Everything You Need to Know About Firewood: The Q&A

Four years ago, my wife and I bought a house. In a first for us, the house included a fireplace. This was how I got started down the path that ended with me reading books about how Norwegians stack wood and watching YouTube videos on everything from A/B testing fire building methods to chainsaw bloopers.

Also, I’ve covered half of the front lawn with piles of air drying lumber.

The fireplace has long since given way to a fireplace insert – essentially a woodstove that fits in a fireplace. After debating at length about a variety of heating options, we decided to double down on wood due to the economics, the vastly improved efficiency of modern EPA-approved stoves, its independence from the power grid and a family affinity for sitting around a roaring fire on cold nights.

While it’s a relatively cheap fuel in the economic sense, however, wood comes with other costs. Wood requires a lot of preparation and physical effort, while other fuels typical to the Northeast like oil, natural gas or propane are never touched by human hands (unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong). The learning curve can also be steep.

Which is why, while I’m no expert, I wanted to capture a few of the things I wish someone had told me when we first started down the path with wood. Queue the firewood Q&A:

Where’s the best place to learn about this stuff?

Two recommendations. First, read Norwegian Wood. Easily the best resource I’ve found, and a surprisingly entertaining read. Second, as always, YouTube is your friend. This channel in particular has a ton of useful information, and the production quality is unexpectedly impressive.

Where do I get firewood?

Obviously, wood is either going to come from your property or someone else’s. Most of us don’t have enough property to provide us with free fuel, which means that we have to buy it from someone else. Your best bet in sourcing wood is to ask around or check lists of the Angie’s or Craig’s varieties. If you live somewhere cold enough to have a fireplace or woodstove, there will be someone selling wood.

What am I looking for in firewood?

You want to know about the quality of the wood delivered (is it largely intact or a bunch of kindling?), whether they’re accurately reporting the level of moisture (is it seasoned or kiln-dried as ordered?), whether you’re getting the species promised (did you expect hardwoods but get soft?) and whether or not you’re getting the number of cords agreed upon.

When do I get firewood?

The short answer: as early as possible. The longer answer is that it depends on what kind of wood you’re getting. There are three types:

  • Green: The cheapest option, this is wood that has just been cut, and should not be burned until it’s been dried. If you can, get this early in the spring and dry it all summer and fall and it will be ready by winter (unless it’s Oak, which can take two full years to season).
  • Seasoned: This is wood that’s been left outside to dry – seasoned, in other words – to a moisture content of 20% or less (we’ll get to how to test that). Should be burnable as soon as you get it.
  • Kiln-Dried (KD): The most expensive option, this is wood that’s been baked in a kiln to reduce the moisture content quickly, with the side benefit of killing insects. This is burnable right away.

If it’s green wood and it’s not oak then, it needs to be drying by early spring. If it’s properly seasoned, summer or even fall/winter is fine. Same with KD.

How do I measure the moisture content of wood?

Ideally, with a moisture meter like this one.

If you don’t have one, or if the cursed thing’s nine volt battery has died on you (again), you can take two splits and knock them together. If they crack, the wood’s dry-ish. If they thud, it’s too wet to use.

What kind of wood am I getting?

There are two kinds of wood to burn: hardwoods (e.g. ash, oak, elm, etc) and softwoods (e.g. fir, pine, spruce, etc). The former are generally preferred because they offer more energy on a per unit basis, but either will work. You’ll read from time to time that you should only burn hardwoods, but according to most stove manufacturers, you can burn all of the above.

Here in the Northeast we’re generally burning hardwoods, but in other areas of the country pine and other softwoods are used exclusively.

In Scandinavia, stove owners will often use softwoods to start a fire because they light more quickly and then transition to slower, longer burning hardwoods to keep the house warm overnight.

How much wood do I need?

This is an impossible question to answer precisely, but here are a few of the variables you’ll need to consider.

  • Is wood your primary heat source, or a supplementary system?
  • How efficient is your stove or fireplace?
  • What type of wood are you burning?
  • How cold do the winters get where you live, and how long do they last?
  • How warm do you want to keep your house?

