Identifying Firewood in British Deciduous Woods

A guide to identifying common types of wood found in the UK, concentrating on species that make good firewood. Includes pictures of cross sections and lots of references for further reading.

Looking for firewood in woodland that contains a variety of different species can be confusing. When looking for firewood you want dead wood, preferably a year or two old. This means leaves, buds and twigs which could have been used to identify the tree may long since have disappeared. Added to this one of the best firewoods, ash, has bark that can be smooth (when young), deeply ridged (when old) and pretty much anything in between depending on age, so that’s not always a good guide either.

This page is the result of a bit of digging around on the web for useful resources on identifying wood by looking at cross sections. I’ve focussed on some of the best types of firewood found in Britain, all hardwoods (broad leaved trees) found in deciduous woodland. It is by no means comprehensive, and I’m no expert. You have been warned!

Note: there are many other good types of firewood other than those mentioned; the ones below just happen to be the ones that are abundant in the woods accessible to me.

My Method

Saw a piece of the wood you’ve found at right angles to the trunk to get a cross section. Use a sharp knife to remove a thin slice from the sawn end to leave you a smooth surface (sawing leaves a rough, ridged surface that can make it hard to see what’s going on). Use a hand lens of some sort to have a better look – you can just about manage without, but a lens makes it much easier to see the smaller features.

Terminology:

There’s a good introduction to all of these terms with pictures in this document: Wood Identification for Hardwood and Softwood Species Native to Tennessee.

Cross Section Pictures

I found the cross section pictures that appear below on the Dutch site Trees and Wood. I believe they were taken Raimund Aichbauer of the Dutch Wood Collectors Society – please let me know if I have wrongly attributed them.

According to the Trees and Wood site, they reflect what you would see with a 10-12x magnification hand lens.

Beech

Beech Cross Section
Picture credit: Raimund Aichbauer (www.nehosoc.nl).

Could be confused with:

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) Cross Section
Picture credit: Jugo Ilic, CSIRO, Australia (via Inside Wood).

Note: What we call Sycamore in the UK is commonly known as Maple in the US.

Oak

Oak Cross Section
Picture credit: Raimund Aichbauer (www.nehosoc.nl).

Ash

Ash Cross Section
Picture credit: Raimund Aichbauer (www.nehosoc.nl).

Elm Cross Section
Picture credit: Raimund Aichbauer (www.nehosoc.nl).


Could be confused with:

Hawthorne

Birch

Birch Cross Section
Picture credit: Raimund Aichbauer (www.nehosoc.nl).


Birch is a good firewood, although burns fast, so is best used with other slower burning varieties. It should be easily distinguished from Ash as it is diffuse porous rather than ring porous.

It could potentially be confused with Lime (“Basswood” in the US). To distinguish the two:

I have also confused Birch with Sycamore. They are actually easy to tell apart by looking at the size of pores relative to rays – in Birch the widest rays are much narrower than the width of the largest pores, where as the widest rays in Sycamore are similar in width to the largest pores. In my experience pore multiples, while present, are rarer in Sycamore.

Resources:

Hand Lenses

Here are a couple of websites I’ve found that supply hand lenses in the UK:

The Russian optical company Belomo make a 10x Triplet Loupe which seems to be well regarded. I purchased one from Rockhound (an Ebay seller in the US) – so far I’ve been very happy with it. Delivery to the UK via USPS First Class Mail International took a couple of weeks.

Books

Author of this page: Author of this page: Colin Brown, January 2008. Updated December 2008.