The two most important words to remember when buying firewood are seasoned and hardwood. "Seasoned" means the logs have been given time...

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The two most important words to remember when buying firewood are seasoned and hardwood.

“Seasoned” means the logs have been given time to dry — six to 18 months, depending on their size. Fresh-cut or “green” wood tends to look clean and feels heavy with moisture. It generates a good deal of smoke and ash when burned. To tell if wood is seasoned, look for cracks at the ends where it was split, bark that pulls off easily and surface dirt and dust picked up while curing.

Hardwoods, which burn longer and cleaner, include such varieties as red oak, black oak, white oak, locust, cherry and apple. Softer woods such as tulip poplar burn very quickly, and resin-laden evergreens such as pine release a tarlike substance called creosote that coats the chimney walls and can become a fire hazard.

If you can find a willing vendor, test the wood yourself. Pick several logs at random off the truck and pop them into the fireplace with kindling and crumpled newspaper, or crumbled bits of fire-starter brick. If the logs ignite quickly, the wood is ready to go. If they sputter, pop and smoke, take a pass.

Quantity is as tricky as quality.

A cord — the standard, legal measure — is 128 cubic feet. A good visual estimate is a tightly stacked pile of 24-inch logs that stands about 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 8 feet long.

Some vendors sell by the face cord, using shorter logs that fit into smaller fireplaces. (Measure yours before buying; wood should be three to four inches narrower than the firebox.)

Others use vague, undefined terms such as rack or rick (a middle-English derivative that means “pile”) or sell by the truckload. Because truck bed sizes vary by vehicle, measure the length, width and height of the stacked logs, then multiply the dimensions to determine how close the total comes to a cord’s 128 cubic feet.

Ask if the price includes hauling and stacking — off the ground, with spaces between logs for air circulation and under a tarp away from the house to avoid bug infestation.

Don’t forget kindling — those smaller pieces of wood or other dry material to get the fire going. The simplest starter is crumpled or rolled newspaper. There are even devices to roll, and thus recycle, newsprint. (Look for a newspaper log roller at www.plowhearth.com.) However, don’t be tempted to use gift wrapping or other colored paper; some dyes can release toxic chemicals when burned.

Dried twigs are good kindling and so are pine cones, but make sure they’ve been seasoned for several months. Some hardware, garden and grocery stores sell fatwood, splintered resin-heavy evergreens such as pine, cedar or spruce to be used just to get the flames going. Fire-starter bricks, or individually wrapped logs — made of compressed, highly flammable paraffin and sawdust — also do the job.