Will Cut Firewood For Heat


Will Blocking Log

Since we heat with wood that means cutting wood. Our son Will is learning about using the chainsaw. In the photo above he’s blocking up logs. The thinner tops of the trees and the branches generally are burnt whole without splitting. For faster fires we use smaller pieces. For longer burning over night I’ll put in as large a log as possible on a bed of coals. Those logs Will is cutting above are thick enough that they’ll need splitting for our small wood stove.


The Test

Will’s been splitting wood and tending the home fires for about five years. He has been awaiting the day when he could use the big chainsaw. My rule is he had to wait until he could easily hold the saw out at arms length. At 34 lbs that’s harder than it might look. The reason for this is not that he’s going to ever do that move while sawing, I hope, but rather it is important to have developed enough strength to easily work with the machine. Even then, an hour of sawing leaves newly discovered muscles aching.

Of course, proper work habits and technique mean that normally he supports an elbow on a knee or such much of the time. That keeps the fatigue at bay, saves the back and prevents accidents. One lesson I teach is when you get tired, you stop. That is important with all sorts of tasks so as to avoid injuries especially when dealing with powerful tools, sharp blades or both at once.

Blocking up the wood from logs into firewood is an excellent starting project with the saw. Flat level ground, logs that are set in place. In this case on a driveway that’s covered in about 8″ of hard pack snow so even the chain blade is protected from hitting stones. After will got good with basic blocking I started giving him challenges. Under cuts. Cut, roll and cut. Tension release. Hanging a log on the snow bank. Predicting which way a log will roll on a slope and not being there. It’s real life problems but in a nice controlled situation rather than out in the woods which has even more complications.

You’ll note that Will is wearing protective garb. Helmet, ear protection, face/eye protection, gloves, chaps, boots. The chaps are a bit awkward. I’ve told Will the story of our ex-neighbor who cut off his leg… most of the way. A dream that died and he returned to New York. Things not to do. A little discomfort is minor. This garb is one reason winter cutting of wood is nice – its much easier to keep cool.


Chainsaw Shavings

A chainsaw has many teeth. Sharp teeth cut long shavings. Dull teeth make fine sawdust. This is one way to know if you need to sharpen you saw. Another thing is that a sharp saw will cut more easily, almost falling through the wood while a dull saw deviates easily from the intended path, smokes and works harder. A sharp saw is a safer saw. Keep sharp.


Firwood Drying on Grate

Ideally we would have cut our wood back in the summer or fall but other projects interfered. Doing it in the winter is actually a fairly pleasant task as it is hard work that warms you well. The only problem is the logs are covered in ice. So their first stop in the house is on the entry grate where the ice will melt off and drip down the floor drain.

This wood is all from logs that have been drying for a year in the pile up above the cottage so the wood is actually quite dry and seasoned – the wetness is just on the surface. Once the ice is gone we move the wood under the wood stove where it finishes drying. We’ll often leave pieces of wood on a drying shelf above the stove. That makes for ultra dry wood that catch in the morning from the last night’s embers buried in the ash. Easy wood heat.

How much wood does it take to heat our tiny cottage?
So far we have used 0.13 cords of wood (full cord, not face cord). A cord is 8’x4’x4′ of tightly stacked wood. That’s 128 cubic-feet of wood.

We are now about half way through the winter. Will and I just cut about another 0.20 cords which is stacked and ready to use. That will probably last the rest of February unless it gets a lot colder – unlikely. There’s about five to six(?) more cord in the log pile.

We didn’t burn any wood in December as I didn’t get the wood stove installed until the beginning of January so most of that 0.13 cord is for January. That suggests we would normally use about 0.78 cord of wood a year to heat the cottage for the six months from November through April. That’s excellent.

Since the insulation and windows of the tiny cottage are not yet done and that is based on this year’s January wood usage which is the coldest month of the year we will probably use less in the future. Perhaps half a cord of wood a year is required to heat the tiny cottage. That number would be further diminished since we currently have no electric appliances adding heat to the cottage right now – With computers, aquariums and cooking all generate quite a bit of heat.

Compare that with the two to three cord we have historically burnt in the old farm house over the same period each year. Oh, and one more detail, with that small amount of wood the tiny cottage is staying warmer, less drafty and more comfortable than the old farm house ever was.

So why do we heat with wood? Why not go with the ease of propane, diesel, coal or electric? In a word, availability. Wood is sustainable and forever renewing. We have wood. Lots of wood. Lots and lots and lots and lots of wood. The waste tree tops, the culls, the fells, just from around our homestead area are enough to heat our old farm house forever. The cottage for longer. It’s wood that is not good enough to even sell for firewood because people want to buy neat straight logs that are easy to cut but it is still excellent wood.

The danger with wood is of course chainsaw accidents, logs rolling and fires – particularly chimney fires. But those are all things I understand and can control. I can fix, service and sharpen the saw myself. Worse case I would end up using a hand saw or axe – takes longer but it works. Logs are physics. As to chimney fires, they are easy to prevent by what we burn (dry non-creosote wood), how we burn it (daily fast fires) and regular cleaning of the chimney which is easy to do oneself. Other fires are prevented by proper design and use of the wood stove area. All very manageable risks.

