Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eat Your Heart Out Paul Bunyan!

Well, our Wall of Wood just keeps getting bigger. The porch now stands with four racks of wood all full, leaving our little overflow rack left to hold the kindling. Grandparents take The Spicy Barracuda every other Saturday and ever single Wednesday. These have become wood cutting days in our house. The racks have rapidly become occupied and the neighbors are increasingly thinking us insane. We are now all set for the winter to bring what it may. (Though you would never know it was coming with 104 degree heat waves!)

This last month was our fourth trip and we have now developed quite a system. The effectiveness of the day has hinged on this learning curve and proven to be incredibly useful in allowing us to still enjoy the process of wood cutting. We can go and get the firewood while still maintaining some time at home to stack before having to pick the Barracuda up. The entire trip usually takes us four hours and it is about a 45 minute drive each way. That leaves about 2 and a half hours for us to cut 1/2-3/4 of a chord of wood. By making the process quick, firewood has become a very pleasant "date" for Jules and I.

As Robert Frost so eloquently stated "The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep." This is a bit what firewood cutting is for us. There are so many wonderful things to see in the forest. There are dried river beds to explore, and shelf fungus to discover, and trees so ancient it boggles the mind how majestic they are.

But we have promises to keep and much work to be done, so the wonders of the forest are set aside for a different time. This is not to say that the giant snail we saw crawling along a log a few trips ago wasn't interesting enough to watch for a bit, or that the crazy colored bug which crawled across my splitting wedge wasn't cool enough to take a moment and inspect, but in general we try to work the entire time at quite a quick pace. This makes the time go rather quickly and exercise to be had without a gym membership.

The first time we went out, we were duphuses at this whole process. I would stand and watch Jules cut wood not knowing what else to do. He would try to cut things that pinched the chainsaw or didn't give it enough gas and the motor died repeatedly. I tried to split wood at the same time he was and felt like a complete failure because it took me so much longer than it did for him. It was the heat of the day because we didn't get up early enough. Horseflies were everywhere. Sheesh! We were a mess. What follows is the system which we have figured out and works for us. I think everyone needs to find their own rhythm and style, but sometimes seeing what others do can aide this significantly.

We divide the labor in overlapping chunks so that neither Jules or I is ever idle. The work runs very fluidly and seems to really minimize either of us getting overly tired or overly worked. The only portion not shared by the both of us, is me crawling into the bed of the pickup to finish the stacking. Due to size and the camper top being on, it just works better for me to sit inside the truck bed to stack.

Our National Forest has specific rules for firewood harvesting. For this reason you will not see us felling any trees. Currently, you can only cut fallen wood or trees which the Forest Service has felled in order to do road maintenance.

After finding a spot to do some cutting, we carry up all of our tools and decide on a path to carry out all of the wood. We try to keep our impact on the ecosystem to the most minimal possible and usually carry in the same way we carry out. This is also the reason we use only our hands for this process. Somehow using a wheel barrow or other method for wood removal seems disrespectful for the forest. We wish to work for our wood and give full respect to the amount of time and energy it took the tree to grow.

From left to right we have: the hatchet, my ax (wooden handle), Jules' axe (yellow handle), and the maul.

After everything has been carried in we survey the logs and decide just what we should cut and what we shouldn't. This normally has to do with the accessibility of certain logs, the type of trees (creosote content), and the level of decay. From that point, Jules puts on his very stylish safety goggles and we both insert our ear plugs. First he cuts large sections of the log into chunks to split. I help by supporting various logs, or shifting their position so that he can cut them clean through.
One of these sections is reserved as a chop block for Jules to split the wood. The rest start to be split by me.

After about five to seven sections have been cut by Jules (and my assistance with logs is not longer needed) I start to roll the sections to a relatively flat spot to begin splitting them. When we first began, I used the hatchet to make the initial cut into the chunk I was splitting and then used it again to hammer the splitting wedge into place. As I have gotten stronger with each trip, I can now make the initial incision into the chunk of log with my axe. This cut is make as deeply as possible, as close to the center of the log as possible. I then knock the axe out of the log (because I always get it stuck) and begin hammering in the splitting wedge. The splitting wedge is a fickle instrument. It never likes to stay put. I hold the wedge in one hand and use the back of the ax to hammer it into a place where it will stand by itself. The tricky part comes in the initial hit on the wedge with the maul. You have to smack it dead-center really, really hard. There is no tapping involved. This is whomping. This whomp drives the wedge in to the point it will hopefully not flip out with consecutive hits. Once the maul drives the wedge in completely, the log will split in half and is then stacked for Jules to split it further. By having me begin using the splitting wedge before Jules has finished with the chainsaw I can get a little bit a head on splitting. Jules can cut the halves into pieces much faster than I can split them in half. So I start splitting and making a pile of pieces for him to split up when he finishes with the chainsaw. With the pile waiting for him, I can hopefully half the logs continually without him needing to stop and wait for more to cut up.

When Jules is done with the chainsaw, he takes off his exceptionally fashionable safety goggles and sets the chainsaw aside to cool. This is a very important. I mentioned we were duphuses when we first began this firewood thing. Well, due to not letting the chainsaw cool and then grabbing the manifold Jules gave himself one righteous burn resulting in a heck of a scar. Another interesting safety tidbit is about ear plugs. Earplugs are nice for the noise from the chainsaw, but what I really like them for is the sound of the splitting wedge. The loud "Pink!" of metal on metal is so very a foreign sound that it cuts right through my head. We leave our earplugs in the entire time until the end when we are only carrying the wood out. But I digress.

