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Notes on Firewood Selection and Use
by George Hedgepeth
I am notoriously picky about the care and feeding of my campfire. It is my baby, and I will take care of it so it can take care of me. My finicky nature has even earned me a nick-name. Remember the Soup Nazi on the old Seinfeld show? Well, apparently I am the Fire Nazi… I like to think I simply have high standards.
Below is a collection of tips on fuel selection and how to get the desired results from a fire. These are based on my own experiences as well as those of the old-time woodcraft authors like Nessmuck, Bernard Mason, and Horace Kephart. In fact, if you are interested in the characteristics of different species of wood, I highly recommend these authors.
An easy way to find excellent firewood is to locate a standing, dead hardwood pole. I like a diameter of 3-5 inches for most of my fires in temporary camps. Not all dead poles are equal- the one to pick should have the bark sloughing off (or already gone) and should display some vertical cracks. These are drying checks, and they let us know that the wood is DRY!
Good fuel wood should not have any fungi growing on it- these let you know the wood is rotten to some degree and will be less than optimum for fuel. However, standing dead trees with a shelf fungus or two will break to length much easier.
Split wood burns better than fuel in the round. This is because split sections have more surface area per mass, as well as having edges that allow combustion to start more easily start. Also, wood may be damp on its outer surface, and splitting exposes the dry inside. These reasons are plenty to recommend carrying an axe or hatchet when burning wood.
It is often unnecessary to cut wood to uniform lengths. Long pieces can be place in the fire and burnt thru. However, this may create obstacles around the hearth that can cause one to trip. To prevent this, long sections of wood may be broken to length by sticking one end in the crotch of a large tree and using brute force to snap sections to length. If a cut is made on the surface of the pole that is on the outside of the curve when it is under strain, that is where it will break- and with much less force required. Also, if control is used, a piece that still has good strength may split when bent this way, producing proper lengths of split wood with great efficiency!
In general, light weight woods produce fast ignition, lots of light, a short burn time, and no coals. Wood of greater density is more difficult to start burning, but burns longer, produces more heat, and leaves hot coals. Pick the right fuel for the fire you need!
Strips of Shagbark Hickory outer bark produce very aromatic smoke to flavor meat that is being grilled. This bark may be harvested in limited quantities without hurting the tree. The thick, hard shells of hickory nuts burn with a hot, low flame like charcoal. Even better, Bitternut Hickories and some others produce nuts that are not palatable, but the entire nut may be used for very hot fuel.
Dry, split aspen burns brightly with very little smoke. Although it burns quickly, it is good for use inside of a lodge. It is also commonly available in thickets, and is often small enough to gather without a tool. It is often the only deciduous tree available in the north or mountainous west, which are dominated by conifers.
Sassafras, Sumac, Hemlock, White Cedar, and Balsam are notorious for spitting, popping, and throwing hot embers. Be very careful with these, or avoid them all together to prevent spark holes (or worse) in one’s gear. Please avoid synthetic fabrics for clothing around these particular woods when used as fuel. As an aside, resistance to sparks is a strong point in favor of traditional fabrics like wool, canvas, and leather.
Smoke is caused by incomplete combustion of fuel. In an enclosed shelter, smoke can cause absolute misery. To keep a fire from being too smoky, use the smallest fuel practical, and make sure it is DRY. One way to help with this is to remove the bark from wood that has recently been exposed to the weather. This is where most of the moisture will be trapped. Also, an established fire can help dry wet wood. Arranging damp fuel around a fire in the style of a rail fence is a good way to do this.
Would you like to guarantee that there will be hot coals available for a morning fire? Make sure there is a deep bed of embers established, and then lay several large pieces of fuel DIRECTLY on them. Place the fuel pieces close together. Yes, it will smoke a bit. The idea is to limit the amount of oxygen available- just like closing the vent in a stove. One can even partially seal the edges of the fire with white, fluffy ash. In the morning, the bottom surface of what remains of the fuel pieces should be glowing. Face two of these hot surfaces toward each other, add a bit of tinder, blow a few times, and get breakfast started!
Some woods burn decently while green. They may smoke and they may be best used after a fire is already burning, but they might be the best option in some circumstances. Ash, Birch, and Hickory are decent choices. For best results, they should be split and de-barked. Smoke from green birch is pretty rough on one’s eyes and lungs, so make sure airflow is available.
Some wood is darn near fire proof when green- at least for a while. Basswood, Tulip Poplar, and the Willows are all very resistant to ignition when green. This is useful to know when making fire tools or reflectors. Large pieces, un-split, and bark covered are best for this.
Many species of wood split well, but others are famous for their tenacity in resisting the axe or wedge. Species that split well when seasoned include Ash, Hickory, Cedar (white and red), Sugar Maple, and the Pines. Species that range from a bit difficult to down-right terrible to split include Cherry, Beech, Basswood, Elm, and Black Gum. Legend has it that Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s brother, made a small cannon out of a Black Gum log that was used to defend Boone’s Borough from attack.
If one does not have an axe or large knife available to split wood, all is not lost. Wedges can be made with a knife out of small pieces of the wood that has been gathered. Generally, these wedges need to be from one to three inches across. Start a wedge in a pre-existing crack by tapping it in with another section of firewood used as a mallet. Even a rock will work for this. Once a crack has opened, drive in a second wedge further down the piece. This will free the first wedge, which can then leap frog the second wedge, repeating the process until a section is split. In wet weather, this is worth the trouble!
Dry wood can provide its own tinder. A straight section can be scraped with a sharp tool held at 90 degrees to the wood. This will produce super thin curlicues that can be ignited with a ferrocerrium rod or blown into a flame with an ember. The key is DRY and STRAIGHT, and the tool must be SHARP. A piece of broken glass or a snapped, thin flint flake will also work well. The resin-saturated core of dead pines, variously called rich pine, fat wood, pitch wood, or pine knot can be used reliably this way even if the outside is wet. This can be a real life saver!
Many conifers will have the stubs of branches that have been shaded out by the tree’s growth protruding from their main trunk. These are generally easy to reach. These will normally be dry as they are sheltered from the elements. They make ideal kindling, and can be gathered by whacking them with a stout club or just snapping them off the main trunk with one’s hand.
I hope these notes find you well and help you produce a better fire more reliably. They are the result of many wise foresters’ experiences, as well as my own small contributions.
Do you have your own tip to share?
Send an email to georgehedgepeth(at)hotmail(dot)com
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Durand MI 48429
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