Farm Life: Preserving the Harvest, Part 13, Fire Wood

So far, this series of blogs on Preserving the Harvest has focused on food production.  In the forest, we harvest other resources, such as wood.  Timber harvests can be as complicated as selecting lumber and veneer grade hardwoods, as selective as young white oaks for baskets or ash for tool handles, or as general as firewood.  If you need to haul the wood only a few hundred feet from the edge of the forest to the woodshed, wood heat is a pretty economical means of keeping toasty in winter.  Winter is the best time to cut, block, and split wood.  A sunny, still day at 25F in January and a pile of wood will also keep you warm.  The same in July at 95F, you best do your work at 6 a.m. 

Some considerations to make before deciding that a wood stove will be your renewable, biofuel heat source: preparing cord wood takes a lot of physical effort and you can get badly injured or killed if you do not know what you are doing.  After you have checked your insurance policy and counted how many fingers you have, collect your tools for taking down some trees.  I will address wood selection later.  Most of the wood which we have cut and split over the past 19 years has been from areas that we planned to clear for our driveway, cabin lot, gardens and goat fields, or dead wood near the road.  Tree trunks and major limbs get blocked for splitting.  Smaller branches get cut for the firepit and back up wood in harsh winters.

Selecting chainsaws (yes, have several) is you next consideration.  Short bar (e.g. 14″ to 16″) are good for “limbing” the branches off once the tree is down.  Longer bars (e.g. 18″ to 20″) cut through the trunks.  You can get longer bars, but those saws are heavier than I want to hold up, and would cut through a thicker tree than I want to try working on.  Three safety aspects of chainsaws: know your limits, alway concentrate on the cut your are doing, and keep your chain sharp.  People have their preferences for chainsaw brands, mine being Hasqvarna.  When you go to purchase one, go to a speciality shop and prepare to pay $400 to $600.  As my small engine mechanic says, “You can go to (big box store) and get a $99 chainsaw, and you’ll get $99 worth of cuttin’ out of it.”

When approaching a tree consider where you want it to fall and where gravity will bring it down.  If these are not the same place, think again.  Gravity usually wins.  Sometimes a breeze will change your fall direction by a few degrees.  On a windy day, find some other chore to do.  Look at the tree from several vantage points.  From a distance, notice which direction of the crown has grown most, usually toward the sun, whether this is the southern exposure, or where other trees have let more light in.  Up close, look up the trunk and determine which way it leans.  Trees are rarely straight.  Use your high school geometry to calculate the fall direction, then figure out which way you will escape when it begins to fall.  Keep in mind that a 40 to 80 foot tree will cover 40′ to 80′ of ground, plus the diameter of the crown once it is down.  Too close to the house?… call  a professional.  Too close to your truck?… move your truck.  Too close to your spouse, pets, livestock?… put them in another field.  Other trees in the way of the fall?… cut them first to clear a path.  A cut tree hung up on other trees is very risky business.  I have left some of the to wait for a good 60 mph wind storm to complete my folly.

Before starting your chainsaw, get all your safety equipment: safety glasses, ear protection, hat, chainsaw chaps (designed to tangle up the chainsaw teeth rather than cut into your leg), gloves, and common sense.  I make at least four cuts to take down a tree.  First, toward the fall direction, I cut out a wedge, with a downward angle, about half way through the trunk.  This may actually take several slices to accomplish on larger trees.  Second and third, I make side cuts the depth of the bar slightly angled downward toward the fall direction.  These reduce the risk of making a hinge of wood.  Finally, I make a downward cut from the far side of the tree.  Before I do this, I recalculate the fall direction, check for wind, and identify where spouse, pets, and livestock are wandering about.

At this point, your hearing and vision become critical.  I watch for the first movement of the cut I am making widening, hopefully toward my initial wedge cut.  I also listen for that “creak” which will be followed by a “crack”.  When these start, it is time to head toward the exit path… quickly.  If all has gone well, gravity is your friend and all you need to do is get away from the falling tree.  Do not cross behind the direction of fall, as some trees will kick back.  You do not want something the size of a telephone pole acting like a pool cue with you as the 8 ball.

