Wood, as the old saying goes, warms two times: when you cut it and when you burn it. The saying sums up the chief virtues of heating by wood—healthy exercise, comforting warmth, and the homey pleasure of a wood fire. In addition, wood is widely available and economically competitive with fossil fuels. And if you gather your own firewood, the savings can be tremendous, cutting your yearly fuel bill from hundreds of dollars to practically nothing.

Managing a Woodlot

A woodlot can supply wood indefinitely if the quantity you take out of it each year is no more than the amount replaced by natural growth over the same period. As a rule of thumb, 1 acre of woodland can produce 2/3 cord of hardwood each year. (A cord is a stack measuring 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet; it is illustrated in the picture above.) If you own or have access to 10 acres of woodland, you should be able to harvest 6 to 7 cords a year—enough to heat an average three-bedroom house.
The better you manage your land, the less acreage you will need. Woodlot management is like tending a garden, except it takes longer to see the results—years instead of months. In execution, it is a program of selective cutting based on the age and condition of each tree and how closely one tree grows to the next. As in gardening, experience is the greatest asset.
The first trees to cut down are those in an advanced state of decay and those damaged by disease or insects. These conditions are usually obvious, even to the inexperienced eye. As an exception, a tree with damage only to its leaves might be left for another season to see whether or not it is able to recover. Also, an occasional dead tree should be left standing as ahome for wildlife. After damaged trees have been removed, harvest trees that have no potential value as lumber or trees that crowd others and inhibit their growth. Your county agent and state forester can both provide additional information on tree harvesting. The state forester may also be willing to go over your woodlot, marking the trees that should be culled.

Obtaining Wood

The cost of fuel wood depends very much on where you live and on the type of wood you are buying. In cities and treeless parts of the country you will probably have to pay much more for wood than in forested regions; and in either locale a cord of hardwood (generally more desirable for burning) is likely to be priced considerably higher than the same amount of softwood.
Wood is usually sold either by the cord or by the face cord. A cord is a stack of split or unsplit logs that measures 4 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet, but the amount you actually get in a cord will depend on how the wood is piled—in the old days some woodcutters developed an uncanny ability to stack cordwood with a maximum of airspace and a minimum of wood, and the practice, regrettably, has not entirely died out. The so-called face cord is not a cord at all but rather any pile that measures 4 feet high by 8 feet long. The width of the pile can be almost anything; sometimes itis no more than 12 inches and it is rarely more than 2 feet.
Wood is sometimes sold by the truckload. A 1/2-ton pickup will hold roughly 1/3 cord of wood. When buying by volume, keep in mind that the heat value of wood is directly indicated by its dry weight. Unfortunately, when wood is still wet, it is not always easy to estimate the amount of water in it. Try to avoid woods with a high resin content; resin adds to creosote buildup in a chimney.
On many occasions you can obtain fuel wood at nominal cost or for free. Public parklands and forests, town dumps, and lumber mills are sources for such wood. Even private owners may let you on their land to clear dead or unusable timber.

Tools and Techniques for Harvesting Wood

The best way to get fuel wood is to cut it yourself. Every step in the process—from felling the tree to bucking it into usable lengths to splitting and stacking it—provides vigorous outdoor exercise that is healthful and satisfying. With proper equipment and convenient access to the forest area in which you are working, you can harvest a cord of wood a day. A week or two of heavy work and you should have enough wood split and stacked to heat a reasonably well insulated house for one year (more wood will be needed, ofcourse, in the colder parts of the nation, less in warmer climates).
Felling and bucking with a two-man saw can be quiet and sociable, but the efficient chain saw is the best choice for heavy work—it can cut through wood 10 to 30 times faster. Some chain saws run on gasoline, others on electricity. Gasoline models, although more expensive, are better for most purposes, since the electric versions require an extension cord (impractical in the deep woods) and are not as powerful. Chain saws can be dangerous. Make sure the model you get has all the available safety features, and read the instruction book carefully before using it. Chain saws are also noisy; operate them with consideration for your neighbors.The blade of a bow saw is cheap. Replace blade when it gets dull. You can sharpen cutters on a chain saw, but be sure to use proper file and file guide and to follow instructions in your owner’s manual. if in doubt, take chain saw to your dealer.
All your woodcutting tools, including the chain saw, should be kept sharp. Dull edges require much more labor and create hazards. Your chain saw will stay sharp longer if you avoid cutting through dirt-encrusted logs or allowing your saw to dig into the earth beneath a log. There are several signs of a dull chain saw: the chips become smaller, more force is required to make the saw bite into the wood, the wood smokes due to increased friction, and the saw does not cut straight.

Felling a Tree

To get a tree to fall where you want, first make a notch on the side facing the desired direction of fall. This is done with two cuts: first the undercut, then the face cut. A third cut, the backcut, is then made at a slight angle downward, approaching the undercut about 1 inch above it. Leave an inch or two of uncut wood to act as a hinge to encourage the tree to tilt in the direction you want. If the tree does not fall of its own accord, push it with a long pole or peavey. Do not cut through the hinge.Felling a tree can be dangerous. A side may be rotten, the tree may twist or bounce off another tree, or the trunk may rip loose and kick back in the direction opposite to its fall. Dead branches may also fall on you. For these reasons it is vital to have at least one, preferably two, clear escape routes and to get out of the way as soon as the tree begins to fall.

