Become an Urban Lumberjack

You don't need your own woodlot to start a thriving part-time business as an urban lumberjack.
By David Markson
September/October 1981
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If you are planning to start an urban lumberjacking business of your own, you'll need—in addition to a few tools—a place that's suitable for splitting and stacking all of the logs.
DAVID MARKSON
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Last fall and winter, I cut enough firewood to heat my seven-room house and bring in a substantial profit ...even though my home is in the heart of suburban New Jersey, only 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan! And if you live in or near a large city, as I do, you might also be able to keep your woodpile high—while earning a steady income—by cashing in on readily available free fuel.

Just about every country dweller realizes the value of good cordwood, you see, but in the cities and suburbs great quantities of this valuable natural fuel go to waste every year. Scrap wood from urban building projects is just as often discarded as it is recycled, and streets in many older residential neighborhoods are lined with massive oaks and maples that are regularly trimmed. So anyone with a little free time, a few tools, and some elementary knowledge of woodcutting can help him- or herself to a bonanza of free-for-the-hauling firewood.

Open for Business

I launched my career as an urban lumberjack when Hurricane David's violent winds littered the streets of my New Jersey town with enough tree trunks and tree limbs to fuel a whole battalion of stoves.

As I watched the city's cleanup crews feeding cord after cord of perfectly good wood into the steel jaws of chipping machines, I had a brainstorm: Who would object if I were to reach some of the fallen timber before the municipal workers did, and cut the logs to cart home for my fireplace? I set to it right away, and within a couple of afternoons—using only a bucksaw and a compact car— I collected nearly two cords of wood!

After that encouraging start, my project quickly mushroomed into a small but steady business, which brought in over $1,000 last year (not including the cash I saved by reducing my own heating bills). I've discovered numerous sources of free wood to supply my own fireplace and stove. I now have a long list of customers to whom I can sell the surplus, and my profits have enabled me to buy a chain saw, a used pickup truck, and a new airtight wood stove.

I'm willing to bet that you could easily duplicate my success whether you plan to cut wood just for your personal needs, or to harvest enough to start a full-scale delivery service. However, although urban lumberjacking is relatively easy to break into, it isn't an ideal line of work for everyone. The initial investment in equipment doesn't have to be large, but you will have to spend many hours cutting, splitting, and stacking wood. If you're not prepared to make that kind of commitment, you'd better plan to pay for having your fuel delivered to your doorstep this winter. On the other hand, if the idea of being your own boss and working up a good honest sweat with vigorous outdoor work does appeal to you, then read on ...and good luck!

Where to Find Free Wood

As you begin to collect stock for your business, you'll probably gain a new understanding of the term "windfall," since your main source of scrounged wood will be trees and limbs that have been blown down. In fact, you can sometimes gather a whole year's inventory after just one major storm. City maintenance teams usually clear the streets of broken limbs within one or two days after the skies clear, though, so you'll have to move quickly. To save time, simply saw fallen trunks and large branches into the longest pieces you can fit into your vehicle, then drop them off at home before heading back to the streets for another load. (Later on, of course, you can cut and split the large logs into fireplace and stove lengths.)

Ice storms often provide almost as much wood as heavy winds do. The winter tempests generally dislodge smaller branches than do hurricanes or tornadoes, but you can always use more kindling ...and remember, it's all free, so don't be too choosy!

Do be careful, however, about what kind of wood you take home. Sometimes you'll come across a tree or a limb that's fallen during calm weather, for no apparent reason. Examine such specimens carefully, because they may be infested with wood-eating insects. On the other hand, many deadfalls are perfectly good, and it's wise to explore new neighborhoods every once in a while—or simply to vary the route you take to work—in order to keep an eye out for such "gifts."

Believe it or not, homeowners will at times actually assist your wood-gathering efforts by stacking fallen or pruned branches at the curb. Of course, the leavings will only be carted off by the city sanitation department if you don't haul them away, so take advantage of the situation. Simply knock on the door. and ask the resident's permission to remove some of the timber he or she has left at the curb. Most of the time you'll receive an affirmative answer. If a homeowner hesitates, you might offer to chop up some fireplace lengths in exchange for the rest of the load. 

It's even possible to find finished lumber that's been thrown away! For example, a builder who recently cleared a large wooded lot in my neighborhood provided a double bonanza. First, he left all of the logs (conveniently sawed into perfect fireplace lengths) for scavengers like me. Then later when the house construction was finished—I was able to collect hundreds of broken 2 X 4's and other odd-sized boards, which I split into piles of kindling.

When there hasn't been a storm for months and all your other usual sources of free wood are exhausted, pay a visit to the town or county landfill. Either one might be your best source of up-for-grabs fuel ...provided, of course, that dump scavenging is legal in your area. Logs that are too big for the city's chipping machines are routinely left in such places to rot. These huge timbers often measure over two feet in diameter. However, it's likely to be against regulations to use a chain saw in the dump, so you'd better take along some strong friends to help you load the monsters. You can cut the logs to size when you get home.

