A Guide to Choosing Wood and Wood Cutting Tools

A compendium of useful knowledge on wood cutting and wood cutting tools, including which wood's best, splitting tools, how to split wood, wood fuel value, wood splitability chart and wood cords and piles.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
September/October 1987
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From Forest to fireplace: a compendium of useful knowledge.
ILLUSTRATION: KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
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This wood-burning almanac has all you need to know about selecting wood, wood cutting and wood cutting tools. 

A Guide to Choosing Wood and Wood Cutting Tools

From the crash of a newly felled tree in the woods to the first weak fingers of flame in a newly lit fire back home; from the resounding hollow "whomp" of a maul busting rounds to the deep, radiant warmth of a roaring stove; from the fundamental security of a well-built woodpile to the pioneer's pride in working for your home's heat — wood burning offers a continually fulfilling sequence of basic rural pleasures.

Getting wood in is work, hard work, lots of work, sometimes dangerous work. Turning cords of standing timber into stove pans of ash is far more time- and labor-consuming than turning up a thermostat dial with your thumb and forefinger.

But for millions of Americans, the rewards far outweigh the effort expended. Consider: A wood-burning home has a true hearth, a center of warmth that pulls family and friends together during the cold winter months. The task of gathering wood is exercise with a purpose — each billet you heft will serve your family. Last, getting heat from trees directly connects you to the natural world, just as harvesting fresh corn connects the gardener and bagging a winter's worth of venison bonds the hunter.

Recently we at MOTHER got to read some wonderful testaments to the allure of wood burning. It happened when we sat down to judge the "Great Woodpile Contest" announced last fall (in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 102). Oh, we'd expected that the dozens of entries we received would be varied-in fact, they included everything from a dome-stacked children's playhouse in British Columbia to a Minnesota yard containing 135 (!) stacked cords. But we were surprised by the deep affection often expressed by people for their hills and walls of cordwood.

The enthusiasm of these wood stackers inspired us to do some extra word stacking of our own. In their collective honor, we have created the following special section, "MOTHER's Wood-burning Almanac." These pages both announce the winners of our competition and share a four-cord pile of useful wood-burning lore — to help us all heat our homes for winters to come.

May your woodshed always be full and all your kindling dry.

WHICH WOOD'S BEST?

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke.
Apple wood will scent your room
With an incense like perfume.
Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter's cold.
But an ash wet or ash dry
A king shall warm his slippers by.
-Anonymous 

It's a volatile question, this matter of "best" firewood, one that has kindled fiery debate among wood burners for centuries. The wood one person swears by is sure to be the wood another person swears at.  

Truth be told, there is no clear best. Ounce for ounce and pound for pound, any given kind of firewood delivers virtually the same amount of heat as any other kind. A pound of pine, a pound of hickory, a pound of poplar, a pound of willow — each, properly seasoned, will produce about 7,000 BTU. It's density that makes a difference: An armload of pine weighs less than an armload of hickory, and thus yields less heat. The denser the wood, the higher the fuel value, and the higher the fuel value, the fewer trips you have to make to the woodbox to carry in an evening's warmth.

So goes conventional wood-burning lore. But BTU are only one measure of a wood's worth. Each species offers its own unique combination of properties: ease (or difficulty) of splitting, ash content, aroma, seasoning time, flame size, tendency to smoke or throw sparks. Black ash burns nicely but only after a long period of seasoning. White ash needs little seasoning. Rock elm ranks high in heat value but is hard (some say impossible) to split. Aspen and balsam poplar split easily but throw off a lot of smoke.

Some woods — particularly conifers and other low-density softwoods — burn fast, releasing all their heat in a few fiery moments. Others — notably dense hardwoods such as hickory, oak and ash — burn slowly, holding their coals hot and long. Each can serve a purpose: the quick burners for kindling, for fast heat, for a batch of biscuits on a cookstove; the slow burners for a romantic flickering fireplace or for strong, steady heat in the ole box stove. Likewise, each can be managed to serve the other's function: Split hardwood extra small, and it burns hot and fast. Refuel and tend your stove carefully, and low-density wood makes a perfectly acceptable heating fuel.

