Heating with wood is a study in stubborn self-sufficiency. It’s hard work, but as with growing vegetables, it’s rewarding. It’s also a study in efficiency or inefficiency. Looked at as industrial engineering, the goal is to turn a standing tree into heat as efficiently as possible. You shouldn’t take the easy way out and convince yourself that cutting and burning firewood is just a lifestyle choice that’s all frost-covered mornings and flannel shirts. Efficiency should elbow its way into that cozy scene.
In fact, it has to. I weighed this thought recently as I sat on the tailgate of my truck. After a morning’s pleasant but hard work, I had cut and stacked a pickup load of white oak, almost half of it already split by hand. The wood gave off a pungent, earthy smell and the wind moaned through the tall oaks and pines. Was I there for the efficiency of the work or the enjoyment?
My answer was that what enabled me to enjoy it was that I went about it the right way. Everything was in order, from the selected trees to a sharp chainsaw and all the necessary gear that went on the truck first thing in the morning. I even inspected the cutting site with a satellite view on Google Maps. Part of the allure for me is the constant drive to be faster and better.
I’ve learned that firewood comes down to four things: you, your equipment, the wood, and the stove. The more smoothly you arrange the relationship among those, the better.
Gather Your Equipment
There are two and only two things that cut and move wood. You. Your equipment. We’ll take half this story to consider them.
A typical woodcutting day for me means cutting and sometimes splitting in the morning, loading, unloading, and stacking in the late morning or by early afternoon. I try to complete the outdoor work shortly after lunch. And then I turn to saw care. I clean the saw, sharpen it, adjust its chain tension, add bar oil and fresh fuel. When I put it away, it’s ready for the next day’s work. If I need to buy more bar oil or mix some more saw fuel, I do it then—I don’t put it off.
Finally, I put away and take inventory of miscellaneous hand tools and equipment, make repairs, and put everything right back where it started. The saw chaps, coveralls, helmet, the eye, ear, and hand protection, and first-aid kit go in a duffel that is placed next to the saw. The other equipment is grouped neatly together with the saw and duffel. On the next woodcutting morning, all I have to do is load the truck. I don’t make a hasty drive to pick up bar oil or rummage around in my garage.
As far as maintaining myself goes, I turn in early the night before, shooting for eight hours of sleep. I get up early enough the next day to account for a big breakfast, lunch packing, filling a water jug, driving to the woodlot, and about 45 minutes of stretching exercises. Woodcutting is the hardest work I do. I’ve learned that I’m a better saw handler, safer, and more productive if I start with a good stretch.
Know Your Chain
Chainsaw chain travels around the bar at about 70 miles an hour, and professional woodcutters do everything possible to maintain a high cutting speed. To enable that, professionals dial in a variety of factors such as selecting a tooth shape and spacing, bar size and length, and matching it all up to the saw-engine size and rpm. Through trial and error, they analyze a saw’s performance and cost of operation to arrive at an ideal.
If you can’t check off these requirements, don’t start your saw:
- A sharp chain.
- A properly tuned saw that makes the most of the chain’s sharpness.
- A tooth and chain configuration suited to the saw, the wood, and within the skill and experience of the operator.
Most amateur woodcutters are best served with a semi-chisel-tooth shape in a full-compliment or “standard” chain configuration (as many teeth as the saw chain can fit). This is a smooth-running, fast-cutting chain. Most importantly, one of the chain links is a green tie strap indicating that the chain has anti-kickback features.
More experienced amateurs may opt to increase chain speed with a full-chisel-tooth shape and a semi-skip configuration (every other tooth on the chain is missing). The trade-off is a saw chain that’s more difficult to sharpen, exhibits more vibration, and may grab small branches aggressively and fling debris more widely. Its tie strap is yellow, to indicate that it lacks anti-kickback features. In other words, proceed at your own risk.