For a rule of thumb, however, this is pretty reasonable:

So, if you just use your fireplace for romance and relaxation, buy a half cord of firewood each spring and let it season until fall. If you supplement a heating system with a woodstove or fireplace insert, buy two cords. If you heat exclusively with firewood, you’ll need about 4 to 5 cords, depending on the severity of your winters.

We go through between three and four cords per season with our fireplace insert, however.

What the hell is a “cord” of wood?

Firewood is generally ordered in units called cords. A cord is 128 cubic feet of wood, or a stack around 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide by 4 feet deep. The weight varies depending on wood species and moisture content, but is generally well over a ton ranging from 3,500 to over 5,000 pounds. It’s not going to fit in a pickup bed, in other words – it’s usually delivered by a large dump truck.


This wasn’t even close to a cord, for example.

How to process the wood?

For those purchasing firewood, it most commonly comes already split. In this case, your only job is to store the wood, which admittedly is the worst part of dealing with wood heat.

If you get your hands on unprocessed trees, however, you need to cut them down to size and split them. That process is actually pretty simple.

  1. Determine what the maximum length of log is for your fireplace or stove. Our Jötul, for example, can accept 24″ inch lengths. Not everything needs to be 24″, and it can actually be beneficial to have different lengths, but nothing can be longer than that.
  2. Cut the tree into the segment lengths you need.
  3. Split those segments using an axe, splitting maul or wedge and sledgehammer.

What should I know about splitting wood?

Many things. Here are five specifics, however.

  1. Do not aim for the center of the log. The wood is strongest in the center, aim for an edge.
  2. The safest approach is to aim for the edge directly opposite you. The bad news is that if you miss you’re going to impact the log with the handle, which hurts like hell. The good news is that the axe cannot continue its arc towards your feet.
  3. Don’t overswing, but if you snap your wrists on the downswing you can get some extra acceleration and a better angle for the blade strike. See the video here for a demonstration.
  4. Have a stump or chopping block that’s the correct height. According to Lars Mytting, assuming logs between 12-16″, axe manufacturers recommend that “your chopping block should be no higher than your knees, and probably even lower.”
  5. It’s fun. There is no domestic task more enjoyable than splitting wood.

What are these splitting mauls and wedges and so on?

You’ll need a couple of things. Here’s my setup, and for full disclosure most are Amazon affiliate links, simply because I’m curious which recommendations are most useful.

  • Splitting Maul: Fiskars 7884 X27 Super Splitting Axe, 36-Inch
    This thing is basically Thor’s hammer. The combination of its axe blade and wedge shape simply destroys wood. If you have relatively straight wood without a lot of knots and branches, this will make short work of it. Even without swinging at full strength, I’ve had logs literally explode with large pieces ending up ten feet away (so make sure no one else is around, and/or use the bungee cord or tire methods). Really can’t recommend this thing highly enough. It’s so good that even traditional axe fans reluctantly acknowledge its effectiveness.
  • Chainsaw: Husqvarna 141
    You can spend a lot of money on chainsaws, but for most homeowners, you want something that’s light and will start easily. I’ve generally used a Husqvarna of my Dad’s, a model 141, but they don’t make this one anymore. If I was buying a saw today, I’d get another Husqvarna for three reasons. One, Scandinavians know a few things about chainsaws. Two, Husqvarna dealers are everywhere which makes service and getting parts trivial (the case bolts are $0.94 per, in case you were curious). And last, because this one’s been great. I’d probably get the model 440E.
  • Sledge Hammer: Truper 10 lb sledge
    IMG_20170717_160901Nothing fancy about this sledge. It’s the same length as the axe, so moving from one to the other is easy. Mine’s a 10 pounder, but lighter would be fine for splitting wood: mine has to do double duty as a demo tool.  Again, nothing fancy about the wedge. I picked this one up mostly because I like my Estwing hammer.
  • Gloves: Carharrt Flex Tough:
    I go through a lot of gloves, and for winter you’ll want an insulated pair, but these Carharrts have been good to me. They breathe, the padding in the palm is useful if you mis-strike a log, and I’ve discovered the cowhide fingertips will work a smartphone touchscreen.

