What makes a cozy, crackling fire so appealing?

By Ksenia Rybka/Shutterstock

Christmas at the cottage wouldn’t be the same without a fire. That hearth to gather around, sip cocoa or mulled wine, and maybe even roast a marshmallow or two. Some like the smell, some the crackling sounds. Others just want the heat after a day out in the white stuff.

Henry Ford once said, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” But even if you’re a metro lumberjack and let your fingers do the “chopping” through an online order, there’s a firewood for every preference.

If it’s the smell that appeals

Out of all our senses, science says that scent may be the one most closely tied to memory. So, it stands to reason that familiar smells during the holidays can really ramp up the sentimental factor. If you’re a seasonal traditionalist, cedar or pine both offer a great aroma, but take care to ensure both are very dry (seasoned) before burning. Being softwoods, they have a high resin content and can cause creosote build up in your chimney. If sweet is more your style, fruit-bearing trees like apple, pear, plum, or cherry will offer more delicate scents. Are you a little nutty? Try burning walnut, chestnut, oak, or birch. And if you want the smell of baked ham throughout the cottage, hickory is the wood for you.

If it’s the sound that appeals

When gases escape pores in the wood and combust, your fire gets that satisfying symphony composed of snaps, crackles, and pops. These noises mean your fire is throwing sparks so ensure that you’re using a fireplace screen. For the best fire beat potential, burn wood that contains more of that gas-pore combination, like fir, cedar, pine, or birch.

If it’s the look that appeals

No two fires look exactly the same—both the temperature and chemical content of the wood you burn will result in different colour, and clarity of flames. The coldest part of a flame (usually the top) is red (600°C to 850°C). Flames that appear orange and yellow, meanwhile, register up to 1,200°C.

That said, most flames from burning natural wood are affected by more than just temperature. The composition of the wood and anything still clinging to it (dirt, leaves) determines how “cleanly” the wood burns. Since chemicals and other elements in or on wood vary naturally depending on the species and where it was collected, different wood will deliver different flame colour. Generally, wood is about 50 per cent carbon, 42 per cent oxygen, six per cent hydrogen, and one per cent nitrogen. Other elements—calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, and manganese—make up wood’s last one per cent. Calcium produces orange flames, potassium delivers purple, and sodium creates yellow.

Try burning black cherry, pine, or birch for blue flames. Driftwood from the ocean may give you blue and lavender flames. Want a rainbow of colour? Try four- to five-year aged applewood.

If you want a lot of heat

Not all wood is created equal. Generally speaking, the more dense and dry the firewood, the better and hotter it will burn. Hardwood is much denser than softwood, and will burn longer, and hotter. Here in Canada, good hardwood options are white oak, ash, hard maple, birch, beech, dogwood, hickory, walnut, and apple. A word to the wise: trying to start a fire with a hardwood, unless it’s split into very small pieces of kindling, is not easy; softwoods like pine, cedar, fir, or spruce will ignite more quickly. If your fire’s burning too hot, add some softwood. Not hot enough? Add some hardwood. And always, always ensure you have working smoke and CO detectors, as well as a fire extinguisher at the ready. A great fire is a safe fire.

No matter the reason, we hope your hearth burns bright this holiday season.

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