Channel your inner lumberjack by harvesting your own firewood

When winter scratches at the door, flannel-shirted lumberjacks fight back with roaring fires fueled by wood they hauled, cut and dried themselves.

But local expert Richard Spencer has tips on how to harvest firewood so that even fledgling tree-fellers can invoke their inner lumberjack, beards optional.

Spencer has a long history gathering firewood.

“When I was growing, we always had a wood furnace. So, cutting wood has been a part of my whole life, except for the six years I was in the Coast Guard,” he said.

After he retired, he settled in Maine for a few years where he took up the craft again. Now living in the area and a Penn State Master Gardener of Lycoming County, Spencer said, “I love to keep warm with wood because it saves money, gets me back in the forest, is relaxing and challenging, and I love to go into the house on a cold day. Wood heat is kind of like a hug.”

For those wondering about cost savings, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reports a cord of split, air-dried hardwood has the heating energy of about 1 ton of coal, 230 gallons of fuel oil or about 28,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Softwoods will burn less well.

A cord of delivered wood costs between $200 to $400, depending on the the type of wood, while a cord harvested from a local state park can cost about $20.

Finding firewood

When looking for firewood, Spencer recommends choosing dense woods rather than soft because when dense or hardwoods have been dried, they produce more heat and last much longer, even through the night.

“There are uses for the softer woods like poplar and basswood,” he said. “They are OK in the spring and fall when you don’t need a really hot fire all day. But the pines have resin that creates creosote in the chimney, and that causes chimney fires.”

How do you know if the tree on your property is a hardwood or soft? Most new to woodcutting learn by comparing a tree’s bark to a guide book or pictures found online. They might also try to identify a tree based on its branching or its leaves.

There are several common hardwoods for which beginning lumberjacks can look.

“In the areas I have cut in the Tioga and Loyalsock state forests, the most common hardwoods are maples, black cherry, beech, ash and golden birch,” he said.

If you don’t have suitable wood on your own property to cut, consider going to a state or national forest, like Spencer does. These forests offer a personal-use firewood permit where anyone can cut standing dead or fallen trees for $20 a cord. Use an axe or a chain saw to cut the tree into rounds and then haul the wood to a second site for splitting.

Splitting wood

Next comes that iconic part of harvesting firewood — a thick blade falling through the air and crashing wood into meaty chunks. There are several tools one can use to split wood.

“I had split with a splitting maul by hand for 35 years,” Spencer said. “I had to buy a log splitter a couple of years ago due to back problems. I do miss splitting by hand.”

A log splitter is a machine that takes wood rounds and splits them into sizes appropriate for a wood stove.

For a little more exercise, forgo the log splitter and use a splitting maul, which has a blunt metal head meant to cut off large slices of wood. A splitting axe also will work for splitting wood but is lighter and will take more swings.

But might doesn’t make right when it comes to splitting firewood.

“What I think is the most common error I have seen is when people think they have to use all of their might to split, so they lose accuracy,” Spencer said. “It is more important to be able to hit the wood in the same place.”

Drying wood

Once wood is split, it should dry. Wood with low moisture gives off about 20 percent to 25 percent more heat since less heat is spent getting rid of the moisture while the wood burns.

Most green wood has a moisture content of 70 percent to 80 percent, but wood that has been air-dried will reduce its moisture content to 20 percent. This will take six to 12 months.

Wood dried in a kiln can get to that 20 percent moisture content, or even lower, in a few hours.

Now and throughout the winter and early spring is the ideal time to gather firewood. Before leaf-out, a tree’s moisture content is at its lowest.

To dry wood, keep it in a loose pile with good air-flow for several months. Cracking is the biggest clue that the wood is dried enough for an efficient burn. Once this happens, the wood can be stacked.

Ready to lumberjack?

Is your inner lumberjack rip-roaring to hack at some trees and beat back winter? From felling a tree, splitting the wood by hand or with a machine and then watching the world turn as the wood dries, there is a unique satisfaction in harvesting firewood.

And, as Spencer said, wood heat is like a warm hug — a cozy, productive, back-to-basics, simple, satisfying, empowering hug.