Cutting Firewood: Confessions of a Homestead Woodcutter (Life Lessons and a List)

D. Glenn Miller
17 Min Read

Gone are the days when I would just throw a chainsaw in the truck and head out into the woods to cut firewood.  I’m too old for that now.  Now there’s a protocol and a checklist.  Age and a measure of wisdom, I’d like to believe, have a way of seasoning a woodcutter.

Although I’ve never worked as a professional logger, in my 61 years I have done my share of woodcutting for my own use and for jobs I’ve held.  With that experience comes a certain degree of savvy—not to mention foolishness, honestly—about how to do or not do things.

We heat almost entirely with wood, and we have a 30-acre woodlot that keeps us well supplied.  A woodstove in the kitchen serves in cool to cold weather, and the wood furnace in the basement serves in cold to frigid weather.  Then there are the three fireplaces.  All this translates into a considerable amount of woodcutting.

So let’s see, what are the priorities when cutting firewood for fuel?  Okay, well, there’s safety.  Then there’s safety.  In my early and squirrely days, had someone asked me about my woodcutting priorities, I might have shrugged and then said something like, “Beer.”

Until recent years, I used no safety equipment at all when I was cutting firewood.  Whatever clothing I was wearing at the time and the chainsaw—that was it.  All that has changed.  I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone in such blatant disregard for safety, but I certainly don’t condone it.  And although I’m not superstitious, I am loath to say that I’ve never had a chainsaw injury—not even a minor one—as of this writing.

Must-Have Gear for Cutting Firewood

Though it’s serious, the scene of me working in the woods nowadays might appear comical.  That’s because effective safety equipment doesn’t necessarily have to be specific to logging or woodcutting.  And I’m a special case because my shins are magnets for injury—chainsaw or no chainsaw.  I don’t know why, but they are, they have been for years, and it’s worse now that I’m older.

So, okay, let’s get this out of the way.  I wear old baseball-catcher’s shin guards from the flea market to work in the woods.  There, I said it.  I can, and have, hurt my shins getting in the truck before ever even going out to cut firewood.  But I’ve also had the saw kick things back into my shins.  Then there’s the spring-loaded limb lying in wait, like a drawn bow, ready for me to cut it and release the tension and sending it flailing toward me with a vengeance.  When I was younger I seemed to have anticipated and dodged these pitfalls much better.

Yes, and chain-clogging chaps—anyone using a chainsaw should have them, but I don’t, so I should be getting a pair soon especially considering my slowing reflexes.

Although not as ridiculous looking as the catcher’s shin guards, my hardhat is a bit unconventional, too.  It’s a green, circa-1960s hand-me-down from a family member, and I’m damned glad to have it.  I don’t always wear the hardhat because sometimes working in the woods isn’t much different from taking a walk in the park when it comes to safety.  Even though the risk of a limb falling is not zero, a casual outing in the woods doesn’t often involve a hardhat or a helmet.  If there’s an obvious widowmaker in an area where I’m cutting firewood, though, I’ll don the hat.

Safety glasses—what are safety glasses? Well, I know what they are now.  I have several pairs and I try to keep them in strategic locations so they’re always right where I need them.  Like so many other things that seem to be more of an issue now that I’m older, the incidents of debris flying up and trying to hit me in the eye appear to be on the rise.  So safety glasses are on my list for sure.

And yes, I should get a modern woodsman’s hardhat with a face shield, but sometimes I want the hat without the glasses while other times the glasses without the hat.  Besides, I haven’t found quite the right item at the flea market yet.  On a related note, I do find that the sound frequency of my saw doesn’t seem to bother my ears, so I don’t feel the need for the earmuffs.  A different saw could change that.

The aphorism “Do as I say, not as I do” is time-honored, and it applies whether the advice is to someone else or to yourself.  I can’t count the times I’ve uttered something like, “You idiot!”—or other sentiments not repeatable in polite company—to myself after not following my own advice.  Some might have resulted in serious injury while others only in damage to equipment.

While I’m not claiming that mine is the be-all and end-all protocol, I have a checklist for heading out into the woods.  Many items are not safety-related but are necessary or helpful in getting the job done.  Do I always run through the list item by item? No, but I make it a point to try.  For what it’s worth, here’s my list:

chainsaw, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
A regular ratchet and socket work better than the standard-issue scwrench for the saw.

Chainsaw (sounds obvious):  I haven’t done it yet, but I know for sure it could happen—getting out in the woods to start cutting firewood and realizing the saw is not in the truck.  I fuel and oil the saw and put it in the truck every time… so far.  The flipside would be leaving the saw in the woods when packing up to haul the load back.  To prevent that, I’m in the habit of putting the saw on the ground right by the driver’s door if I think I may be finished with it.  That way, I can’t get in the truck without tripping over the saw.  Putting it right in the back of the truck doesn’t work because I’m still loading wood and the saw could get buried.  (I have a small truck and there’s no room in the cab for it.) The day I trip over the saw but still get in the truck and leave the saw is the day I should hang up my hardhat and call it quits.

Saw Tools:  The standard scwrench, a chain file, and a small screwdriver for the saw’s carb screws are in the toolkit.  I also keep a dedicated ratchet with a half-inch socket for adjusting the chain, or for removing and reinstalling the bar and chain, in there.  I don’t like rounding off the corners of the bar nuts, something I’ve done with the scwrench.  And the screwdriver end digging into my hand isn’t my favorite thing either, hence the ratchet and socket.

cant hook, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
The cant hook is indispensable at times.
cant hook, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
There are, of course, limitations. It worked fine on this log after driving the hook in with a drilling hammer, but a larger-diameter log would be a problem.

