Saturday, October 23, 2021

Woodcutting 101

In response to my last post on putting up firewood,  reader Rob sent me some humorous memes from a Backwoods Home Magazine email that are pertinent to the subject at hand. I thought I would intersperse them in a humor piece Don wrote a few years ago called Woodcutting 101.

Without further ado.......


Woodcutting 101

One of the most basic and fundamental skills needed by anyone aspiring to a Country Lifestyle is that of the wood butcher or firewood cutter. Firewood and its timely gathering is of extreme importance; not only in keeping a warm home, but also in showing your neighbors who you are.

Out here in Northern Idaho, most everyone uses wood heat, either as a secondary source, or in many cases as the only means of keeping the house and shop warm during the cold nine months of the year. The correct display of your firewood is also important. A full wood shed, or stack upon stack of cut and split wood, tells your neighbors that you "get it." You understand country living.

Now I can hear you out there, your whiny, smog-roughened voices crying out, "I want to be thought of that way, Don! I want to be a real woodsman!" Of course you do. And who wouldn't? And as usual, I'm here to help. I promise if you will heed the following words of wisdom, you too will be able to hold your head (or some other remaining appendage) up proudly in the presence of real woodsmen with country names like Stumpy, Lefty, or One-Eyed Pete.

First of all, let me dispel a couple of the old saws (get it? saws? Oh I'm good!) that you may have heard in your soon-to-be pre-country life. The most famous of the old sayings is undoubtedly "Heating with wood warms you twice," referring not only to the burning but the cutting as well.

What nonsense. If you do it right, firewood will warm you at least six or seven times. By the time you've hauled your saw to the woods, realized that the chain is still dull from cutting all that roofing tin last year, gone back to the truck for a file, sharpened the saw while balancing it on an old stump, started cutting only to run out of gas (back to the truck for the can), realized that the log you are working on is either too heavy to turn (where's the peavey?) or hollow and full of yellow jackets (a full-tilt run while shucking off all your clothing can be quite warming) … well, you've already got at least three or four good heats without even getting a stick into the truck. My friend and neighbor Percival Hughs claims that one time he got 27 warms out of a single batch of firewood, but he's a professional and seasoned woodsman and therefore should not be trusted.

When should you start collecting firewood for the next year? Many of my friends start cutting firewood for the next year before they've even finished burning the current season's supply. Others cut small amounts throughout the year, stacking their cords from youngest to oldest, then burning that wood in the same order, beginning with the oldest cut and therefore the driest wood.

Me? I usually begin cutting my winter's firewood about two or three days after the first snow fall. Wait until your wife starts to complain about frost forming on the house plants or the dogs having to break through a crust of ice on the indoor water bowl. This delay adds a certain immediacy to the job that is quite bracing (see, another chance for a warming!). Unlike my lazy neighbors, I don't mind doing concentrated, some might even say frenzied, labor. After all, while they are all out lolly-gagging around, hunting elk or ice fishing, I can be found (sometimes with the aid of a search party) slogging though two or three feet of snow, trying to guess if the next mound of snow in my path is a downed tree or a hibernating bear.

So far you may have noticed that all we've talked about are logs that are already on the ground. While this is, in my opinion, the preferred state, occasionally dead or dying trees need to be helped to attain the horizontal.

Tree felling has been described as a difficult and dangerous profession requiring great skill and experience. But this is an exaggeration at best. After all, a tree is really nothing more than a vegetable; a multi-ton, 100-foot-high carrot, if you will. Since gravity and power tools are our friends in this endeavor, getting that carrot on the ground is not difficult. The trick is making sure that the tree falls where you want it to.

Old-time tree-fallers (understandably rare) spend years learning to recognize the subtle "tells" of the tree: the asymmetrical growth, prevailing winds, root structure and the like. With this information and years of experience, they can put the tree on the ground within inches of where they will tell you afterwards that they meant for it to fall. If you have the time and no other visible means of support, this is an okay way to determine fall.

But if you're in a hurry for a rosily glowing wood stove (because it's 15 below zero, your hands are numb to the elbow, and the dogs are eyeing your ice-fishing saw), there is a much faster way to determine where your future firewood will fall.

First, eye all possible ways the tree could fall. Then make sure you have a "safe" line of retreat. Make your initial cuts in alignment with the direction you wish the tree to fall. Make your fall, and prepare to start cutting firewood.

This process will be made much easier by the fact that your truck will now be acting (to the best of its ability) as a sawhorse under the newly fallen tree. When I say "your truck," of course I mean "not my truck." My truck was unaccountably un-start-able just before I went to cut firewood, necessitating the borrowing of your truck.

Since most country folk never bother to take their keys out of their vehicles when they park them, the available supply of borrow-able vehicles is only limited by the distance to the next neighbor's house. (Other limitations will present themselves after your first wood-cutting foray, but we will cover those in a later chapter concerning life-threatening wounds and their treatment.)

Now some of you who are "less country savvy" may be thinking, "Isn't that a lot like stealing, Don?"  Ha ha, well of course it would be if you didn't write a note to leave with your neighbor, explaining in suitably vague terms the emergency that necessitated the borrowing of the truck.

Caution: Remember to leave the note in a place where your neighbor can find it. It won't do any good if you just drop it out the window of the truck as you drive away, or leave it stuck in the screen door where a blast of wind might carry it off. I like to leave my notes on the dash board of the borrowed vehicle.

