A Guide to Buying Reasonably Priced Firewood

Firewood, split and racked
Firewood, split and racked. Getty/Vincenzo Lombardo

Many people, including me, would rather purchase a rack of firewood for fueling fireplaces, gladly accepting the costs involved because cutting enough wood to keep a fireplace or wood burning stove going can be a lot of work and time spent if you do it yourself. On the other hand, firewood can cost you way too much if volumes and values are not known.

In many states, firewood transaction laws have been enabled to protect the purchaser from being ripped off when purchasing fuelwood, and while most states are concerned that if you buy a "cord" of wood you actually get a cord, terms like "rick," "rank," "pickup load," "pile," "face cord," and "fractions of a cord" make determining firewood values a nightmare.

It's important to understand how a seller measures wood as it compares to the state standards of measurement before trying to evaluate how much the wood should cost per unit of measurement. Keep in mind that cords and fractions of a cord are the only two legal units of measurement accepted in most states and that any other unit is more of a regional or local preference and prone to price-gouging.

Understanding Measurements of Wood

A cord is a lot of wood — sometimes — but this largely depends on the state and local distribution regulations, if any exist. Still, a cord is usually a state's legal unit of measure for wood which means you are buying a unit of wood based on 128 cubic feed of condensed, stacked roundwood that includes the bark and some air. The measurement of a full cord of wood should fit in a container that is four feet by four feet by eight feet.

Be aware that wood received in four- or eight-foot lengths will occupy less space when it is cut and split for firewood but the total amount of wood will not change — in other words, a cord of wood split and tightly stacked in 16-foot lengths contains considerably more energy (less air space) than a cord of wood stacked and racked in eight-foot lengths.

So, if the firewood is cut to fit a stove or fireplace and is split and tightly stacked, the space occupying the wood is reduced because there is less room for air. If it is haphazardly piled, on the other hand, the air to wood volume ratio is increased and you have less energy per cord. You need to insist on neat and tight stacking but remember that every processing step adds to the cost of the wood.

Remember that a "truck load" of firewood can mean anything from a loaded light-weight short-bed pickup (1/5 of a cord) to a pulpwood truck (4 cords). You need to determine the hauling capacity in cubic feet of any truck used to hold the wood and ensure that the stacking is relatively tight and orderly.

Tips for Getting Firewood at the Right Price

There are a number of ways to mitigate price gouging and ensure you're paying the right number for the proper amount of energy per unit of wood. Try to avoid buying firewood that is not sold in cords or fractions of a cord as other measurements aren't standardized and make it almost impossible to compare prices to the market value.

Insist that the wood is cut to burning length, split, and uniformly stacked in a pile as to avoid any wasted space within the cord or fraction of a cord. Although this may increase the cost of the wood for handling, it will ensure a better volume of energy estimation and will make stacking for storage that much easier.

Delivery cost extra, so make sure you're prepared to either haul your own wood or pay for handling. Also, keep in mind that firewood is driven by location and availability and prices for a cord of mixed hardwood can range from 50 to more than 100 dollars before processing, transport, and handling costs are applied — getting wood to your fireplace at the correct size is a major part of the expense of firewood.

Pickup trucks generally hold from a fifth to a half of a cord of tightly spaced and orderly split, stacked wood, which is quite a broad range. You can (and should) actually measure your (or the seller's) transport bed to determine volume if you're buying by the "truckload," though it's recommended to buy by the cord then load them into your truck once you've come to understand how many cords your vehicle can hold.

You can determine the price of a truckload, though, if you multiply the bed length by the bed width by the bed height to get the gross volume in cubic feet and then divide by 128. Take that number (probably a fraction) and multiply it by the price per cord to get your wood's value.