House & Home

Fall Maintenance: DIY Firewood

 I live in a middle-class, midcentury suburban neighborhood. In Colorado, as in many parts of Middle America, this usually comes with a smallish house on biggish lot that's loaded with mature trees. If you're lucky, the house has a working fireplace. (I'm close to the capital and its famous smog

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 I live in a middle-class, midcentury suburban neighborhood. In Colorado, as in many parts of Middle America, this usually comes with a smallish house on biggish lot that's loaded with mature trees. If you're lucky, the house has a working fireplace. (I'm close to the capital and its famous smog problem, so fires are allowed only on "clean air" days, but I prefer not to consult a Denver HVAC technician to convert to gas.) As a consummate DIYer, I'm just as consummately cheap, far too cheap to buy pricey precut firewood every fall. Besides, all those trees need maintenance. We're into our sixth year in the house and have had as many free-firewood winters. Along the way, I've come up with some easy ways to turn those trees into fuel, learn to build toasty fires, and save a bundle in the process.
Cheap Sources of Firewood

All wood burns, and most residential properties have more wood than you might realize. For example, the tree and shrub branches that most people bundle for the trash man contain a lot of good kindling. Anything ¾ inch or thicker is worth keeping and should burn well once it's dry, so why throw it in the landfill? With a good pair of loppers you can strip down and harvest even a large branch in just a few minutes. Once the branch is on the ground, quickly trim off all the little suckers and leaf-bearing shoots. Then trim off the skinny ends of the branches. Cut the unusable pieces between three and four feet long to facilitate bundling for the garbage pickup. Cut the useable branches into 12- or 16-inch lengths, or about the same size as your firewood. Since branches don't get split, fresh ones can take a year to dry out.

Scrap lumber is another source of free wood, but it must be unfinished and not pressure-treated. I save off-cuts from all my building projects. Dimension lumber is essentially split wood and dries relatively quickly. Don't burn plywood, paneling or any other kind of sheet good, as they're often made with glue containing formaldehyde or synthetic binders. Also don't burn pallet wood. It may have been chemically treated or used to transport stuff you don't want offgassing into your living room.
Trimming and Felling Your Own Trees
Mind you, I'm no closer to being a lumberjack than I am to being the next Sultan of Brunei, so please don't take the following as any kind of professional advice on tree care. I'd just like to share a few tips on how I've dealt with small trees without hiring an expensive tree service. For big trees or anything near power lines or a neighbor's house, call a pro; there's a reason their services are expensive (and it's a lot cheaper than hiring contractors for rebuilding a roof).  

Two tools are perfect for DIY trimming and even felling (again, small) trees, both of which feel much safer to work with than a chain saw, particularly when you're up on a ladder. One is a pole pruner kit with a long pruning blade and a heavy-duty lopper head. If you have a lot of trees on your property even a professional-grade pole pruner (recommended) will pay for itself many times over. The other tool I like is a reciprocating saw. Yep, a Sawzall. Because now you can buy long pruning blades with teeth like those on a bow saw. The shorter blades are better for general pruning and cutting, while a longer blade may be needed for trunks and big limbs; get one of each.

The key to felling a small tree safely is to it down incrementally in manageable pieces. Using a pole pruner, start at the outside of the canopy (or dead branches) and work toward the trunk. Study the tree carefully before making each cut, and confirm there's nothing valuable (or living) in the "swing path" of the branch: sawn branches don't always drop straight down; often they swing down on the hingelike strip of wood that you create as you near the end a cut. This hinge effect is especially dangerous when cutting large pieces, as limbs can flip down toward the trunk and strike you or your ladder.

Once the trunk is cleaned of branches, you can decide whether to fell the whole thing or to shorten it from the top down, again in manageable pieces. In either case, use the traditional notch-cut technique (there are numerous sources for learning more about this) to prevent the hinge effect and to direct the falling trunk, and make sure the tree won't hit anything important even if it falls opposite to where you expect.  

Cutting and Stacking Firewood

Cut trunks and thick limbs into logs of the desired length, using a reciprocating saw (with a pruning blade) or chain saw, or go old school and use a bow saw. Cut the ends straight so the logs stand up plumb and steady for easy splitting. Splitting whole logs speeds up drying considerably, so always split what you can before stacking it. An axe cuts through dead wood, but if the wood is green or the logs are big or knotty, try a steel splitting wedge and sledgehammer. Failing that, let the whole logs dry out for a season before splitting them. Or, you can forget the waiting and rent a power splitter for an afternoon; this reduces the freeness of the firewood but adds to your free time.

As an interesting diversion while resting from your logging duties, look online for different traditional methods of stacking firewood, such as the Shaker stack and the German holzhaufen. However, most of us city folk prefer a neat parallel-row design, one or two stacks deep. If you don't have two walls, trees or deck posts to serve as side supports, the best free option is to build a cross-stacked tower of logs at each end, then stack the parallel logs in between. Covering the stack doesn't have to be fancy. A few strips of plywood, some corrugated roofing panels or a tarp laid over the top of the stack sheds most rainwater and protects the stack from snow buildup.
Philip Schmidt writes for