Around the world, ironwood is the name used to describe a really tough and heavy type of wood. In much of the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, ironwood refers to the hophornbeam tree. Logs of this wood are sometimes so dense that even hydraulic splitters struggle with them.

With so many types of firewood on offer, you may be wondering how ironwood performs in the fire? We’re about to take a close look at how it compares to other popular varieties.

Is ironwood good for firewood?

Ironwood, or hophornbeam, is an excellent choice of firewood, providing high heat output and good coaling properties. This dense wood takes longer than most species to season properly, but it’ll burn clean and provide heat through the night.

  • May be a challenge to split by hand.
  • Provides good heat output.
  • Burns clean and makes wonderful coals.
  • Very little sparking and popping.
Infographic of hophornbeam (ironwood) firewood statistics.

Ironwood firewood burn qualities

1. Heat output

Ironwood is a great choice for heat as it produces 27.1 million BTUs per cord. It’s ideal in areas that shiver through freezing winters. As a comparison, ironwood is similar to apple, beech, pinyon pine, and honey locust for heat.

Check out the following table comparing the heat output of ironwood to various other common types of firewood.  

Wood varietyHeat per Cord (Million BTUs)
Juniper21.8
Larch21.8
Black walnut22.2
White ash24.2
Honey locust26.7
Apple27.0
Pinyon27.1
Ironwood27.1
Beech27.5
White oak29.1
Osage orange32.9

2. Smoke

Properly seasoned ironwood won’t give off much smoke. It burns clean, making it ideal for open fireplaces and campfires. You don’t have to worry about going to bed with sore, red eyes from smoke.

Most hardwoods like hickory, ash, and ironwood produce minimal smoke once seasoned. Keep in mind that burning any green wood will produce a lot of smoke. 

3. Ease of splitting

Ironwood is notoriously difficult to split, especially if the logs have already been seasoned. A heavy-duty maul is your best option if you’re splitting the wood by hand. Try to get your hands on a hydraulic splitter to make life easier.

If you decide to split ironwood rounds by hand, try splitting them on a freezing day. The wood comes apart easier when it’s cold.

4. Sparks

Ironwood doesn’t give off many sparks as it burns and is superior to softer wood like pine or juniper. This means embers are less likely to fly out and burn the carpet or your skin. It’s also good firewood for camping as random sparks are unlikely to start a forest fire.

5. Aroma

Some types of firewood produce a fragrance that gives your house an enticing homely feel. You’ll find ironwood doesn’t give off much fragrance as it burns.

If you enjoy using fire to cook food with delicious smoky flavor, then ironwood won’t be your first choice. It doesn’t add much flavor and other options like hickory or mesquite are better.

6. Coaling

As firewood burns, it produces coals which help the fire give off warmth longer. Wood that has good coaling properties will keep a campfire or home warm all night.

Ironwood is an extremely dense hardwood that will burn all night in a wood stove or open fire. Compared to wood like aspen and pine, you’ll find ironwood is much better for coaling.

7. Creosote build-up

Creosote is a black sooty substance that gets deposited on the chimney as fires burn. While all types of firewood give off creosote, some are worse than others.

Ironwood burns clean and doesn’t create a lot of buildup, so long as it is well seasoned. No matter what firewood you burn, it is good practice to clean your chimney once a year.

A stand of ironwoods in Hawaii.
A stand of ironwoods in Hawaii.

The pros and cons of burning ironwood

Pros

  • High heat and low smoke output.
  • Low levels of popping and sparking.
  • Excellent coaling for longer heating.

Cons

  • Ironwood can be very difficult to split.
  • The trees usually don’t provide much wood.
  • Takes around two years to fully season.

Tips for seasoning ironwood

Seasoning ironwood is a slow process and may take over two years before it can be burned. To help reduce the waiting time, follow these tips. 

  • Position correctly: speed up drying time by avoiding shady areas and try to face the exposed wood stack towards the wind.
  • Criss-cross the wood: although it uses up more space, stacking the wood in opposing directions will help dry it faster.
  • Raise the stack: lay the wood on pallets to create airflow underneath.
  • Split the firewood: increase the surface area exposed to sunshine and wind by splitting logs before stacking.
  • Space out the rows: create stacks with a 3-5” gap between each one to encourage air circulation.
  • Cover the wood: use a woodshed or cover to protect the stacks from rain and snow while keeping one side exposed to the wind.

Commonly asked questions

How long does ironwood take to season?

Full seasoned ironwood takes at least two years but could take longer if you live in a cool, damp climate. Unseasoned firewood will smoke and give off less heat. It wastes energy evaporating excess moisture.

How many species of ironwood are there?

Iron is the colloquial name given to trees around the world that are typically tough, dense hardwoods. Around 80 regions have a species of tree called ironwood.

Examples include the hophornbeam in Canada, Europe, and the Eastern United States; honey mesquite tree in Texas; horsetail casuarina in Florida; gangsaw in Ceylon. There is a list here of more species on Wikipedia.

How do I identify the hophornbeam tree?

A hophornbeam tree has brown or grayish-brown bark with vertical plates that flake off. Its young twigs are covered in hairs that drop off after a year. The leaves are broad with serrated edges and have some hairs on their bottom side.

Closeup of seeds on an American hophornbeam tree
The seeds on a hophornbeam look like hops.

How do I identify hophornbeam wood?

Hophornbeam wood has a straight grain with a uniform texture. Its cross-section will show a wide area of white to light yellow sapwood while the heartwood is light brown or red. People often compare this wood’s appearance to birch.

Fast facts

  1. The botanical name for the American hophornbeam is Ostrya virginiana from the family Betulaceae.
  2. It is a small deciduous that usually grows to heights of 25-40 feet but may reach 60 feet in the right conditions.
  3. The wood is extremely dense and was traditionally used for fence posts, tool handles, and mallets. 
  4. Other names for the American hophornbeam include the leverwood, eastern hophornbeam, eastern ironwood, or ironwood.
  5. The hophornbeam gets its name from the fruits which look similar to those from a hops vine.
  6. It is one of the few hardwoods that doesn’t sink in water.

Summing up

Although ironwood is a term to cover a wide range of species, the wood is generally excellent for burning. In the United States, hophornbeam is a type of ironwood that provides 27.1 million BTUs per cord. It produces exceptional coals and burns clean without popping and sparking.

Ironwood is dense, tough wood that’s also very heavy. Splitting and stacking it won’t be easy, but the effort will be well rewarded. You’ll get some of the best firewood to keep your home warm through the coldest winter.

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