Cant Hook:  Sometimes kicking a log to roll it, or a combination of lifting and kicking to roll it, will serve to get the log into position for cutting.  Other times, more persuasion is in order.  The cant hook—a good, old-fashioned lever with a hinged hook attached to the end for biting into the log—is a beautiful thing.

Ax & Hatchet:  A sharp ax is an efficient wood-cutting tool when used with skill.  The shape of the bit as viewed edge-on is key to the ax’s performance.  I’ve found that a bit with rounded shoulders below the cutting edge, no matter how sharp the edge is, makes for poor penetration into the cut.  The same goes for the hatchet.  Depending on the tree, sometimes I’ll do the limbing with the ax rather than the saw.  Then there’s the inevitable hidden limb that’s between the ground and the bottom of the log, the one that escaped limbing with the saw.  It’s often quicker and easier to take care of that with the ax than to bother with the saw after the bucking is done.

Axe and Hatchet, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
An axe and a hatchet—if kept plenty sharp—are the tools of choice for some woodcutting tasks.

Hammers & Wedges:  I keep a 10-pound sledge in the truck for stubborn things and for driving splitting wedges, and a smaller drilling-hammer in with my plastic wedges for tree felling.

Wood splitter sledge hammer, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
Pieces cut to length in the woods are sometimes too heavy to lift and carry to the truck. Splitting them on site is the solution to that problem.
Felling wedge, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
Now and then, a tree needs a little coaxing to get it to go in the right direction. That’s where the plastic felling wedges and drilling hammer come in.

Brush Cutter:  As with many woodlots, ours has trackways for wood access.  Eventually, low shrub growth—huckleberry in our case—begins to intrude into these access ways.  And since the heat shield to our truck’s catalytic converter is missing, I’m concerned about starting a fire when things are dry.  So I keep a manual, heavy-duty brush-cutter in the truck.  There’s also a fire extinguisher in there.

Brush cutter, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
A few passes with a good, sharp brush cutter will take care of brushy access ways.

Come-along:  I don’t have a power winch on the truck, so a come-along sometimes serves as my poor-man’s winch.  It’s light duty but comes in handy for sure when I’m cutting firewood, as in the times when I’ve had to drop medium-sized trees into brushy areas.  Rather than doing battle with brush to buck up a log, a combination of pulling with the truck and rope and pulling with the come-along gets the log out into the open where I can work it up more easily.

come along, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
A power winch would be nice, but this light-duty come-along serves well in many cases.

Farm Jack:  A while ago, a neighbor down the road was cleaning out his barn and had put out a bunch of things at the roadside with a “Free” sign.  Among the items was a farm jack, something that had been on my wish list for some time.  Although I’ve yet to use it, the jack promises to be a handy device.  It’s rated for 7,000 pounds, so it can do some heavy lifting, or—if rigged properly—some heavy pulling (with somewhat lower capacity) for things like vehicle recovery.

farm jack, floor jack, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
The farm jack is a real workhorse when the need arises. No fuel required—just elbow grease.

Branch Loppers & Hand Pruners:  These tools are indispensable.  It seems that on every outing there’s a new branch over the trackway wanting to break the antenna off my poor old truck.

Hand Saw:  Sometimes the chainsaw is overkill.  In addition to the wood furnace in our basement that accepts 12-inch diameter logs, we have a woodstove in the kitchen and fireplaces in other rooms that take small-diameter fuel.  A hand saw is sometimes the best choice for cutting smaller, dead wood to truck-bed length; the wood that I often find while out cutting bigger stuff for the furnace.  And a folding knife or multi-tool that includes a small saw-blade can be very handy for cleaning up those small whips that might have escaped limbing.  Hand-pruners or a hatchet work as well.

branch lopers and hand saw, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
Sometimes it’s the little things in life that need work. Branch loppers, hand pruners, and a hand saw come in handy.

Rope:  I keep thirty feet or so of three-strand twisted rope in the truck.  One that I’ve used is rated at over seven tons breaking strength and, in lieu of a power winch, it has served well in pulling logs up banks and in extracting large rocks from trackways.  In places where I have enough of a run with the truck, I attach the rope to either the hook in the front or to the hitch in the rear and pull.  (Of course, rope breaking strength, working loads, and such, are topics unto themselves.)

First Aid Kit:  It just makes sense to have a first aid kit on hand.  Make it a good one, though—not a stripped-down version.  We have one in a plastic case that measures about 3 by 10 by 12 inches, and we’ve added some of our own items.

first aid kit, woodcutting, cut firewood, Homestead Woodcutter, homesteading
A first aid kit—the one thing in your toolkit you don’t want to have to use.

Well, I’m pretty sure I’ve left out some essential details, but it’s unclear right now what they might be except for one final thought.  Though I don’t always succeed at it, whatever else happens, I do strive to follow a working guideline that my son and I were talking about recently.  We were discussing the matter of felling risky trees.  (Of course, they’re all risky, just some more than others.)  We agreed on a rule: “If you’re not confident in something, don’t do it.”  To that we added, “And of those things you are confident in, only do half.”

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