9 Things To Check Before Using Dead Trees As Firewood

Chopping wood with an axe in woodpile. Mid shot

Cutting down trees for firewood can be both rewarding and challenging. But what about that dead tree in your path? Can you process it into firewood? It’s dead, most likely not viable for any other use, so why not cut it up and burn it?

You can use dead trees for firewood, but you should take into consideration the type of tree as some make better firewood than others. Specifically, hardwood trees are often better than softwood species as firewood. Also consider the condition of the wood, the size of the tree, and whether it houses animals or insects.

You can certainly use dead trees for firewood, but there are a few things you should be on the lookout for. We’ve compiled a handy list of 9 things to check before using dead trees as firewood. Let’s get to it!

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What You Should Consider Before Using A Dead Tree For Firewood

Processing already fallen trees for firewood is a great practice. In-fact, i’m doing the same thing right now with three dead pine trees that were in my yard! Of course, we’re using them strictly for outdoor firewood, but it’s really a great practice of reducing the need for cutting down alive trees.

If you are cutting and processing your own firewood, you have probably come across dead trees before and wondered if they would make a viable firewood option. Some already dead trees certainly will make for good firewood, but there are things to consider.

The tree may be a pine or other softwood, which does not make great firewood (hence why I’m using ours just for campfire wood.) It could be infested with insects or rotted inside. Maybe the tree has been felled for so long it is already rotting, in which case it’s best to let it be.

If you are looking for long-lasting firewood, check out our top 10 article on the slowest burning firewoods and how long they last!

Now, onto the good stuff. The following list details 9 things to check before using dead trees as firewood.

1. Check The Wood’s Moisture Content

A man measures the humidity of firewood with a moisture meter, monitoring fuel quality.

Once a tree has died, it has already started drying out, so you may not have to season it as long. A dead tree will take about 2 to 3 years to dry out completely, but once it is dry, it starts to rot, which we will touch on momentarily. When a tree is cut and split, the wood dries out quicker because of the exposed surface area, compared to a whole uncut tree. 

Cutting a dead tree for firewood may save you time on seasoning, depending on how long the tree has been dead. The best way to check for the moisture content on potential firewood is with this Moisture Meter For Wood – Pin Type Digital Dampness Moisture Sensor. It has built-in calibration and can be used for more than just wood.

You want the moisture in your firewood to drop to around 20% at least before burning it. The lower it is, the better, and hotter your firewood will burn, but 20% moisture is a good all-around average to strive for. 

For trees that cure faster and have low moisture, take a look at our guide on the best firewoods to burn here.

2. Is The Tree A Hardwood Or Softwood?

Hardwood trees make for better firewood than softwood, with a few exceptions. Hardwood trees are trees that drop their leaves in the winter, also known as deciduous trees. They don’t have thick resinous pitch running through them and are denser, which makes for hotter, slower-burning, cleaner firewood. 

Softwood trees have channels that carry thick, sticky sap through the trees. When you cut pine trees and other softwoods, the thick sap can get on your chain saw or your hands, and have everything as sticky as gum at the bottom of your shoe.

Softwood trees are conifers, or evergreen trees. They include pine trees, spruce, and fir trees, among others. They have leaves similar to needles instead of broad, flat leaves, and though softwood trees will drop some of their needles, they don’t lose them all during the winter like hardwood trees. 

If the dead tree is an oak, hickory, maple, locust, or fruit tree like apple or cherry, then you potentially have a very good firewood laid out in front of you. Of the multitude of hardwoods, some to avoid because they do not burn well, or smoke and pop a lot are poplars, aspens, basswood, and willow trees. 

There’s a lot to consider, especially if you do not know all the different varieties of trees there are, but generally, hardwood trees are much better than softwoods.

You can view our full guide on the firewoods that produce the least amount of smoke here.

3. Is The Tree Still Standing Or Fallen?

Whether the tree is standing dead wood, or it has fallen over, there are a lot of things to think about here. A standing dead tree, depending on how long it’s been dead, may drop large branches when you cut it.

If the canopy shows signs of broken branches or there are a bunch of broken branches around the tree, for safety reasons, it’s best to leave the tree alone. Falling tree branches are nothing to play around with. 

Sometimes trees will uproot and fall. This happens when the canopy gets too heavy for the roots to support it, the ground gets exceptionally wet, or the tree gets blown over from terribly high winds. These trees are best left alone unless you are a professional at cutting trees. 

If you cut on an uprooted tree, it could suddenly shift and cause injury or the entire root ball could fall back into the hole. Either way, cutting on an uprooted tree is a practice best left to professional tree experts. 

Sometimes a tree will break and fall at the trunk. If the tree has fallen in this manner and has broken completely away, then this is a tree you could cut up for firewood. 

4. Is The Tree Rotten Or Moldy?

A pile of fallen old rotten logs

As we stated earlier, if the tree has been dead for some time, it will rot or become moldy. Either of these states of decay makes for poor firewood, and you should never burn moldy firewood.

Rotten wood loses its density and becomes soft and brittle. Soft, rotten wood will burn fast, but not produce much heat because most of the fuel is already gone. Rotten wood is also often pretty moist, which again makes for poor firewood.