Wood also has the advantage, unlike propane and LPG, that it doesn’t explode destroying the house and killing the family. There are all too many instances of that happening. In the old farm house there was propane for the kitchen stove, hot water and lights when we first got here 18 years ago. It stank. it was always leaking. The propane company redid the supply pipes repeatedly but could never stop the stench or the leaks. It was giving me headaches from the fumes. Headaches on top of those I got from reading in the newspaper about homes that had exploded from similar leaks. I finally had them remove the tanks. Enough of that nonsense.

So what about home heating fuel. Yes, it leaks into the ground but at le
ast it doesn’t tend to explode like propane. Still, I like wood better. Unlike diesel wood not imported from foreign markets. The price of wood is not shooting through the roof, or at least not for us since we have our own renewable supply.

Coal? My parents had a house that was heated with coal at one point. Pretty stuff. Crush it real hard and you get diamonds. Messy though. Besides, we don’t have that around here. We can buy it but it gets shipped in from a long ways away. I don’t like the distance thing.

Electric? That is we officially heat with, even it it never gets used and there is the little detail that we average about one to two weeks worth of electrical outage per year, most of it in the winter when it would be needed most. It’s a backup but I wouldn’t bet my winters on it.

The tiny cottage, unlike the old farm house, is primarily heated with passive solar which gets soaked up through those gorgeous huge windows by all that thermal mass in the stone and mortar. But that isn’t something that is currently accepted as a primary source of heat. Yet, that is a big reason it takes so little to heat the tiny cottage.

I joke that we could heat the cottage with the sun and the heat output of five dogs. They burn about 3,000 to 6,000 calories a day each. Of course, five big dogs in one tiny cottage might be a bit crowded…

Outdoors: 27°F/-20°F Mostly Sunny, 2″ Snow
Farm House: 54°F/45°F Moved sows to main, atrium & NF gardens
Tiny Cottage: 65°F/50°F

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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20 Responses to Will Cut Firewood For Heat

  1. pv says:

    Walt, I can think of one more reason you burn so little wood. You keep your house cool. Much too cool for me!

  2. Leslie says:

    Great post. We, too, like cutting wood in the winter time when it’s nice and cold outside, because it’s such hot work.

    I wear thick pants (but not chaps, should get some), and ear protection. The face protection and helmet are a good idea, too. I may look like a dork, but chainsaws are just one of those things where it’s not worth ANY risks – the price is simply too great.

    The bit about working on the flat driveway in a controlled environment is important. It’s SO much easier working on a flat area than in muddy hilly woods. We try to down a dead, barkless, branchless, bugless tree and drag it to a relatively flat area for cutting and putting into the truck bed. MUCH easier than cutting in the woods and hauling to the truck!

  3. Excellent post, Walter. We, too, heat with wood, though our heating situation is much easier than yours, being down here in the south. We lay down selected trees and generally use them the next year. We have mostly oak.

    Judy at Tabletop Homestead

  4. Brian says:

    This reminds me of when I was young. About this time of year I would tag alongwithdad upto the old sugarbush where he would fell and block up the next winters wood.It would stay up there and dry till early in the fall then we’d get it out and split it and stack it in the shed. I recently went back to using wood to heat but instead of cordwood I went to pellets. I’m just too old and fat to carry on the tradition of cutting wood I’ll just pour it from a bag

  5. karl says:

    i also learned to cut wood at an early age. very satisfying work. a bond develops between you and the earth when you harvest your heat in this manner. it is akin to the level of truly understanding where your food comes from when you raise and butcher and animal yourself. an inherent respect for the earth is taught almost trough osmosis–albeit it’s the struggle.

    you’ll have to nurture another source for ash to melt your fields if you will have one third less to spread.

    you might be interested to know that i discovered and excellent chain sharpener. on a whim, an excess of cash easily spent from a return, i bought one of those dremmel tool sharpeners. it sat on my work bench for the better part of a year–i entertained returning it. finally, i was cutting down a tree that had a ceramic electric fence insulator grown into it. it mangled my chain almost beyond hope. not having a sharp spare chain, i decided to try the dremmel sharpener. it is fabulous–i don’t say this lightly. i’m not usually so easily swayed. with a little skill and experience with files, it sharpens like a shop grinder. the best part is you don’t have to remove chain from the saw. it takes less time than using a file and provides excellent results. the only thing that will make this better it a rechargeable dremmel tool, which i plan to purchase before next winters cutting season.

  6. Karl, interesting to know about the Dremmel. We have one. What bit are you using? I currently use a pair of files (round & flat) which is pretty quick. I also always carry a spare sharp chain and have four more hanging on a hook ready to come into play. Just swapping chains can sometimes be the solution when out working.

