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How the various kinds of firewood stack up

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 28, 2020
  • Published November 28, 2020

Thanksgiving is a little late to be thinking about the winter supply of firewood. The woodshed should have been full by the first week of September. However, there were fish to catch and caribou to chase ...

Many of us that heat our houses with wood, even as a supplement, own a truck and a chain saw. For those who have to depend on others for firewood, and purchase by the load, there are some important considerations. Firewood is generally sold by the cord. A cord of wood is a stacked unit measuring four feet wide, eight feet long and four feet wide, or 128 cubic feet. That is stacked wood, not tossed in a loose pile.

One can get a cord of wood in a pickup that has an eight-foot bed and side boards. The load will be stacked higher than the cab. A guy that brings you wood in a pickup and charges you for a cord will almost always have the firewood in eight-foot lengths. My wife ordered a couple cords of firewood for me last winter. I was overwhelmed with projects, so this was a surprise for me — to alleviate a bit of my workload.

The wood was delivered in a flatbed with a six-foot by ten-foot bed and four-foot sideboards; tossed in loose as high as the boards. The delivery guy dumped it and left. The kids stacked it. The stacked pile measured less than a cord and a half. A cord of wood varies in price from $200–$300 per cord. The wood I received was split; $250 per cord. That $500 load actually cost about $350 per cord.

Some guys sell by the pickup load. That is a good way to buy. There is a local guy in Delta that charges a hundred bucks a load. What you see is what you get. He will tell you that a pickup carries about a half cord of firewood. That is an honest cutter.

Another thing to be aware of is the type of wood you are planning to burn. This is important, whether you buy or cut your own. Not all firewood is created equal. The heating value, or Btu, is dependent on the location and the type of wood cut. For example: beetle-killed white spruce that is cut as standing dead wood burns well and in theory has more Btu per cord than black spruce. However, fire-killed black spruce, with the bark off, has the resin locked in and thus will burn hotter and longer than any other wood we have in Alaska.

Most folks try to avoid cottonwood and poplar. They are light, porous woods that have a fast burn time, high ash content and are relatively low in Btu. The following table is from the UAF Extension Service and will give a general overlay on what one can expect from various Alaskan woods. The table is not perfect and there is disagreement in Btu values from other tables one might find.

Wood type: weight per cord, approximate Btu

Birch: 3,450 pounds, 23.6 million

White spruce: 2,550 pounds, 18.4 million

Black spruce: 2,450 pounds, 16.1 million

Cottonwood: 2,100 pounds, 14.5 million

Aspen: 2,400 pounds, 16.6 million

Poplar: 2,100 pounds, 13.5 million

Fuel oil: 50 gallons, 6.7 million

Lignite coal: 2,000 pounds, 17.4 million

Electricity: 3,400 KW/hour

These values are based on “dry” wood with 20% moisture content. Green wood will be heavy and have as much as a 50% moisture content. The water in the wood boils off as it burns, siphoning off precious Btu. Wet firewood produces considerably more smoke. It also causes creosote issues on the inside of stove pipes, which leads to increased risk of chimney fires.

Aspen and poplar are common woods in the firewood trade. Dry wood of these types, especially with the bark off, is not a bad burning wood. I like dry cottonwood for spring and fall heating when I don’t require as much heat, but still want a fire to last all night. Avoid wet firewood of any type. Birch is one of the best woods, but take care that it is split. Birch dries poorly with the bark on.

One can see from the table above that there is very little difference in the cost of heat, regardless of the source. Coal is undoubtedly the cheapest. The drawback is that coal is smelly and dirty. Electricity is clean, — at least in your house — but tends to run at a high cost. Fuel oil is cheap — now — and easy. Wood is somewhere in the middle if you must buy it. Buying wood is full of potential pitfalls.

The best option is to cut your own wood. Four hundred bucks for a chain saw and an occasional chain will return the initial cost outlay relatively quickly. Cutting your own firewood is a good family activity that gives everyone a chance to feel that they are real part of the household. One can combine a firewood trip with a campfire and marshmallows.

I like to bring wood back to the house before cutting it into lengths. Small-diameter wood doesn’t need to be split, holds fire better and loads in the truck easier. Don’t forget to shield the back window on your truck so you don’t add the cost of a rear window onto your cheap load of wood. I could write a book on firewood, including the best type of snowmachine to haul it out of the woods. Enjoy the marshmallows.