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If you’re fortunate enough to own or have access to forestland, you have free fuel all around you. Proper firewood harvesting can actually improve the quality of the forest, both for wildlife and the trees. Removing trees—either because of the form, the species or the crowding of more desirable trees—is part of a practice known as forest stand improvement. Where I live in the Missouri Ozarks, the best and most valuable trees were harvested several times, each time leaving the poorest trees to regenerate. To reverse this trend, we cut the poorest trees, leaving the best ones to regenerate. Some of the logs go on our Norwood portable sawmill, but most are converted to firewood.
Here are some tips for helping you cut and store your own firewood, too.
Tools for Chopping Firewood
To safely and effectively get firewood from the forest into your chimney or woodstove, you need the right equipment.
Find a chain saw that suits you in terms of weight and power. One in the 50cc size range is fine for firewood—remember, bigger is not always better! You’ll be lugging the saw through the woods, so get the lightest one that will do the job. A 14- to 16-inch bar is ideal for firewood—a longer one is more likely to hit dirt or a rock and kick back and has more teeth to sharpen.
To go with your chain saw, gather all the necessary safety gear: a logger’s helmet, steel-toe boots and chaps. In 2008, the average emergency room visit from chain saw cuts took 112 stitches and cost around $12,000. Enough said.
In addition, bring along chain saw tools for tensioning and sharpening the chain, a couple of plastic felling wedges (I use 8-inch wedges), a short-handled axe, a first aid kit, food and water, gas and oil, a tape measure, and insect repellent. There’s also a tool called the timber jack, which lifts a log off the ground and makes it much easier to cut to firewood lengths. I highly recommend it. In many cases, a battery-powered winch can help safely pull a tree in the desired direction, and is great for pulling wood out of tight placers to the trail or landing.
Safety is of the utmost importance when you go out to the forest to cut firewood. Here are some of the basic rules you need to know:
- Take a chain-saw training class called The Game of Logging. If it isn’t available in your area, spend some time with an experienced logger until you feel confident with the saw.
- Always look up for hazards: Dead branches, vines or nearby dead trees are called widow makers with good reason.
- Notch the tree if it’s big enough.
- Always have a clear path to move away from the tree as soon as it begins to fall.
- If you need to cut the tree flush with the ground, cut it about 16 inches high—or the length of your firewood is—then cut the stump off at ground level.
- Don’t assume small trees are safer to cut than big ones. They tend to move more quickly and can cause serious injury.
- When in doubt, walk away. No tree is worth getting hurt.
- Bring an extra bar and chain. If the saw gets hung up, remove it from the bar and put on the spare.
- Learn how to tension and sharpen your chain.
- Unless you have had special training, don’t cut with the tip of the bar—that’s what causes kickback.
- Stay at least two tree lengths apart from others working in the woods.
- If you are working alone, have a reliable communication device available. If you are out of cellphone range, have a two-way radio, and be sure someone knows where you’re working and when to expect you to return.
Getting the Wood Out of the Woods
Your goal is to get the firewood out of the woods efficiently, without damaging the remaining trees. Even a small scrape on a live tree from the tractor or a log gives rot a chance to set in. The best practice is to cut an opening to use as a landing or staging area. This creates a place to work safely, and gives you room to turn your tractor or ATV around.
A chain-saw-powered winch is my go-to tool for pulling logs to the trail or landing, as it causes minimal disturbance to the soil and remaining trees. I then use a trailer to get the logs out. It takes much less power than skidding and causes very light impact on the soil. A trailer with a wood bed allows you to cut wood to firewood length on the trailer without risking damaging the blade. The firewood can go straight off the trailer onto a log splitter, then into a second trailer without ever having to lift a piece of wood off the ground.
Storing Your Firewood
In order to get the most energy out of your firewood, it should be seasoned (meaning the sap is allowed to dry up) for at least six months—a year is even better. Dry wood is easier to light, burns better and gives off more heat.
Although the round “holzhaufen” stacks that originated in northern Europe look nice, I like nice square rows of firewood. The air circulation through the wood is better, and it’s easy to gauge exactly how much wood you’ve used and how much you have left. If you cross the logs at the end, you can create a good, solid end for the pile, though some people use steel fence posts to hold the ends. Either way, make the pile sturdy enough to not fall on people or pets. It helps to use a string or even a garden hose to make a straight line for the pile.
Avoid the temptation to save steps by stacking the firewood next to the house. All sorts of wood-loving bugs could find their way inside, which you obviously don’t want.
As far as I’m concerned, covering the pile is optional. Any rain that falls on the wood dries off pretty quickly. We just put a 10-inch piece of metal roofing over the pile and weight it down with more wood so that we’ll have dry wood if it rains or snows.
Cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking your own wood gives you an opportunity to clean up your woodlot, get some good exercise and heat your home. I guess you could say we have central heat because the wood stove is in the middle of the house, and zone heating because the closer you sit to the stove the warmer it is. Just stay safe and use common sense. And when it is time to pile up the firewood, invite some friends over to help? Tell ’em they’re invited to “Woodstack.” Anyone over 60 will come.