At 98 years old, economist and activist Scott Nearing said, “Well, at least I can still split and carry in the wood.”
Unlike Scott Nearing, most of us mortals find out well before our late 90s that we’re aging, and cutting firewood just emphasizes that fact. I’ve been burning wood ever since Mother Earth News published plans for making your own woodburning stove out of a discarded hot water heater in the January/February 1978 issue (you can also view the plans). It seems like every year since then, I find a new ache or pain when cutting wood. As my orthopedist says, “Everybody over 60 years old has degenerative disc disease. It’s just that some folks have it worse than others.” If you, like me, are the “some folks” who have it worse, cutting wood definitely gets harder and harder as the years go by.
To find easier ways to process firewood, you should take a look at all the steps that you now perform to turn a tree into heat. It should quickly become apparent that many steps involve lifting and transporting. Moving firewood is usually more work than actually cutting and splitting, and is definitely hard on your back.
So, the first step is to review how you cut firewood and write down all the steps you perform. Then, you should analyze what tools you have available to help with or eliminate each step. Don’t limit yourself to the tools I’ve listed, because you may have tools that aren’t available to me.
What Works for Me
I have a compact utility tractor with pallet forks on the loader and a backhoe with a thumb. I have multiple pallets with 16-inch-high sidewalls. I also have a splitter with a hydraulic crane that serves as a log lift. Here are my steps for creating firewood while saving my back:
1. If the log to be sawn needs to be lifted, I use the pallet forks or backhoe to lift the log to a height convenient for cutting, and then cut the log.
2. I load the firewood rounds into a walled pallet using a backhoe with a thumb attachment.
3. I pick up the loaded pallet using a loader with pallet forks and then deliver it to the splitter.
4. To put the rounds on the splitter beam, I use a hydraulic crane attached to the log splitter.
5. I split the round and toss the pieces onto a pallet. Then, I take the loose pieces and stack them tightly in an upright pallet.
6. Using straps and the loader, I then move the pallet of split firewood to a storage area. I have multiple pallets, but probably will never have enough for all the storage I need. In this picture, the pallet was already on a dolly when it was filled at the splitter.
7. If the pallet isn’t already on a dolly, I’ll use the tractor to strap a dolly onto the wood-filled pallet before flipping the pallet and dolly onto its wheels. Now, I can roll the wood into the area next to the stove. Our stove is located in a walkout basement, so there’s a flat and level path from the garage to the stove. I have two dollies so one can be staged or loaded while the other is by the stove.
8. I toss the wood into the stove, and I have heat!
In my process stream, nothing heavier than an individual piece of split firewood is lifted by hand. And that only happens twice: once from the splitter to the pallet, and then again from the pallet to the stove.
This process is designed to meet my needs and to utilize what tools I have. My only purchases were the hydraulic crane, the dollies, and the thumb attachment for the backhoe. I also added the sidewalls to the composite pallets that a friend gave me.
Now, you’re ready to develop your own process, tailored to your needs, methods, and the tools that you already have available or are willing to buy. All sorts of possibilities may exist in your environment.
After you’ve worked out your system, try it in the woods. Come home at the end of the day and think about what went right, what didn’t work, and what can be improved. Modify your process flow and then try again. Here are some tools and methods you might consider to save your own back:
Conserve household energy. The easiest firewood to cut is the firewood you don’t have to cut at all. Conserve energy by sealing air leaks, adding insulation, and lowering your home’s interior temperature. If you’re a Mother Earth News reader, you probably already have some good ideas about how to make your home more energy-efficient. Many utility companies are also willing to provide home energy audits free of charge.
Increase woodstove efficiency. Many modern woodstoves are significantly more efficient than older stoves. If a new, efficient stove isn’t financially feasible, some older stoves can be improved by adding firebrick insulation around the fire chamber.
Cut smaller trees. Smaller trees produce smaller rounds. Smaller rounds are easier to handle, lift, and carry. I usually like to cut trees that are no more than 12 inches in diameter at breast height. Sometimes, however, big trees die and just have to be handled. Bummer.
Friends. Everything is easier with more hands. And the help is usually free if all share the bounty.
Two-man timber carrier. This is just a crossbeam with a set of log tongs in the middle. Two people with one of these tools can easily lift three times what one person can lift alone. And it’s cheap.
Front-end loader bucket. With a bucket on your loader, you’ll be able to load freshly cut rounds of firewood into the bucket and deliver them to the splitter, load pieces of firewood from the staging pile and deliver them to the woodpile, lift logs out of the dirt, and all sorts of other tasks.
Set of log tongs attached to a bucket or backhoe. You can pick up freshly cut rounds of firewood and deliver them directly to the splitter beam, eliminating manual carrying and lifting of the rounds onto the splitter.
Set of pallet forks on your tractor’s loader. You can lift logs with a set of forks even more easily than you can using a bucket. You can also move loaded pallets from point A to point B. If you have a fork with a hole in the end, you can attach a set of log tongs and move rounds as in the previous step.
Pallets. These are very useful for moving materials.
Thumb attachment for your backhoe. The thumb makes it possible to pick up rounds of firewood with the backhoe without the operator dismounting, as one has to do when using log tongs. This will let you place the rounds in a pallet, which can then be moved a longer distance.
Log lift for your splitter. Mechanisms such as a hydraulic log-lifting ramp, a hitch-mounted hydraulic crane, or an overhead beam and trolley with a hoist can ease one of the hardest tasks in firewood cutting — lifting the logs onto the log-splitter beam. You may also consider a vertical splitter because it removes the need to lift the round onto the beam.
DR Versa-Trailer. One of the DR trailer models has an integrated hydraulic crane that can be used to load firewood rounds onto the trailer and then to unload them from the trailer and place them on the log splitter. This might be especially attractive if you don’t have a tractor with a bucket but do have an all-terrain vehicle.
Log cart. A two-wheel log cart makes carrying wood from the woodpile to the stove much easier than doing it by hand. A cart designed for the task is significantly easier to use than a generic two-wheel hand truck.
As we get older, we tend to use more and more supportive mechanisms. Back in my heyday, the only tools that I used to harvest firewood were a tractor to drag logs to the trailer, a chainsaw to cut the logs into rounds, and a splitting maul to split the rounds into firewood. After the firewood was tossed onto the trailer, it was backed into the garage, where it was close enough to the stove that no additional storage was needed.