A crackling fireplace adds warmth and ambiance to any room. It can serve as a focal point for family to gather and chase the chill from a cold night.
But building the beautiful fire can also be an exasperating experience, especially if the firewood is not sufficiently dry. There are some basic rules for cutting, preparing and storing firewood that help reduce the moisture content of the material and makes building that warming fire a pleasure.
The best wood for burning in a fireplace has a moisture content of 20 percent or less. Measuring the moisture content with a moisture meter is the best test. The meters commonly utilize two contact points which are applied to a side of the piece of firewood where the bark has been removed. Test a few pieces from random parts of the woodpile to determine an average moisture content for the wood supply.
While the meter is important as a tool to monitor moisture in the firewood there are several steps the homeowner can take to help the wood dry efficiently. Even with the best efforts, and depending on weather conditions, it can take as long as a year for firewood to dry sufficiently.
Cut and split the wood as soon as possible after the tree is felled. Moisture evaporates from the wood faster from cut or split surfaces rather than through the bark. Cutting the wood to the length needed, usually 3 or 4 inches shorter than the fireplace burn box, creates some cut surfaces but spitting the wood produces larger surfaces for drying. The split pieces should be no more than 6 inches around and even small pieces will dry quicker and burn more efficiently.
How the firewood is stored is also critical to the drying process. The wood storage area should allow for air movement through the woodpile while protecting the stack from rain or snow. The storage area should also be elevated above the ground with pallets or beams to prevent the wood from absorbing moisture from the ground. While placing a woodpile along the side of a building and under the eave does prevent rain and snow moisture from entering the stack, it does not allow the best air circulation. Ideally, both sides of the woodpile should be exposed to allow air movement.
Stacking the wood properly can also help promote efficient drying of the wood. Stack each row of firewood perpendicular to the previous row. This allows better air circulation in all directions which allows the wind to carry away more of the moisture. This type of stacking can be a little tricky to keep stable. Some homeowners choose to use a heavy woven wire fence back to the woodpile. This allows the air to move freely through the woodpile but also provides some support to the pile to keep things stable.
The final step to drying your firewood supply is patience. Even if you have followed the best practices, it still takes time for wood to dry to a burnable moisture content. Plan on about one year between the cutting, splitting and stacking and enjoying that crackling fire in the home.