Wood is the oldest fuel used by humans for heating and cooking. Although in recent times it has been largely replaced by other fuels, it is still widely used both as firewood – which is the focus of this article – and in the form of wood chips, pellets and briquettes.
If the wood is well seasoned and burned correctly, it doesn’t generate emissions (including CO2 ) that contribute to global warming, and releases fewer fine particles and toxic substances. But how do you light a fireplace or wood burner properly? We will talk about that here.
How to light a fireplace or wood burner
How do you light a fire in a fireplace, wood burner or wood stove? It's a simple process and a daily routine in the colder months, for those who have any of these appliances at home. Did you know that lighting a fire the right way can make a big difference, not just to your health, but also to the planet and your wallet? That’s right, because it improves the quality of combustion, polluting less and using less wood, while also making the fire last longer and reducing the need for maintenance on the fireplace, burner or stove.
Many people are used to lighting firewood from below, using newspaper and small kindling. However, the best technique is lighting from the top down, like you do with a candle:
Stack the wood in criss-crossing layers on the hearth or stove, placing the larger pieces at the bottom and the smallest ones at the top.
Don't overdo it: it's better to load a little wood at a time and only insert bigger logs after a bed of embers has formed.
Finish by placing some crossed kindling at right angles on the top, together with a firelighter (you can find various types on the market, for example in the form of cubes or wood shavings).
Light the firelighter with a match.
When you light firewood from above, it burns more slowly and releases fewer harmful substances, because residual gases are almost entirely burned before they can escape upwards. But that's not all: it's important to only use seasoned wood (later we will tell how to dry wood) that is clean, split and in equally sized pieces. In addition to being similarly sized, the firewood must be arranged so as to leave sufficient space between the wood and the walls of the combustion chamber. Don’t burn painted, glued or treated wood (such as old furniture, pallets, packaging or crates), or even newspaper, cardboard or Tetra Pak containers.
How to choose firewood
Are some types of firewood better or worse? Do they have different energy values? These are questions to think about whether you are gathering your own wood from a forest or countryside, or buying it from a shop. Given the same weight and moisture content, all wood species have a similar calorific value (i.e. the maximum amount of heat that can be produced): the differences are minimal and related to their chemical composition.
Wood species are described as hard or soft: soft woods include beech, ash, walnut, oak and olive, as well as fruit trees. Hard woods include conifers (such as fir, pine, larch), poplar and willow. Their difference lies not in the calorific value, but in the density of the wood. A piece of beech (a hard wood) outputs more heat than an identically sized piece of fir (soft wood), not because it has a higher calorific value, but because it is a denser wood. So, if you have two pieces of wood of equal volume, the heavier one will burn more slowly.
Another valid question is: does collecting firewood deplete the ecosystem? Actually quite the opposite, if done selectively it can help plants to regenerate and stay healthy, both in woodland and the countryside, where you can gather wood by clearing the banks of streams and rivers, trimming hedges alongside fields, or pruning orchards, vineyards and olive groves. When gathering large quantities of wood in the forest or countryside, a transporter is an invaluable aid.
Of course, the plants in your garden are also a source of firewood. On the topic of dead wood and waste, here's how to dispose of prunings and twigs.
How to dry firewood
Fresh wood newly cut using a chainsaw or pruner contains about 50% water by weight: it shouldn’t be used straight away, but first dried until the water content is less than 20%, which makes it ideal for burning. Damp wood has a lower calorific value – meaning it produces less heat – and releases more pollutants (you can see them in the amount of soot that is deposited in the fireplace or burner and on the inside of the flue).
So what can you do if your wood is damp? Stack it and leave it to mature in the open air for as long as necessary (9-12 months for soft woods, 1-2 years for hard woods):
Cut and prune at the right time of year, in principle in winter, when trees and shrubs contain less sap.
Cut the wood to the optimum size for stacking and subsequent use.
Situate your wood pile in a spot that is exposed to the sun and air (i.e. not indoors).
Keep it off the ground and at least ten centimetres away from walls.
Cover the stack in a way that protects from rain and snow, while allowing air to circulate freely on all sides.
One last tip: wood that you intend to burn indoors should be taken indoors, or at least into a heated environment, at least one day before using it.
Do you already know how to cut wood for your fireplace, burner or stove? Like we said, it burns better if it's split, so check out this article on how to cut your own wood. For this task a chainsaw is essential, along with an axe, wedges and a sledgehammer, plus the appropriate safety equipment: trousers, gloves and anti-cut footwear; face shield or protective spectacles; noise filtering ear defenders or ear plugs. When pruning, it also makes sense to wear an anti-cut jacket and protective helmet.