Plan on roasting any chestnuts this season?
Unless you select the right wood for that open fire, they might not get too toasty. Fortunately, Connecticut’s forests and certified firewood vendors offer a range of species that are perfect for long, hot, lingering fires in either fireplaces or the fireboxes of wood stoves.
The first important factor when looking for firewood is distinguishing between hardwoods and softwoods. Hardwoods, such as maple, are deciduous, leaf bearing trees, which are usually dense, and provide up to twice as much heat as softwoods. Softwoods, such as pine, cedar, and other coniferous, needle-bearing evergreens, might burn brightly and easily, but tend to leave behind sticky buildups of creosote which can lead to chimney fires.
Equally important is to use properly seasoned wood. By law, “seasoned” wood is wood that is “cut and air dried for at least six months,” according to a firewood buying tip sheet issued jointly by the Forestry Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the University of Connecticut’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Up to half the weight of green wood is water, which must be heated to steam and driven off before the wood can reach temperatures required for combustion,” the tip sheet warns. “The result is a fire that is hard to start, hard to keep going and provides far less usable heat for the home.”
How do you know how long the wood has seasoned?
“It should look like it has been exposed to the air for a while, and you should note a color change in the wood,” advised University of Connecticut associate extension professor of sustainable forestry resources, Tom Worthely. Because wood shrinks when it dries, Worthely said, you should also look for cracks or “checks” around the perimeter of the logs.
Also be aware of Connecticut State Statute 43-27, which dictates that a standard cord of wood is “one hundred twenty eight cubic feet of compactly piled wood.” That means a neatly stacked pile that roughly measures 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet long.
Another, perhaps surprising tip when looking for firewood is to buy locally. This not only supports local business, but the transportation of wood from one distant region to another can spread arboreal diseases and insects that kill trees. This year, for instance, the state’s ash trees, valued for their firewood, have been impacted by the emerald ash borer beetle.
“People are going to see more ash on the firewood market this year because of this invasive insect that only affects ash trees,” said DEEP forester, Jennifer Hockla. With so many ash trees dying off because of the beetle, towns have been removing them from the roadsides, making them available to firewood dealers.
Yet the ash beetle aside, there are still plenty of healthy species of firewood-producing hardwoods across the state, said Worthely, who estimated that sixty percent of Connecticut land is covered by forest, while an additional fifteen percent includes tree canopy in urban and suburban areas. And much of that, he said, is perfect for firewood.
“The bulk of the forest resources in Connecticut is mixed hardwoods that include various oaks, hickories, a couple of maple species, several birch species, ash and a variety of other hardwoods, which all make excellent firewoods,” he observed.
Here with, a closer look at some of Connecticut’s best firewood species.
Oak: The state supports various species of oak – red, black, white, and scarlet – all of which burn long and slow and are among the best types of firewood available. Nearly impossible to split when first cut, because it is so fibrous, oak is also “the slowest to dry out,” said Worthely, requiring seasoning for at least six months to a year before it is ready for the fireplace or wood stove. Yet the rewards are worth the wait, writes woodsman Vincent Thurkettle in his book, “The Wood Fire Handbook.” When cut, “it has the most beautiful smell,” he observed; “sharp, yeasty, with notes of cut grass.” When burning, oak gives off “rounded homely smells,” wrote Thurkettle, reminiscent of “mulled wine, cloves, citrus orange, and fresh brown bread.”
Maple: Another choice wood, that splits easily and cleanly when properly seasoned. Hockla recommended sugar maple over red maple, two of the state’s predominant maple species, because of the sugar maple’s higher BTU-producing potential. Maples thrive from Nova Scotia and Quebec down to Tennessee and northern Georgia; yet their roots, as it were, run deeply in New England soil. (It was Captain John Smith who was among the first New England settlers to remark on Native American maple sugaring, and the fact that local tribes used the processed sap for barter.) A key strategy, when stacking and storing split maple logs (or any hardwood) is to keep the top of the pile dry with a cover of some kind (an old piece of plywood or waterproof tarp) while also providing for adequate ventilation around the sides. Also make sure the wood you harvest or buy is not rotted or rotting. In “A Place to Begin: The New England Experience,” his ode to New England country living, naturalist and author Hal Borland recalled the potential perils of stacking some questionable maple for firewood: “When I looked at it a year later, that maple had rooted so badly it wasn’t worth burning. It’s still there for the squirrels and chipmunks to play tag in.”
Ash: While white ash – the predominant species of ash in the state – doesn’t provide quite the amount of BTUs as sugar maple (25,000 vs. 29,000 per cord, according to federal standards), it is considered among the best firewoods available, in terms of easy splitting and performance in the fireplace and woodstove firebox. And even though it is inadvisable to burn any wood when it is green, ash is the one hardwood that will still burn well before it is fully seasoned. It throws few sparks and no heavy smoke, according to data compiled by the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory, though it gives off little to no aroma when burned. The wood of choice for baseball bats and lobster traps, ash is among also among the best, most reliable woods to keep piled next to the hearth on long winter nights to keep a lively fire going.
For more information on firewood and a list of certified firewood vendors, visit the DEEP Forestry Department website, http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/, and/or contact Tom Worthely at 860-345-5232 or e-mail email@example.com.