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Splitting Firewood the Right Way

You take care of your property, but despite your best efforts, sometimes a tree falls because of a storm, or it needs to be cut. Why not make the best of it, and split that fallen tree into some handy firewood? When splitting firewood for home use, you want to make sure that all your efforts pay off by splitting wood the right way. At McCoy’s, we’re the lumber and tool experts, and we’re ready to help guide you through any project you may have—even splitting and storing firewood.

How to Pick the Best Type of Wood for Firewood


When you’re tackling a firewood project, you want to take into consideration what type of wood you’re cutting up and if it will be good fuel. In a fireplace, you want to burn only “seasoned” wood—generally cut and dried with ample airflow and sunlight for approximately six months to one year. Some commercial firewood operations will speed up this process by drying freshly cut wood in a kiln and heating it up to dry out the sap inside. Dried-out firewood not only burns hotter, but it also won’t throw off sparks from the igniting of the wet sap inside. Those sparks are created by the homey “crackle” we associate with a wood-burning fireplace, but they can also easily spread fire outside of your hearth.

Hardwood vs. Softwood


How do you know your wood is correctly seasoned? You can try the “bang test” and hit two pieces together. If they sound hollow, they are dry. If they are still “wet” they’ll sound dull. You can also use a tool like a Wood Moisture Meter to check firewood easily by inserting the tip into the end of a piece of split firewood. Ideally, seasoned firewood that is ready to burn will have 20% or less moisture remaining.

“Clean” burning hardwoods such as maple, oak, ash, birch, and wood from fruit trees typically produce the best heat in fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. These woods will burn at a hot temperature for a long time, which is also why they may cost more if you’re purchasing firewood.

Softwoods including pine, balsam, spruce, alder, and poplar are also okay to use as firewood. But softwoods can also have some drawbacks. They tend to burn quickly, requiring more wood to maintain your chosen temperature. They can also produce more smoke if not properly seasoned, and more sparks from their sap. They also produce finer ash, and sometimes (especially if the wood is still “green”) chimney-coating creosote, which needs to be removed regularly with a professional chimney cleaning.

What Wood Should You Avoid Burning Inside?


Softwoods like mesquite and cedar are not recommended to burn in your indoor fireplace, because they emit very strong odors. Mesquite is used in smoking meat, in part because it will infuse its odor into the meat, but you don't want that odor infused into your entire living room. Cedar burns extremely fast because of its natural oils. It can be a dangerous wood to use inside the home but isn’t a deal breaker if you use it wisely.

You absolutely do not want to burn pressure-treated lumber or engineered wood. That’s because these types of lumber have added chemicals that give them long-lasting durability in construction. However, you don’t want to inhale smoke from burning those chemicals.

How to Cut Firewood


To start, measure how big your fireplace, wood stove, or other wood-burning device is and make sure you cut finished pieces of firewood to fit that space. A good rule of thumb is to cut wood approximately three inches shorter than your wood box’s length. That will allow you to arrange firewood easily, even while stoking a burning stack of wood.

Tools for cutting firewood can include:

To saw logs from a fallen tree:

Use a hand saw or chainsaw to cut each section into 12-inch (1 foot) pieces. These pieces will be a good size to split, and no matter what type of wood you’re cutting up, they will be easy to handle. Cutting your logs the same approximate length also allows you to stack the split firewood easily, and uniformly, to ensure your woodpile is stable.

Tool Tip: Avoid dipping the chainsaw or saw into dirt as you saw logs, as this will dull the cutting edge.

To split logs for firewood:

Start with a flat, even surface, sometimes just referred to as a “chopping block,” such as a sturdy, wide stump, or even the ground. Set a saw log upright on the chopping block using either a chainsaw (helpful for especially thick or dense wood splitting) or your maul, strike or saw the log down its length into two even pieces. Stand one of those two pieces on end on the chopping block and cut or strike it into two or more pieces. Repeat to create four pieces from each log. Splitting each log in this way opens up the firewood to allow for even drying and “seasoning” while it’s on a wood pile.

Safety tip: It’s best to keep tools sharpened while splitting wood, and to use protective clothing. Heavy boots, eye protection, and even gloves can help protect your body from harm. Keep tools sharp by checking them before, during, and after cutting firewood. And keep any pets or children away from the tools, and from people sawing firewood.

How to Store Firewood Properly


Firewood that is split should be stored in the following conditions to allow for proper seasoning and to keep it free of pests:

  • Store firewood off the ground, like on a wooden pallet or firewood rack.
  • Store firewood away from main structures (i.e., don’t stack it against the side of your home). A woodshed is ideal, but any dedicated space will work as long as it has good airflow. Even keeping your “next load” out of your home is a good idea, so that firewood isn’t just sitting around before it’s put in the fireplace. Pests like ants, termites, and more can hide out in the wood, so keep your distance until it’s time to burn.
  • Cover firewood from the top, such as with a suspended tarp, or shed roof, but keep the sides open to allow for airflow as the wood seasons.
  • Stack firewood in alternate directions. This allows for good airflow, but also adds stability to your wood pile, so it is less likely to tumble over.
  • Finally, to avoid pests traveling either into your home from your woodpile, or from other areas, keep your wood pile local. Don’t bring in firewood from other areas, especially when invasive pests have been observed. Some pests, such as the invasive Emerald Ash Borer, are known to travel in wood, and states prohibit firewood from being transported from more than 50 miles away.

McCoy's Can Help Fill the Fireplace


While we’ve done our share of chores around the house, we’re always game to talk to you about the best techniques to keep your wood pile in tip-top shape. Whether you’ve got a downed tree, or just an itch to train for a lumberjack competition, we can help outfit you with the best tools to get the job done. Come by one of our locations to talk…Timber!