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:
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
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.
(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.
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 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
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
- Wear safety glasses to protect against sawdust and flying
- Wear hearing protection, especially if using a
- 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
- 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!
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
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.
Branches 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.
Oops... your chainsaw got stuck in a log!
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
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
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.
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.
For more information about the safety or equipment of cutting firewood, visit
these helpful websites: http://www.stihl.com
Chris Kick is a creative writing major at Ashland University and
enjoys outdoor activities, high school sports, writing, and (of course)
Return to Firewood and Wood Burning Articles