Remember, after getting your firewood in, make sure to return the borrowed vehicle promptly. You might even get it back before your neighbor knows it was borrowed. If this occurs, you can remove the note from the dash board. After all, why confuse the poor fellow? However if your neighbor is waiting for you, possibly with the new shotgun he really wants to demonstrate for you, make sure you are ready to explain to him the many benefits he has gained in loaning you his vehicle, like the lower wind resistance and the decreased insurance costs that the reduced profile of his truck now provides.

This might be a good time to address some of the equipment you will need for firewood gathering.

Aside from someone else's truck, you'll want a good  chainsaw. Unfortunately, no one has ever created such a thing. Oh, there are lots of great  chainsaws, but they always belong to someone else. Ask any woodsman about his  chainsaw and be prepared for a love story that would make Casanova blush. Their chainsaw starts up first time on a below-zero morning, cuts eight cords of firewood on a single tank of gas, then comes home and wakes their owner gently with a fresh-brewed cup of coffee. My  chainsaw, no matter how new or expensive, won't start unless it is first warmed to room temperature (that's normal room temperature, not my room temperature, because I still haven't cut any firewood).

Simply owning a chainsaw – whether operating or not – is not enough, of course. You will also need chainsaw files for sharpening the saw after you cut into the nails you put into the tree the previous year during that unfortunate episode while constructing the kid's tree house. (Honestly, who thinks about wind resistance when installing a slide?) Anyway, you will need a good selection of files, each of a specific diameter to fit all of the possible chain sizes available, except of course for the chain you currently have on your saw.

Sharpening a chain is an art. The saw must be balanced and braced so that each draw of the file sharpens each tooth at the same angle and to the same depth. Or so the guys down at the saw shop always tell me after they stop laughing. Personally, I think it's just an attempt to get more business.

I happen to be an expert at sharpening a chain. Many professionals are willing to settle for a chain that will cut quickly and straight. But I've raised the "bar," as it were, and all of my saw cuts now form perfect arcs through the wood, with the blade sometimes even coming out again on the same side of the log that it went in. This will come in very handy if I ever get around to building a log cabin.

Another tool that's very handy to have with you is the peavey, a spike-and-hook arrangement on the end of a stout pole, not to be confused with the neighbor whose truck you borrowed. The peavey is very useful for rolling those heavy logs over onto your feet. I don't think that was the original design concept, but that's what it always does to me.

You may be thinking to yourself, "Now why would I want a tool like that?" Shame on you. Wood cutting is not simply about avoiding death by freezing; it's also a lifestyle display. Having a peavey in the back of your truck when you arrive for your Loyal Order of the Grouse Lodge meeting shows the guys that you are one of them.

Well, that's all the time I have for now. In our next lesson on firewood collection, I'll cover other items of interest for the new country-o-phile. Such topics will include: "The Steel-Toed Boot: Essential Safety Apparel or Single Use Shear?", "Small Engine Fires," and the real health benefits of cooler home temperatures.

But before I go, let me leave you with this thought. A dead standing tree is not a diabolical, evil, and malevolent creature bent on your destruction (that's a cow). And nine times out of ten that tree will not try to kill you. So don't worry.

But never fall more than nine trees at a time.


  1. I stole every one of them. BTW, dead standing trees, if they're in a safe place, provide homes and hunting for woodpeckers.

  2. Oh how I enjoyed this. Having just participated (actually just witnessed) my husband was two trees this week. I saw our lives in Don's comments. My husband lamented that he used to cut and split 4 to 6 cords at a time and now must take a break before completing cutting one tree. To his defense - he is 76 yrs old and it gas been a couple of years since he cut trees down. I enjoy your blog so much. We moved from a larger Idaho city to our forever home in Northern Idaho experiencing many of the same challenges of moving. But have never looked back or regretted our decision. We only wish we would have done in when we were younger. Thanks again for the entertaining and informative blog.

  3. Chainsaws? Log splitters?

    Lazy Westerners!

    In Feudal Japan, they did this with ryoba (両刃) and they liked it! :-)

    Oh, you gaikokujin (外国人) joke about your chainsaws, but what do you do when your chainsaw's chain breaks, you're out of fuel, and your neighbours lock up their vehicles every time they hear you trying to saw wood?

    But putting clumsy gaikokujin-san to work with ryoba, that's crazy, he'd saw his own legs off!

    Fortunately for clumsy gaikokujin-san there's the kataba (片刃) and the superior wood cutting technology known as the Katana Boy 650!

    Watch what happens when Plant-Based Prepper gets to work with the Katana Boy 650!

    With this even clumsy gaikokujin-san can become the daimyo (大名) of your local forest! :-)

    1. That's a tree lumber moron. If you've ever used one you'd be sorry you did bahahaha. It's a full on job.

    2. Did you work at not getting the joke, or did this come naturally to you?

      Maybe it's a full on job. :-)

  4. I got to laughing so much I will have to finish this later.

  5. Good Heavens, those pictures are amazing (in not a good way). One wonders the thoughts of the cutters the instant the trees starting moving towards their final destination...

  6. Laughter is good medicine! Thanks for a good dose of it today!

  7. Don needs to write his own book or publish already written stuff in one. Ya'll are both great writers, just different genres. Nowadays we all need the belly laughs he gives! Thank you for sharing your husband with us!