  7. Urban Agrarian says:

    I like the rule about being able to hold it on an outstretched arm. My mother, normally a cautious person(in her 70s) sees no reason to give up her chain saw. This may be a way to make sure older folks have the strength to handle the thing also.

  8. *grin* Or maybe she’ll keep doing it into her late 80’s like a friend of ours. Keeping physically active may be what will keep her alive and enjoying life! Lloyd, the above mentioned octogenarian, probably could hold it out at arms length when he was almost 90. I hope to be as capable as he.

    Lloyd died this past fall at age 96 after having spent the last five years caring for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. That last five years of caring for his partner took more out of him than a life time of hard work. We visited him one day before he died. I’m glad we made the trip. He was the gentleman we bought our farm from.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hi Walter, blog is just great!! am at office at 7.30pm east African tym and instead of doing my boss’ work am busy blogging. This is sooo inspiring. I surely must ask, wear do you get all this information? You put so much zeal in your work i cant help but be challenged by how i percieve commitment to my goals and dreams.

    Walter, i happened to visit yo blog under blog ‘on the tractor at the north wall’ on 15th feb with need for some guidance from you, cud u kindly chip in with a word for me.

    wud appreciate it and luv to yo family, they’re great

    Olive

  10. Hi Olive, naughty, naughty blogging on company time… :) :) But, here goes. I’ve posted an answer to your question over on the tractor back post. Stay warm, or cool, or what ever in Africa. :) -WalterJ

  11. karl says:

    http://www.amazon.com/Dremel-1453-Chain-Sharpening-Attachment/dp/B0000302YO

    it looks cheesy right? don’t be fooled. in response to your chain replacement option, i venture that i can sharpen a chain to the highest standards in about the same time it takes to replace it. if i have to knock the drags down maybe a little longer. regardless, at the end of the day, you’ll still have to sharpen to dull chain(s).

  12. Cool tool, Karl. Price is right too.

    As to your change change vs sharpening, it’s a challenge! I can change chains in under a minute and that includes doing a retightening which should be done periodically.

    However, I bet the Dremmel is faster than me with a hand file! I have a battery operated Dremmel tool so I’m going to get that bit you suggested.

    Cheers,

    -Walter

  13. Walter –
    Will is growing into a man!

    I think if he was my son I don’t know that I could have hidden my anxiety when he first fired the saw up and made a slice.

    I know how dangerous cutting wood can be.

    Glad to see you are teaching him good habits.

    My husband wears special chain saw pants, helmet & gloves.
    We always say a sincere “good-bye” when ever he heads out to the woods alone to cut our wood.
    The reality being if he has an accident in the woods he may not make it back.

  14. GM, We practiced with the saw off, he had watched me, we talked and then it was time. He’s actually been able to hold the saw, strong enough, for over a year and I have great confidence in Will’s care and ability. He’s been using the small and then the big skillsaw now for a couple of years.

    I hear you totally on the “off in the woods alone”. Our solution is we never do dangerous work alone and also not when the van is gone. Having someone else there and transport in an emergency is our life insurance. I don’t trust emergency services to be able to get to us in less than half an hour and that would just be to the driveway never mind up the mountain. To this end, we always team up.

    Another rule we follow is that if we’re not feeling totally up to project, mentally, physically and weather-wise then we put it off for another day. We’re not in a rush or as I often say, “We’re not rushin!” That would be the way to an early grave.

    Work safely!

    -WalterJ

  15. Jake M says:

    My word he is strong! I have that same saw and am not sure I could do that! Especially not long enough for someone to shoot a pic!

  16. Eric Stasenko says:

    My brother-in-law had one of these and after he showed me how easy it was to use, I went out and bought a Dremel tool and this attachment. This tool makes it very easy to always have a sharp chain. It only takes about 5 minutes to do a quick touch-up or about 15 to do a more thorough sharpening. The results are at least as good if not better than what I was getting by taking my chain to the dealer for sharpening, and now I don’t have to wait a couple days to have it done.

  17. My Mom wants to heat our house with cats. She says that it would take something like
    85 cats. Cats do not give off as much humidity, well maybe 85 cats would give off more humidity than 5 dogs .

  18. Joseph Rohdes says:

    Just wondering what type is better overall in terms of heat, value etc out of pine, willow or gum? Just been having a look on trademe but don’t really know what to go for as they all say it burns well. Also does anyone know where to get good cheap dry firewood in the Wellington area?

  19. Farmerbob1 says:

    Walter,

    You mention that even without a chainsaw, you could use axes and saws. There’s something else that you could use.

    Rocks.

    Yup. Cut firewood with rocks:

    Make a hole in a granite skin, through a flat side, and put it at an angle.
    Stick a limb or branch in the hole.
    Lift smaller skins with pulleys and set their flat faces against the flat face of the large skin.
    Let go, and the smaller skin slides down the face of the larger skin and shears the wood.

    Firewood guillotine!

    (It’d almost certainly be easier to just use an axe. Even if you had to make a stone axe. It’s just fun to imagine new ways to use rocks.)

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