From Tree to Firewood

Winter is the best time for felling and bucking. The underbrush is thin, you sweat less, and there are no biting insects. Also, it is easier to spot dead trees and to choose safe paths of fall and good escape routes. Should there be snow on the ground, you will be able to slide logs about with less effort. On the average, a tree with a diameter of 12 to 14 inches will yield about 1/4 cord of wood. One to two dozen such trees will probably satisfy the heating requirements of your house for one season.
When you cut a tree down, make sure the area is clear of people, particularly children. If the tree is near a house, attach a strong rope high up on the trunk and apply tension so that the tree will fall in a safe direction. You can get the rope up by weighting one end with a rock and throwing it over a limb. To apply tension, you can either have a helper pull on the rope from a safe distance or else attach the rope to another tree.Once cut, a tree may hang up on another tree instead of falling all the way to the ground. If you cannot pry it loose with a peavey, tie a rope to its trunk and use a block and tackle attached to another tree to pull it loose.

Diseases and other undesirable characteristics found in trees

Fruiting body or a canker (an open wound caused by rot) on the trunk of a hardwood tree indicates serious disease. Damage by insects is typified by holes left by oak borers and a sawdustlike residue at the base of trunk that results from infestation by certain types of bark beetles.
Disease that often afflicts evergreen trees is blister rust. Wilting branches may indicate an attack by weevils, while extrusions of pitch from the trunk of the tree are signs that pine beetles are present. Even slight symptoms may mean extensive internal damage. Wolf trees are trees that take up large amounts of space and are too twisted and gnarled to have value as lumber. Due to advanced age they grow very slowly, robbing smaller trees of sunlight and nutrients and underutilizing the sunlight that they do absorb.
Cull trees from groups that grow too closely together. saplings, for example, should be about 6 ft. apart, trees with trunk diameters of 12 in. should be 18 ft. from each other. sell straight, tall, unblemished trees to a mill, since they are worth more as lumber than as fuel.
Characteristics of different kinds of firewood
Use the table at left when choosing firewood and making cost comparisons. When you buy by the cord, heavier wood gives more value per dollar, since weight is equivalent to heat. To find out how many pounds of wood of a particular species you get in a cord, look down the weight column. The figures assume that the wood has been air dried (20 percent of its weight remains water).
Before drying wood, check the column on value of air drying. some woods have too little water in them to benefit much from drying; others should be dried six months or longer.
Dealers often describe the wood they are selling as hardwood. in general, hardwood is heavy and softwood is light. The division is only approximate, however. some hardwoods are light, some softwoods heavy.
Pivoting technique lets you coax a tree to fall the way you want, even if it leans another way, provided the difference is not too great. Make backcut so that hinge is thicker at one end than the other. As tree falls, trunk will cling to wider end of hinge, causing it to pivot in that direction. Practice this technique in open woods before you try it in a tight spot.Sharpen ax with carborundum file or use ax stone lubricated with light oil (avoid motor-driven grinders). Maintain original blunt taper. Do not try to take out every nick; you will only remove more metal than is necessary, shortening life of ax.
When you remove a limb from a felled tree, make it a practice to stand on the side of the trunk opposite to the limb; that way you will minimize the risk of cutting your foot with the saw or ax. During the bucking operation (sawing the tree into logs), the weight of the tree as it sags can pinch your saw blade and bind it. The pinching is caused by compression, either along the top side of the fallen tree trunk or the bottom side. With practice, you will learn into which side to cut to avoid binding. When binding does occur, hammer a wedge into the cut to free the saw. The wedge should be made of wood, plastic, or other soft material to avoid damage to the saw.
A notch cut about one-third of way into trunk guides tree to fall in direction of notch. set backcut higher than point of notch to prevent tree from falling backward. Tree will fall as planned unless it is leaning in some other direction. You can follow a similar cutting procedure with an ax, though control of fall will not be as precise.

Chain saw may bind when making backcut into a large tree. You should have a wood, plastic, or aluminum wedge with you to free the saw. Knock wedge into backcut until pressure is eased, then resume sawing. (By using more than one wedge you can also encourage the tree to fall in the direction you want.)

Sources and resources

Books and pamphlets
Drying Wood With the Sun. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy, 1983.
Harris, Michael. Heating With Wood. New York: Carol Publishing, 1980.
Hogencamp, Robert. Heating With Wood. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Energy, 1980.
Sharpe, Grant W., et al. Introduction to Forestry and Renewable Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995.
Smith, Robert A. The Backyard Woodcutter: A Guide to Preparing Your Own Firewood. Bristol, Wis.: Huron Group, 1994.
Thomas, Dirk. The Harrowsmith Country Life Guide to Wood Heat. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 1992.