How to Choose a Chainsaw
Consumer Saws: Consumer saws are intended for yard maintenance and minor storm cleanup, not firewood production. They’re too slow to produce a lot of firewood efficiently and you’ll wear them out if you try. They’re repairable, but generally not rebuildable. COST: $110 to $350. ENGINE SIZES: 30 cc to 50 cc
Farm/Ranch Saws: Larger, more powerful, and far more durable than homeowner saws, farm saws are well-suited for yard care and storm cleanup and can easily handle cutting several cords of wood a year. But most lack the ability to be economically overhauled when the time comes. At a servicing dealer, chances are good the cost of the overhaul will be greater than the saw’s replacement cost. COST: $440 to $600. ENGINE SIZES: 50 cc to 64 cc
Professional Saws: They’re smoother-running than farm/ranch saws and have a higher power-to-weight ratio, thanks to engines built with a more aggressive combustion chamber and air intake and a valve design that permits higher rpm. A more precise crankshaft, tuned specifically to a single engine, also contributes to greater power and more durability. COST: $530 to $1,800. ENGINE SIZES: 43 cc to 121 cc
Split Your Wood Wisely
The greenest greenhorn knows not to burn wet wood. Moisture in the wood cools the fire, obviously, resulting in an incomplete burn and more woodsmoke up the flue. And smoke is more than a pollutant; it’s unburned fuel.
But after that, everything else is up for grabs. The topic of cutting, splitting, and stacking is one that endlessly fascinates wood burners. I’m not fascinated by it. About all I can say is that there are multiple right ways to go about this work. My only goal is to handle the wood as little as possible, and that alone proves endlessly fascinating to me. I show a simple scenario in the sidebar at left. To reduce handling, I typically cut no more than one or two trees in the morning. If possible, I split the logs in the woods. If I’m working with a buddy, sometimes we can get a log splitter right into the woods with us. When I don’t do that, I split by hand. Splitting in the woods makes for a quieter and cleaner yard—and reduces handling. Otherwise, the tree is crosscut into logs, the logs are loaded onto the truck, piled in the yard, and then loaded one at a time onto the splitter.
Then the split wood is stacked. Splitting wood in the woods eliminates piling it and then picking up the pieces again to load them onto the splitter.
Important: Splitting wood into smaller pieces increases its surface area and improves the speed of drying. The result is a thorough and clean burn. Larger logs have a tendency to smolder. Split the wood as soon as possible after cutting it, stack and cover it as soon as possible after splitting it, and bring it into a staging area in the house to drive off surface moisture before burning. Whenever possible, avoid taking the wood from the stack to the stove.
Settle on a Stove
Without dragging this story into politics, I’m pretty much the last guy to agree with the government on anything. On the other hand, the government is right to crack down on woodstove emissions, which it has done steadily for the last 30 years. The next round of tougher emissions standards goes into effect in 2020. That will likely result in somewhat more complex stoves and perhaps increased cost; the good news is that the tougher standards drive product development that improves fuel efficiency.
Woodstoves come in two basic types: with and without a catalyst, which is a honeycomb-like baffle plated with precious metals (left in the image). The catalyst surface reduces the high heat that would otherwise be necessary to ignite woodsmoke. Smoke is sucked through the catalyst and ignites. As it burns, you extract the fuel value in it, turning it from waste into heat. Non-catalytic stoves draw the woodsmoke through a series of baffles [Fig. B] and employ a powerful draft to ignite the woodsmoke. We can’t come down on one side or the other of the catalytic versus non-catalytic discussion. We will say that whether you’re buying a stove for the first time or replacing old faithful, visit more than one hearth-products dealer to get a better sense of what’s available. Most stoves thrive in the thick of winter when you need high heat output—feed them and they burn. But some do better than others at the beginning and end of the season, when you just need a low fire. They can be fussy in those conditions, and the only person who can evaluate the fussiness of the stove is you. Someone who works from a home office may be able to give the stove more attention during the day. They may have a different view of the stove’s operation than somebody who needs a product that can operate with no attention during the spring and fall.
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How To Take Apart a Tree
- Fell the tree.
- Many of the branches are at about perfect height for crosscutting, so turn these into firewood-size pieces working from the tip to the trunk.
- Crosscut the tree into two or three large pieces that are easy to rotate and maneuver, then stick a splitting axe or standard axe into the end of one of these; the axe forms a handle that enables you to rotate the log. Another good tool for rotating logs is the time-tested cant hook, a large pole with a pivoting hook on one end.
- Buck the log into 12-inch pieces that permit easy splitting. Yes, shorter pieces mean more bucking, but they are lighter, easier to handle, and split far more easily than longer pieces. Cut as close to the ground as possible without the risk of getting the saw in the dirt. Once that happens, you’ve got a dull chain.
- Use the axe to rotate the log, permitting you to finish the cuts made from the opposite side.
- Since you’ll only have a neat arrangement of logs like this once, split them now. In many cases, you can flip them upright with your boot and split them before they even know what hit ’em.
- From here, it’s all mopping up. After you hike the split pieces onto the truck, go have some lunch. Optional but recommended: an impossibly cold beer.