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Hardwood versus softwood firewood

There is still a lot of softwood firewood sold in the UK, most likely in nets sold in garage forecourts and whilst in recent years there has been a move towards hardwood, there may now be a move back to more softwood as prices for hardwood timber rise faster.

Firstly, its quite important to know the difference between the two types of wood. Hardwood fundamentally comes from trees that lose their leaves in the winter, so trees such as Oak, Ash, Beech etc. They are slow growing (80-100 yrs to maturity) and therefore provide a dense timber. In contrast softwood grows much faster maturing in 25-30 yrs and the timber is therefore less dense. Trees include Pine, Larch, Spruce and Douglas Fir etc.

So, how about their burning qualities? Lots of people say that you shouldn't use softwood either because it burns too fast, produces too much resin in the chimney or smokes too much.

Well, in summary softwood is great for burning, but as with all wood fuel it has to be dried properly to below 20% moisture content. Whilst it has the same calorific value as hardwood by weight, being less dense you need sometimes up to as much as twice as many logs for the same weight, or energy output. As regards resins, there seems to be conflicting advice on this, but it seems that as long as the wood is dry the resins can actually act as supercharged fuel, so better, not worse than thought! As for smoke, well just like any other wood, if its not dried properly it will smoke.

One of the biggest advantages of softwood, if drying it yourself, is that it dries very quickly and probably takes half the time to dry and its also great for kindling. Much of the kindling sold today is softwood for this reason and the other benefit is that it gets the stove up to temperature very quickly which helps stove performance, increases 'draw' and reduces smoke.

Pine_1 Pine
Oak_1 Oak


12 thoughts on “Hardwood versus softwood firewood”

  • Dorothy Dawson

    RE: Softwood. A few years ago, a tree surgeon delivered a massive load of pine logs to us, saying they would be OK, he'd never had a complaint etc. It was early autumn and the logs were dry and seemed to burn well. 6 months later our chimney was completely blocked; the sweep found a huge lump of tar which had to be dislodged by flail. I recently watched a programme on country life in WW II, where pine tar was copiously extracted from pine logs by heating them to 400 deg C in a closed container. I will never burn pine again. Best regards

  • G W Jones

    On the subject of which wood to burn - a couple of poems.....


    Beech-wood fires burn bright and clear, 

    If the logs are kept a year.

    Store your beech for Christmastide 

    With new-cut holly laid beside.

    Chestnut's only good, they say, 

    If for years 'tis stored away.

    Birch and fir-wood burn too fast 

    Blaze too bright and do not last.

    Flames from larch will shoot up high, 

    Dangerously the sparks will fly.

    But ash-wood green and ash-wood brown 

    Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.

    Oaken logs, if dry and old, 

    Keep away the winter's cold.

    Poplar gives a bitter smoke, 

    Fills your eyes and makes you choke.

    Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould, 

    E'en the very flames are cold.

    It is by the Irish said. 

    Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread,

    Apple-wood will scent the room, 

    Pear-wood smells like flowers in bloom.

    But ash-wood wet and ash-wood dry 

    A King may warm his slippers by.



    Logs to burn, logs to burn,
    Logs to save the coal a turn
    Here's a word to make you wise,
    When you hear the woodman's cries.
    Never heed his usual tale,
    That he has good logs for sale,
    But read these lines and really learn,
    the proper kind of logs to burn.

    OAK logs will warm you well,
    If they're old and dry.
    LARCH logs of pine wood smell,
    But the sparks will fly.
    BEECH logs for Christmas time,
    YEW logs heat well.
    SCOTCH logs it is a crime,
    For anyone to sell.

    BIRCH logs will burn too fast,
    CHESTNUT scarce at all
    HAWTHORN logs are good to last,
    If you cut them in the fall
    HOLLY logs will burn like wax
    You should burn them green
    ELM logs like smoldering flax
    No flame to be seen

    PEAR logs and APPLE logs,
    they will scent your room.
    CHERRY logs across the dogs,
    Smell like flowers in bloom
    But ASH logs, all smooth and grey,
    burn them green or old;
    Buy up all that come your way,
    They're worth their weight in gold.

