Chop Wood, Make Fire

We don’t have to go further than our own backwoods to cut some hardwood trees for our Winter firewood.

We use firewood as a self-sufficient and sustainable form of energy to heat our home. Although we have a central heating system (a heat pump) and also an electric baseboard system with room thermostats (the original system to our home), we prefer the warming comfort of wood stove heat. To force our central heating system into the secondary source of heat, we set the thermostat at a cool temperature.  Setting the thermostat to 65-degrees enables our wood stove to be used as our primary heat source and that suits us fine. Our wood stove has a catalytic combustor and an installed blower fan to increase efficiency while minimizing creosote build-up. To circulate the heat radiating around the wood stove, we also use ceiling fans and a floor grate to bring the heat upstairs from the lower level. Warm air rises. The process works well.

We need between 2-4 cords of wood per Winter here in Virginia. Since we harvest our own firewood on our property, we are always in one phase of firewood harvesting or another all year long. Trees must be dropped, sectioned, split, and seasoned to dry before there is usable firewood so we are involved in a never-ending cycle to get our firewood.

To heat our home with wood, we need to drop living trees. Intentionally destroying a living tree, even for firewood, does not  seem to be a nurturing process but if cutting the tree is part of the strategy in a woodlot management program, it is sustainable.

Woodlot Management. With a basic woodlot management program, trees become a crop to harvest so that firewood can be available for Winter heating. With our property, we tend to the trees almost as though we are tending to our vegetable gardens. Of course, tending wooded property is on a much larger scale but we want to manage our acreage and provide a sustainable woodlot for ourselves rather than cutting down large pathways or acres at a time.

We want our property to remain wooded so we defined our woodlot management strategy accordingly. Although we have carved a few trails into the woods, the stream is left ‘as is’ and some dead trees are left on the ground. The woods are there for woodland critters to live in and use.

Cut unwanted trees. We seek out diseased, dead, or dying trees that we can cull from our wooded property every year and if we find any, they are dropped first. After we have scouting for dead or dying trees, we then choose any trees that have flaws or pose a hazard for any reason. The double-trunk Oak in the below photo was cut down to allow more afternoon sunlight for our garden extension this year. Given the tree’s location, the direction of growth, and the double-trunk, this Oak needed to be cut.

We also look for trees that were split by weather-related events.  One confirmed macroburst in June 2008 ripped  a mature Oak  about 8-feet from its base, then dropped it down for us to use as firewood. Being close to the house, I didn’t care much for that tornado locomotive-sound….I’d rather we drop our own trees, thankyouverymuch!


Cut trees selectively. We also select trees that, once dropped, will not create a different effect on the overall woodscape.  Our objective isn’t to re-shape and redefine the woods, merely manage it effectively so that it is sustainable.

Part of our strategy is that we cut selectively so that we don’t deplete our woods of trees. After we drop a large tree, small areas in the woods open up and small saplings grow quickly with the new-found sunlight. Selective cutting will allow the undergrowth to flourish and the cycle of regeneration allows for tomorrow’s large trees to grow from today’s seedlings and saplings.

In 2000, a timber company was hired for a select-cut, taking out mature trees of Walnut, Butternut, Oak, and Hickory. We marked the trees selected so they could be harvested for milling, not firewood.  Once the selection of mature trees were cut, smaller trees have been able to grow faster and straighter for tomorrow’s fire wood.

Thin trees. In time, the area around every dropped tree will show fast seedling growth. New saplings will emerge and existing young saplings will exhibit growth spurts. In time, these young trees will be be thinned out and the remaining saplings will become the next tree-generation for our wooded property to continue on. This is the basic idea behind good forest stewardship and basic woodlot management.

In doing these things year-round,  we are able to manage our  property while providing firewood for our Winter season. Managing a woodlot is fairly straightforward and insures self-sufficiency through basic sustainable practices.

From tree to firewood. We drop the trees and cut them into sections. Each section needs to be cut to fit into our wood stove.

Side branches and tree tops yield smaller firewood and we toss those into  separate piles wherever we are working. One pile is for fire starting. Another separate pile becomes the wood for outdoor cooking and grilling. Better to have kindling and grillwood on hand instead of last minute scrambling!

A while back, my husband made a wood splitter from a design that he created.  Having a wood splitter makes easy work of these large sectional cuts:

This wood splitter is attached to the hydraulics of our Bobcat skid-steer machine. We split wood much faster now. :-)

When it’s time to split wood, we haul loads of section cuts to the area where we split wood. After the sections are split, we have created a big wood pile that needs to be stacked. We make several stacks of split wood around our property. This stack is in the area where we split the wood, about 600-feet from the house. When it’s ready to use, we’ll haul it closer.

One stack isn’t far from our basement door so that we can easily get a load of wood up to the house.

When it’s cold enough to build a fire, we bring a wheelbarrow load of wood inside. Then we feed our wood stove. Once the wood stove has heated and the house is snug and warm, we remember all of the days out in the woods where we selected the trees that would help to warm us in the Winter.

Chop wood, make fire.