What you need to know when buying firewood

How to Buy Firewood

by Rich Finzer

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With heating oil and natural gas prices at all-time highs, many folks are considering burning wood as an alternative heat source. Burning wood, by the way, is a completely carbon neutral activity. The CO2 released during the burning process is the same CO2 the tree took out of the atmosphere when it was still growing. How do I know so much about firewood? Good question. The answer is that I own a 40 acre hardwood forest and have sold wood for nearly 15 years. For the record, I only harvest wood that is dead on the stump. I never cut live trees. I like trees. Clearing out and selling the dead trees is just one facet of good woodlot management. Now that I've established my credentials, let's discuss firewood at a bit more detail.

Just exactly what is hardwood? By definition, hardwood is the wood from any deciduous tree (the ones that lose their leaves in the fall). Hardwood could be anything from weeping willow to shagbark hickory or anything in between. So always ask the wood dealer before they deliver just what kind of wood they're selling. If the answer is a vaguely worded "mixed hardwood," think twice before spending your hard-earned money. You might be buying cottonwood but paying a sugar maple price for it. As an aside, cottonwood smells really bad when it burns.

Another good question to ask is how long has the wood had been aged. Because I run a very small operation and I own a 7000-square-foot barn, I always age any wood I intend to sell for at least one full year. Thoroughly dried wood with a moisture content of about 15% is the best stuff to burn regardless of the variety. Too wet and it burns with too much smoke. Too dry and it burns too fast.

Here's another question for you. What's the proper definition of a "face cord"? The answer is that there is none. Face cord is a term that was coined by the firewood industry for convenience. It's generally considered to be a stack of split wood 4' X 8' by 16" or slightly more than a third of a full cord. But be careful. A slick wood seller may be cutting his pieces at 15" or slightly less, meaning you could be losing 10% of the face cord's volume and still be paying the full face cord price. So measure a few pieces. If they're 16" or better in length, you're getting you money's worth. I cut my pieces at 17 1/2 inches. It avoids any doubt in my customer's minds about how much wood I'm actually selling them. It's just good business, like that thirteenth doughnut in a "Baker's Dozen." By the way, if you locate a firewood dealer that will let you load your own truck and haul it yourself, a standard pickup truck bed will hold slightly over one face cord of split wood, assuming that you stack it in there neatly.

So Rich, what's the best kind of wood to burn?" Glad you asked. Here's a little chart of some common firewood varieties with their BTU ratings/ton.



Overall Rating 1-10

Black Cherry



White Birch






Red Oak



Sugar Maple



White Oak






Black Locust






As an aside, Apple, Black Locust and Hickory produce more BTUs/ton than anthracite coal, making these varieties quite desirable and allowing them to command correspondingly higher prices. For a more complete listing of BTU ratings, Google™ on "firewood ratings." A number of the nation's forestry schools have complete tables of information that list dozens of varieties of firewood, their BTU ratings and burning characteristics.

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