Firewood, the age-old energy product, is coming into its own in Washington. Demand is soaring, so are prices, and it's getting hard to buy anything but wet, only partly seasoned wood.

At least one mass marketer with a business degree from Harvard has come to town with a fancy pamphlet and dreams of selling $150-a-cord firewood to the affluent here the way Ridgewell's caters parties.

In Herndon near Dulles airport, a small factory is churning out thousands of cord, part of the mechanical revolution sweeping a traditional cottage industry of men with pickup trucks and chain saws.

Those pickup trucks are still making their rounds this year, but now you can buy a 1-cubic-foot bundle of firewod at Hechinger's or Drug Fair for just under $3. That comes to $375 a cord, but the wood is bone-dry. f

The New Firewood Age is upon us.

As an energy source, firewood offers that tantalizing do-it-yourself prospect so dear to Americans. Thousands of people swarm to the U.S. and state forests nearest Washington with chain saws to cut wood free or at a nominal cost.

The U.S. Forest service reports "phenomenal" interest in such programs. It has even instituted special woodcutting programs this year for the elderly and handicapped.

"It's free of charge, 'course it's getting kind of hard to locate dead and down [trees] close to a road that's accessible to pickup trucks," said Finis Harris, a timber management assistant at the George Washington National Forest near Front Royal, Va.

Hechinger's and other area stores report strong and continuing demand for the little bundles of firewood, and also for woodstoves, chain saws and even gasoline-powered, hydraulic-operated woodsplitters selling for about $600 and up.

In Charles County, Md., rural residents are forming a firewood cooperative association in which landowners haul downed logs to specific areas where everyone can come to cut, split and haul the wood.

The cost of firewood has risen along with the process of other energy sources. This year, the average price for a cord of hardwood advertised in the classified section of The Washington Post is $97, up 23 percent from $79 last year and up 43 percent from $68 the year before that.

Compared with the costs of other heat sources, $97 a cord doesn't look bad. It would cost about $143 to get the same amount of heat from oil, $112 for coal and $92 for natural gas.

Of course, if the wood is burned in a fireplace it does not heat the house as efficiently as heat sources used in a conventional furnace.

And if you're paying some of the fancier prices in town for your wood, you might do better with other heat sources, though they, of course, don't have the romance of wood.

"I love wood, I'm involved in it," said George S. Hart, who made and lost a fortune in Atlanta real estate before going into the firewood business there three years ago.

This year Hart, an enthusiastic man with a Harvard business degree, is "testing" the Washington area firewood market, selling 1,000 cords in affluent areas of Northwest Washington and Montgomery County at prices of up to $150 a cord.

So far he has found the demand for firewood here "explosive, rampant," and has had difficulty finding supplies of quality wood to market.

"This business is wide open," said Hart. "Nobody has ever really catered to the customer."

Hart's Happy Hearth Firewood Co. stresses service -- that $150 a cord includes having the wood stacked where you want it. In addition, Hart claims his wood is drier than you can get elsewhere and "well stacked" so you get more actual wood fiber per cord than most dealers deliver.

A cord of wood is a legally recognized quantity -- a 4-by-4-by-8 foot stack containing 128 cubic feet of wood fiber and air. Wood is also sold by the "rick," "rack," "bundle" and "load," among other measures, but opinions vary on what these mean.

"I can stack you 50 percent fiber," said Hart. "The average firewood guy gives you 65 percent, we (the Firewood Co.) give you 72 to 78 percent fiber." g

The laws don't usually comment on the ratio between fiber and air in a cord, other than to say something like the wood must be "well stacked."

Moisture is another critical factor. Wood should be seasoned to burn well, and when originally cut it can be up to 70 percent water by weight. A cord of unseasoned hardwood might weigh three tons and the same cord seasoned than two tons.

If wood is wet, a lot of its energy in the fireplace is used up just drying it out.

