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Return to Firewood and Wood Burning Articles

Cutting Your Own Firewood

By Chris Kick

With the rising cost of oil and natural gas, many homeowners are returning to a more economical source of fuel - firewood. After all, wood is a fairly abundant resource and can be as close to home as that tree in your backyard. Manufacturers of wood burning furnaces and fireplaces have also made firewood more attractable by developing more heat-efficient systems. But before you set out to cut that backyard tree or any other, there are some important steps to follow.

The Tools of the Trade

The single most useful tool used to cut firewood is the chainsaw. There are a few options to consider before making a purchase:

Firewood cutting toolsElectric vs. Gas: Most chainsaws are either electrically powered or operate on a 2-cycle gas engine. Electric saws are lightweight and work well for cutting smaller tree limbs and logs, but your movement is limited by an electric cord.  For the serious firewood cutter, a gas saw is the best choice for both power and portability.

Saw Size: The size of a chainsaw is typically measured by the length of its cutting bar, which is proportional to the power of its motor.  This length varies from the small 12” lightweight pruning saws to heavy 50" professional-grade logging saws. For most homeowners, though, a bar length of 16" will be sufficient, giving good power with minimal weight.

Saw Brand: There are many brands of chainsaws and among the pros there is a strong debate over which is best. By price, the saws that are typically most expensive are Stihl and Husqvarna. Less expensive brands include Poulan, Homelite, Echo, and McCulloch. The main consideration should be the amount of wood you plan to cut and the number of years you want the saw to last.  Price and value are closely related in the chainsaw market.

Cutting firewood also requires the use of several additional tools used to split the wood into usable pieces. These include the iron wedge, the plastic wedge, the sledge hammer, and the splitting maul.

Iron splitting wedgePlastic wedgeIron wedges (left) are driven with a sledge hammer into cut logs to further divide or "split" them into smaller pieces. Plastic wedges (right) are shaped like iron wedges but are not used to split logs.  Instead, they are inserted into a partially-cut log above the chainsaw blade to prevent the log from closing and "pinching" the chainsaw.  Unlike an iron wedge, they do no damage to the chain if accidentally hit.  Plastic wedges are particularly useful when cutting medium to large logs on the ground.

Splitting maul with fiberglass handleThe sledge hammer is used to pound the wedge into the wood. The splitting maul (left) is the tool that is most often used to split pieces of wood. It is basically a wedge fastened to the end of a handle and looks similar to an axe, only it is much heavier and a more efficient tool for splitting wood.  The flattened back end of a splitting maul can also be used as a sledge hammer to drive wedges.

Some homeowners may have access to an automatic wood-splitter, in which a hydraulic cylinder splits the wood. These devices reduce the need for manual splitting, but may not always be economical to purchase and maintain. However, if you find yourself with a large quantity of wood to split, consider renting one from your local rental or home store.

Finding a Place to Cut

The author splitting woodThe backyard is as far as some homeowners will need to go to find their source of firewood!  Trees and large branches that have fallen in storms make particularly good firewood, because they are already on the ground. If you do not have an ample supply of trees on your property, check with neighbors or someone in the suburbs or country. Chances are that you will not have to look far.

Most people will be pleased to have their fallen or dead trees cut, but you should discuss your expectations thoroughly with the landowner. You need to know exactly which trees you are permitted to cut, how and when you can access them, and what to do with leftover twigs and debris. Some landowners may require a small payment for the wood you cut, and some may require a signature stating that you will not sue them should you get hurt on their property.

Unless you are experienced at cutting down standing trees (felling), it is best to have someone else do the cutting, or to only cut what has already fallen. Cutting a tree down is a skill of its own and can easily cause property damage, bodily injury, or fatality.

Chainsaw Cutting Safety

Before you fire up your saw and begin to cut, it is important to consider a few safety precautions that can save your limbs or your life. Modern chainsaws are equipped with many safety features, but they are still dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced cutter. The following list provides some basic safety guidelines:

  • Wear safety glasses to protect against sawdust and flying debris
  • Wear hearing protection, especially if using a loud saw
  • Make sure clothing (overalls, hats, gloves, boots) do not obstruct your ability to operate the saw.
  • Cut with a partner if possible and keep a cell phone nearby in case of accident
  • Identify any tree limbs that might be under tension. These limbs will act as a spring or catapult when the tension is released by cutting
  • Keep hands and other body parts away from a running chainsaw.
  • Wear hearing protection if the saw is particularly loud
  • Read and follow the safety guidelines in your operator's manual!

Getting Started

When a good cutting place is found and all safety guidelines are understood, it is time to cut. Cutting firewood is a combination of an art with physics, as there are many styles and techniques, but there are certain principles that apply to anyone.

Stance: You need to stand in a way that provides upper-body support and prevents fatigue. Your feet should be spread slightly further than shoulder-length, which will help your upper body support the saw. Be careful of loose footing, such as cut pieces of wood, branches, and animal holes.

