Homeowner’s Guide To Firewood
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Whether you build fires for home heating, backyard fun or rustic camping, here's what you need to know about firewood.
Depending on where you live and how you heat your home, you may not give a lot of thought to firewood. But if you live in one of the more than 2.5 million American homes heated with wood fuel, or you have a fireplace, or you just love to sit around your backyard fire pit, then you probably know a thing or two about firewood.
And if you don’t? No worries. Our Homeowner’s Guide to Firewood is here to help!
Types of Firewood
Firewood from felled trees is a minimally processed natural resource. It’s also considered a renewable resource, although how renewable depends on good forest management. If you’re shopping for firewood, you’re likely to come across these terms:
Hardwood comes from slow-growing, deciduous trees. Hardwood is favored for nearly all indoor and most outdoor fireplace and wood heating uses. Commonly known hardwoods include oak, ash and birch.
Softwood comes from mostly coniferous trees (those that remain green year-round). These fast-growing trees, including pine, are among the most commonly harvested by the timber industry, although they’re not ideal for indoor fires.
Read our guide to hardwoods vs. softwoods for more on the differences between these two wood types.
Virtually any firewood you purchase from a wood supplier will already be seasoned. This is the process of drying out the wood, which can take six months and two years depending on the wood type. If you’re cutting and seasoning your own wood, here’s a guide to how much time it will take.
Kiln-dried wood is dried in a massive oven, or kiln, which radically speeds up the seasoning process. Kiln-dried wood burns hotter and longer, and costs a little more than seasoned firewood.
Check out this article on the differences between seasoned and kiln-dried firewood.
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Commercially harvested firewood that you order for delivery will almost certainly be split. That’s because split wood seasons faster, is easier to handle and quicker to catch fire. For those same reasons, if you fell your own trees for firewood, you’ll need to split the logs.
There are of course, different types of firewood you should not burn.
Firewood is just one wood product that can be used in fireplaces or wood stoves. Here are a couple of others:
Manufactured wood logs, such as those from Duraflame, combine byproduct sawdust and paraffin. For those who only use an indoor fireplace or outdoor fire pit occasionally, manufactured wood may be a convenient, if more costly, option.
Another wood byproduct, wood pellets are made from various types of wood biomass pressure-treated into small pellets. They work with stoves, pizza ovens, grills, furnaces and wood boilers specifically designed for pellet fuel.
Pellet appliances to heat homes are generally expensive, and a season’s worth of pellets can cost more than the equivalent amount of firewood. But pellets burn longer and are a more eco-friendly solution than traditional firewood.
“Many homes use wood pellets stoves for heating,” says Eric Carlson, executive director of the West Virginia Forestry Association. “They are extremely efficient, and provide only minimal ash that is easily used as garden fertilizer.”
Choosing Firewood for Your Home
The best firewood for you to buy or harvest depends on where you’ll be burning it, and for what use. This also determines how much firewood you’ll need. Heating your home all winter will require a lot more wood than what you’d use for an outdoor fire pit.
For fireplaces, wood-burning stoves or boilers that don’t require wood pellets, there’s one word you need to know — hardwoods. These dense woods burn hotter and longer and emit far less smoke than softwoods.
Also, many softwoods contain resins that produce creosote when burned, which will build up in chimneys and other fittings. Because softwoods are full of sap and light easily, you might want to keep some small pieces on hand for kindling.
Check out this guide to the best hardwoods for your home heating needs.
The particular hardwoods you choose will depend on what types of trees grow in your region of the country. Bulk hardwood is usually sold in mixed cords of a few types of wood. It might not even be possible to order a cord of just one type of wood.
Campfires and backyard fire pits are the only places you might use softwoods. They catch fire easily and burn for a shorter period of time — say, the few hours you and your friends will gather around the fire pit. But there are a few caveats.
Softwoods will pop and spark. In a backyard setting, embers could land on someone’s clothing or, worse yet, in someone’s eye. In a wooded campfire setting, those flying sparks could have even graver effects. Just think of the wildfires devastating the western U.S. It’s also not ideal to cook over a softwood fire, as the smoke and resins will likely give foods an unpleasant flavor.
Tim Connelly, product engineer for BioLite, prefers to avoid softwoods altogether except for kindling, even for outdoor fires. “For campfires, the less-dense hardwoods like birch or poplar burn more easily and better for the beginning of a fire,” he says. “Hardwoods that are denser, like oak and cherry, will burn for a bit longer.”
Because a typical bundle of firewood will have a mixture of varieties, Connelly suggests picking out the oak pieces, which are heavier with a coarser grain. Save those for once the fire gets going.
Where To Buy Firewood
Firewood is sold at home improvement centers like The Home Depot and Lowe’s, and through firewood suppliers. It’s even sold in small bundles at most grocery stores; these small amounts are often all you need if you just build a fire once in a while. And you can actually order firewood from Amazon, albeit in small amounts and with a hefty price tag.
Here is our rundown of where to buy firewood.
When you place an order for a cord (128 cubic feet) or a face cord (one-third of a cord), make sure you’re buying local wood from a reputable dealer. If you’re having the wood delivered, clarify with the supplier how it will arrive — bundled, or dumped in a pile on your driveway? Learn more in this guide to buying firewood.
For indoor or outdoor fires, your toolkit needs to contain the following items:
Keep fire starter cubes or bundles on hand to give your fire a little boost. For cooking fires, choose natural fire starters that won’t emit unpleasant odors or chemicals. Chemical-based fire starters usually light faster and burn hotter, a good alternative for fires intended for heating.
Keep some dry softwood kindling to help nurture a new fire and allow larger pieces of hardwood to catch. You can buy oak kindling or opt for fatwood, small pieces of kindling made from heartwood, the resin-rich wood from the middle of pine trees.
When you’ve got your fire built and ready to go, the last thing you need is a faulty lighter. Use a grill or fireplace-style lighter with a larger handle and long pipe that reaches the center of the unlit fire so you don’t burn your fingers. And as we’ve learned from experience, always keep a spare lighter in the utility drawer!