Probably the most important factor in choosing the "best" firewood for you is accessibility. Obviously, you're pretty much limited in your choice to whatever woods are available in your area. (Little wonder BTU charts like the one here irritate westerners, who have little access to high-ranked hardwoods and who have always heated their homes just fine, thank you, with such woods as fir, aspen and pine.) If you buy wood for heating your home, it probably pays to spend a little more to get the densest species available in your area. But if you cut and haul your own wood, the less work you can make of it the better. Is that hickory 300 yards off the road — and downhill, meaning you'd have to lug it up — really all that much better than the abundant yellow poplar growing (on level ground, yet) just a hoot 'n' holler from your back door? Also, consider the value of any tree — both monetary and environmental — before you cut. It's often better to thin low-grade wood from your lot for burning (or better yet, glean downed wood from construction sites and other clearing projects) than to topple healthy high-heat hardwood.

The chart here can serve as a general guide to firewood based on two important considerations: relative heat value and ease of splitting. But don't forget to weigh other factors, and don't hesitate to try whatever woods — including the so-called inferior types — are available to you. In many cases, it's not which wood you use, but how you season and burn it, that's important.

SPLITTING TOOLS

The swelling of satisfaction that comes the moment you split right through a round of wood, discovering two never-before-seen, fresh-grained faces, is hard to beat.

On the other hand, the fuming frustration you get when you pound, pound, pound on a stubborn billet that just won't open, wearing your nerves and body raw, will soon beat you.

Many times the difference between the two experiences boils down to using the right tools for the job.

Ax. With its thin head, the ax is not a good all-around splitting tool. It's too likely to get stuck in a half-split round. Its light weight, however, makes it fine for splitting small kindling pieces. The ax is, of course, the best hand chopping tool 

Sledge and wedges. A mid-sized (around 10-pound) sledgehammer and a couple of steel, 3- to 5-pound wedges are indispensable. Used together, they can split almost any stubborn, knotty billet. They can also help you rescue other tools that might become stuck in recalcitrant rounds. They're not all that quick and easy to use, though, so save 'em till you need 'em.

Splitting maul. The essential wood-splitting tool. The 8-pound maul (also called a go-devil or splitting ax) resembles a wedge on a stick. It's a much more forceful wood opener than an ax-and a lot less likely to get stuck. It won't split everything (you'll still need that sledge and wedges), but it's definitely the best all-purpose wood buster.

Monster Maul. A brand-name splitting maul with an especially large triangular head and all-steel body. It's preferred by some wood splitters, and for some good reasons — it never gets stuck in wood, its metal handle never breaks, and it can split many truly stubborn rounds. Some don't like it, however, because it's heavy (15 pounds) and the steel handle won't absorb impact shock the way a wooden one does. (Available for $24.95 postpaid from Sotz, Inc., Columbia Station, OH.)

The conclusion? An ax for little kindling wood, a sledge-and-wedge for the mean and gigantic slabs, a splitting (or Monster) maul for the main business.

KNOCK ON WOOD

Splitting wood can be invigorating exercise, a way to let off a little personal steam and even a means of communing with one's body and with nature. But there's an an to cleaving rounds of firewood, and using good technique can help. one learn that an all the faster.

Some tips:

Use a chopping block. A short chopping block will lift the wood off the ground, keep your splitting maul from being dulled by soil or stone and stop the ground from absorbing some of the force of your blow. A block is especially useful when you're chopping bits of kindling.

Stay relaxed. Sure, you want to bring that maul down with enough force to bust the billet (in time, you learn just how much force different rounds require), but don't tense your whole body. You'll just wear yourself out more quickly. Keep such "unused" pans as your neck and head relaxed.

Use good form. Face the round square, with your arms extended and hands apart, then swing the maul back around. At the top of your swing, slide your hands together at the handle, and pull 'er down.

Hit the wood flush. The maul face should hit the wood flat, not at an angle. To do so often requires bending your knees-not your back-just before impact.

Hit the checks. Go for the biggest open crack ("check") in the round. It's showing you where the wood wants to split.

Aim through the wood. Focus closely on where you want the maul to hit, and try to hit to the bottom of the round. Expect the maul to make it through, and it'll be more likely to do so.

Gather yourself between blows. Take a short pause, a breath and a rededication before you start your next swing. Don't race. Pace.

Don't resist the unsplittable object. When you come to a cross-grained, knotty piece that doesn't want to bust open, don't take it as a personal challenge. Toss it aside (you can cut it up later with a chain saw). Otherwise, you'll wear yourself out, lose your temper and get little other work done.

