Sean Hellman
Woodwright, Artist and Craftsman
Articles & VideosUseful advice on wood and wood products


Logs and firewood
Beechwood fire burns bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new year holly cut beside.
Chestnut`s only good they say
If for years `tis stored away.
Birch and firewood burn to fast
Blaze too bright and do not last.
Flames from larch will shoot up high
Dangerously the sparks will fly.
But ashwood green and ashwood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.
Oaken logs if dry and old
Keep away the winter cold.
Poplar gives a bitter smoke
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.
Elmwood burns like churchyard mold
E`en the very flames are cold.
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread
So it is in Ireland said.
Applewood will scent the room
Pearwood smells like flowers in bloom.
But ashwood wet and ashwood dry
A king may warm his slippers by.

As can be seen from this old English poem the best woods to burn are Ash, beech, birch, hornbeam, sycamore, oak, holly, apple, and cherry, and nearly all the coniferous woods burn freely when really dry. Sweet chestnut, elm, Turkey oak, and larch are less poplar, as they throw out sparks and splutter as they burn. Alder, willow and poplar all rank as poor firewoods owing to their high water content , unless well seasoned.

It is very important to remember that you must dry any wood out very thoroughly before you burn it, in your stove or open fire. If you try burning unseasoned wood you might as well use the contents of your wallet as fuel. If the wood contains water or sap any heat will first be used to boil any water in the wood, and this will come off as steam before any real heat is given off.

It is often said that ash will burn green, and it does so better than any other wood. This is because ash has a very low moisture content, when I have taken a 10inch diameter x 3 foot log of ash to a show in the summer to turn on my pole lathe. I notice the cleft billets dry out so quickly and a quarter section can be dry in a couple of days, where as oak will retain its moisture for week or months.

It is always best to cut any wood for whatever purpose in the winter when the sap is down, avoid cutting in the spring as the sap is rising, I have heard of tree surgeons getting sprayed with sap when working in the spring.

Split the wood into the size you want to use it in, and stack in place where the air circulates freely and wait at least a year before using it. With this in mind, the wood should be piled in a place where the sun can warm it and the wind can blow through it. As the sun heats and evaporates the water from the wood pile the wind blows it away. When its time to burn it indoors, try and have a big stack next or near your fire so it can really finally dry out before burning. The less water in the wood the more heat you will get from it.

Do clean your chimney regularly as a chimney fire, if not caught in time will spread to the rest of your home.

If you have access to them, burn softer woods like poplar, willow, aspen and birch in the autumn and spring and save the more valuable fuels like ash and oak for the coldest part of the winter.

Wood is a carbon neutral fuel, as it is part of a natural cycle of trapping carbon and then releasing it when the tree dies and rots. In theory it is an ecologically sound and sustainable energy source if the same, or preferably a lot more, of trees are planted for the ones cut down. The key to this is to ensure that the forest remains healthy, maintains a stable level of variously aged trees and provides a good habitat for a diversity of other species, both plants and animals.

You can do your part by insisting that your firewood is harvested using sustainable forestry practices. Ask your firewood supplier about where the wood has come from and make it clear that you are concerned about the sustainability of our forest resources. Don't demand a load of perfectly uniform pieces; there are better uses for long, straight logs than burning them.

Do not use firelighters for lighting your fire, this is just pure laziness and you are using none sustainable fossil fuels by doing so. The number of times I have seen people try and light their fires using a box of firelighters and 3 big logs is just mad. The key lighting a fire is to have a good range of kinderling, this could be dried twigs or logs split into thin strips.

If you cut your own logs then do as our forefathers did, and cut up every branch and every twig, then all you will need is one sheet of newspaper and the ready prepared kindling in the form of twigs and smaller branches. There is nothing wrong with burning small diameter logs especially if you are not going to leave this brash in piles for the wildlife.

It is easy to make your own kindling by choosing a straight grained, knot free log and splitting it into smaller pieces by chopping with an axe. When the pieces get so small that they fall over do not hold them and swing the axe or you might chop a finger instead. Rest the axe on top of the wood, hold it in place as you lift the wood and axe up with your other hand and drop down removing your grip on the wood just before it hits the chopping block, this way you can split each piece exactly in half each time.