I put an ax through the center of my left foot on New Year’s Day two years ago. My friend Doug and I were camping with our families near Crestone, Colorado. I was watching him split wood. “Your turn,” he said, and handed me the ax.
“OK,” I said and awkwardly took the tool from him.
He eyed me suspiciously. “You mean you don’t chop your own firewood?”
Truth was, I’d barely even swung an ax before.
This elicited from him a sermon on the virtues of cutting firewood on your own. It was environmental, cheap, and the experience of shouting “Timber!” is unforgettable.
“Timber?” I said. “Isn’t that a bit cliché?”
He shrugged. “I can’t help it.”
“All right,” I said and raised the ax. It hit the wood sideways, bounced off and embedded itself in the center of my foot.
Ten stitches and two years later, you might think I’d forgotten what Doug told me that day and given up on cutting my own firewood.
I haven’t. Doug had a point.
Such is the romance and practicality of cutting one’s own firewood.
There was also the dead tree at the end of my driveway. It was dying when we bought the house years ago. Now it merely stood, taunting me every morning when I backed out my car.
My neighbors began to mention it. Some offered to take it down for me. Each time I refused.
This was something I had to do. This was my Everest. This time, though, I did a little research. Consider it a bit of advice. A layman’s introduction to cutting firewood.
What You Need When Cutting Firewood
Before you start swinging your axe, you might want to consider the essentials for cutting firewood, like using a saw, borrowing tools from a friend, protective wear, prepping your car for hauling the wood, and where you’re going to find trees to cut.
You’ll need an ax to split wood, but if you’re serious about firewood, you’ll need a chainsaw. Here’s what you’re looking for:
Gas not electric. Most of the trees you covet won’t be located next to electrical outlets, and the cord is another thing to worry about. Lose it.
Go big, or go home. The smaller the saw, the more problems it will have. An 18-inch bar (the saw part of the saw) is probably as small as you’ll want to go, though you’ll also want to ask yourself if buying a saw that can be only lifted with the help of three other guys is a safe choice.
Steel yourself. Folks who do a lot of cutting will tell you there are two kinds of chainsaws, those made by Stihl (pronounced “Steel”) and those that don’t deserve to be called chainsaws. Like most good things in life, you won’t find Stihl saws at Home Depot. To find the real thing, head to the Lawnmower Hospital or Bobcat of the Rockies.
Stuff to Borrow
A really good saw won’t be cheap, which means you should try to borrow one from a neighbor.
This is usually no problem. Ask to borrow a lawnmower, and you’ll be viewed with suspicion and derision. Ask to borrow a chainsaw, on the other hand, and the eyes of its owner will light up. “Chainsaw?” will be the reply. “What are you cutting?”
Yes, using a chainsaw is that addicting. Starting it up feels like the discovery of your superpowers.
What to Wear
Goggles. Ray-Bans won’t cut it, and aren’t the look you are going for anyway.
Steel-toe work boots. See previous foot-splitting anecdote.
Chaps. Designed to protect your appendages in the event of chainsaw slippage, they’re also useful on those inevitable occasions when you have to dress up as a member of the Village People and can’t find your policeman outfit.
License to Saw
Fuelwood gathering season generally runs summer through fall, but permits are limited. If Pikes Peak Ranger District sells out, try the South Park district, which includes areas near Lake George. Fees are $15 a cord with a 3-cord minimum. www.fs.usda.gov
You need a permit to cut firewood on state or federal lands (see “License to Saw”). But if your firewood needs are modest, keep a lookout for dead or dying trees on a friend’s property. Just keep in mind there’s plenty of potential for disaster. If there’s even a slight chance that you could kill, maim or destroy anything you don’t want to be destroyed—like a new deck, a bay window or your neighbor’s car—give it a pass.
The key to successfully cutting down a tree is making it fall in the direction of your choice. This starts with cutting a v-shaped notch about as deep as one-fifth of the trunk’s diameter. Then cut straight from the opposite side toward that notch just above the v, but stop an inch from the notch. The tree will—theoretically—fall toward the v.
Make sure you have a clear escape path to move 20 feet away. And it’s always a good idea to have another person there, perhaps to call an ambulance, or start the getaway car, or testify later that it was absolutely not your fault.
Come splitting time, you’ll need a good ax. If you’re looking for value, you can’t go wrong with the Craftsman Single-Bit Axe [$27, sears.com]. But if you want a work of art burly enough to send the chips flying, reach for a custom-painted American Felling Axe from Best Made Co. [$162-$300 depending on handle finish, bestmadeco.com].
There’s an old saying that firewood heats you three times: when you cut it, when you carry it and when you burn it. Make sure you have an exit strategy, like a pickup truck, for your wood.
As for the fear of cutting my foot in two, it was easy enough to overcome by putting on a pair of boots. You should do the same. And don’t stack your logs against the house, unless you want mice, spiders or voles moving in with you.
Above all, make sure to yell “Timber!” Sure it’s cliché, but who cares. It’s tradition, and you’re going to yell it anyway. Might as well enjoy it.
As with any life- or property-threatening activity, be sure to consult a professional before trying it at home—you know, like YouTube.
Originally published on Nov. 24, 2015
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