Outsmart the big rounds. Knock chunks off the sides all the way around until the main piece is small enough to split through the middle. Or bust a big round by driving a wedge through with a sledge or the back of your maul. (Never use the back of an ax for this.) If your wedge gets stuck, free it by driving another one in from the side of the crack. But don't drive the second wedge all the way in unless you've retrieved the first.

Split knots, saw crotches. If you can't avoid splitting a knot, either follow any guideline checks Or split right through the center of it. As for crotches (those V-shaped pieces where a limb meets the trunk), saw them into two pieces and split the pieces. Don't waste your strength trying to split the crotch open.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CHAIN SAW

A minisaw weighs about 7 pounds and has an engine displacement of about 2 cubic inches and a 10 inch to 14 inch guide bar. It's best for light cutting: pruning, trimming or harvesting a small supply of firewood.

A lightweight saw weighs between 9 and 12.5 pounds and has a displacement of 2.5 to 3 cubic inches and a 14 inch to 20 inch guide bar. It's good for cutting 3 or more cords of firewood a year.

A medium-duty saw weighs between 12.5 and 16 pounds and has an engine displacement of 3 to 4 cubic inches and a 16 inch to 25 inch bar. It's good for cutting lots of firewood and for many professional woodcutting jobs.

Anything larger is a heavy-duty production saw meant for serious full-time logging.

Electric chain saws are generally small (with 8 inch to 12 inch guide bars). They are good for yard work and sawing small logs. And they're quiet.

Most home woodcutters choose a light-weight or medium-duty saw. If you use a bar smaller than the longest the engine can handle, the saw should have a longer, more reliable life.

10 Golden Rules of Chain Saw Safety 

1. Wear protective gear, gloves and close-fitting clothing.
2. Keep the saw in good running order and the chain sharp.
3. Start the saw on the ground, braced safely with one foot.
4. Don't walk with a running saw.
5. Hold the saw firmly with both hands, keeping your thumbs curled around the handles. Keep your left arm as straight as possible.
6. Keep the tip of the bar from touching anything, to prevent kickback.
7. Never stand directly behind the saw blade. Keep your body to the left of the plane of chain rotation.
8. Don't bore the end of the bar straight into the work.
9. Take frequent breaks. You can't work safely if you're tired.
10. Work with a companion or take a loud whistle in case you need to call for help.

A CORD AIN'T A CORD AIN'T A ...

Because the weight of wood varies widely (depending on species and moisture content), firewood is sold by a volume unit, the cord, instead of by weight. But watch out if you're shopping-cords vary, too. A full cord consists of enough wood to make a pile exactly 8 feet wide by 4 feet tall by 4 feet deep, or 128 cubic feet. A face cord is also 8 feet wide by 4 feet tall, but only one log deep. And that log may be 2 feet long (making the pile half a full cord), 1 foot long (making 1/4 cord) or whatever.

So don't end up with a foot-deep face cord in your yard when you meant to order a full cord. Get your terms straight before you buy.

By the way, in many areas, firewood is sold by the pickup truck load. How does that translate into cords? According to Sandy Lynch, a firewood dealer in our area who cuts and sells over 800 cords a year, a long-bed, wide-body pickup (one with the fender wells on the inside of the bed) can hold 6/10 of a cord if the wood is packed level with the top of the truck bed, and 3/4 of a cord if the load is rounded up above the bed. ("I once squeezed a full cord into one of those trucks by packing a straight-sided load all the way to the top of the windows. But driving a load like that presents some problems.")

Sandy says a short-bed, wide-body truck holds a half-cord packed flush, and that trucks smaller than that hold around 1/3 of a cord. Last, he notes that firewood is heavy — a full cord of green hardwood weighs close to 6,000 pounds — so don't pack your pickup with more than it can haul.

Of course, how much wood is really in a stacked cord depends on the amount of air space between the logs. There's not much point in worrying about it-that factor's determined pretty much by the wood's size and shape. But, who knows, you might someday meet a seller who tries to "fluff up" a pile. If so, just respond like Jim, a Down-East character in John Wallace's Conversations With Zachery Adams:

"Skin Jubb landed a load of cordwood at Jim's store a few weeks ago, small stuff, and half of it crookedr'n a dog's hind leg. Skin took his pay and started to hurry off as Jim went out to look it over. But 'fore Skin got out of hearin' Jim called him back-then handed him a quarter extry and a fi'cent cigar. 'Wut's all this for?' says Skin."