What about kindling?

If you’re interested, there are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube about how to split kindling. Personally, I’ve never needed to split much. First, because I save all the scraps from the cords dropped off or the wood I’ve split myself. And second, because I strip each log of smaller splits or pieces before tossing them onto the fire and collect them in a bucket.

What’s the most important thing to remember?

In a presumably apocryphal story, triumphant returning Roman generals would have servants whisper memento mori – remember that you have to die – in their ear to keep them grounded and remind them of their own mortality.

Similarly, it’s useful to remind yourself every time you pick up an axe or chainsaw that these are tools that can kill you. And death would hurt badly and probably not come quickly.

So be careful.

Where to store the wood?

If the wood is green, it’s best off being stacked in loose piles like the ones at the top of this piece to provide better airflow for drying.

If your wood is seasoned or KD, it can be put up immediately wherever you plan to store it during the winter. Generally, storage inside the house is not recommended for reasons that vary from allergens to insects. There are a myriad of options for outdoor storage, from basic 2×4-and-bracket setups like the one pictured here:


to woodsheds:


to artistically crafted woodpiles. We opted to build a shed, your mileage may vary.

Do I store my wood bark up or bark down?

Before we moved into our house and became a wood burning family, I would have assumed the following quote from Norwegian Wood was a joke.

In Norway, discussions on the vexed question of whether logs should be stacked with the bark facing up or down have marred many a christening and spoiled many a wedding when wood enthusiasts are among the guests.

I understand now. If you store bark-down, you are dead to me.

How do I build a fire with my firewood?

If you’re starting fresh, my preferred method is top down. As a national campaign from Norway in 2010 argued, this is reliable and reduces emissions. It works like this:

  • Bottom layer: logs
  • Middle layer: large kindling or wood strips
  • Top layer: newspaper and/or small kindling/shavings

You light the top and it burns its way down.

If you have coals from a previous fire, the easiest way to relight them is to rake them forward and put a piece of kindling behind it and then larger logs behind that. That way, the fire will burn from front to back, improving the aesthetics if you have a fireplace or your stove or insert has a glass door, and it burns more slowly than if all of the wood is exposed at once.

You said this would be everything I wanted to know about firewood, but I have other questions.

Then fire away in the comments and I’ll update the post accordingly.


Books: Summer 2017

A couple of years back, I took some time to write up some quick and unambitious reviews of books that I’d read – the good, the bad and the ugly. To be honest, I mostly did it because I hated the Southern Reach trilogy with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. A year later, I repeated that process. Nothing fancy, just quick thoughts on some of what I’d been reading for people that might be looking for something new to read.

A month after that last post we had a kid and time to read – let alone write – came at something of a premium.

Fast forward a little less than two years and time is still very much at a premium, but I’m now able to sleep in more than three hour increments. Which means that I’m able to read again, if not at the pace I was familiar with. Which in turn means that I’m once more capable of having conversations with other friends who read, and with whom I trade book recommendations.

In an effort to scale that process, I’ve repeated the exercise of reviewing the last few books I’ve run through. This time, just for the record, I’ve added Amazon links not for the pennies I’d earn but to see whether any of the recommendations work, and if so which ones. With that, here are the reviews.

The Modern Entertainment


Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel


One of a growing set of “literary” fiction set in post-apocalyptic environments, Station Eleven has been compared in some quarters to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not in that class of novel for me, but then there are few that are. Station Eleven is, however, a brilliantly executed and well written account of the world after the end of the world. It avoids nearly all of the pitfalls of the genre, it’s strikingly original and the quality is well above average. Recommended.

