Design & DIY

Firewood 101

I’ve cut, split, stacked and burned 15 to 20 face cords of firewood each year since 1990 for my own house, using skills I had mastered cutting hundreds of cords of maple as part of a farm job that got me through university in the 1980s. Despite all this, I still find making firewood worthwhile. First, there’s the feeling of satisfaction: it’s fulfilling to partner with the forest in a sustainable way to keep my family warm in winter. I also like the exercise and activity of making firewood. Since I’m fortunate to have acres of forest, this fuel source protects me from rising energy prices. There’s also nothing like the cheery glow of a wood fire when the weather outside is frightful. Many Canadians could enjoy these same benefits too, but only with the right tools and techniques. Making useful amounts of firewood involves significant manual labour, and you need to do it right if you expect the process to be efficient and worthwhile. Preparing firewood involves three main steps: cutting logs into lengths that will fit in your fireplace or wood stove; splitting these cross-cut logs lengthwise along the grain into smaller pieces; and then stacking the split firewood to keep it up off the ground to dry properly.

Wood-cutting safety:
Although often ignored by amateur woodcutters, safety equipment is a key part of cutting firewood properly. I started using chainsaw chaps after a spinning saw chain cut through my pants without touching my skin. While chaps can’t eliminate leg injuries completely, they can make the difference between a small injury and a life-threatening disaster. A chainsaw helmet with a face guard and earmuffs makes the work safer and more pleasant.

Cross-cutting logs:
The size of the stove or fireplace you’ll be burning the firewood in determines the ideal lengths you cut, and I always take the extra trouble to mark logs before cutting. Cut a measuring stick to the firewood length that’s ideal for you, and then use it to guide an axe as you mark the length. 
A couple of hits with a maul makes a mark on the bark that ensures surprising consistency when sawing.

Cutting safely with a chainsaw is a topic in itself that’s been covered before in books and articles. Once you’ve mastered safe cutting skills, there are still two things you need to remember as you cross cut logs. The first is to cut square; the larger the diameter of logs you’re cutting, the more important square cuts are. An angled cut means that the split logs with vary in length. The second issue—which is vitally important—is that you avoid letting the saw chain hit the soil or any rocks underneath the logs as they sit on the ground. Even a split-second contact with the earth will turn a razor-sharp chain into a useless assembly of spinning metal. A dull chain can be re-sharpened, but the process can take 10 to 30 minutes. A two-part cutting process is key to avoiding this trouble: make each cross cut three-quarters down through the log, then roll the log and complete the cut from the top.

Splitting wood:
Even when logs are small in diameter, it makes sense to split them. Splitting speeds drying and improves burning qualities. An axe is the most accessible tool for splitting wood, but you need more than just an ordinary axe. Too many people struggle unnecessarily because the axe they use for splitting is far too light and far too thin. A 6-lb. or, better yet, an 8-lb. splitting maul is a far more effective choice. Just don’t be fooled by the weight. While a heavier axe is more challenging to lift, that weight makes good things happen. Also, splitting mauls have a much broader tip angle, so they resist sticking in the wood.

When you’re dealing with knotty logs or tougher species cut longer than 18″, a gas-powered or electric splitter is a better option than an axe. I use a large gas model these days at my place, but I know from experience that small electric splitters work amazingly well too. Regardless of the tools involved, I split the wood so that each side is between 4″ to 6″ across.

Stacking wood:
Besides looking good and being more stable, round woodpiles are faster to stack than straight piles and they make it easier to keep the wood dry. Start by sticking a 12″ spike in the ground where you want the centre of the pile to be. Determine the radius of the circle you want (I use a 4′ radius for 16″-long wood; 5′ for 24″-long wood), then cut a rope to this length, including a loop on the end. Place the loop over the spike, pull the cord taut and then rotate it around the circle to guide the placement of the outer ends of each piece of firewood. Build up several layers this way, following the end of the rope, with all pieces of wood pointing in, toward the centre. With your circular wall built a foot or so high, throw wood in the open middle part to fill it in. Brace the growing pile from bulging outward by placing 8′-long (or whatever pile diameter you’re building) poles across the circle five or six times as it’s going up. Also, build the sides so they lean inward slightly, either by eye or by using a 4′ level. Round the top of the pile as it approaches full height, put a tarp over the top of the pile to shed rain and then place one more layer of wood over the tarp to keep it in place and hidden.

Making firewood is another kind of woodworking, and although it isn’t for everyone, it’s something that more Canadians can benefit from. Sustainably harvesting and preparing firewood provides exercise, energy security and a great way to make use of a renewable resource. All in all, I call that a great deal.

Wood types:
ound for pound, all wood contains the same amount of heat. The main advantage of hardwoods is that they pack more energy into a given piece of firewood because they’re more dense. That said, different species do have different burning characteristics.

Hard maple: An excellent all-around firewood available mostly in the southeast of Canada. Not as easy to split as oak or ash.
MBTU*/cord: 21.1
Weight: 3,400 lb./cord

Birch: Found more widely across Canada, birch delivers a good amount of heat, although most varieties don’t burn as cleanly as other hardwoods.
MBTU/cord: 20.0
Weight: 3,230 lb./cord

Oak: Red oak is my favourite firewood. It’s easy to split, it burns very hot and it dries more quickly than other wood species.
MBTU/cord: 22.1
Weight: 3,570 lb./cord

*MBTU = one million British thermal units