quantities called “face cords.” A cord can cost a minimum of $225 for softwoods like fir. Mixed woods and hardwoods are approximately $300 to $600 per cord.
While you can purchase firewood online, it is best to find a reputable local supplier. This cuts down on shipping costs and helps prevent environmental damage. For example, buying special varieties from other states or countries can lead to invasive species being imported to your area. Seven states list their local firewood suppliers on Firewood Scout. Prices vary a lot, and local suppliers may not list prices online, so you’ll need to call first.
Now that you understand the basics, here’s the lowdown on the best wood for the fireplace.
1. Oak is one of the densest and highest-energy woods, making it a gold standard for wood fires.
The available heat content in firewood is measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). Depending on the subspecies, a cord of oak can contain 24 to 39 million BTUs. Oak logs burn with a low flame and create a steady, hot fire. Freshly cut oak can take a year or two to dry, so make sure you are buying fully seasoned logs. Check for clues to dryness including radial cracks, dullness of color and smell, and loose bark.
Like all hardwoods, oak trees take much longer to grow than softer woods like pine or birch. Many old-growth forests are endangered, so you will want to make sure that your hardwoods are sourced sustainably. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification, which provides forest management standards internationally and in the U.S. Keep in mind that oak trees reproduce very slowly: Only about one acorn in 10,000 will become an oak tree! The best practice is to vary your firewood sources, using hardwoods like oak in winter, and softer woods for fall and spring.
2. Ash is one of the best overall choices, favored for its user-friendly nature.
It has an easy-to-split grain, low smoke levels, and long-lasting burn rate. Ash is harder to source than oak, so contact a local supplier and ask whether they include ash in their mixed-wood cords—and how much it costs. Complement ash with other hardwoods, like ironwood, elm, hickory, oak, maple, walnut, and beech.
Ash’s low moisture content means it doesn’t require a long drying time, but seasoned ash is still the safest and longest-lasting choice for an indoor fire. Seasoned logs smoke less and form less creosote. When buying logs, look for gray, dusty bark and lighter, whitish wood.
3. Douglas Fir is among the most popular softwoods for home fires and is plentiful throughout North America.
Because of their fast growth rate, Douglas firs are a favorite choice for reforestation efforts—making it easier to find sustainably sourced firewood. Douglas fir is also a high-energy softwood. A cord of fir contains about 26 BTUs. Fir splits easily and creates moderate, steady heat. It is an excellent choice year-round, and during the holidays, nothing beats its mild, evergreen scent. Contact a local supplier for availability and price.
4. Fruitwoods like apple, cherry, and pear wood produce hot, fragrant fires.
These hardwoods have low flames and generate high temperatures. Their energy content ranges from 20 to 26 million BTUs per cord. Fruitwoods are excellent for home fireplaces, as well as outdoor pits and grills (chefs enjoy the tangy, smoky flavor apple and cherry impart to meats and vegetables). Applewood fires in the home are especially noteworthy for their sweet, welcoming scent.
Apple, cherry, and pear are considered specialty woods—used primarily for special occasions like a dinner party or holiday. Commercial orchards are the primary source of fruitwoods, since fruit trees rarely grow in abundance in the wild, so their main downside is price: J.C.’s Smoking Wood Sticks, for instance, are available on Amazon for $37.99 for an 11-pound box. Consider contacting a local orchard or firewood supplier, especially if you want to use fruitwood for heat, not only grilling.
5. For milder fall and spring weather, select a lower heat, quicker burning softwood like birch.
That said, birch is a northern species, and is used by many people to keep warm in winter too. As a softwood, birch has a high energy content—about 20 million BTUs per cord, comparable with hardwood species like walnut and cherry. Birch fires contain beautiful blue flames, and the logs themselves are decorative, with silvery bark that can complement your home décor.
Depending on whether you use black, yellow, or white birch, burn times and heat levels will vary. The most important consideration is the dryness of the logs. Firewood should contain no more than 15 to 20 percent moisture content. For softwoods like birch, this means a curing process of at least three to six months.
Be mindful of your state’s laws and guidelines for purchasing firewood.
This Firewood Map will tell you exactly what you to look for in your locale, including pest information. You can also check the USDA’s Plants Database to make sure you are not accidentally buying an endangered species. Oleander and poisoned varieties of oak, ivy, and sumac should never be burned, because they release toxic substances.