"'Waal,' says Jim, 'the quarter is for the extry time you must-a spent huntin' up the smallest, crookest sticks you could find-and the cigar's a prize for stackin' 'em up into a cord o' wood you could chase a cat through from any p'int of the compass!' "

WINNING WOODPILES

"How does your woodpile stack up against the rest?" we challenged last fall (in MOTHER EARTH NEWS issue 102). "You're invited to find out by entering MOM's first-ever Great Woodpile Contest.

"And so you did — we received entries from coast to coast, from Minnesota to Georgia. You showed us woodpiles big and woodpiles small, woodpiles plain and woodpiles approaching the fantastic. We were deluged with woodpiles . . . and with the abiding message that heating your homes with wood is more than a matter of practical choice; for many of you, it's a labor of love.

So when it came time to judge the entries, we found ourselves particularly drawn to those individuals whose woodpiles best represented this affectionate spirit. We're proud to announce six equal winners, each of whom will receive a prize of $50.

Leo Metz
South Elgin, Illinois
"My son Mike and I fill this old corn bin to the top with firewood in the summer. The bin measures about 16 feet in diameter and 11 1/2 feet high — it holds enough wood to last two winters if we don't get around to filling it up next summer."

Bill Kiebel
Petoskey, Michigan
(Submitted by Win Sluyter) "Here's my neighbor, Bill Kievel, 76. He keeps the neatest and straightest woodpile around. He cuts each piece to measure. My wife asked him once what he does when he has to put a crooked log on the pile. His answer: 'You have to get another crooked piece to go alongside of it.'"

David J. Asselin, Sr.
Yale, Michigan
"This fall I was cutting fresh white ash and maple and some apple wood, so as I stacked it I laced in a 'smiley face' with some of the darker apple."

Wanda and Don Palmer
Snohomish, Washington
"My husband ran out of room for our wood supply and we hadn't finished the siding on his shop — so this was the result. Our 'firewood wall' is 24 feet wide and I don't know how high. We've had people stop and get out of their cars to take a better look!"

George C. Boise
Norwich, New York
"I've piled our wood like this for several years; it sheds water like a duck's back. I start it by leaning the bottom logs against a fence post driven into the ground. As far as I can tell, the sky's the limit — this pile is 18 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. It contains about 25 face cords of wood."

Michael Hawkes
Sointula, British Columbia
Michael relaxes with creative wood stacking and boating. He says, "I filled our woodshed with 12 cords of alder — and still had some left over. So I made the kids a playhouse." [Editors Note: Michael is an exceptionally skillful wood stacker. As a rule, woodpiles don't make safe play areas.] 

WOOD BURNING: FIVE CHOICES

If you're considering adopting wood heat this winter, it'll be well worth your while to spend a little time assessing your needs and wants and comparing them with the capabilities of the five major types of systems.

Fireplace. We don't have to tell you what fireplaces are, but a few facts about them might surprise you. A typical fireplace doesn't actually add to the net heat of a household. Properly designed fireplaces — following the centuries-old Count Rumford formula — do help warm a home but seldom extract more than 20% of the heat value in a load of wood. Additions such as glass doors and blowers help but still fall short of making the fireplace an effective house warmer.

Freestanding stove. Controlled-combustion space heaters — particularly the new low-emission stoves — are the most efficient type of wood-burning appliance. Noncatalytic woodstoves heat up comparatively quickly, so they're well suited to a house that needs only occasional heat.

A label certifying a freestanding stove or fireplace insert for sale in Oregon describes the heater's efficiency and particulate emissions. Look to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality label for a way to make rough comparisons between heaters.

Fireplace insert. Most of what can be said about freestanding heaters goes for fireplace inserts, since they're generally just adaptations of freestanding stoves. However, inserts present only one face to the room, the others being set into the fireplace opening, so some of their radiant heat is absorbed by the masonry of the chimney. Installation is complicated by the hidden connection to the chimney, which, when combined with the cost of fans to extract heat from the hidden surfaces, makes inserts more expensive to purchase and install than freestanding stoves.

The main advantage of a fireplace insert over a freestanding stove is that it takes up little space in a room.

