How to speed-season firewood?
November 6, 2011 5:28 PM   Subscribe

We just bought a full face cord of firewood, all oak, pre-split, advertised as being dry & aged for 2 years. We got it from a craigslist seller who logs his land and sells firewood for a living, has been doing it for years with professional equipment and so forth, so it didn't just come from some random dude with a dead tree. Sounds like it should be pretty great to use in a fireplace, right?... Except it's not. The wood doesn't want to ignite and even when we stuff the fireplace with cardboard & paper, it'll get the wood hot enough to glow a little but then it just sits there sizzling. Any way to dry out this wood quickly so we can use it this winter?

This is the first time we've bought a large amount of wood at once -- last year we just got bundles from the gas station, which burn great, but the expense adds up quickly. The new wood looks really dry, isn't heavy like it's wet and doesn't look green at all, but it's acting like it's not seasoned. We don't think it's just damp from weather because if it were, any moisture should burn off as the kindling burns, then the logs should burn. But it's not doing that. So now the Mr. is sitting here frowning at a dingy, temperamental, poor excuse for a fire. We do not want to demand money back from the seller. Any tips to make this work without having to wait another year for the woodpile to dry out & spend our life savings on gas station firewood in the meantime?
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy to Home & Garden (29 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One thing people did commonly in the colonial era was bring a sizable amount of wood indoors and keep it in a woodbox in the same room as the fire. When they started the day's fire, they'd take several pieces of wood from out of the woodbox and lean it up against the hearth bricks (not in the fire, just near it). That way, you could have wood in several progressive stages of drying all the time - the many days' supply you had in the woodbox, and the supply you would lose later that day or the next drying by the heat of the fire.

I wonder if the wood you got was actually semi-dry rather than dry. That makes a big difference.
posted by Miko at 5:46 PM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't tell from your question whether you've bought cordwood before or not. The stuff you get at the gas station is frequently kiln dried or something and is a lot more like kindling than real firewood, at least around here. It may be possible that your wood is just fine but you have to adjust your firemaking skills for it. So, forgive me if I'm being presumptuous, but you probably need, in addition to the cardboard and paper, enough dry kindling that will stay burning long enough and hot enough to give the logs a chance to catch. But really if they're hissing and steam is coming off of them [and you've checked the obvious stuff like the flue being open etc] that really sounds like wettish wood to me.

And yeah I'm right there with Miko, the way to dry your logs more quickly is to keep them inside [the downside is bugs and other critters] but you're not going to be able to dry wet wood super quickly. You might want to consdier getting some other dryer wood and getting to the point where you have a raging fire going and then trying to burn the wetter wood. The big deal with wetter wood, in addition to the difficulty burning, is that it has more crud in it and can cause more creosote buildup so make sure you're really careful about also having some hot fires that will keep creosote down. Sorry if some of this advice is presumptuous, just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.
posted by jessamyn at 5:49 PM on November 6, 2011 [14 favorites]

You mentioned it was oak, so I checked on that:
Due to its extreme density oak can be very slow to season, especially when in large log form. A rule of thumb is that wood seasons an inch per year it is in the dry (off the ground is the main thing) so a 3ft diameter log is unlikely to be fully seasoned within 20 years!
posted by Miko at 5:50 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

I thought about that too, what Jessamyn said - that you might need to get a really good coalbed down before this will catch and burn because oak is also super dense.
posted by Miko at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2011

My husband is in charge of wood around here. He says to look at
Build a holz hausen to dry firewood

My .02: Cardboard and paper starter? Before you start drying your wood, at least try fire starter squares.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2011 [9 favorites]

Split a few pieces of the wood and see if they are white and dry inside. Then at least you'll know if you got what you paid for. If "two years aged" really means it was cut and split in the spring of 2010 and may not be ready. As Miko noted you can bring it in and try to use subsequent fires to drive out moisture just before use. Also try splitting it to some smaller sizes and using kindling as well as paper and cardboard. Make sure you are developing enough heat for enough time to properly light the wood. (On preview, Jessamyn covered where I was going, so I'll leave it at that.)
posted by meinvt at 5:51 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Facing much of the same problem, this is the best solution I've found:
posted by iamabot at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2011

