Choosing the Best Wood for Burning

If you’re cutting wood to stoke a fire, there are a few species that are more desirable than others. Here are some hints for picking the best wood for burning:

Most trees with the “hardwood” classification are fair game, although trees like cottonwood will burn hot and quick — do you really want to load your stove several times a day?

Osage Orange wood: This is one of the most dense and hardest woods you might encounter around your place. Upside is that you get lots of BTU’s per cubic foot of wood. Downside is that it’s so hard it will quickly dull your saw (when I’m cutting posts my saw sometimes sparks) and it has a tendency to burn very hot and it pops and shoots sparks. It’s not too hard to split green. 

White Oak wood is often considered the most desirable heating wood in North America with some other oaks coming in close behind. White oak has fewer BTUs of energy per cubic foot than Osage Orange, but it splits very easily, is more prevalent and is easy on the chainsaw. Split and seasoned white oak often brings a cash premium for cordwood sellers.

Hickory actually has more BTUs per cubic foot than White Oak and even though it splits nicely and burns beautifully, this species may have more value as a food-smoking wood than a heating species.

Speaking of smoking, one of my favorite food smoking woods is apple wood. In addition to its mouth-watering flavor, apple wood also carries more energy per cubic foot than white oak. It’s also one of the easiest to split by hand, so next time you’re tempted to pass by those orchard-sized brush piles, think again.

Other decent and often very prevalent species that are certainly worth burning are sugar maple, red oak, white ash and hackberry. These species will give you good heat and not that much of a workout when it comes to splitting. And by all means if you have a rogue red maple that needs harvesting, or even a cottonwood, don’t hesitate to put it to use in the woodstove or fire pit. 

For most folks with good access to hardwoods, it’s prudent to avoid burning lots of pitchy resinous evergreen wood for the simple reason that it tends to be on the lower end of the energy list and the resin that doesn’t burn can condense on your chimney’s lining and fuel a whopping chimney fire down the road.  Pines and other softwoods make great kindling though.

In places where evergreens abound, you really have no choice but to burn them for heat. Folks with experience burning spruces and pines know to be sure that the wood is well seasoned, let the fires burn relatively hot and clean the chimney religiously once per year. And even if you don’t burn much pine, have a licensed chimney sweep inspect your chimney every summer and clean it if needed. Your fire department and your insurance agent will be glad you did.

Watch the full episode! Hank shares hints like these in each episode of Tough Grit. Visit Tough Grit online to view this episode and many more. The hints above appeared in Episode 2, “If a Tree Falls in the Forest.”

Read more: Our complete guide to firewood contains information on burning everything from Ash and Aspen to Walnut and Willow. Visit Find the Best Firewood for You to learn more.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

  • Published on Oct 10, 2012
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