Cutting wood with chainsaw         Undercutting wood with chainsaw 

Technique: There are generally two directions to cut, upwards and downwards. Most wood is cut best by placing the saw above the wood and cutting down through it (above left). Gravity will usually pull the cut piece away from the log and you can continue cutting in this fashion. But in some cases when the log or branch is under tension, cutting from the top down will cause the wood to pinch causing the saw to become stuck within the cut. In this case, it is best to cut upwards (above right) by placing the saw beneath the wood and cutting up through it.  Using the plastic wedge can help keep larger logs from pinching the saw chain.

Cut branches off tree firstBranches First: With most fallen trees, it is best to begin cutting at the branch end first. Start by cutting off all branches that are too small for firewood. Place the saw at the base of these branches and cut them off smooth at the part of the limb or log where they are attached.

Balance: Look for branches that may be holding the trunk above the ground. These branches act as props and can be helpful in keeping the trunk elevated for easy cutting. You should observe the complete structure of the tree and plan your cutting in a logical order, removing most props last.

Trunks: As you progress from the top of the tree towards the trunk, the diameter of the wood will gradually thicken. You will still be cutting upwards or downwards, only it will be necessary to work the saw at different angles. Cut the wood at two 45 degree angles, or in the form of an A-framed house. When both sides of the logs are evenly cut, you should finish the piece by cutting directly downward or upward.

Dirt & Debris: Nothing will cause your saw to dull quicker than cutting into the dirt. This is why you should allow branches and other natural props to keep the wood lifted above the ground.

Half-Cut Technique: If a trunk is too heavy to lift from the ground, try cutting it into smaller sections of about six feet in length.  Pre-cut each section to the size of firewood you want, leaving about two inches of each cut unfinished. Then roll the section over, exposing the uncut side. Carefully place the saw into each cut and finish the pieces of firewood. This will make cutting trunks easy and will keep your saw chain from hitting the dirt.

   Cut tree on ground half way through - then roll log    Finish cutting log to undercut area

Oops... your chainsaw got stuck in a log!

Chainsaw pinched in a fallen treeA pinch will happen to even the best of operators, but with a few tools and some patience, the saw can easily be removed. If a saw becomes pinched, turn it off immediately. If the pinch is in a small limb, try to pry the limb away from the pinch with your hand and gently work the saw up and down until it comes free. If the saw does not come free, disassemble the saw bar from the engine assembly and try again. With the bar removed, the chain will usually pull free much easier.

If you have a second chainsaw handy, you can also release the stuck saw by cutting through the part of the tree that is causing the pinch. The operator must be aware of any tension and be careful that the second saw doesn't get stuck as well!

Maintaining Your Tools

Proper maintenance is essential to keeping your equipment safe and productive.

Fuel: Chainsaw motors are two-cycle and, unlike your car, need a mix of gasoline and oil to function properly.  It is important that you use only the type and mixture of fuel recommended. Other mixtures can and will cause expensive damage.

Bar Oil: Chainsaws must also have a continuous supply of bar oil, a biodegradable oil which lubricates the chain and its components. If the saw runs dry of oil, damage to the bar, clutch or other parts is very likely.

Chains:  The chain will occasionally need tightened or sharpened. Sharpening can be done with a hand held file, or you can take your chain to a dealer or local hardware to have it professionally sharpened. Most places will sharpen a chain for under $5.  You also can purchase special files to sharpen your own chains in a pinch.  Because there is always the chance of chain breakage or dulling (usually at the worst possible time), always have an extra sharp chain or two available so your work isn't interrupted.

Guards: Make sure all guards and shields on your chains remain intact and are securely fastened. These features are meant to protect and can only do so if they are in place.

Storing Wood

Cutting the wood is only part of the battle... proper storage is next. Most split firewood will need to dry for at least nine months or longer before it can properly burn and some of the larger pieces will need to be split.

Firewood in metal firewood rackSplit it: The only way that larger pieces of wood will properly dry is if they are split, so that there is more surface to air exposure. Splitting is also necessary if the wood is too large for the fireplace, stove or furnace or too heavy to carry.

Leave it: If you own the land the wood is cut on, or have permission from the owner, you may leave the wood to dry where it was cut. Of course, you are at the mercy of thieves, inclement weather, and deterioration (mold, mice, snakes, worms) that tends to occur wherever there is ground contact.

Stacked firewoodStack it: Some homeowners stack their wood between trees or alongside a building. This usually limits the rot to the bottom layer, and allows for a tarp to be easily strung across the top.

Rack it: Putting your cut firewood into a raised rack (commercial or home-made) keeps the bottom layer off the ground, minimizing loss due to rot.

House it: If you have garage space or a shed of some kind, you may want to stack the wood indoors. This is the best way to prevent rot and maintain a nice bright color to the wood.

The Benefits

Learning to cut your own firewood will save you hundreds of dollars in annual heating costs. Cutting wood is also a great form of exercise and can be an enjoyable time as you interact with nature. While it takes hard work, there is a deep sense of satisfaction when you finally see the logs glowing on the andirons of your fireplace and feel their warmth throughout your house.

For more information about the safety or equipment of cutting firewood, visit these helpful websites: http://www.stihl.com http://www.husqvarna.com.

Chris Kick is a creative writing major at Ashland University and enjoys outdoor activities, high school sports, writing, and (of course) cutting firewood.

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