Furnace. There are a few wood furnaces that boast high efficiency and low emissions, but the typical central heater wins no awards in either category.

The main advantages of furnaces are that the heat delivered to the house can be closely controlled by a thermostat and that the mess of wood burning can be kept out of the living area. In addition, if the unit is designed to burn a load of fuel at a rapid rate and store the heat in a liquid or solid for later use, it may burn cleanly, leaving little creosote. For comfort, a radiant distribution is preferable to a fan-forced air system.

Thermal-storage fireplace. Frequently referred to as "high-mass" or by ethnicity (Russian or Finnish), these cleverly designed fireplaces have been keeping nonhern Europeans warm for centuries. The thermal-storage fireplace's main feature is a long, twisting smoke passage that exposes a large surface area to the hot gases. When the heaters are fired with short, hot blazes made from small sticks, much of the warmth is absorbed into the masonry as the smoke winds its way through the convoluted flue. Once the fuel is consumed, a damper is closed, and the fireplace is left to radiate its heat into the room for as much as eight hours. A good thermal-storage fireplace is twice as efficient as the best Rumford design.

Thermal-storage fireplaces are panicu1arly well suited to northern climates where heat demand is predictable. The delay betwet;n firing and significant heat delivery can be more than an hour, so it's necessary to anticipate heat needs and build fires on a suitable schedule.

Thermal-storage fireplaces offer gentle radiant heat. The feeling of sidling up to a 100 degrees Fahrenheit surface after a morning shower is nothing short of delicious.


RELATIVE FUEL VALUE

High
21 to 26 Million BTU per Cord  

Apple
Beech, American
Beech, blue (American hornbeam)
Birch, black
Birch, yellow
Dogwood
Hickory
Ironwood (hardhack, hop hornbeam)
Locust, black
Maple, sugar
Oak, black
Oak, red
Oak, white
Osage orange
Persimmon
Serviceberry, downy (shadbush)
 

Medium
17 to 20 Million BTU per Cord 

Ash, black
Ash, green
Ash, white
Birch, gray
Birch, white
Cherry, black
 

Elm, American
Fir, Douglas
Locust, honey
Maple, red
Maple, silver
Pine, longleaf (Southern yellow)
Pine, red (Norway pine)
Sweet gum (red gum)
Sycamore, American
Tamarack (Eastern larch)
Tupelo, black (black gum)
Walnut, black
 

Low
11 to 16 Million BTU per Cord  

Aspen, bigtooth
Aspen, quaking
Basswood
Box-elder
Butternut (white walnut)
Catalpa
Cottonwood
Fir, balsam
Hemlock
Pine, white
Poplar, balsam
Poplar, yellow (tulip poplar)
Spruce, red
Willow, black
 


WEDGE-RATED GUIDE TO WOOD "SPLITTABILITY"

KEY; 1 = Piece of cake; 2 = Good exercise; 3 = A challenge; 4 = Spitting headache!

Apple; 1
Ash, black; 1
Ash, green; 1
Ash, white; 1
Aspen, bigtooth; 1
Aspen, quaking; 1
Basswood; 1
Beech, American; 3
Beech, blue (American hornbeam); 3
Birch, black; 1
Birch, gray; 1
Birch, white; 1
Birch, yellow; 2
Box-elder; 1
Butternut (white walnut); 1
Catalpa; 1
Cherry, black; 2
Cottonwood; 2
Dogwood; 3
Elm, American; 4
Elm, rock; 4
Fir, Douglas; 1
Fir, balsam; 1
Hemlock; 1
Hickory; 2
Ironwood (hardhack, hop hornbeam); 3
Locust, black; 3
Locust, honey; 2
Maple, red; 2
Maple, silver; 2
Maple, sugar; 2
Oak, black; 2
Oak, red; 2
Oak, white; 3
Osage, orange; 2
Persimmon; 2
Pine, longleaf (Southern yellow); 1
Pine, red (Norway pine); 1
Pine, white; 1
Poplar, balsam; 1
Poplar, yellow (tulip poplar); 2
Serviceberry, downy (shadbush); 2
Spruce, red; 1
Sweet gum (red gum); 4
Sycamore, American; 4
Tamarack (Eastern larch); 2
Tupelo, black (black gum); 4
Walnut, black; 1
Willow, black; 1
 


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