Folks who cut their own cordwood know firsthand that Thoreau’s oft-quoted words that wood warms you twice don’t tell the whole story. Wood warms you many times, as anyone who has split, stacked and carried firewood knows. Stoking the stove or fireplace is also a warming experience depending on how far it is to the woodshed.
In our first country home, I believed everything was charming and romantic. When my husband came in from cutting trees, chopping logs or spitting wood, he took a seat in front of the fire we both watched like sports fanatics tuned to ESPN. But more often than not, before I had a chance to uncork the wine, my sweetheart was fast asleep on the couch.
One night, while watching my exhausted weekend woodsman sleeping, a spark of wifely wisdom ignited. Or, maybe it was just the wine. Regardless, the next morning, I called a local firewood supplier and had a cord delivered and stacked about 20 feet from our back door. From then on, buying firewood was a regular part of our fall routine.
Firewood by the measure
In the United States, wood cut from trees too small, or otherwise unsuitable for sawing into lumber, has been sold by the cord since at least the early 17th century. The measure was then defined as 128 cubic feet (including air spaces) of 4-foot-long logs stacked in a unit 8 feet wide and 4 feet high. Early American cordwood cutters discovered that firewood was easier to sell if pieces were short enough to fit into stoves, so the 4-foot lengths were often halved for a price, but the cord remained a 4-by-4-by-8-foot stack. Today, most firewood is cut into 2-foot long pieces, but a cord is still 128 cubic feet of neatly stacked wood.
Although it isn’t as tightly regulated now, you should insist on purchasing firewood by the cord or fraction of a cord. Be wary of sellers offering so-called face-cords of wood unless you know how long the individual billets are. A face-cord has come to mean a stack that is 4 feet high by 8 feet long – no matter the length of individual pieces. If the billets are 2 feet long, then that hypothetical face-cord amounts to a half cord. If they are 16 inches long, it is even less. No matter how much you trust your firewood supplier, you never really know what you get until it is stacked neatly. When purchasing cord wood, you can expect the price to include cutting and splitting, but not necessarily handling and delivery. You can often save a little money by hauling your own, but many firewood suppliers have automated cutting and loading systems that make it attractive to pay for delivery. And in many cases they prefer to sell it by the truckload.
Firewood by the truckload
A truckload of firewood can mean just about anything and converting to cords can be a bit of a trick. The key is to measure the truck bed in question and multiply its inside height by width by length to determine its volume. If the truck can carry 64 cubic feet of goods, then it can accommodate roughly a half cord of wood depending on how it is stacked. If the wood is piled randomly in the truck’s bed, then you won’t know how many cords it carries until you stack the pieces in the woodshed.
Is free firewood a bargain?
Wielding a chain saw to cut firewood yourself can be dangerous and strenuous work. (For more on chain saw safety, see Sow Hoe on Page 71.) Once you estimate expenses, equipment and time, free firewood might not be a bargain. However, in many cases, particularly if the trees are yours and you are willing to do the work, it’s easy to cut and split a cord of fuel for far less than you can buy it.
Wood waste, such as limbs and treetops toppled by storms, can also often be reclaimed from urban landfills and used as firewood. As much as 30 percent of the debris in some landfills is wood, and in many areas they are happy to have you haul it away. Other sources of firewood might include wood scraps left over from milling or manufacturing, or trees and tree limbs removed during power line maintenance. Always seek permission before claiming any free wood that isn’t on your property.
After tree-damaging ice storms, city municipalities and state parks often offer free firewood for the cutting. National parks do also, but rules for cutting firewood are very specific to each location. Always check first. Some parks will have a period when free firewood is offered. Occasionally private landowners will also offer trees for the cutting – this practice is often available when fruit growers are in the process of renovating an orchard. Calculate the cost of equipment, fuel, transportation and other expenses to determine if “free” is worth the work.
To get the most heat out of your hard-earned wood, it needs to dry in the air for at least a year before burning. For best results, stack the wood in loose piles off the ground in an area exposed to sunlight. Covered storage, open on the sides, helps prevent rewetting from rain or snow. This seasoning process will make the firewood a little less dense, much easier to light and the resulting fire will burn hotter. Unseasoned wood (green; wet) can be burned in a pinch, but it will hiss and bubble, burn cooler, and that vaporized sap will make a substantial contribution to your chimney’s creosote buildup. (For more on stacking and seasoning, see Country Tech.)
The heat value in wood is measured in British thermal units (Btu), which by definition is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit.
On average, a cord of quality firewood contains the heat equivalent of 25 million Btu. A cord of cured hickory has the heating value of a ton of coal or 200 gallons of fuel oil. That same cord also contains about twice the energy as softer species.
Harder, denser woods, such as oak, beech or apple, also tend to burn more slowly than softer woods, such as willow, birch or poplar. Softer woods are great for roaring campfires. Because of resins in some soft woods, they tend to smoke and spark and sometimes pop, which can be a safety hazard indoors. If you only use the fireplace for atmosphere, then wood quality doesn’t much matter. But if your wood stove is heating the house, the densest hardwoods are the best choice.
Completing the circle
No matter whether you buy firewood or cut your own, one of the wonderful aspects of heating with wood is that it is a readily renewed resource. Since ordering firewood every year is our routine, we plant trees in the fall instead of cutting them. The oldest of those plantings now provide our home with summer shade, but I have no doubt that at some future date, the fuel they’ll provide will be crackling on a grate. In the meantime, on most winter nights we still enjoy cuddling on the couch. Watching the fire is still as intriguing as it ever was, but now we can enjoy that bottle of wine together.
Freelance writer Patsy Bell Hobson lives in Southeast Missouri where trees provide summer shade and winter firewood. With the wood all in, she’s enjoying her evenings in front of the fire.