Notice the 6 to 8' jump from stump to trunk

Assuming that the tree fell approximately where you wanted it to, and is all the way on the ground, it is now easy work to being limbing the branches.  The main risk here is spring boards.  These could be branches that are under pressure because they are trapped on the ground or against another tree.  Or, spring boards can be smaller trees that are caught under the fallen tree.  These are under great pressure.  When you cut them that energy is released, and can give you a good wack… enough to break a rib or arm or give your a head injury, depending on where you get hit, not to mention where your chainsaw goes.

One starts the split, second wedges, third gets the first two unstuck

I like to start with cutting out the crown branches that are free in the air and I can determine that they will fall to the ground.  I start at the end and work my way in a series of small cut toward the larger branches or trunk.  This is when you call you spouse to begin dragging these off to brush piles outside of the area that you are clearing.  These become critter condos for various forest animals who like nesting in piles of sticks.  Once the branches are off, I start blocking the larger branches and trunk.  Twenty inch lengths will go to our downstairs wood stove and 16″ to the upstairs stove.

You now have something that looks like one of the fractured tree trunks in the Petrified Forest.  Wood splitters fit into to camps: hand choppers and mechanical splitters.  Paul Bunyon minded sorts look down on the noisy

The Vicar Helps Out

gas users.  They, rightly, claim that you can chop wood faster by hand and have to handle it fewer times.  Log splitters require picking up the wood several times to haul it to the log splitter, putting it into the log splitter, tossing it off the log splitter and moving it from the pile to the woodshed.  I use both methods.  My joints allow for only about 30 – 45 minutes of axe work per day, so I reserve this method to trees that are not near the log splitter.  On the other hand, I can get visitors to use the log splitter for me.  Delegation of labor is easier on my joints and gives them the mountain-man experience.

Sean learns to run the log splitter

Once I have gotten someone else to do my splitting, I have to just haul it to our wood shed for drying and storage.  Then on a cold winter day, we can feed the wood into our stoves and enjoy a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate while warming up from other farm chores.  Some people swear by wood heat as the best feeling heat source.  No drafty central air systems blowing dust and mold spores around the house.  Others swear at wood stoves at making one part of the house too hot while the other rooms are too cold, not to mention the bark bits that fall off the logs when bring them in for the stove and ash dust when empty the ash pan.  If you have read to the end of this blog, you probably guess that we fit into the first group.

Morning Coals


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Farm Life: Preserving the Harvest, Part 13, Fire Wood

  1. The Vicar says:

    You are a regular “Tom Sawyer”. It sounds like you are making a pitch that “January vacations in WV are equally as wonderful as summer vacations”. It’s been nice to watch the evolution (can I use that word?) of the mountain over the years as you have strategically harvested and stewarded your resources. I admire the amount of preparedness that goes into living your “simple life”. It’s tough to enjoy hot cocoa by the fire if you haven’t cut and dried fire wood in advance.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Hey, this is Four Seasons Resort! I heard that your wife called this evening to book summer vacations… you and she one week and the youngens a different week. We’ll work this out with our booking agent. Does this come out of the college funds? 😉

  2. The Vicar says:

    Sweet! Save some wood for me to split. Preferably not the gum tree that I had to split last year.
    “Younguns a different week”, sounds like like a Camp Larson reunion in the making. You are brave!

  3. Barneysday says:

    Still learning how to “bank” a fire. All efforts have failed so far. When I was a child, we had a central furnace that burned wood, and dad would have to get up early each day to start the fire. Finally switched to coal.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      I’m guessing that banking a fire has to do with setting it up to burn a long time. I have found that ashes are the secret. Do not clean too many of they out as they insulate the coals and keep them from burning out too fast. I usually leave about 1 to 2 inches of ashes on the bottom of the stove. Once the wood burns down, the coals settle into these. We can come home from work and have toasty coals nestled under the ashes. Push these coals into a row and add a quick burning type wood (discussed in the next blog on this topic) on top of them. The next ingredient for a fire is oxygen, so make sure that the wood/coal area has some space for air to flow around them. Also, wood burns better in the space between two or three logs, not on the outside surfaces.

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