Oak is very dense and takes at least twice as long as most hardwoods to dry completely. Even then it's not going to be easy to get going; as above, bring inside, use lots of kindling. Oak will make one of the best fires, but it will be slow to get started.
posted by vers at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

What Miko said. Also, are you using any kindling to start the fire - not just paper, which doesn't actually burn very hot, but wood kindling?

Go get some bundles from the gas station. Use that for kindling, and bring in the oak to dry by the fire.

Otherwise, yeah, oak can take a long time to season. Split the bigger logs you have (lengthwise) - that will help speed things up.
posted by rtha at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

You need kindling. Like sticks, twigs, small pieces of wood. Put that on top of the paper that you light. A few logs on top of it all. Make sure your flue is wide open as well as the ait damper. You need a lot of paper to get hard wood going. Late in the season when my kindling supply is gone, it would take almost an entire Wall Street Journal to get it going good.
posted by jamesalbert at 5:53 PM on November 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

*air damper.
posted by jamesalbert at 5:55 PM on November 6, 2011

We do not want to demand money back from the seller.

why not? ask him to prove it's seasoned by having him light it for you. if the wood is unseasoned (and the hissing and sizzling indicates that it isn't). and if he can't, get him to take it back and refund you or keep it and refund you some of the money if you want to keep the wood and season it yourself bc unseasoned wood sells for less than seasoned. or at the least, i do not know of a way to season it any faster than usual. oak needs a minimum of 2 years to season, so depending on when yours was cut, you're not going to be using it this winter, at least.

…spend our life savings on gas station firewood in the meantime?

you don't need to spend your life savings on gas station firewood. you need to buy another 1/2 or cord of seasoned wood.
posted by violetk at 5:57 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

and i wouldn't recommend burning unseasoned wood. it creates creosote which can build up in your chimney and can cause chimney fires.
posted by violetk at 5:59 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, agreeing with the need for kindling. We're just now getting back into wood stove season, and here's our method (such as it is):

Whoever gets up first cleans out the ashes of last night's fire from the ash bin underneath the main stove, and most of them from the main stove itself. We make a kindling base, using two sticks across and, on top of those, two sticks back to front to make a sort of chimney. I like to put one or two fire starter squares inside, in a way I can reach them with a long lighter, and then top off the pile with two of the smallest splits of wood from the pile next to the stove. I close the main door, open the ash box door a little bit, light the starter squares, give the flame a little bit of air and then shut the ash box door. I usually need to repeat the ash box door trick a couple of times before the fire begins to catch. Then I let the fire go until I have a reasonable bed of coals on which to put slightly larger splits (or add small ones as I go, if I have them, but usually not).

Right at the moment, we're burning miscellaneous crap wood, and it requires a bit more tending than the lovely seasoned hardwood I'm saving for colder weather. Kindling, fire starters, smaller splits/logs, patience (and you have had a date with your chimney sweep this season, right?).
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:03 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you know how to split wood? If not, you need to learn. When I was young...that would be my punishment, "see that stack of wood there? you're done when it's quartered."

But anyway---seriously, split it further to make your kindling. Split maybe 3 pieces into individual sticks ~thumb size. Furry pieces are good pieces. Use those to really get the fire going, and then add your full size pieces. A small gerber hatchet, a pair of leather gloves, and a log-piece is all you need to do this, no over-the-head swinging.

I'll bet 25 cents this is more a matter of you not knowing how to light the fire correctly than the wood not being seasoned. I have, in the dead of winter when co-campers were hypothermic, successfully lit *fresh* oak and had it burn just fine.