If you like this, try: The Last Ship (William Brinkley), The Stand (Stephen King)

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Laird Barron


Originally described as a better written Lovecraft without the racism, this pretty much lived up to the billing. It’s a set of short stories that is best classified as “weird fiction,” which is another way of saying that if you like Lovecraft or the first season of True Detective, chances are pretty good you’ll like these. What’s distinctive about this collection beyond the relative quality of the prose is the diversity of settings and characters: from loggers to hunters to Prohibition gangsters, you’re not reading slightly different versions of the same story again and again. Barron also understands well what so many modern horror directors forget, that what can’t be seen is more frightening than what can be.

If you like this, try: The Complete Collection of H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraft) or Between Here and the Yellow Sea (Nic Pizzolato)

The Hike, Drew Magary


The fact that I’m recommending this in spite of Drew Magary’s hatred for my beloved Maine (which outdoes even Lev Grossman’s) tells you something about the quality of The Hike. It’s difficult to describe this book. It’s not quite magical realism, not quite surreal, but it’s got elements of both. It’s dark at times, but has a heart and the prose makes for a quick read as it’s not terribly ambitious. It’s a perfect beach read, in other words, and the end delivers.

If you like this, try: Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway) or The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly).

The Classics

Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse


Inexplicably, I somehow made it to adulthood without reading any of the Jeeves’ novels by P.G. Wodehouse. I wish I’d found them years ago, however, because they’re incredibly enjoyable. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s the story of a British valet trying to keep his dim employer out of trouble. The latter ignores the former’s advice, hilarity ensues. If you enjoy Dilbert’s “The Boss is an Idiot” brand of humor but can’t deal with Scott Adams’ obvious and growing insanity, the Jeeves’ novels are for you.

Trouble is My Business, Raymond Chandler


There’s a funny story about Bacall/Bogart’s 1946 film The Big Sleep based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. During filming, neither the director nor the screenwriter could figure out who killed Bacall’s chauffeur in the novel, so they asked Chandler. Problem is, he didn’t know either.

The point is that Chandler isn’t considered a master of the hardboiled crime genre for his plotting skills. The stories are interesting, to be sure, and include the requisite action and drama. But what distinguishes Chandler from hundreds of others in the genre is that he can write. In a characteristic clipped style with sparse but stylish dialogue, Chandler has Marlowe, the private detective that is literally the prototype, weave his way through what we’d today refer to as a noir landscape.

Trouble is My Business isn’t the equal of The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, but it’s an accessible set of short stories that will give you an idea of whether Chandler’s for you.

If you like this, try: The Big Sleep (Chandler) or Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammet).

The (Auto)Biographies

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel


Many of us idly contemplate leaving everything behind at some point, but almost no one does it. And certainly no one does it the way that Christopher Knight did, who parked his truck and simply walked into the Maine woods and lived as a hermit without human contact for 27 years. If you read Michael Finkel’s profile of Knight in GQ when it came out, you already have the gist of the story, but this full length treatment affords the author and his (very reluctant) subject more room to explore the details of just how one goes about surviving in the Maine woods without ever seeing anyone or making a fire. Whatever one thinks about Knight, his adaptability to incomprehensibly harsh conditions is without ready comparison. Don’t expect any mystical revelations or real confessions from The North Pond Hermit, but if the story interests you this will more than flesh it out.

The Road, Jack London


If you’re like me, you read Jack London in school, probably at an early age. Call of the Wild, White Fang, To Build a Fire – one of those. If you’re like me, you didn’t know that London spent years of his life as an itinerant, rail-riding hobo and later documented his experiences criss-crossing North America by hopping trains in a decidedly unstandard autobiograhy. As someone who enjoys learning more about other times and places, this was interesting, but the culture, methodology and art of riding the rails made this a particularly fascinating read. My only warning: because this was published in 1907, like many historical works, some of the descriptions and language are offensive to modern ears. If you can get by that, however, it’s a look at a bygone world that most of us knew nothing about.

