Home Heating

By John Tuttle | January 2, 2007
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2007

Many people in Missouri cut firewood to heat their homes and other buildings. My family heated with wood when I was growing up in Shannon County. We cut firewood from tree tops and cull logs that were left behind from timber harvest operations. Whenever my father brought home a load of cull logs with his log truck, we would cut up the logs and split them so the wood would season before burning.

One of the first lessons I learned about firewood is to cut the wood several months before burning so the wood has time to season. Freshly cut firewood doesn’t burn efficiently because it contains too much water. It also can cause a buildup of tarlike creosote inside the flue pipe that can lead to fires.

For best results, firewood should be cured for at least six months. The bark of properly dried firewood will be loose enough to pull off by hand.

Best Woods for Burning

How good the wood is for fuel depends on its density and moisture content. Any wood will burn, but denser heavier) woods, if properly dried, will deliver more heat. Some folks also choose wood that is easy to split over wood that might burn well but is more difficult to split into firewood.

The species of wood that have the most energy content are Osage orange, hickory, locust, oaks, hard maples and ash. Woods with lower energy content include basswood, cottonwood, cedar, pine, silver maple, elm and sycamore. The table included with this article compares the basic heating value of different types of wood.

The amount of energy that you get from firewood very much depends on the efficiency of the stove, fireplace or furnace where you burn it. If you have an open fireplace, nearly all of the heat goes up the chimney. The fires may look nice, but they can actually cost you heat by drawing cold air into the house as heat goes up the chimney.

Fireplaces with glass doors do a better job, and a good fireplace insert increases efficiency even more. To get the most from your firewood, though, you need a high-efficiency wood stove. Wood stove technology has come a long way since we burned wood in the family home in Shannon County. Now you can find safe, non-smoking stoves and furnaces that burn wood efficiently and circulate heat throughout the house.

Buying Wood

Different units of measurements—such as rick, rank, cord or pickup load—used by people to sell wood can cause confusion about how much wood you are actually getting.

The standard unit of measure for firewood is the cord, which measures 128 cubic feet. This may be 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet or any other combination of height, depth and width that when multiplied out yields 128 cubic feet. Some people call a third of a cord or a half of a cord a rick, even though that word really only means a pile of wood of no certain size.

Another common term used in selling firewood is a face cord, which measures 4 feet by 8 feet. The wood pieces in a face cord might be anywhere between 14 and 24 inches long. Obviously, the length of the wood, which is often not specified, determines how much fuel is contained in the face cord. Rank and fireplace cord usually mean the same as face cord.

Missouri law requires that in any sale of firewood a bill of sale be provided showing the name and address of the purchaser and the seller, and the cords or fractions of a cord involved in the sale.

Cutting Wood

Wood you cut yourself warms you twice, as the old adage goes, both when you cut it and when you burn it. Cutting your own firewood has a third advantage of allowing you to improve the health of your forest.

Taking out unhealthy trees or poorly growing trees from your forest frees desirable trees from competition and gives them more opportunity to thrive.

When choosing trees to cut for firewood always look for undesirable species, lowforked or crooked trees, trunks with fire scars, swellings or bumps, spreading trees with excessive limbs or multiple trunks that sprout from a single stump.

Avoid trying to make your woodland look like a park by removing brush and small trees in the understory. Low-growing fruiting shrubs like ironwood, redbud and dogwood are important to wildlife. They provide food and cover without severely competing with the taller trees.

Nor, in your zeal to thin your forest, should you cut all of the den trees. Den trees provide homes for wildlife. Leaving a few dead trees (snags) per acre creates habitat for woodpeckers, bats and several other species of wildlife.

If you want to provide lots of cover and valuable food for many different species of wildlife, try removing all the trees around a field edge. This practice is called edge feathering. You can either cut the trees yourself and sell the logs or let a logger fell the trees. After the timber harvest, you’ll have plenty of firewood in the form of tree tops and cull logs.

You can also take down trees to create openings in your forest. The openings will provide early successional habitat for wildlife, as well as places to view wildlife. Arrange any leftover wood that you can’t use for firewood into brush piles, which provide outstanding habitat for small mammals.

Not for Everyone, But…

Given that wood is bulky, heavy, usually dirty and sometimes contains insects, it’s easy to understand why fewer people these days are burning wood to heat their homes. Firewood also has to be seasoned and requires a good deal of storage space. And, not many people want to get up in the middle of the night to start or stoke a fire in a stove.

However, heating with firewood can save you money over the long run, especially if you cut your own wood.

Firewood cutting can also create great memories with friends and family and result in healthier forests with better wildlife habitat. Finally, there’s the charm of a wood fire which, as they now say about so many good things, is priceless.

Heat Values of Various Woods

Species Million Btus per cord*
Ash 23.6
Boxelder 17.5
Cottonwood 16.1
Elm 21.4
Hickory 29.1
Locust (black) 28.1
Oak, Red 25.3
Oak, White 27.0
Osage Orange 30.7
Pine (shortleaf) 19.0
Redcedar 18.9

*Heat is measured in British thermal units. One Btu equals the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water 1 degree F.


  • Always keep safety in mind when felling trees or using a chainsaw.
  • Start fires with small amounts of dry kindling. Don’t use flammable liquids that could explode or cause severe burns or house fires.
  • Keep flues and stovepipes clean. Check them frequently for creosote buildup.
  • Don’t contribute to the spread of damaging insects by bringing in firewood from infested areas. Always try to use wood from local sources and keep an eye out for pests. For more information, visit missouriconservation.org/forest/features/firewood.htm to learn about and identify problem species, such as the emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, gypsy moth and the sirex wood wasp. If you find a suspect insect, please contact us (see page 1 for a list of regional office phone numbers).

There’s lots to know about cutting and burning firewood. For more information, contact your local forester or the University of Missouri Extension office. You can visit their Web site at http://extension.missouri.edu/explore/agguides/forestry/index.htm.


This Issue's Staff

Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Writer/editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Circulation - Laura Scheuler