Cut cardboard into 2x2 inch squares. Now cut up the middle of one side about halfway to make two little legs so it will stand on its own. Melt paraffin, dunk these into the paraffin, and let them cool. Put one in the firebox, surround it with *tinder*, not kindling. Prepare the kindling nearby. Once the tinder is going, add the kindling. Once the kindling is REALLY going, add some fuel. Depending on your stove or fireplace, airflow is really, really critical moving from kindling to fuel. When I'm getting started, I always "lean-to" until my kindling is roaring, then log-cabin my fuel around it.

My new fave firestarter is charcloth and a firesteel, but do as you will. :)
posted by TomMelee at 6:09 PM on November 6, 2011 [8 favorites]

When we ran out of wood that we kept in the wood box, and we had a fire going, we would put wet logs in the fireplace (but not in the fire) to dry them out. This only works, obviously, if the wood is just wet and not un-seasonsed, and also only works if you have a big enough fireplace that the drying-out wood doesn't catch fire. But, it's pretty quick and works.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:34 PM on November 6, 2011

When I was a Girl Scout we made these awesome long-lasting egg-carton firestarters. They worked like a charm, even in rain.
posted by Miko at 6:40 PM on November 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

What jessamyn said: the kiln-dried packs behave very differently to seasoned hardwood. Look for dry sticks and twigs to use as kindling, take a hatchet to some of the logs to make batons, build a top-down fire, and see how that goes. (It might also help to get a couple of packs of kiln-dried wood, perhaps something that catches more easily like paper birch, that you reduce down to kindling size.)

If you're still getting smouldering, hissing and sputtering, then yeah, you may have a crappy cord -- we got a crappy cord last year, because we bought it late and all the truly well-seasoned wood was long gone -- but wood fires are both an art and a science.

For future reference, word of mouth is the best way to get good wood for the winter: I'm always amused by how people have their, um, 'dealers'.
posted by holgate at 6:41 PM on November 6, 2011

holgate, Noel Perrin's "First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer" has an entertaining chapter called "Selling Firewood in New York." My very own dealer, not in New York, is a Mennonite with a big truck and a log crane.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:48 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

you could probably get the guy you bought it from to spllit a few armfuls into kindling. it's not so hard if you have the space/time/inclination, though.
posted by nadawi at 7:05 PM on November 6, 2011

Well, here is my 2 cents,

You need to split the logs.

You need real kindling.

Take a look at this video from FEMA.
posted by wandering_not_lost at 7:49 PM on November 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

If your wood isn't dry it doesn't matter how you start the fire. It's just not going to burn well. It's true that oak can take 3 years to dry, particularly if it's not kept in an appropriate spot.

Get a cheap wood moisture meter. Split a log, and look at the moisture content of the wood from near the middle of one of the larger logs. If the moisture content is more than 20% the wood is too wet to burn, and you should call the guy who delivered it and ask for a discount because the wood isn't dry.

If it's not dry, nothing but time will dry it. Get it in a sunny, drafty place and keep checking the moisture content.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 7:51 PM on November 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you'll want to split that and keep it indoors. Keeping them near the (in-use) fireplace will help. You may even benefit from a pleasant (if faint) oaken aroma. Being in Wisconsin, your indoor humidity levels should be next-to-nothing, which will help cure the split wood. It won't burn for quite as long, but it may burn hotter than softwood.

With something as dense as oak, even if you keep it off the ground and covered, it's not going to be fireplace ready for a long, long time.
posted by porpoise at 8:32 PM on November 6, 2011

Cardboard and paper are not sufficient kindling to seriously ignite a piece of hardwood. They work fine as tinder, but they simply don't put out enough heat for enough time to do more than scorch a solid block of oak.

You're going to want kindling ranging from twigs smaller than a pencil up to about the diameter of a quarter, and everything in between. The small stuff lights the big stuff, and the big stuff will, eventually, get your fuel going. This can take up to fifteen minutes, even with perfectly dried and aged cordwood. You just need to pump a serious amount of energy in there before it'll take, and cardboard and paper just won't cut it.