Once the chainsawing is finished, Jules begins splitting the halves into smaller pieces. He has gotten quite a good at this and splits them rapidly. He says that if you treat the large piece as if it were a wheel and cut your sections like pie wedges, the grain helps with splitting. I have not yet graduated into doing this as my arms weren't as strong as his were and my aim was a bit awkward. I looks to me like if you cut your wood at angles around 35 degrees, they split the best. Whatever the case, the split pieces are then thrown into a large pile for us to carry out of the woods.

When Jules first starts his splitting, I'm still using the splitting wedge and the maul to give him more material. When there are no more chunks for me to split in half and stack, I begin to carry out the large pile Jules as split up. He continues splitting the wood into nice burnable pieces and I start a pile down at the truck.

Carrying firewood out is different for Jules and I. I'm not a sprinter and he definitely is. To me, I'd rather carry a few pieces with minimal strain and carry more trips. Jules prefers to carry larger loads fewer times. Most importantly, wear long sleeves. It seems so funny to now write, but wood is covered in splinters. COMPLETELY COVERED! They are small and invisible, but incredibly annoying to find all over your arms, chest, stomach and everywhere. Long sleeves and an extra shirt to put on for the drive home will do you wonders.

Whatever the case, the wood all gets to a pile outside of the truck and I can shinny my little self (I'm 5'2"; Jules is 6'4") nicely into the back of the pickup to begin stacking all the wood for us to carry out. At this point we have a pretty good idea of how large of a pile is needed to fill up the truck. The first couple of times, we would stack and then realize we needed more wood and have to go back and cut. But eventually it all fits in, we load up the last of our tools (now having let the chainsaw cool before handling) and head back home. Jules' truck is a Toyota Tacoma and with the camper top on it can hold somewhere between 1/2-3/4 of a chord of wood depending on how big we make the pieces. It does us quite nicely, but you can definitely feel it on the way home. We surely won't be stopping too quickly and might possibly need new shocks in a couple of years!

Culturally, this cutting our own heat is a bit of an interesting conversation issue. Jules and I are both forest lovers. The harvesting of trees for timber usage is something I personally have spent time working to prohibit around our parts. Many hours have been put in with a local grassroots environmental organization to stop the decimation of our national forests for timber usage. As much as I have had friends appalled at the idea of us "killing a tree" the other option for our household is Natural Gas. The natural gas company is trying to permanently destroy over 40 miles of old growth forest in our area for the usage of cheaper energy. Our removal of two trees from the National Forest to heat our house for over a year seems so very, very small in comparison. Secondly, by working for this wood, by seeing exactly where our heat comes from, our consumption is dramatically lower than it would be by flipping a switch. Both Jules and I believe in pristine wilderness areas which are not touched by the likes of man. However, we both realize there is enough room for all of us if we control our usage and sustainably plan our forestry.

Secondly, so many people have complained about the amount of work! However, when really asked, none of them have ever cut firewood before. They seem to feel the task is enormously laborious, well unworth the benefit, and completely asinine. To us, it is time together, spent working in pace with the cycles of our life. It gives us a time to talk, to be together, to feel fulfilled in a job done well and completely. We come away with so much more than a truckload of wood.

3 thoughts:

Karen Sue said...

how many days of this does it take for a year's worth of heat? We'd like to buy property out of the mainstream and woods are a must, along with space for garden, maybe an animal or a few and the hubby's much loved grass. I've helped in my younger years, but get wood from my brother now and our fireplaces don't give maximum heat for the effort. As the days go by and the kids start to move on to college, I see this as being more of a possibility.

Granola Girl said...

For our area, it is the general assumption that four chords will get you through the year. This is coming from both the local forest service and our Depression Era neighbors heated their house with wood FOREVER! Our neighbors brother lives in Pole Bridge, Montana really far north and they go through 17-18 chords of wood. So much depends upon the place you live.

This last winter was the coldest we have had on record. Not as much snow, just darn crazy cold (about 3 weeks in solid teens or lower). We lasted just fine with fires every night until about mid March. It is still raining and gross in June and we would have liked another chord. This year we are chopping 5 chords just to be totally sure. The fifth chord isn't necessary, but it makes for a few more nights when a fire "would be nice."

Jules owns a standard Toyota Tacoma truck. Not a giant F150 super duty or anything. Half a chord of wood will fit in the back of his truck. At that point, the truck is really feeling it and we are driving very carefully home! So we will go up for 10 trips to make the years worth of heat (5 chords). Each trip takes us about three hours, now. It used to take about 5 the first two times, but we now have our system down. We try to space out the trips by at least 10 days in between, because

The local National Forest will have permits (25$ here) and specifics about collection. Here you cannot fell trees, only take fallen wood. The season is from March to December, but you can only realistically get wood from June through about September because of snow.

golly! you are feeling it the couple of days after you come home.

Good Luck! It is SO much fun. We look forward to firewood chopping every year. It is so much better than any gym membership :)

Anonymous said...

You have to be careful about how much wood you put on your truck bed. The wood might fit the truck bed, but it is more likely too heavy for the weight rating of the Tacoma.

Especially depending on that wood you have, if it is Oak, the wood may take up the same space as pine but there is more water volume thus making it heavier. You could get into an accident or at the very least end up replacing shocks and brakes which isn't cheap and takes the whole point of saving money by burning wood moot.

If I were you, I would buy a utility trailer off craigslist or even on sale at some box store. I see some on CL for like 300-500. Even small ones that are rated for 1000-1500 pounds (the smallest ones) you will be able to haul double the wood and the gas you save will make up for the price of the trailer.

You should visit, there is a whole forum of wood burners who gives some pretty good idea and advice

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