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:
Electric 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 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.
The sledge hammer is used to pound the wedge into the wood. Fiskars sledge hammers are designed to help with projects where more force is needed than with a normal hammer. 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 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:
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.
Oops... your chainsaw got stuck in a log!
A 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.
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.
Split 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.
Stack 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.
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.