Yet another way to round up fireplace fuel is to trim unwanted wood from people's yards. You'll usually be working on small-scale "cases" which most tree surgeons would charge heavily for, but which can be handled by anyone with a ladder and a few tools. Of course, you'll have to be careful not to tackle jobs that really do need a professional's attention (such as removing an 80-foot oak that's leaning precariously over a $200,000 residence). However, a suburban homeowner who wants to get rid of a 15-foot apple tree that's no longer bearing fruit would be a perfect customer for your cut-it-and-haul-it services. (And, don't feel any guilt about charging $25 or $30 for your time and effort, either;  the pros would likely charge two to three times that much! )

Equipping Your Business

If you plan to get into urban woodcutting on a commercial scale, you'll soon find that you can't function without a truck and a chain saw. Passenger cars don't usually have the suspension needed to carry large quantities of wood safely. Even a van—although it may have ample room—likely isn't adequately sprung for hauling heavy loads. Once I had tired of loading the trunk of my compact car over and over again, I purchased a 3/4-ton '69 pickup, and it's worked very well for transporting logs and delivering split cordwood. If you're concerned about gas mileage, you might want to consider buying one of the smaller-bed trucks ...but remember that you won't be able to load it with as much wood as a larger model could handle.

The amount and kind of cutting you plan to do will determine the size and weight of saw that best suits your needs. For my medium-sized business, I have found a 3.2-horsepower machine with a 16-inch blade to be very satisfactory. (Be sure to buy a gas fueled model, though, since the electric units are often underpowered ...and you can't be bothered with dragging along an extension cord every place you go.) In addition to a trustworthy saw, your beginning woodcutter's tool kit should include a six- or eight-pound maul, a sledge of the same weight, and a couple of wedges.

Marketing the Surplus

Whenever you cut a load of wood, try to split each log into the smallest pieces practical, to help it season quickly. Once the wood is processed and stacked, you'll want to let it "cure" for at least nine months before marketing it.

Once it's well seasoned, you should have little trouble selling your surplus wood, as long as you charge a fair price and give an honest measure. Of course, it also helps to undersell the competition by a slight margin. In my area, a cord of seasoned wood sold for $100 (and up) last year. I offered my stock at $90 a cord, and I couldn't fill all of the orders I received as a result of word-of-mouth advertising around the neighborhood!

Furthermore, I supplemented my suburban lumberjacking income by selling small loads of wood to apartment dwellers in Manhattan. Most city folks are used to paying astronomical prices even for kindling, so I had no trouble at ail securing orders for my less expensive bundles (I checked local prices, then cut them by 10 to 20%) .

You might also find that, in addition to being a very salable item, split wood is a valuable commodity on the bartering market. Last winter, for example, a colleague drove me to work every day for several weeks in exchange for a small load of fireplace logs. Later, a friend of mine who's an expert plumber repaired my toilet in return for stovewood.

Hired Hands

On occasion, you may find it necessary to hire a few part-time helpers to assist with the tasks that are just too big for one person to handle. I occasionally employ a couple of strong high school students to lift heavy logs and to carry wood long distances. The young people work happily for the minimum wage (since that's more than many after-school jobs pay).

When I need assistance with lighter chores such as moving split and seasoned timber from the garage into the truck or onto my own porch—I sometimes recruit a couple of the neighborhood youngsters who invariably show up to watch "the guy with the garage full of wood". The children are enthusiastic volunteers, and I can repay them with a mug of hot chocolate and 50¢ or so.

Problems ... and Rewards

Of course, no business is without its negative aspects, and any number of problems can befall the urban lumberjack. My biggest difficulty has been a lack of storage space. My garage is always packed to the rafters with drying wood. I'm also hard pressed to find a suitable area in which to split and store the fuel. In fact, if my customer list expands this fall, I'll have to rent another garage or fenced lot where I can process the orders.

Equipment failure can also hinder the smooth operation of your enterprise. I missed out on the windfalls that resulted from a tremendous storm last summer simply because my chain saw was in "dry dock" at the repair shop. An old truck can be counted on to conk out at any time, too (usually when you're swamped with orders to deliver), and everybody knows how expensive repair bills can be! Even the simple splitting tools require maintenance: I've broken $20 worth of handles in one year!

And, as I mentioned earlier, the urban lumberjack should always be on the lookout for wood-eating insects. Don't take home any timbers that appear to be infested, and never store a large supply of logs in your basement or in an attached garage.

Finally, take precautions to avoid on-the-job accidents. Always wear gloves, goggles, and earplugs when sawing trees or limbs. Keep your tools in safe working condition. In addition, never increase the risk inherent in this kind of work by tackling a job that you aren't 100% certain you can handle.

You know the old lumberjack's motto, "If you cut your own wood, it'll warm you twice." Well, I consider that an understatement: I find that cutting—and selling—my own wood warms me many times. To understand what I mean, picture yourself tramping through a snow-covered lot in midwinter with an axe on your shoulder ...splitting thick logs with a couple of clean strokes ...delivering a load of fragrant, well-seasoned wood to a satisfied customer ...pocketing some extra cash for the holidays ...and, of course, sitting by your own roaring (and free) fire on a stormy night.

Not many jobs—either city- or country-based—can offer such attractive working conditions. So I can just about guarantee that, should you decide to become an urban woodcutter this winter, you'll "warm" to your new occupation in no time!


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