Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cheap Firewood

My family and I have used wood-burning stoves here at The Homestead since we moved here about eighteen years ago. Our 1960s-model trailer doesn’t have a central heating or AC system. We yanked the inefficient furnace and scrapped it out, which left more room in the hallway and put a little money in our pockets. Burning firewood has proven to be quite a bit cheaper than paying nearly two decades’ worth of heating bills!

Depending on your circumstances, firewood can be cheap to acquire. Where I live, in the middle of Texas, much of the countryside is heavily wooded. We have plenty of oak trees on our thirteen acres. If we cut down trees as they die, we usually have enough firewood to keep us warm in the winter and fire up the smoker to prepare the Thanksgiving turkey. (We also use the smoker during warmer months for everything from burgers to hot dogs to chicken.)

Even so, we supplement our own firewood supply when the opportunity presents itself. My brothers sometimes get calls from friends and neighbors, asking them to come remove dead trees. Occasionally, the job pays cash, but the real reward is the firewood.

We don’t have much money, but we were able to start collecting firewood with just a few hundred dollars’ worth of equipment. You don’t have to have an expensive setup if you’re basically healthy and able to learn how to do firewood-related tasks.

We use a chainsaw. I’m a huge Stihl fan because these saws tend to last for years if you take good care of them and don’t try to make your particular model do more than it was designed to do. These saws are kind of pricey, yes, but they perform so much better than the crappy saws that Lowe’s sells.

Alternatively, you can use an axe or hand saw to cut down trees. This requires more work, yes, but it’s inexpensive. The gas-powered saw won’t be useful to you when the fuel supply dries up anyway. I’ve cut down a few trees with a single-blade axe. It’s tough work, but you can do just about anything if you’re bent on staying warm. Besides: while you’re actually chopping down that tree, you won’t be worried about the cold at all, now will you?

We use the pickup to haul firewood up to the house from the woods. Depending on where we cut the wood, we might or might not be able to park the truck very close to the site. However, a wheelbarrow lets us move a fairly-large load of wood from the site if the truck’s parked too far away. A good wheelbarrow currently runs about fifty or sixty bucks where I live, incidentally, which isn’t a bad price when you consider how useful the thing is.

We use single-blade axes to chop our firewood. You can, however, buy a splitting maul – basically, an axe with a big head that, I’ve been told, makes lighter work of this log-splitting thing. Splitting by hand is slow, tough work, but even I can do it – and I’m a lightweight weakling. When we use the axe, we don’t spend much time chopping because it’s so labor intensive. We typically chop enough for a couple of days at a time, then go do some other constructive thing that doesn’t require as much work.

One thing to know about wood, though, is that different types are more or less difficult to split. I’d rate white oak somewhere in the “medium” range, for example, because it’s not too hard or too easy. That’s what we burn around here, it being so plentiful and all, so I’m glad that this particular wood isn’t a complete nightmare.

An axe ran us about fifteen dollars. We also bought two splitting wedges, which were about ten dollars each. They’re well worth the investment, because some wood is just too tough or knotty to split with the axe. Our wedges have lasted for nearly twenty years now, so I would say that the twenty-dollar bill we forked over for them was well spent.

Alternatively, you can just use the splitting wedges. Buy a small sledgehammer to drive them into the firewood and you should be good to go.

Axes and wedges need occasional sharpening. This is fairly easy to do, but takes a little practice. A whetstone and a little work will get your tools back in shape in no time once you figure out what you’re doing. Check out the sharpening FAQ to your left for excellent information about sharpening all sorts of blades. (The link, incidentally, doesn’t go to anything that I’ve done or written. I just learned a lot from the FAQ, that’s all.)

Chopping firewood is slow work when you first start learning. It took me a good ten minutes to split one log when I started. I improved with practice, as did my brothers. Even my sister can split firewood with an axe if we need her to do it.

Even though I’ve spent a good bit of this section praising the mighty axe, there is nothing wrong with a hydraulic splitter. One of my brothers took a job at a rental yard a couple of years ago. Once a year, he brings home a gas-powered model. Mom and I, along with my sister, take turns splitting firewood. With the machine, we can get enough wood to take us through most of the winter season. Typically, we still have to chop some by hand, but any wood that we can split with the borrowed tool saves us work!

Renting the splitter might work well for you. If you cut down plenty of trees before you rent the tool, you maximize whatever amount of time you have with the splitter. You don’t have to maintain or repair a rented splitter, and using it gives you a huge pile of wood in a fraction of the time that it would have taken you to split those logs by hand.

You can also, of course, spend a hundred bucks or so on a manual hydraulic splitter. These do require some effort on your part, but not as much as you put in with the axe and wedges. My Dad refused to buy one of these, though, when my siblings and I were kids, claiming that hand-splitting wood builds character. (I wish to note that, after Dad taught us how to do the job, he stopped doing it. Interestingly enough, it seemed as if Dad developed just the right amount of character as soon as my sibs and I were able to take over.)

Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can still collect your own firewood. You don’t have to invest much money in basic hand tools, and the job will become easier and faster with practice. But if you do have the ability to get the modern tools, I’d go for it. Piling up a good bit of firewood for the winter, but still practicing your “old school” ways on the side, will help you stay warm and, at the same time, prepare for a day when you might not be able to do things the modern way.

Useful Links:

A Mother Earth News article about splitting firewood. Be sure to read the comments, as many of them offer good advice.

A story about a gentleman who spent a decade chopping and selling firewood.

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