Wood By the Cord Yields Lots Of Discord


Sitting by the woodstove, I am warmed twice when I read that a cord of shagbark hickory equals 250 gallons of No. 2 oil in heat value. I don’t know what heating oil costs right now, or what that equals in gas heat or electric heat, but it sounds like my wood is worth real money today. Other hardwoods that grow in my woodlot are nearly as high in BTUs. Now if I just figure out how to count wood by the cord, maybe I can come up with some meaningful numbers on wood heat value.

I first encountered this problem when I was young and innocent and decided to spend a winter cutting and selling firewood. I had no experience in either so I had a lot to learn. I didn’t injure myself which is a miracle considering how dangerous this job can be, nor did I ever injure a customer although I was tempted to do so several times. I had no idea, being a naïve country boy, as they say, what clerks and salespeople have to endure from the occasional rude customer. Also this was my first experience dealing with that mysterious force called the government bureaucracy.

I thought it would be just a simple thing. I’d cut wood, split it, load it on the pickup and deliver it to people who wanted to stay warm in winter. I decided to charge what everyone was charging at that long ago time, $15 for a pickup load. But then I learned there was actually a law or regulation or guideline or something which ordained that firewood was supposed to be sold by the cord or fractions thereof. The bureaucracy intimated that any woodcutter who didn’t sell by the cord was a cheat and a liar. Good grief. I was at least smart enough to know even then that in the case of government officialdom, “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a safer way for woodcutters.

A cord is a stack four by four by eight feet as everyone knows. I stacked some wood up to those dimensions to see how much that was. It looked like I could get about half a cord in the pickup without putting too much strain on our old truck.  But then I learned that a cord of hickory had a third again as much heat value as a cord of white ash. There were differences in BTU value between all the woods.  Obviously the whole business of determining the value of wood by cord volume was ridiculous. And I knew from experience that white ash burned nicer than black locust, even if its BTU value was 50 gallons of oil equivalent less.

But that wasn’t the half of it. The amount of wood actually in that four by four by eight foot space depended on how much air space was between the individual pieces of wood. Let us say the split pieces averaged six inches in diameter. If you took a cord of such pieces and split them to three to four inch thicknesses, they wouldn’t necessarily stack up to the same volumetric space. Or if you left them unsplit in log chunks, they will rick up to a different volume too.  And furthermore most people wanted their pieces of wood about 18 inches long. Just try to stack up pieces of this length into a four by four by eight foot rick. The pieces don’t fit and you have to do some fancy math work to figure out how much higher you have to rank the wood with 18 or 20 inch pieces to equal the amount that would fit evenly into a four by four by eight configuration. It was harder than trying to figure out the square root of a hog’s nose.

So I decided to do what everyone else was doing, that is, ignore the firewood police and sell by the pickup load. The people I was selling to didn’t seem to mind. At fifteen bucks, they knew they were getting a bargain. Only one customer complained but not about that. He didn’t like the smell of some of the wood. Lordy.

“It smells pissy,” he said. “Must be piss ellum.”

At first I thought he was joking but he wasn’t. He was one of those characters who enjoyed treating salespeople like, well, pee-ons.

“No, it’s red oak and it does have an aroma to it when freshly split,” I admitted. “Some people like that smell.” He seemed satisfied. He had accomplished his purpose of showing me how smart he thought he was about wood.

I never used the word, cord, and no one ever asked about it.

Recently, I was talking to a friend who sells firewood today like I was doing, lo, those many years ago. I asked him if he’d had any trouble selling by the truck load rather than the cord.

“Not a bit,” he said with a smile. “If the question comes up, I just say the wood is free, but I charge $65 a load to deliver it.”


I love this post. It brings back fond, if prickly memories, of helping my uncle Billy Bob Bates in his, self-proclaimed, largest firewood dealer in Ft. Worth, TX, over several summers.

One day stopped by the local day-laborer spot and picked up 3 other grown men to help me out. I was about 13 at the time. He told them the pay before he ever showed him the work. He said, “I need a few strong men to unload some cord wood off a truck.”

Sounds easy enough. He failed to mention that the truck was an 18 wheeler and stacked about a cord and a quarter high. And there were huge fuzzy ants under every log.