Here's some instructions.
posted by valkyryn at 11:07 PM on November 6, 2011

A useful substitute for largish kindling is the charcoal from yesterday's fire. If you can get a pile of yesterday's coals maybe five inches tall burning nicely from the inside (building the pile around a burning firestarter is an easy way to do this), then put a log either side of it and a couple more crossways over the top with an inch gap between, they will burn; the charcoal mound will go for a good half hour and it throws out lots of radiation. I've got healthy fires going by this method even with very sulky wood.
posted by flabdablet at 8:22 AM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your wood is wet or "green" if it has visible sappy liquid boiling out of the ends of it when you finally get it lit. This sap runs down the cut ends and drips off. This wood is not really ready to burn, particularly, but it *will* burn if you make the pieces kind of little and spend some time getting it lit.

"Kind of little" means about 2" square. You can do this yourself. Go to the Tractor Supply (or the Lowe's or whatever) and buy a maul. It's an eight-pound hand tool thing that looks like a marriage between an axe and a sledgehammer, costs under twenty bucks, and will let you split already-split firewood into smaller pieces. Use the maul to split your stovewood into littler pieces of wood. They will dry faster and burn better.

As others have mentioned, oak is not as easy to light as apple, cherry, birch, maple, poplar (which is a common "sold at gas stations" bundled wood) or ash. Oak requires a longer, higher heat to light, even fairly dry oak. On the plus side, it makes *awesome* coals and really quite good heat (only Black Locust is better for east-coast woods) once you get the damn stuff lit. Even soaking wet, Just-Cut-Down, Had-Leaves-Yesterday oak will burn. It will. It's a bitch to get lit, but once it's going, it burns just fine.

Also, if you're used to the "gas station log bundle" wood, that's probably way drier than anything you are going to get from a guy who does bulk cordwood. You may not be approaching the wood with a realistic impression of how hard it is to get it to light. I have "two years dry" wood at my house. Most of it is oak. I heat almost exclusively with wood and have for fifteen years. I do not suck at building fires. It takes me about half an hour to get a fire from "stone cold" to the "hot enough to kick on the woodstove blower" temperature when I start with wood from outside and no kindling beyond cardboard.

For this year: Make the pieces smaller, build a nice cross-hatch grid when you go to light. Store some of your smaller pieces inside the house (where they will dry out faster). Get more cardboard handy for lighting because you're going to need more than you are used to needing.

For next year: Buy extra wood at the end of this year. Get ahead of your wood needs so that your wood can sit around a while (up off the ground) at your house AFTER you buy it from the guy. That way, it'll be drier and light easier for you.
posted by which_chick at 10:48 AM on November 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Also, firewood sales are highly regulated and there is no such thing as a "face cord" (or "rick" or "truckload" or...). A cord is a cord, and it is a legally-defined unit of measurement by the USDA. Only buy fractional cords, people.

Relevant reading (most if not all states require the USDA measurement used as the basis for the Maine reg).
posted by rhizome at 10:59 AM on November 7, 2011

Seconding Patapsco Mike: Go buy a cheap moisture meter and test the wood. Then you'll know if the problem is wet wood or not. You can try all kinds of different burning techniques, but if you aren't experienced with firewood, you'll never really know unless you test the wood.
posted by ssg at 1:05 PM on November 7, 2011

A lot of people are telling you that you need kindling.

I agree, but don't think that goes far enough. If we're burning hardwood [such as oak, eucalyptus etc], we'll use a similar volume of softwood [such as willow, poplar or pine]. You start with paper, cardboard & kindling, then you move up to your starter wood, and when you have a good hot fire going [20-30 mins], you start adding hardwood.

Putting hardwood on paper & cardboard won't work even if it is super dry - you just can't produce a hot enough fire for long enough to get it started.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:04 PM on November 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

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