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Figuring Firewood by the Cord, Any Way You Stack It

Figuring Firewood by the Cord, Any Way You Stack It


By Mike McClintock (reprinted courtesy of the Washington Post)

If you burn wood only a few times a year, you can overlook the extravagant prices on those little bundles of neatly split logs wrapped up at the home center or near the checkout lines at supermarkets and convenience stores.

But if you burn wood more regularly, either for atmosphere or extra heat, you'll be much better off buying firewood in significantly larger parcels, called cords.

The terminology here gets a little tricky because there are true cords, face cords, fireplace cords and cords stacked as four-foot logs vs. partial cords dumped in the driveway already split and cut to fireplace or stove length.

And the size of the pile is only one factor to consider. To get your money's worth, it's important to know if the wood is hardwood or softwood, too old and already rotting or too green and full of moisture. Some wood may be infested with termites that could migrate from your woodpile to your house.

This week's column is devoted to sorting out the amounts firewood is sold in, so you'll know how much wood you're paying for. Next week, we'll look at wood quality, the pros and cons of buying seasoned vs. unseasoned logs, and how much heat the different types of wood actually deliver.

Cords of many sizes
A cord of wood is a stacked pile that measures 4-by-4-by-8 feet, a standard measure that dates from colonial times. According to the New Hampshire Agricultural Extension Service, colonial farmers and loggers cut firewood in four-foot lengths because that was a practical size for people to handle. They stacked the logs in eight-foot piles because that was about all that a team of horses or oxen could haul.

If you buy raw logs by the cord and plan on cutting and splitting them yourself (and leaving them to season for a year), the stack should be the traditional size.

If you buy a cord of split wood cut to burning length (generally 16 inches), the pile could be about 15 percent smaller because split wood stacks more compactly than full logs. If you buy a cord of split wood cut to 12-inch lengths for smaller wood stoves, the stacked pile could be 25 percent smaller.

These shrinkage factors have been used as a ruse by some wood suppliers to explain away a short load of split logs that does not stack up anywhere close to the 128-cubic-foot pile of a full cord. The load might have been a full cord before it was split. That hardly matters because the standard these days (and for about 10 years in regions where many households burn wood as a primary heat source) is to sell firewood, split or not, in cords.

Consumer laws generally have eliminated the shrinkage factor and state that when you buy a cord you should get a cord in whatever form the wood is in at the time of purchase.

But even when a supplier is clear about the stacked volume expressed in cords, there is still room for confusion. That's because some firewood dealers advertise fireplace cords, face cords and other euphemisms for partial loads.

The rough translation is that a fireplace cord is actually one-third of a full cord. The actual amount of wood in a face cord can vary because this calculation measures only the 4-by-8-foot face of the stack. Buy a face cord of two-foot-long logs for a large fireplace and you will have about half of a full cord. Buy a face cord of 12-inch logs cut for a small wood stove, and you have about one quarter of a full cord.

Most partial-cord amounts are based on 15- to 16-inch-long logs, which means that, generally, about three face cords make a full cord.

But the final measurements also can depend on how the wood is stacked, which turns out to be yet another way that inexperienced wood buyers can come up short.

Weight vs. volume
Some vendors advertise face cords or fireplace cords along with forthright explanations of the actual size. But unscrupulous suppliers might try to disguise the amount of wood they're delivering.

The most obvious subterfuge is to dump the wood in a jumbled pile. By the time you discover that the stack is short, the transaction is complete and it will be difficult to get back any money.

If you try to defeat this by paying for delivery and stacking, a shady dealer might use the crisscross method instead of nestling the split wood. This can enlarge the stack by up to 50 percent. The system works well if you're storing unseasoned wood to air-dry for a year. But if you're buying seasoned wood by the cord, cross-stacking simply pads out the pile with air.

The last wrinkle is weight, specifically tons, which some firewood suppliers use as the unit of measure instead of cords. This is not very helpful because even if they have a scale that can calculate tons, you certainly don't.

And, like the face-cord measure, the weight of wood varies. Dense hardwoods, such as hickory, white oak, red oak and sugar maple can weigh 4,000 pounds or more to a cord. A cord of softwood, such as white pine or aspen, can weigh half as much. If you have to make the conversion, most firewood, which is hardwood, weighs about two tons to the cord.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company
This article is the second of a three part series. For the other two go to the community web site at and