1It seems that wood burning furnaces are making a comeback because of rising oil and gas prices. Wood burners provide an old-age charm of their own and the ones now on the market are fitted with more heat-efficient systems. Many urban residents purchase firewood from a wood yard and  preparation is limited to splitting the wood into suitable sizes. But for those with access to trees to cut for firewood, there is something satisfying about going through the process yourself, then lighting a fire and sitting back to reap the benefits of your handiwork.

Types of firewood

The types of wood available obviously depend on the geographical area. Hardwood is the most suitable type of wood, as it emits higher heat and it burns longer. Softwood like pine has a much lower fuel-value which means it burns with less heat and it burns faster.

Working with chainsaws

If you are going to fell and cut trees, the essential tool is a power driven chainsaw. They range in size, usually measured by the length of the chain-driven blade. The smallest size is a 30cm (12”) lightweight pruning saw and the sizes range all the way up to 125 cm (50”) saws used by professional loggers. For home use, the recommended size is a 40cm (16”) blade.

Chainsaws are typically driven by electric power, petrol mixture or gas. An electric chainsaw has a couple of limitations. Power may not be available in a forest area and, secondly, the power cord could easily get in the way of efficient operation.

Chainsaws require proper maintenance. The essential requirement is to ensure the saw has an adequate level of lubricating oil and that the chain is properly tightened. Owners should also ensure that all guards and shields are properly fastened and in good order. The user manual will detail how to maintain and use a chainsaw.

There is, however, an overriding issue with using a chainsaw and that is safety. This is a dangerous tool in the hands of an inexperienced user. People are strongly advised to ask a professional or watch a video that demonstrates how to use it safely so you can be sure that you are doing it correctly.

Safety first

The first issue concerns protective clothing. While cutting wood with a chainsaw, people should wear safety glasses, working boots, gloves, long trousers, and a long-sleeved shirt. Regular users are advised to acquire a safety helmet fitted with a visor and earmuffs, and wear a protective overall.

People should also be weary of working alone with this tool. For safety reasons, a working partner can keep an eye on proceedings. At a minimum, a mobile phone should be kept within easy reach.

Other tools needed

Urban residents who buy ready-cut firewood may only need a cutting axe and a cutting block. However, the full toolset includes the following additional items:

  • An iron wedge to split logs into smaller pieces.
  • Plastic wedges used in combination with a chainsaw. These are wedged into the split area of a partially cut log above the chainsaw blade. It prevents the log pinching and jamming the chainsaw.
  • A sledgehammer to drive one or more iron wedges into a log for the purpose of splitting it.
  • A chopping block. This should have a diameter of at least 30cm (12”) and it should stand approximately knee-height. There are also safety issues that are of concern with chopping blocks. In essence, they must stand firmly on a solid piece of ground.
  • A measuring tape to mark where the log can be cut in a progressive sequence.

How to cut trees

The trade-talk for cutting trees refers to it as a three-part process: fell, limb, crosscut.

For safety reasons, the cutter should survey the tree in an effort to identify branches and limbs with inherent tension. These could snap and cause injury when the tension is released.

The process should start by cutting tree branches off the main tree trunk. Some people with experience recommend cutting trees into 3 metre logs, a suitable length for stacking the wood while it dries.

Once the logs are ready to be cut, the practical approach is to make a series of incisions every 40 cm (16”) which marks where the log can be cut in a progressive sequence.

Before starting the chainsaw, make absolutely certain that the log is not going to roll or move during the cutting process as this could cause serious injury.

The ground where the cutter stands should be free of debris, loose stones, tufts of grass, animal burrows and other impediments that could cause stumbling or falling. The cutter should take a position which provides upper body support, with the feet slightly further apart than shoulder width.

A chainsaw cut can be made either in a downward or an upward direction. Try a downward cut first as it provides better support and control. If tension in the log causes the saw to jam, the cutter can try cutting upwards instead.

Every cut made should be perpendicular to the length of the log to ensure the cut pieces will stand firmly on the chopping block when they are to be split.

How to split logs

There is a technique involved in wielding an axe or a sledge hammer. However, the first requirement is to make sure the chopping block stands firmly on solid ground.

The prime requirement is to swing the axe so that it travels in a straight arc. This will ensure that  the cutting edge of the blade is vertical with the log on impact. It is essential to aim at the center of the log. Logs also split more easily when cut along the grain.

The position taken should be such that the arms are outstretched on impact. Stand as far away from the chopping block as possible to allow this to happen. A wide stance with feet well apart will ensure stability and safety.

The inexperienced cutter can experiment with the required swing motion. Some sources recommend that one hand should be placed well up on the shaft and near the head of the axe. As the swing progresses, this hand can then slide back to the top of the shaft. Others recommend that both hands are placed at the top of the shaft. Whichever approach you try, swing slowly and safely until a safe technique has been mastered. If, for some reason, you should miss the log or the chopping block, you must make sure that the swing arc does not land the axe blade on your foot or lower leg. Keep the legs wide apart. Golfers should also beware; we are not looking for a golf swing here.

Clearly, all logs will not split completely on the first impact. There are a couple of approaches to handle this situation. Try lifting the log with the axe handle, turn the axe around and swing the reverse side of the axe into the chopping block. Alternatively, use a sledgehammer to drive a steel wedge into the split area of the log.

How to store firewood

To burn efficiently, split wood needs to be stored for a period of 6-9 months. The preferred method is to store the wood on a rack that keeps the bottom layer of the stack off the ground. This ensures airflow and prevents the bottom layer from rotting. The wood pile can then be covered with a tarpaulin. The rack must also be secured so that small children do not tip it over accidentally and suffer injury.

Wood fires are always enjoyable but always keep safety as the prime requirement.