Cutting Your Own Firewood

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We use more heat energy in our homes than any other energy.
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“Backyard Woodland” by Josh VanBrakle helps readers who own forestland take care of their woods and get the most out of their forest property.

Backyard Woodland (Countryman Press, 2016) by Josh VanBrakle helps readers to care for and appreciate the woods in their backyard. As the first ever guide of its type for nurturing the land in Americans’ care, this book helps the 10 million Americans that own forestland to give it the attention and care it deserves. The following excerpt is his guide to cutting your own firewood.

When you think of carbon emissions, two big sources come to mind. One is electricity: big coal plants spewing carbon dioxide into the air. Driving is another: all those cars burning all that gas.

But there’s a third way we use energy, one that receives less attention. It’s heat. The US Energy Information Administration reports that we use more energy to heat our homes than any other home energy use. In northern regions like the one where I live, home heating consumes more energy than all other home energy uses combined. 

Much of that heat comes from fossil fuels. Natural gas and electricity dominate, but fuel oil and propane are also common, especially in rural areas without natural gas infrastructure.

When we burn these fuels, we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that has been trapped for millions of years. That’s not good for the climate. But if we burn wood, especially wood we’ve grown ourselves on our woodlots, the wood contains carbon that was in the atmosphere recently. That means we’re not introducing new carbon from underground into the system. Plus, if we’re careful about which trees we use, we can speed up the pace of carbon storage on our woodlands and draw even more carbon from the air. That’s a climate win-win.

Of course, that climate benefit depends on harvesting the right trees. How do you know which ones to cut, and which to leave? Here are some tips on choosing your firewood trees so they both keep you warm and your woodlot growing well:

  • It takes less land than you’d expect to grow your own firewood. If you own more than 12 wooded acres, your land will grow enough wood to heat your home year after year without depleting your timber. If you only use wood for secondary heat—as in a fireplace—you won’t even need that much.
  • Live broad-leaved trees make the best firewood. Maple, oak, cherry, hickory, ash, beech, and hophornbeam (also called ironwood) are all good firewood choices.
  • Avoid conifers like pine, spruce, and hemlock (basically, anything with needles). These species burn quickly, so the heat doesn’t last. They also have a lot of sap and creosote that, when burned, can lead to chimney fires. If you live in a part of the country that only has these species, you can use them, but they aren’t preferred.
  • Pick trees that are four to ten inches across at about chest height. This is a good size for most fireplaces and wood stoves.
  • Pick live trees, not dead ones. Why? Three reasons. First, dead trees often have rot, which prevents them from burning well. Second, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, dead trees make great wildlife habitats. Whether standing or fallen, they provide nesting spots for birds and mammals, and insects provide a ready food supply. Finally, dead trees don’t compete with your live trees for growing space, so removing one won’t help remaining trees grow faster.
  • While you should cut live trees, choose those that show signs of disease or poor health. The goal in cutting your own firewood isn’t just to get wood to burn. It’s also to give your best trees room to expand. Leave the large, straight, healthy trees in the woods. Instead, cut ones that have cankers, dieback in the canopy, or a crooked trunk, especially when their leaves are touching the leaves of a large, healthy tree.
  • If you’re concerned about wildlife, cut trees around healthy oaks, cherries, and hickories. These trees grow fruit and nuts that wildlife love. Giving them more room will help them produce even more of these excellent food sources.

Before you head out with your chainsaw, I want to end this section with a note on safety. Most of my Try This activities are easy and safe. Cutting trees isn’t. I’ve included it because many landowners want to harvest their own firewood, but keep in mind that felling trees is dangerous and requires skill to do safely. In the past few years, logging has surpassed commercial fishing to become America’s deadliest job. If you don’t know what you’re doing, a trip to get this year’s firewood can end in disaster.

If you want to cut your own firewood, take the time to learn proper tree felling. I’ve included a link to a video about it in “Beyond the Book,” but the only real way to learn tree cutting is to attend a chainsaw safety class. Programs like Game of Logging give hands-on instruction in proper chainsaw care, maintenance, and use.

Even if you’ve been cutting firewood for years, I encourage you to take one of these trainings. I know professional loggers with decades of experience who have taken these courses and come away with new information.

In addition to having knowledge, make sure you have the proper safety equipment before felling trees. Wear logging chaps to protect your legs, and get a full face shield with hardhat and hearing protection built in. Finally, bring a first aid kit whenever you go in the woods with a chainsaw.

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Reprinted with permission fromBackyard Woodland (2016), by Josh VanBrakle and published by Countryman Press.