Almost everyone enjoys the smell and ambience of a wood fire, and there are always questions surrounding the best way to go about having one. Here are a few tips.
Always burn seasoned wood. Seasoned wood has dried long enough to get rid of its natural moisture content. It catches on fire better, burns better, burns cleaner, and produces more heat than un-seasoned wood.
Un-seasoned wood is harder to get to start burning, is harder to keep burning, and much of the fire's energy (heat) is consumed just in trying to "dry the wood out" enough for it to keep burning. So, it's a very, very inefficient fire.
Un-seasoned wood usually produces much more smoke, and creosote. Creosote is a natural by-product from burning wood, seasoned or not. A build-up of creosote is dangerous - it can cause a chimney fire if its deposits become thick enough.
If you plan to have wood fires, always plan to have your chimney inspected regularly by a bona fide chimney sweep. Usually an annual checkup is enough, but if you really burn a lot of wood, have it checked more often. The sweep can determine if enough creosote has built up to warrant a good cleaning.
A few ways to tell if your wood is seasoned enough:
All wood will burn, it's just that different woods will burn differently. The best burning woods are the hardwoods - oak, hard maple, and hickory are the crème de la crème, and typically the most expensive.
- Look at the ends of the logs - seasoned wood will usually have cracks in it, indicating the wood has split while drying.
- Grab two pieces and thump them together. If you hear a dull thud, the wood hasn't aged long enough. Seasoned wood will have a crisp sound when struck together. Imagine the sound of bowling pins getting knocked down - that's the sound you want to hear.
- Inspect the "color" of the wood. Seasoned wood is usually grayish, like driftwood. If it's not, and it has a dull thud when you thump two pieces together, it's not seasoned!
Hickory wood is the absolute best - it produces more BTU's than any other. Because it's a very hard wood it's a little more difficult to get it to catch fire, but once it does, it burns for a long time.
This is not to say that the softer woods (soft maple, pine, etc.) should be totally avoided. I recommend getting a mixture. Just be sure that what you purchase is seasoned wood, that's all.
I often use the softer woods to get a fire started. Then I add the hardwood pieces. By getting some heat and hot coals generated with the softer woods, I can get the hardwoods burning a bit easier. From then on it's easy street.
I like to see a lot of flame in my fires. More smoke equals more creosote, requiring cleaning more often. Besides, the flames (and hot coals) produce the heat, not the smoke.
To reduce the amount of smoke, always burn seasoned wood, and make sure there is ample air space between the logs for air to circulate. This will require poking and prodding the fire occasionally to move the pieces around, but that's part of the fun of having wood fires!
If you have a window nearby you can open it a little to provide some fresh, outside air to the fire. This way less is drawn from the rest of the house.
It's true that you don't realize enough heat from a fireplace to heat the house, and that most of the heat simply goes up the chimney. The greatest warmth generated is that of the ambience of everyone gathering 'round and enjoying the flickering and crackling together.
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