    • nicsnell

      G W Jones
      Thanks for these - yes they are lovely poems, but the interesting thing about these old poems is they are always based on traditional air drying and I suspect never really drying things properly. The classic I always note is that it says Poplar gives a terrible smoke and some say it spits. Modern Poplar species don't have the thick corky bark like Willow and in fact both these species will burn fine IF dried to below 25%. We use Poplar for our kindling and have tried it for logs. It is actually a great wood for burning - nice bright flame and will get upto heat very quickly, but burns quite quickly so more like a softwood, although it is a hardwood! The other one I always note, is all the poems seem to say you can burn Ash green. Yes, it has a naturally lower moisture content when harvested and dries quite quickly but standard rules still apply - Only burn wood that is below a max of 25% moisture content

  • Rita scott

    Why is there no mention of Birch ?

    • nicsnell

      Not sure in what respect you mean, but Birch is obviously a hardwood which burns with a nice bright flame and of course has a lovely bark so often used as a decorative log. It does however burn quite quickly and faster that more denser hardwoods such as oak, ash and beech. Also if you ever see 100% Birch for sale, then it will definitely be imported as in Eastern Europe a lot of Birch is grown. In the UK, Birch will be found in mixed broadleaved woodland but only as a mix of species

  • Robert

    You mention logs sold in nets at garage forecourts. I buy these if I run out of other fuel, and it is then fun and games chopping them up and drying them out, as they are usually soaking wet. I know we go into this with our eyes open, but why is it that the purveyors of this kind of firewood seem so often to offer wood that is not only wet when bought, perhaps having been caught out in the rain, but obviously soaked for months and carrying some pretty sinister funguses?

    As long as you at Certainly Wood go on delivering the quality I have had so far, then I will go on buying; be sure not to slip!

    Robert, Surrey.

    • nicsnell

      Thanks for your comments and I entirely agree. It is so frustrating the quality of logs in garage forecourts and I partly blame the major retailers on this as they all sell nets of logs in their forecourts and the quality is appalling, but buyers seem to buy on price only and don't understand the importance of quality. I suspect this will change in due course when someone wakes up to the fact that buying wet wood is completely false economy.

  • Edward Pitt

    Burning softwood

    I burn a mixture of softwood and hardwood on my Rayburn 300W cooker. The advantages are as outlined in your excellent article, you just have to make sure all the wood is VERY dry. For lighting and getting a quick boost softwood is invaluable.

  • David

    According to the manufacturers of my wood burning stove and chimney liner, you should never use softwood because the tar produced damages the liner and invalidates the long-term guarantee. The installer and the person who sweeps the chimney annually states that he can easily tell if someone has been burning softwood by the composition of the soot. Having said that, there is an argument for ignoring the advice, especially if the softwood can be sourced cheaply or free because the through-life cost of replacing liners might be less than the differential cost of the wood."You pays your money and you makes your choice".

  • nick

    any one used willow !it seems ok if very dry and about a year old ,as i have aquired a free load from my daughters tree that was felled .any comments about willow logs would be appreciated .

    • nicsnell

      One of the potential problems with Willow is that it can spit and/or smoke and this is mainly because it is not dried down below 25% moisture content, but also the main reason for spitting with Willow is because moisture gets held under the thick corky bark and as it burns, it can cause spitting and crackling. So in summary its not the best wood to burn, but you have got it free so make the most of it. I would suggest you get a moisture meter to (we do sell them) so that you can make sure it is 'ready to burn', (<25%) but make sure you split the logs before drying and also split again to test the internal moisture content. You may well need upto 2-3 years of seasoning - Fundamentally, any wood is fine to burn as long as its below 25% moisture content - Hope that helps Nic

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