I remember one of the men, a mid-thirties african-american man, declare when we’ve nearly finished. “Help unload some wood off a truck. That cheap son-of-a-bitch, $20 for this?” Him and the other men managed to get another $20 out of him by raising a little stink. “Alright, you boys worked hard. I hear you. Fair enough.”

I never would have thought that I’d find such a terrific place for such stories via ‘twitter’ of all places. I’d share this with my uncle, but he’d probably say “twitter what?”.

I’ve been burning cut slab wood that I get from a local fellow. He sells by the cord, but when I took the time to actually measure it when stacked, it’s more like 1 1/3 cords. The young guy seems honest and I guess he really is. If you’re going to write a book on woodlots and woodburning, it should be pretty popular. Even though natural gas prices are currently pretty low, we prefer wood heat for our home. It is just a more warming type of heat, more natural and calming after a busy day in the foundry. Maybe you can express the ‘metaphysical’ aspects of burning wood to heat the home. I know it’s there but it needs someone with your talents to properly express it. Get to work on that book!!

Russ, sorry to hear about your soggy wood.

In my experience, even wood that is checked and “looks” dry can be a fire extinguisher when put in the stove. I’ve bought “dry” wood that was apparently dried at some point, but then left out in the rain, cut-end up, for a significant period. (Wood dries from the ends; if you have to leave yours out in the rain, at least stack it length-wise to minimize it sucking up too much water.)

I suggest anyone who burns wood invest a small amount in a wood moisture meter — especially if they buy wood. They are quite inexpensive at Harbor Freight.

If you avoid burning wood with more than, say 10% moisture, you not only get a lot more heat out of it, but you’ll clean your chimney less often, and have less of a chance of a chimney fire. Plus, it’s a lot lighter to haul into the house.

I recently bought a load of delivered wood from craigslist to stretch my supply which wasn’t quite as dry as I would have liked. It was listed as “dry seasoned hardwood”. I guess I made an unreasonable assumption in thinking that all 3 adjectives would apply to each piece. What little bit there was that was dry was so punky that it had the burn value of a wad of corrugated. There was a fair amount of hardwood but it was wet enough to use as a fire retardant to shut down a blast furnace. I guess it could all have qualified as seasoned if you count felled trees laying on the ground in the woods for a season or two till the day it is worked up and delivered. You can have a full cord and still experience discord. Live and learn.

I had never heard of rocket stoves – very interesting. I think you have gauged your audience well Gene. The contrary farmer is taking himself and a whole lot of others to the woodshed.

I am so sick of wood cutting and woodburning right now that it is the last thing I want to read or comment about. (However, the great thing about the homestead life is about the time you start to get sick of something,the season changes, and I can start to smell spring!)

I hope you don’t mind me leaving an off-topic comment here, but I wanted to let you know that I finished reading last of the husbandmen in two nights and it is really funny. I want to become old Nat when I grow up, or maybe Miser. Thanks for writing that book, it kind of brightened a long hard Winter. Looking forward to reading more of your fiction.

contrary Gene,

I’d like to add my voice to the notion that the investigation/research/book project you’re embarking on about woodlots and wood burning would be much more valuable with a strong component devoted to wood burning technology. I have only a simple, crappy (there’s that topic again) wood burning stove at the moment, but I’m also among those who are excited about rocket stove technology. It’s simple, CHEAP, and apparently highly efficient. I’ve downloaded plans and hope to squeeze that in somehow before the next heating/burn cycle. Another thing connected to rocket stoves but also to pretty much all wood burning techniques is double duty as a heat source for cooking…and triple duty for a myriad of other uses of the heat generated, whether its drying grain or diapers or heating a greenhouse…there’s just an almost endless cascade of uses/opportunities for even a small margin of so called ‘waste heat’ or unused thermal calories that grass and soil and shit freaks like us can at least look into, and if it’s justified, to exploit. I would also add another dimension to the topic which was touched on a bit ago by several commenters, which is biochar. I’ve been exploring, maybe not commercial scale, but bigger than garbage can scale production of biochar for some while now. I’d be content at this point to let go of the animals and all the rest of it and spend the rest of my life putting inoculated/biologically active charcoal into the ground, from recycled and already dead carbon sources.

