Have you ever considered using Elm wood as firewood for your campfire?
While it may not be as popular as other types of firewood, elm wood has its own unique qualities that make it worth a second look.
So, is elm good firewood?
Let’s explore the potential of Elm as a dependable and efficient source of heat– Read on to find out more!
Elm Firewood Facts
BTU: 20-21 million BTU/cord
Weight: 4465 lbs/cord (green)
Seasoning Time: 12-24 months
Resin / Sap Content: Low
Splitting Difficulty: Difficult
Fragrance: Intense, Stinky
Overall Quality: Poor
What Is Elm?
Elms are huge, umbrella-shaped trees that can live over 300 years if they escape disease and human felling. Their large, dense foliage has made them popular shade trees for centuries.
You can identify an Elm by its tall, straight trunk and arching branches. Their leaves have an oval, egg-like shape with a pointed tip, and they grow asymmetrically along the branch.
Dutch Elm Disease
You can’t really mention Elm without talking briefly about Dutch Elm Disease (DED).
DED is a disease that’s wrought havoc on Elms both in North America and Europe, wiping out millions in recent years. It’s a fungus that blocks water movement through the tree– eventually starving it. Typically, it’s transmitted by Elm bark beetles.
The epidemic is bad news for the trees and animals that call them home. However, it does mean that there tend to be a lot of already dead, dry Elm trees in many areas across the USA. This can be handy to a person searching for good firewood.
Check local laws before harvesting! In some areas (particularly in Canada), it’s illegal to harvest and store Elm as firewood due to DED.
Common Types And Species Of Elm Trees Used For Firewood
There are about 35 total species of Elm across the world, but only a few of these are popular firewood sources. Here are a few of the most popular species for firewood:
- American Elm, also known as White Elm (Ulmus americana). Grows all across North America
- Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila). More popular than American Elm due to its higher heat output
- Red Elm (Ulmus rubra). An invasive species in the US, making it commonly utilized as firewood
In Europe, Smooth-Leaved Elm and Wych Elm are also common Elm species.
The Burn Qualities Of Elm Firewood
Deciding on how “good” a tree is for burning depends on a variety of factors. These can change the ranking of the wood for different people who may have different needs.
Let’s break down these major factors to help you decide whether Elm is the best firewood for you!
A major complaint people have about Elm as firewood is its smell.
Some types of wood, like Applewood or Cherry, give off wonderful scents as they burn. This is especially important when meat smoking or cooking on the barbeque, since some of this scent will impart onto the food as it’s cooking.
At its best, Elm will have a neutral or undetectable smell while burning. At its worst, it can have an overpowering, very unpleasant aroma.
There are two main factors that change whether this pungent smell occurs.
First, you should make sure the wood is fully seasoned and dry. Wetter wood will have a stronger smell, which is not a good thing with Elm. We’ll discuss exactly how to season Elm properly later.
Secondly, Elm has a tendency to soak up the smell of wherever they are grown.
This can be a great thing if they grow in a field full of fragrant flowers. However, if the Elm you’ve soured grew near a swamp or septic line, things can get nasty. Make sure you know where your Elm is coming from!
Resin And Sap
All firewood will have different levels of resin and sap content.
For the most part, this will only impact how pleasant the wood is to work with. A high-sap wood can leave your hands and clothes sticky or stained, and it can be annoying to get the sap off.
Luckily, Elm is a very low-sap and resin wood, so you won’t have this issue while handling it.
Cut And Split Difficulty
Cutting and splitting is the biggest challenge you’ll face working with Elm. The wood is famously difficult to cut by hand.
Elm is filled with interlocking fibers, making it a great choice for woodworker but an awful experience when you’re trying to split it with an ax. The stringy fibers will hold the wood together and impede your progress.
To successfully split a cord of Elm, you need a very well-maintained ax, good technique, and a lot of power. Even with all of these things, some pieces will be pretty impossible without a chainsaw.
There are a few ways to make this process easier.
First, cut and split the Elm before you dry it. It’s much easier to work with when it’s unseasoned, and this will speed up its seasoning time anyway. Waiting for a cold day can also make things easier.
When you’re cutting, focus on the edges and work inwards. Make sure the adhesive fibers are cut to allow the wood pieces to separate. Make sure your ax is high-quality and very sharp before you start, and be ready for a workout!
In all honesty, a chainsaw or hydraulic splitter may be the best option; with these, even Elm is a breeze to cut.
Unfortunately, Elm is a long-term commitment thanks to its seasoning time.
Seasoning refers to laying the wood out to dry, preferably until its moisture content reaches at least 20% or less.
When seasoning Elm, expect to wait for a year or even two. The wood is very absorbent, taking in a lot of water while the tree’s alive.
Whatever you do, don’t burn wet wood. Not only is it very difficult to light, it will also produce a lot of strong-smelling smoke and burn poorly.
The effects of DED can come in handy here.
Because of the disease, a lot of Elm trees can be found standing dead– meaning they’ve already dried a fair bit. These may need less time to season properly.
Heat Output And Efficiency
Compared to other popular firewoods, Elm is normally considered mediocre when it comes to heat output.
As a general rule: the harder wood is, the more heat it will generate. Matching this, Elm is a medium hardness wood– just falling into the category of hardwood.
Of course, this varies greatly between species. American is the worst choice when it comes to Elm heat output, whereas Red Elm is the best. All Elm species fall generally in the middle of the pack among other types of firewood.
British Thermal Units
BTU is a measurement used to describe the heat output of firewood. It’s decided by the number of heat units produced by burning a single cord of fully seasoned wood (a cord is 8x4x4 ft, or 128 cubic ft).
