A cord is a unit of measurement for a stack of dry wood intended for burning. The term dates back to the early 1600s from the practice of bundling cut pieces of firewood and tying them with a cord.
Cords back then were much smaller, as people often had to carry them home on their backs. The term may have stayed the same, but the size of the bundles certainly hasn’t.
However, a lot of people get confused with the different types of cord and how much wood they contain.
We will explain what a cord is and more importantly, what it isn't! We will also look at how to season and store your firewood and the difference between softwood and hardwood.
Finally, we will give an indication of the current average cost of a cord of wood in the US.
The accurate measurement of a cord of wood is 8 ft. wide x 4 ft. high x 4 ft. deep. In total, this produces 128 cubic feet and is known as a full cord of wood.
Wood is also sold in half cords and ⅓ cords. A half cord is 8 ft. wide x 4ft. high x 24 inches deep. Third of a cord is 8ft. wide x 4 ft. high x 16 inches deep.
This is often called a face cord or a rick cord. The 16 inches refers to the length of a single cut piece of wood.
Variations exist from state to state around the regulations for cord sizes. Some sellers will offer other types of cords, such as furnace cords or stone cords. These are not official measurements of firewood and potentially to be avoided.
Budgeting for a set number of cords and then realizing you have a lot less than anticipated can leave you without adequate wood to burn.
This can have serious consequences if you rely on burning wood for heating and hot water over the winter.
You should always get an accurate measurement of the stack of wood that you are buying before parting with any money so that you know exactly how much you are getting.
The measurement of a cord assumes that the wood is stacked in a particular way. That is parallel, aligned, compact and touching.
The official figure of 128 cubic feet includes the spaces around the lengths of firewood. As they are irregularly shaped and no two pieces are exactly the same, there will always be air gaps between the pieces.
If you were to theoretically remove these gaps, the true measurement of the stack of wood would be closer to 90 cubic feet.
So now that you know what size your cord of wood should be, you can concentrate on getting the best possible firewood.
If you don’t regularly burn wood, then you may not know the difference between seasoned wood and green wood.
Seasoned wood is timber that has been cut down and split. It is then left outside to air dry for anything between six months to two years.
Many people will not burn wood that has been seasoned for less than two years, while others are happy to burn wood that is only six months into its drying phase. Why the big difference, you ask?
Well, the moisture content in the wood will determine how efficiently the wood burns, how much heat it throws out and how much creosote it produces.
Seasoned wood burns hotter, cleaner and produces fewer pollutants and creosote. This means it is more efficient and your stove glass and flue don’t get coated in creosote.
Unseasoned or green wood will take longer to get going, produce more smoke and potentially keep going out.
It is recommended that the maximum moisture content of firewood should be 20%. You can buy a moisture meter to check the moisture content of any wood that you are buying.
Some people may worry about storing firewood outside, as it can get wet from rain or snow. But the moisture content in wood is actually the sap content from the tree, which permeates the timber.
Getting damp from rain is only going to superficially affect the firewood, and it will quickly dry out.
Whereas the process for seasoning firewood takes months or years as the sap evaporates.
Following on from seasoning timber, we need to clarify that you can’t just leave your firewood in a heap and expect it to dry out sufficiently to burn well when you need it. The secret to drying out wood is in the stacking.
If you cut your own firewood or buy unseasoned wood, then allowing it to dry out properly is really important. The way to do this is to expose as much of the inside of the wood to the air as possible.
This is why it is essential to split your logs before stacking them to season. Stacking un-split logs means they will take much longer to dry and may start to rot before they have seasoned.
Find a spot with good airflow and plenty of sunshine during the day. The top of the stack should be covered to protect the wood from getting too wet in the rain.
However, the sides of the stack can be left open and exposed, this aids the drying out process. The wind will blow through the gaps in the wood stack and help with the evaporation of the moisture in the wood.
Stacking can be done in a crisscross pattern, with layers alternatively perpendicular to each other.
Or you can simply stack rows one on top of the other, the irregular shape of the cut logs will create natural gaps and air pockets to further aid seasoning.
So should you be buying and storing hardwood or softwood for your fire this winter, and how can you tell which is better value?
In terms of price, hardwood will always be more expensive. This is because the trees that produce hardwood take longer to grow. In fact, that’s partly where they get their name from.
As the tree takes more time to grow, the rings form more slowly, so they are denser.
Although, the type of seed that trees produce is how they are strictly classified. Hardwood trees like elm, cherry or oak produce seeds with a hard covering. Softwoods like spruce and pine produce needles with no outer protection.
Hardwood timber burns a lot hotter and tends to burn more cleanly than softwood.
Ash throws out more heat than most other hardwoods, but maple, birch and even apple trees will have a high density and will burn really well.
So, a cord of hardwood will give you more value in terms of the heat that it produces and its efficiency.
You will need to clean your chimney less often, as there will be less tar and creosote build-up in the flue. Your stove glass will stay cleaner for longer, too.
However, hardwood does need a good base of kindling to get it going. And perhaps not surprisingly, it is more difficult to split.
An electric log splitter is recommended if you are going to be splitting a lot of hardwood. Pardon the pun, but an ax just won’t cut it.
Softwood can be burned if it is properly seasoned, but it will burn quickly, so needs frequent replenishment.
It also doesn’t give out a lot of heat and produces more creosote and tar. For these reasons, it is a lot cheaper than hardwood.
Now we get to the burning question, how much does a cord of wood cost?
As we have seen this depends on the type of wood, but for our purposes we will stick to hardwood prices as this is more popular as firewood.
Currently, the average cost of a cord of seasoned hardwood is around the $300 mark. This is correct at the time of writing, however many factors can affect the price of firewood.
Availability, the weather, time of year will all affect the price of seasoned, ready to burn wood.
It is important to order your firewood in plenty of time and not wait until the weather gets cold. Firewood is like any other commodity and is liable to sell out if local demand is high.
Don’t forget that delivery and stacking costs may be extra, so check before you order.
We hope this guide to what a cord of wood is and how much it costs has helped you understand a bit more about the subject of firewood.
The best approach is to find a local supplier and check what size their cords are and how much they charge.
Once you are happy with that, make sure that you put your order in nice and early to beat the rush and avoid being without firewood over the winter. Stay warm everyone!
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