If you like this, try: The Amateur Emigrant (Robert Louis Stevenson)

The One on Firewood (Seriously)

Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, Lars Mytting


To be fair, while this was a best seller throughout Scandinavia, as a book about chopping, stacking and drying wood, it’s less likely to be a page turner for those of you without woodstoves or at least a fireplace. Which is, presumably, most of you reading this. Even so, it’s well written and anything but a textbook. The prose has a bit of a lighthearted “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared“-quality to it, and is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s informative and well researched, but as surprising as it might be to say that a book about firewood was a great read, it really was. There’s a reason it had basically a five star rating with north of a hundred reviews when I bought it. If you have a stove or fireplace, it’s a must buy, and even for the rest of you, you’ll learn something and be entertained in the process.

The Histories(ish)

Kon Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl


This was my second reading of Kon-Tiki, as I’d read a copy as a very young child at my grandfather’s place on the Cape. Besides refreshing myself on the actual details of the journey of a handful of young men on a Balsa raft all the way across the Pacific, my adult self was curious as to how some of the historical theories of Heyerdahl had aged. The answer is: not particularly well. Heyerdahl’s theory of a lost white race that taught the Incas everything they knew being the ancestors of today’s Polynesian populations is not only largely disproven by modern genetic research, it’s also implicitly racist when viewed from a modern perspective.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, shaky historical theories notwithstanding, Kon-Tiki is still a fascinating read. While Heyerdahl may have been wrong about the idea that Polynesia was populated by South Americans traveling west on the Pacific’s Humboldt current to Polynesia, he risked his life and proved that it could be done. If nothing else, Kon-Tiki is a remarkable story of human achievement and drive and worth a read for that alone.

Atlantic, Simon Winchester


I read this at my parents’ recommendation and while I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, it wasn’t what I got. Atlantic is essentially a series of personal or historical anecdotes upon which are hung a stupefying amount of detail and research from geology to climatology. The good news is that if pure science isn’t your thing, you don’t have to wait long before the author’s talking about the time he spent in Greenland or the Falkland Islands or visiting a remote shipwreck on the coast of Africa. If you enjoy history, geology, oceanography, local cultures or a thousand other areas of study, you’ll find something to love about this book.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears


If you enjoy historical fiction generally and historical mysteries such as The Name of the Rose specifically, you’re likely to enjoy An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I don’t mean to imply that it’s in the class of Eco’s masterpiece, but set in late seventeenth century England, Pears’ novel is an account of the same series of events told from four different perspectives – all of which are unreliable, some more than others. The varying perspectives affords the novel greater breadth than it would have had access to if restricted to a single narrator, both in terms of their socio-cultural standing as well as their geographic access. It doesn’t have the blinding erudition or strict attention to period language that characterizes other novels of this type, but what it lacks in rigid adherence it more than makes up for in accessibility. Which means that you don’t need to be a scholar of English history of the period to enjoy the novel, which traverses ground from the royal court to academia. It’s on the longer side, but it’s time well spent in my opinion. Recommended.

If you like this, try: The Name of the Rose (Eco) or Q (Luther Blissett).

The Meh

Fer-Da-Lance / The League of Frightened Men, Rex Stout

Link, Link

Before the hard boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, there was the so-called “cosy” school of which Agatha Christie is probably the best known practitioner. The former, in many respects, can be viewed as a response to the latter. Nero Wolfe, the protagonist of Rex Stout’s series, doesn’t properly belong to either category, which might be one of the reasons these novels didn’t do much for me. Unlike Chandler, who hated Christie, I can read both styles and enjoy them. But the Wolfe novels, for me, embodied the weaknesses of both categories with few of the strengths. I read the first two of the series largely because Stout is an acclaimed writer and Wolfe is a celebrity fictional detective up there with Marlowe, but frankly the plots were ill-constructed and the writing wasn’t enough to make up for it. I will say that the depression era setting and descriptions were interesting from a historical perspective.

If there are Wolfe fans reading this who can persuade me otherwise regarding the merits of these books, I’m willing to listen, but at present I have no plans to read the remaining 31 novels.