If you try to burn wet firewood, the fire will often sputter and hiss as the flames work to remove the excess moisture. 

Wood covered with mold or mushrooms (fungus) should not be burned either. If moldy, fungus-covered wood is burned, you potentially release a lot of spores into the air, which is no good. Definitely don’t burn this wood indoors.

So, if you see a dead tree that appears to be rotten, moldy, or covered with fungus, leave it alone and let it rot as nature intends.

5. Is The Tree Hollow?

This may be difficult to detect if the tree is still standing, but if the tree is laying on the ground, you may be able to see if the tree has been hollowed out. A hollow tree could be caused by a insect infestation, some sort of trouble, or it may have happened because the tree was very old. 

A hollow tree means less wood you can bring home. Depending on how hollow the tree is, it may not even be worth cutting and splitting. Although, you may not even find out it is hollow if the tree is standing until after you cut it down. 

If the tree is hollow, you might try cutting some of the larger branches to find out if only the trunk was hollowed out. If this is the case, you may get a decent amount of firewood just from the branches. 

6. Is It Infested With Insects?

One of the worst scenarios, in this case, is being attacked by a swarm of bees when you cut on a tree. While this is highly unlikely to happen, some bees and insects will colonize dead trees, especially in hollowed-out cavities.

To find out for sure if the dead tree you want to use as firewood is hosting a hidden hive of stinging insects, pay attention to the tree. Look and listen for telltale signs. Can you hear the droning buzzing of thousands of little stingers?

Use your eyes as well. If you see insects flying in and out of a hole, quietly step away and find yourself another tree to use for firewood. 

7. Is The Dead Tree An Animal Habitat? 

In the woods, a hollowed-out tree cavity could be prime real estate for animals such as bats, certain birds, squirrels, raccoons, and porcupines to name just a few. Do not stick your hand, head, or any other body part into the hollow of a tree to find out. You might get a nasty surprise. 

You may not be able to see if an animal is living in a hollow cavity of a tree, but if you suspect something is making this tree home, do the right thing and let it continue to live there.

Birds and other animals use dead trees for nests, shelter, or perches. Many bird and animal species use the cavities in dead trees to roost, and shelter from the elements. 

8. Is The Size Of The Tree Worth Turning Into Firewood?

This one is pretty obvious, but it bears mentioning. A small dead tree may not be worth the time cutting it up for a small amount of firewood. If you are just looking for a lot of kindling, or you want some small logs for burning outside, then it might be worth your time. 

Only you can decide if the tree is big enough to spend the time cutting it up for firewood. A fully mature tree could net you a full cord of wood. A cord is considered 128 square feet of split firewood, or a section 4 feet wide, by 4 feet tall, by 8 feet long. 

9. Where Is The Dead Tree Located? 

Tree fallen on house

This is a minor consideration, but we always try to be thorough. If the dead tree is in the woods where you have permission to cut them down for firewood, then cut away. However, if the tree is on your property, you should inspect the area for any obstacles. 

Maybe the tree is way in the back of your property and you have several acres of wooded property. Then, you do not have to worry as much about where the tree lands when you cut it down. 

Is the dead tree sitting right in the front yard? It may look like a simple thing to cut down a dead tree, but even with professionals, cutting a tree can sometimes be tricky. If any objects nearby could be damaged by a falling tree, then leave it to a professional. 

There are many reasons you may want to chop down a tree in your front yard. If you are contemplating it, give our article on the reasons why you should cut down the tree in front of your house a gander.

Do a quick search on online and you will find plenty of videos of amateurs cutting trees in their yards with disastrous results. If there is anything around the tree that could be damaged, like yours or a neighbor’s house, a fence, vehicles, or power lines, then get a professional to cut the tree down for you.

If you want to cut the rest of the tree for firewood after it is safely dropped, they should let you do so. Always err on the side of safety when cutting trees down. 

That’s A Wrap!

Cutting and splitting your own firewood can be a rewarding activity, especially if you are trying to save money on your heating bill. It may take a lot of work, but it can save you money in the long run, especially if you find a few good, dead trees to use as firewood. 

Dead trees can be significant sources of firewood if you check out a few things first. Look for animals that might nest inside them, if there are swarms of insects, and if the tree is in a safe place to be cut down. Plan your actions out before you cut on that dead tree. It may or may not be worth it. 

References:

The Effect of Firewood Removal on … Populations In a Northern Oak … (n.d.). Studylib.net. Retrieved March 29, 2022.

Harmon, M. E., Woodall, C. W., Fasth, B., Sexton, J., & Yatkov, M. (2011). Differences between standing and downed dead tree wood density reduction factors: A comparison across decay classes and tree species. Res. Pap. NRS-15. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 40 P.15, 1–40.

Kahl, T., & Bauhus, J. (2014). An index of forest management intensity based on assessment of harvested tree volume, tree species composition and dead wood origin. Nature Conservation7, 15–27.

Hagerdon, Charles W., and Corey P. Wong. “Thinning in exchange for firewood.” Journal of Forestry 84.7 (1986): 44-46.

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