The beauty of it, though, of course, is that critters and grass and manure (including humanure) are in no way competing with these things but are complimentary and additional other than in the infernal matter of time.

OK, contrary dude, it’s getting later and colder, I only got myself dug out from the last of it a couple of hours ago, there are chores, and my best goat seems determined to kid on one of the coldest days, or nights, of the last 10 years, so I’m outta here, but I trust your wisdom and balance to give a useful life to this conversation that is much larger than any, or maybe even all, of the rest of us could pull off.

That’s the burden you bear for being the T rex of grass and soil and manure freaks who depend on you to…prolly to do what what no 2 legged can pull off at this stage of the 2 legged game. but there you are in case there’s a ray of hope.

/\ How excited I was to see you mention the rocket stove! I have friends here in Kansas who have built them into their house (the house is also built of cob), and on the beautiful day when my wife and I can afford to buy land and build a house (we’re 22, but saving slowly), I will build one or more of these marvelous creations into ours.
For now, though, we’re stuck with an old open-face Ben Franklin stove in the cabin we rent, which is incidentally exactly 21 feet from approximately 300 acres of state owned woodland and prairie grass with a big lake in the middle of it. The I’d estimate that the silly stove probably gives us right around 7 BTU’s per pound of dry wood when it’s closed up and drafting well, but open up the front, and though it burns much less efficiently, the radiant heat is really remarkable.
Around here, wood is more often sold by the ‘rick’ than the cord, but I’ve known of at least two different guys who’ve given wood away by the pickup load but charged for the loading process, regardless of whose doing the loading 🙂

What is actually most important is the design of the stove you are burning the wood in. You can have lots of BTUs in any wood but if most of it is just getting exhausted through the chimney, you are losing out. Some of the most efficient wood stoves on the market only let you get about 70% of those BTUs in useful indoor heat.

I’ll admit that our old pot belly is not as efficient as many others (I’m guessing I get 45 – 50%), but it’s what we could afford at the time and I will make improvements later. I will add an exhaust dampener and try to create a water heat exchanger of some kind.

This summer, when canning time comes, I will have made a “rocket” stove to use outside. Take the time to google this if you are interested in getting the most energy out of small amounts of wood. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.

Measuring by the cord is simple and convenient — and as you point out, nearly meaningless!

Although it would be difficult to actually implement, a much more meaningful way of selling wood would be by DRY weight; all dry wood, from the punkiest, most termite-chewed alder to the heaviest rock-hard ash has about the same heating value by weight — about 8,500 BTU per pound.

Of course, wet wood skews things considerably, reducing the heat content of a pound of wood to 7,000 BTU or less, so perhaps weight isn’t the best way, unless the buyer is armed with a moisture meter.

Burn all wood here. great blog.

I built a rack 8 feet long, four feet high. I fill it with 16″ pieces of wood (or a little longer for certain full measure). That gives me a third of a cord. BUT, I just put a $40 sign in front of the stack and don’t mention cords unless advertising or someone asks. It’s “that pile of wood you see there” for $40. It also fits just about perfectly into a modern pickup bed (most are 6 foot now).

I don’t mind delivering but they’ve got laws now which say you can’t take it out of the county. (which is kind of weird since the county line runs more or less along the edge of my property. I don’t know exactly where but I guess I could get in trouble if I let a tree fall the wrong way. 😉 I also had to go around by the long way to do one delivery because the straight road cuts across the state line for about 50 feet.

very clever! if he can get a half-cord in a load and charge $65 for it, it’s still way cheaper than what we pay for firewood (when we’re paying for firewood).

Now that is a great idea–my daughter and her husband sell firewood (in addition to custom milling and special projects like hand-finished manzanita walking sticks–which I forgot to mention in the tree groves post; you can make money from trees as well as everything else!). She always mutters a lot under her breath when doing the calculations for a cord. I think she’s got some kind of a formula she uses for diameter times length, but she doesn’t get overly picky, and they just add a little extra to be sure the customer gets full value. (Had to stop writing in the middle of this to go check on the first lamb of the season–mom and baby doing well and none of the grandkids wanted to go to school–imagine that!). Now where was I? Oh, yes. But one nice thing about being in business for yourself is that if a customer is a real p***cutter, as my husband would say, you just take him or her off your list and refuse service. Can’t do that when you work for a company.

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