Ordering Firewood: Getting What You Pay For

Scott Gibson

We're taking the plunge and buying a woodstove so we can cut our gas bills. We're a little unsure about how to order firewood and what we should expect to get. Ads in the local paper refer to "seasoned" and "dry." Do those terms really mean anything?

Only in the minds of those writing the ads. One of the great perplexities of buying firewood is a lack of labeling standards. There's no accurate way of telling what you've bought until you try to use it.

Gasoline is graded by its octane. You know exactly what you're getting. And labeling for most other products is equally precise. Even a bag of popcorn plainly states how many calories each serving contains.

No such luck with firewood. You have to ask very pointed questions to have any inkling of how well the wood will burn and how much heat it will produce. Wet wood burns poorly, gives off less heat, and leaves lots of creosote in your chimney.

It's a good idea to plan ahead so you can give firewood plenty of time to dry thoroughly. But it doesn't always work out that way. A few years ago we ran out of wood in early March. So we ordered a half-cord to tide us over. He delivered it one Saturday morning.

As he prepared to dump the load by the garage, we asked again just how dry the wood was. The snow encrusted logs in the back of his truck didn't look dry.

Well, he said, it's seasoned.

As it hissed and sizzled in our little woodstove, we decided it probably had been cut the previous fall. And then it sat outside through the winter and had only recently been split. Techically, I suppose, it was seasoned. But for practical purposes it was green.

Most hardwood needs a good year to dry out, and that's after it's been split. Oak needs longer than that. Ash less. It depends on its moisture content. Whatever the species, it should be stacked, ideally under cover, in a spot where it gets some sun and is open to the wind.

When you order wood, don't be shy about asking when it was cut and how long it's been split. Bang two pieces of truly dry firewood together and you hear a clear, sharp note. Wood that isn't dry makes a dull thud.

It also pays to find out how much poplar the load might contain. Poplar is indeed a hardwood species (the trees grow leaves, not needles) but it burns at roughly the same rate as pine, which is to say very quickly and without giving off much heat.

A little poplar is nothing to complain about. After all, woodsmen are not magicians. They cut what's there. But a lot of poplar is not what you want.

One thing you can be absolutely clear on is quantity. Wood is usually sold by the cord, which is defined as a pile 8 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 4 feet high. That's 128 cubic feet when stacked. If you buy a cord of wood, that's what should be delivered.

If your retailer sells it by the "load," the "face cord," or some other colloquial measure, make sure you understand what that means and haggle accordingly.


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