Harvesting Your Own Firewood

Whether you plan to heat your home with wood or just like to drink hot chocolate in front of the fire on the occasional winter evening, you’ll need to decide where to get your firewood. Many people buy it pre-seasoned and ready to burn, but this can be expensive.

Cutting all or some of your own firewood has several advantages. The most obvious is that it allows you to save money. First of all, you’re getting your fuel for free. You will also be able to deal with fallen or dead trees on your own property without having to call someone to remove them. And you’ll be getting a great workout (possibly saving you money on a gym membership!)

Cutting the wood yourself also means you have control over the environmental impact of harvesting, which is not always the case when you buy your wood.

There are some disadvantages too. Cutting firewood can be dangerous, especially if you are felling trees yourself. You need to have a lot of equipment, which may cost a lot of money initially. And it takes a lot of back-breaking work to harvest your entire year’s supply of firewood.

What You’ll Need

To harvest firewood you need a gasoline powered chainsaw. Electric and cordless chainsaws are really only for small trimming jobs around the home. When you choose your saw, strike a balance between one that is powerful and big enough to be useful, and light enough for you to control easily. The good news is that you can buy good quality saws from many reliable brands at a wide range of prices.

Here’s what else you’ll need:

  • Hatchet
  • Wedges for felling trees
  • Splitting axe or maul
  • Cant hook or peavey
  • ATV or small tractor (if you need to haul the wood far from where it is cut)
  • Log skidders
  • Choker chain
  • Electric or hand winch

Where to Cut

If you have wooded property, obviously that’s where you’ll be cutting most of your firewood. In general, use trees that are of low value for firewood. Dead trees are a potential source of pre-seasoned wood, as long as they are not rotted. The same goes for fallen trees. “Wolf” trees with large crowns that stunt the growth of the surrounding trees are also candidates for firewood.

Even if you don’t have your own wood lot, you can probably get a permit to cut firewood in approved locations. Regulations vary according to where you live, so check with your own local authorities.

Fallen trees are another great source of firewood. After a storm, your neighbours may be happy to have you come and remove a tree from their property, especially if they have no use for the wood themselves.

If you are cutting wood off of your own property, you may be required to sign a waiver releasing the owner from liability in case you injure yourself. Keep this in mind if anyone is cutting wood on your property too – you may be liable in the event of an accident.

When to Cut

There isn’t really a “best” time of year for harvesting firewood. Some people prefer to cut in winter for a few reasons: leafless trees are easier to fell; the cold weather means you will be more comfortable as you work; the frozen forest floor is better protected from damage; and mosquitoes and other pests are dormant. However if the winters are very harsh where you live, it might not be the best time to cut.

Don’t worry too much about cutting when the wood is driest. There is some seasonal variation in the moisture content of wood, but it won’t make a big difference to how long you’ll need to season the firewood before burning it. It’s fine to harvest firewood at whatever time works best for your schedule.

What to Cut

Every type of firewood has its own advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, hardwood burns the hottest and contains less creosote than soft wood, but it also takes longer to season. Oak, for example, burns long, hot and clean, but takes more than a year to season and can be difficult to split. Eucalyptus burns hot, but it is so hot that you may have to mix it with softer woods to burn. Pine is soft and easy to cut, but contains so much creosote that it shouldn’t be burned indoors. However, a pine campfire is pleasantly aromatic and easy to get started.

Thus your choice of wood will depend on what is available where you live, and what you want to use it for. If you’re serious about heating your home with wood, you’ll want a dense hardwood. Softer wood, on the other hand, is easier to cut (and sometimes to split), and it might be fine for campfires and bonfires, or just to enjoy in your fireplace in the winter.

Felling Trees

This is by far the most dangerous part of harvesting firewood. Obviously an article like this one can’t teach you everything you need to know about felling trees safely, but we can give you an idea of where to start.

There are some basic principles you should follow, but first make sure you have all of the safety equipment you need:

  • Safety goggles to protect your eyes from flying chips
  • Ear muffs or plugs to protect your hearing from the noise of the chainsaw motor
  • Steel-toed work boots to prevent a falling or rolling log from crushing your foot.
  • Light-weight work gloves
  • Protective trousers or chaps to prevent cuts from the chainsaw

There are a lot of factors that affect which way a tree will fall when you cut it. These include wind direction, the placement of big limbs and branches, whether the wood is rotted or sound, and the angle or lean of the trunk. In general, a tree will fall towards its heaviest branches, downhill, and downwind.

If you are new to felling trees, start with the easiest ones. Don’t cut a tree unless you are really sure that it will fall where you want it to fall. For example, a fairly straight, healthy tree with its heaviest branches on its downhill side is pretty predictable in the absence of strong wind. Make sure it has room to come down without getting tangled in the branches of other trees, and be sure that you have a clear escape route.

If at all possible, don’t work alone. The best way to learn to fell trees is to help a more experienced friend who can show you the proper techniques.

Basic Technique

Clear the ground, and check for “widow makers.” These are branches that can come loose and drop straight down on you, pointed end first, as you work. They really can be deadly, so try to remove them before you start to fell the tree.

Cut a wedge into the tree trunk on the side where you want the tree to fall. Start with the downward cut, followed by the horizontal cut. Remove this wedge.

Cut into the opposite side of the trunk. If the tree doesn’t start to fall, use felling wedges hammered into the cut with a sledgehammer or maul. Once the tree starts falling, immediately walk quickly out of harm’s way along your escape route.

Debranching

Once a tree is down, you can trim it. Clear away the smallest branches first, and then cut off the branches that are big enough to cut into logs.

Depending on where you’re cutting, you may choose to cut the tree into fireplace-sized logs right where you are, or to transport bigger logs back to where you will be splitting and storing them. In either case, if you are cutting through a log on the ground, cut it about three-quarters of the way through. Roll it over using your cant hook or peavey and cut the rest of the way through. This prevents you from accidentally hitting the ground with your chainsaw, damaging the chain and blade.

Splitting

Once the logs are cut to the final length (usually 16 inches), you need to split them down to pieces with a diameter of 6 to 8 inches. You can do this manually with a splitting axe or maul, or you can use a hydraulic splitter. Which you choose will depend on the size of logs you’re working with, as well as your own fitness level.

If logs are very hard to split, you can let them season for a few weeks before splitting them. But the wood will season much faster once it’s been split, so don’t leave it too long.

Seasoning

Stack the wood outdoors so that it is not touching the ground. You can use lengths of lumber, pallets, or cut saplings to raise the firewood. Make sure there is room for air circulation all around the wood.

Cover the top of the wood to protect it from moisture. A solid roof is ideal, but a tarp will do if you check it periodically for damage.

Some types of wood will season in about six months, while others can take as long as two years. How do you know when your wood is seasoned enough to burn? If you want to get scientific about it, you can buy a wood moisture meter. Once the moisture level is below 20 percent, the wood is seasoned.

You can also use low-tech methods. If you bang two pieces of firewood together, seasoned wood will make a ringing noise rather than a thud. Cracks in the wood can also be a sign that it is dry. And of course the easiest test is to take a piece inside and throw it on the fire. If it catches fire quickly without a lot of smoke, it is well seasoned.

Now that you’ve got your winter’s supply of firewood, it’s time to kick back with that cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from producing your own fuel.

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