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.”