Properly seasoned hardwood is cut, split, and stacked in the open air but out of the rain for four months or more. Then its moisture content is only 20 to 25 percent.

Hart aims to deliver 40 percent of each cord he sells fully seasoned and the rest semiseasoned (30 to 50 percent water). The idea is to start your fire with dry wood and then use the wetter wood, thus keeping your fire burning longer.

But demand has been so strong and supplies so hart to come by that Hart admits his so-called "dry" wood is running 30 to 38 percent wet as measured by the electronic moisture meter he sticks into the wood.

To keep up quality, Hart has had to truck supplies of dry wood to Washington from his precious stocks in Atlanta.

The costs of carrying big inventories of seasoning wood for months are enormous, and Hart and other firewood specialists say consumers will eventually catch onto the idea of buying their wood in spring and early summer and seasoning it themselves.

"We don't apologize because we're selling 35 percent (wet)," said Hart. "Other people are selling 70 percent (wet). They'll tell you it's seasoned, but it's not. They're just cutting and splitting and selling. That's all anybody has ever done."

Robert H. Angell, owner and operator of the Potomac Garden Center on River Road, started selling cords of firewood several years ago and "quickly discovered we could not get enought. I felt this incredible demand for the product and we weren't even touching it."

Angell began automating the production of firewood until now he has $375,000 invested and runs a small factory in Herndon that churns out about 35 cords a day.

Angell's crews, using expensive "skitters" and other equipment that was originally developed for the logging industry, gathers the wood from areas being cleared by building contractors and lumberjacks.

Then the wood is trucked down to his Herndon factory and fed into the machinery in 10-foot logs. The machinery cuts, splits and in the case of the 1-cubic-foot bundles that Angell sells to Hechinger's and Drug Fair -- packages it.

Angell figures he'll sell about 3,000 cords of wood this year. He is one of Hart's main suppliers, and sells the bulk of his wood in cords through his garden center.

Like Hart, Angell says demand is so strong that he is mostly out of seasoned wood and is switching production over to "semi-seasoned product," meaning wood that has lain on the ground four six months, uncut and unsplit which when he sells it has a moisture content of perhaps 45 percent.

"It's going to take longer to get it started," Angell concedes. "But once you get it hot, it'll burn."

Also like Hart, Angell is an enthusiast. "I found a business with incrediable, insatiable demand, a fragmented supply mechanism operating on methods hundreds of years old. This is one hell of an exciting business."

Several other entrepreneurs are seeking to get into the business in a big way in the Washington area, according to Allan Moon of the Maryland forest service. He said these include two production-oriented men like Angell and one who intends to become a large-scale broker of firewood.

While a reporter interviewed Angell, he took several calls from around the country -- from a representative of the wood pallet industry interested in selling pallets for firewood; from his production equipment manufacturer; and from someone in New England who wanted to buy production equipment.

Andrew B. Shapiro, president of the Wood Energy Research Corp. in Maine, says the production of firewood has increased about 40 percent nationally this year over last.

Shapiro estimates that wood provides about 2 of the 76 quads (a quad is one quadrillion British thermal units) of energy that America uses each year. Twenty percent of all the homes in northern New England, or more than a million homes, depend exclusively on firewood for heat, he said.

Shapiro believes wood will play an increasingly important energy role in America, but he does not think that the 40 percent rate of increase will continue so sharply. "Fuel wood, unlike any other major energy source, is not controlled by a small group of national of multinational corporations," said Shapiro. It is still basically a cottage industry al corporations," said Shapiro. It is still basically a cottage industry -- even with the emergence of larger operations like those of Hart and Angell -- and Shapiro is working hard to see that it stays that way.

"I'm concerned we don't attack it in the traditional American approach of bigger is better," Shapiro said. He is promoting the continuation of "small-scale harvesting" that will preserve and enhance growth in the nation's forests by clearing out the dead and weaker trees and leaving the larger, healthier trees more room to grow.