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It was the late 1970s and we had just welcomed our second son into the world. My wife Susan had left her teaching job to be a full-time mom and our income was cut in half. Just about this time the oil-producing countries, OPEC, realized that the law of supply and demand could work in their favor. Oil production was cut back, the price of gas and fuel oil soared, and as winter came on our cozy little house things got noticeably less cozy. Being a self-sufficient sort of guy with a strong back, an old Ford pickup, a 42-inch bow saw and an 8-pound splitting maul, I decided that OPEC had gotten its last heating oil dollar out of me. The woodstove went in and opportunity knocked.

Got Wood, Now What?

That first year I learned wood-burning lesson number one: You need a lot more wood than you think you do. I was a stout lad in those days and I cut six cords with the bow saw and split it all with the maul. By late spring of that first season I had already cut my wood for the following year. I had found my calling, and just because the wood rack was full I was not about to stop working. That Ford and I chased tree company trucks, cleaned up after them, and the wood started rolling in. The question was what to do with the surplus. And then I thought, I’ll sell it! A business was born.

In the 30-odd years since, the business has moved from my backyard to the industrial property that houses my son Zach’s tree care company. Zach grew up on the firewood truck and after high school went to work as a climber for a local tree company. Several years later, he went out on his own. I have retired from my day job and presently work for my son helping him with the firewood end of his business. We now use hydraulic splitters, loaders and dump trucks.

To make it selling firewood, you have to enjoy the challenge of hard work and hard weather. Firewood is a year-round enterprise. We sell our last cords in late March and are already cutting for next year. The romantic image of splitting wood on a crisp autumn day isn’t always how it is. Here in Pennsylvania, our weather can be extreme. We wrestle logs and run saws when it is a humid 95 degrees and when it is in the teens. Firewood is not a get-rich-quick proposition. If it is only about the money, you won’t last.

Chainsaw for firewood business
Owning a professional chainsaw is an must when considering starting your own firewood business

Wood Hunting

You will need a supply source and space to work with and store your firewood. When word gets around that you give good measure, honest cords of seasoned hardwoods at a fair price, demand will challenge supply. Early on, I let local tree companies know that I was willing to come out to the job and haul away their take-downs. An issue for many small companies is how to dispose of their big wood. Today’s chippers eat much of the limb wood that used to be the easy picking. Most small tree companies don’t waste manpower or equipment on producing firewood.

Having a wood-hungry guy clean up their rough stuff works for them. Going out to the job allows you the benefit of being selective. I wouldn’t go out for any wood that wasn’t hardwood, manageable as far as size and ease of splitting go, and reasonably close by. If you have enough property, companies will dump their excess material. This beats going out to fetch wood and the trips back and forth. The downside is that you may have to take the good, bad and the ugly.

To The Dump!

Another source of logs is local municipal dumps and recycling centers. Many towns and townships have a yard full of logs, free for the taking, that are the product of storm damage, etc. The advantage of these dumps is that after showing residency, you can cut and split to your heart’s content. This eliminates the need for a yard and allows you to leave the mess behind. I have taken many a cord from our local dump. The trick is to get there in mid-summer when “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” When the weather gets cold, the competition shows up.

If you live near logging sites, arrangements can be made to take out the tops left behind. Stumpage can also be bought. Logs can be purchased by the tractor-trailer load and delivered to your yard. This all costs money that detracts from an already slim bottom line. The easiest but least profitable way to be in the firewood business is to buy split wood wholesale. Good luck with this one. If you are lucky you’ll see a $50 profit on each cord. It takes a lot of $50 profits to make it all worthwhile.

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Tools You’ll Need

If you have the right attitude and a source of logs, then it comes down to equipment. Equipment is divided into transportation, woodcutting and log splitting. For the budding seller of firewood it is prudent to use what one already has or what one can acquire on the cheap. I have seen guys get the firewood bug and before they split one log they have gone into serious debt. I began with my half-ton Ford, put sides on it, and on a good day I could carry about three quarters of a cord. Sure, sometimes the muffler would scrape bottom, but for a while it did the job.

I learned quickly that people want to buy firewood by the cord. No way you can get a cord of hardwood in a half-ton pickup, and that was a problem. For a while I pulled a homemade trailer and then made the leap to a bare bones F-250 powered by that rock-solid Ford 300 six. This was the truck that built the business. With sides and with wood stacked, it could carry an honest cord of seasoned oak.

Firewood for the home
The writer stands by his home-place wood pile. Almost as deep as it is wide, seven cords cut, split, stacked and ready for winter.

Cutting a cord of wood with a bow saw gets old fast. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to retire the bow saw and experience the joys of the chainsaw. After some fits and starts, I settled on a Homelite Super XL with a 20-inch bar. It was loud, had no anti-vibe or safety features, was unacceptable by today’s standards, but boy, did it run. That Homelite cut a lot of wood before it was stolen. (Let that be a lesson! Many a chainsaw has “grown legs” when left unattended in the back of a pickup truck.)

This was when I discovered the world of high-performance, professional saws. Husqvarna, Stihl, Jonsereds and Dolmar are top of the line, with Echo and Makita not far behind. Which saw to buy is more a function of how close a dealer is who can service your saw than the particular make. What is important is to buy enough saw. A bar length of 20 to 24 inches should handle just about anything that turns up. This length bar requires a power head of at least 3.5 to 4.5 cubic inches to do the job right. Most of my cutting is done with a 24-inch bar. Also, don’t forget to read the manual and learn to sharpen the chain.

With all this said, be prepared for sticker shock. New pro saws have gotten very expensive, and the serious woodcutter needs a pro saw. The homeowner saw for sale on the shelf next to the birdseed isn’t going to do the job. The cure for sticker shock is to buy a used saw. If all goes well, you may just have a rip-roaring saw that won’t empty your wallet.

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Time To Split

With an 8-pound maul and a couple of wedges, a burly soul should be able to split a cord of reasonably straight-grained wood in two to three hours. At $150 to over $200 a cord (Author’s note: My editor told me that in upstate New York, a cord of seasoned firewood is fetching $250), that ain’t bad for a morning’s work. We had a local guy back in the ’80s who worked behind the loggers. He took out tops running a Husky 181, a saw that should take a 24-inch bar. He had a 16 on it and it screamed. He did all his splitting with one of those pipe-handled Monster Mauls and produced four cords a day, six days a week. He looked like Popeye and left the rest of us in the dust.

I split with a Monster Maul for several years and then became a victim of my own success. After 60 cords one season that pipe handle did me in. There is no give in steel pipe and my elbow was where all the shock ended up. I went back to a wooden handle and saved what was left of my body.

It was about this time that I began considering a hydraulic splitter. I debated long and hard since a splitter is the one investment that is not multi-purpose. The pickup is your vehicle and can take the kids to school as well as deliver firewood. The chainsaw—well heck, everybody needs a chainsaw and a maul. But a splitter is only needed if you can’t keep up with already existing demand. Buying one is a real commitment to the business.

A splitter doesn’t necessarily make the work easier, but it should make it faster. An under-powered splitter that creeps along and can’t bust the tough stuff is useless. You are better off with the maul. True production splitters are expensive. Make sure the investment is worth it.

Protect Yourself

It is vital to wear eye and hearing protection and to wear safety chaps while working. It is also wise to carry some form of liability insurance. I have a personal policy whose annual cost is about what I get for two cords of wood. Money well spent.

My journey through the firewood business has been a blast. I have been paid to play, and it doesn’t get any better than that. The benefits have been physical, psychological, financial, and yes, spiritual. Being in harmony with nature is like that. Good luck on your journey. 

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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