Buying hardwood is a lot like buying a used car. Except a used car is easier and the dealer more honest. Some states regulate how wood is sold–it can be sold as a cord, 128 cubic feet or fraction thereof, but not a pickup truck load, or by weight. For smoking or for your wood stove or fireplace, you want hardwood. Often, you can specify what species of wood you want, but you will pay two to four times as much as you’d pay for a mixed load of hardwood.
Most dealers sell green wood, that is, it is recently cut, not aged. Seasoned wood will cost more, especially in the winter when it is in demand. Other sections of the FAQ discuss as to how long wood should be seasoned for smoking so I will not go into it here. Burning for heat, it should be seasoned at least six months, preferably a year. Wood cut in the spring contains more moisture and will take longer to season than wood cut in the winter. That is because the tree is taking water to nourish itself and grow leaves.
The dealer may offer 4-ft. log length, cut-to-length (usually 16″), or cut, split, and delivered. Each step involves more labor and drives up the cost. Even if you buy split wood, you may want to split it more for use in the smoker. The quartered wood is good for a stove, but smoke cooking is a different operation that requires adding smaller pieces of wood. Splitting also aids drying as more surface area is exposed to the air.
Green wood means it was recently cut. Seasoned wood means the same wood will cost you about $30 a cord more. Do pay attention to the dealer before he drops the wood. Check the measure and check the age. Seasoned wood, if it honestly is, will have cracking on the ends of the logs. It may also be darkened and weathered. Smack two pieces together, a ‘thud’ sound indicates the wood is green, a ‘thunk’ indicates dry wood. Well-seasoned wood has a ring to it when hit together. If you handle enough of it, you can tell how dry it is by feel or heft.
Assuming the wood is bought at a fair price, let’s get on with splitting and storing. Hickory is more difficult to split than oak or maple. Some woods are “stringy” and would be harder to split. If that is the case, try to cut the logs to a shorter length.
In all cases, wear GLOVES, SAFETY GLASSES and preferably hard tipped shoes and long pants. Logs do fall, fly and move around when split. So do the tools. Get the kids and dog out of the way. Be sure your wife is also taking precautions as she stacks the wood for you. Get her a good pair of gloves for her dainty hands. I’ve never had much luck with using wedges. When I first started using wood, I had a wedge, a sledge, and countless trips to the store for new hickory handles. Close don’t count splitting wood and a heavy sledge will only take a few over-hits before the handle breaks.
I bought a maul. The first handle (hickory) lasted two years. I replaced it with a fiberglass handle and have been using it for over a dozen years now. First, put the wood to be split on top of a stump or other large piece of wood. You want the maul handle to be perpendicular to the wood when it hits the target. This increases the accuracy and exerts maximum force to the wood. Next, practice. The wood I split is 16″ long and various thicknesses. A large diameter piece may take a few smacks, but a 12″ diameter piece will go in half with one good hit of the maul.
If you live in the northern climes, a good time to split the wood is when the it is frozen in winter. It gives a cleaner cut and takes less force to do the same work. Very green wood is stringy and more difficult than wood that is a couple of months old. Hickory, especially with knots, is a pain to split clean. Oak is much easier.
Now that it is split, what to do with it? Keep some of the medium sized logs that were cut in two. Using them as a base, flat side down, make a small stack alternating the direction of the wood 90 degrees each layer. Take some time to use the flattest and squarest pieces for this role. This is going to be the end of the stack and is known as chimney stacking. Lay the other pieces in between, not too snug. You want air to circulate. This should be done on a solid base of concrete, stone, or old pallets. Keep the wood off the ground or it will rot and collect more bugs. Don’t stack more than about 4′ high. Be sure the pile is stable as wood is heavy and a falling stack could injure a curious child or pet. No one should be playing around the wood pile.
Do not stack the wood right up against your house or garage. This invites all sorts of bugs and other creatures to make the wood in your home into a meal. Don’t be surprised to find a nest or two as you use up the wood months after stacking. Maybe even a snake skin left over from the shedding. In summer, leave the wood exposed to the sun. There is no advantage to covering to speed drying with either clear or black plastic. In fall, you may want to keep leaves off the wood and in winter, keep the rain and snow off if you expect to use it for heating. The logs will freeze together. This is not a problem for smoking next summer, only for immediate winter use.
There is a wood splitting wedge called the “Wood Grenade”. It is a 4-sided wedge and does a much better job than the standard flat wedge on hard to split wood. I’ve never buried the Wood Grenade in a log like I have with standard wedges. The log splits before the Wood Grenade gets all the way into the log.