After a mild spell with plentiful early autumn sunshine, falling temperatures remind us that winter is on its way. But the cold weather does have its compensations. There’s something very comforting about donning winter woollies – hats, scarves, gloves and a favourite knitted jumper – and setting forth into the wind-blown autumn landscape. Even more comforting is coming home to settle in front of a blazing open fire or wood burner with a plate of hot cinnamon toast.
Wood burners seem to be increasing in popularity, but the art of knowing which woods are best to burn may need to be revived. There is an anonymous poem that gives the qualities of the wood of many of our native trees when burned on an open fire. Most people agree that ash is the best and will burn both seasoned and unseasoned. Birch logs are said to burn too fast, but strip away the loose bark and keep it for fire lighting as I have found it even better than dry newspaper for this purpose. Poplar and willow are also fast burning and, according to the poem, take too long to season. Some logs spit and send out sparks so are fine in a wood burner but more of a hazard in an open fire. These include larch, pine and sweet chestnut. I have even tried well-seasoned cotoneaster, but found it almost impossible to light until I have a really hot fire in the grate. Oak shavings and sawdust are said to be the best fuel for curing bacon and hams, but as a vegetarian I haven’t put this to the test!
Regardless of the choice of wood, seasoning is of great importance. Growing wood contains sap, which is largely water, and burning wood ‘green’, i.e. with the sap still present, produces unnecessary smoke, wastes fuel and can damage your chimney. Wood cut in the winter starts at an advantage because there is less sap and therefore less to dry out. In summer the sap can weigh as much, or more, than the solid wood content of the tree. Summer is the main drying period, so most wood should be seasoned over one full summer, and denser species should be given two full summers. Smaller logs will, of course, season more quickly, as will logs that are stored well with a plentiful airflow. While it makes sense to protect logs from the worst of the rain, airflow is paramount since seasoned wood will absorb much less water from rain than the sap it originally contained.