BTU is normally written in millions. For instance, 20.0 BTU refers to 20 million units of heat output.
Looking at this method of measurement, Elm is pretty moderately ranked. It’s definitely worse in heat output than woods like Osage Orange or Beech. From an American Elm or Siberian Elm, you can expect around 20-21 BTU’s.
Elm is a fairly smoky wood, especially if it’s not fully seasoned. The wetter the wood, the more smoke will be produced, and– in Elm’s case– the stronger the smell of the smoke.
Because of its high moisture content, Elm is notorious for filling the room with smoke. Green Elm wood will be even worse for this, since green wood has a higher moisture content.
However, if the wood is properly seasoned for at least 12 months, the smoke is fairly manageable.
This section refers to the quality of the coal produced by burning the wood, which has a great impact on how well and how long the fire burns.
As a general rule, wood that produces more heat will create better coal. This means woods like Apple, Oak and Beech tend to have excellent coal quality.
However, Elm breaks this rule. It has a pretty moderate heat output compared to other woods, but produces excellent coal. This makes it a great choice for a long-lasting, strongly burning fire. As always, this relies on the wood being fully seasoned.
A major boon of using Elm as firewood is that it usually doesn’t spark or pop at all.
Some wood types, like Mulberry, spark a lot as they burn. This can be a bit spooky for people trying to relax near the fire, and can actually be quite dangerous as an imminent fire hazard. This is true both inside and out.
Sparks from a fire can catch nearby objects alight, starting house or forest fires. It can also hit people or animals that are too close by and cause injury.
Even though Elm does not produce much spark, all open fires should be closely monitored for safety.
Pros And Cons Of Using Elm As Firewood
Let’s break these items down into a simple list, to make them easier to evaluate as a whole.
- Produces excellent coals, meaning the fire burns easily and for a long time
- Has minimal sparks, meaning it’s less of a fire hazard than other woods
- Easy to find, especially in the USA where a lot of dead elm can be found
- Minimal creosote production in properly seasoned wood
- Very little resin or sap, making it more comfortable to handle
- Extremely difficult to cut by hand, especially if already dry
- Takes a very long time to season properly, expect to wait a year or more
- Heavy and difficult to move when wet
- Can smell awful, especially if grown near a swamp or sewer line
- Can produce a lot of smoke if not properly seasoned and dry
- Is illegal to store or transport in some places
Elm vs Other Firewood
We’ve talked a bit about how Elm ranks against other firewood in this article, but let’s compare it a little more directly.
Overall, Elm is relatively middling as a firewood. It has an ok heat output– not ranking as highly as something like Oak or Beech– but does hold its own, somewhat.
It certainly doesn’t compete against woods like Hickory, Ash, Maple or Birch in heat output and fire quality.
It’s also a very hard wood to work with when splitting and cutting. Some woods like Pecan are a breeze to split by hand, but Elm will probably have you sweating in no time.
Notably: Elm makes great coals, despite not having a super high heat output.
Tips For Seasoning Elm
These rules apply to all wood, but are especially important when it comes to Elm if you don’t want to be waiting years before you can use it.
Seasoning means drying out the wood until it reaches a moisture content of at least 20% (and preferably lower). This can be measured with a moisture level monitor and should be checked all throughout the wood to make sure it’s dried evenly.
Burning unseasoned Elm is a pretty bad idea unless you’re desperate. It will be hard to light, produce a ton of smoke, and probably smell awful.
Here are a few tips to season wood quickly and evenly:
- Live in a hot, dry climate. This isn’t an option for everyone, but it really speeds up the drying process. On the other hand, living in a cold and wet climate will mean seasoning can take longer, especially if snow or rain gets on the wood.
- Split the wood properly before you dry. This will make it easier to cut, and lead to a better seasoning time since the air will reach more surface area of the wood.
- Stack the wood in a good place. Put it somewhere that gets a lot of sun and wind, with the face of the stack turned toward the windiest direction. Avoid shady spots near buildings, trees, or hedges. It’s best on an elevated field to allow moisture to drain.
- Make sure the wood is raised. Place the wood on pallets or planks to raise it off the ground. This lets moisture drain and allows for airflow underneath the wood.
- Stack in several rows, with a gap between them. Ensuring there is a gap between the rows of wood will help with airflow and improve seasoning time. You should face the rows so that wind can go through the gaps.
- Cover with a tarp. Covering with a tarp protects the wood from snow and rain. Make sure not to completely block airflow to the wood, and to leave the faces of the wood uncovered so the air can get all the way through. You don’t want to trap moisture in!
- Expect to wait a year or more. Elm seasons slowly since it has a lot of moisture when it’s first cut. Be patient and don’t expect to use your Elm for a year– maybe two.
The Verdict: Is Elm Good Firewood?
If you have your choice of any firewood you want, then no, Elm probably isn’t the best option.
When buying wood from an outside source, it would probably be better to choose Oak, Hickory or another hard, high-quality firewood.
However, one of Elm’s best qualities is that it’s plentiful. There are plenty of standing, dead Elm trees in North America thanks to DED. If you’re after something that’s affordable and will still do the job, Elm will suffice– as long as it’s been seasoned properly, that is!
Firewood Facts – Your Guide To Campfire Fuel
There are many types of firewood you could use for your campfire. All of them offer different characteristics which make for better or worse campfires – depending on what you’re looking for.
Discover, below, the key differences between some popular firewood’s to help you determine which wood would be best for your next campfire.
For a complete firewood facts guide, check out our Best Firewood Facts Chart article.