Heating with wood Part II: Basic Gathering Gear


Wealth is different things to different people. When September rolls around two of the best things in the world are a freezer full of fish and enough seasoned firewood for two winters. All told it’s around a thousand dollars for what you need to go on wood safari: chainsaw, an extra chain, maintenance tools, gas can, chainsaw oil, bar oil and safety gear. Given that each cord of wood equals about 100 gallons of heating oil, the wood gathering ensemble pays for itself in no time.

A chainsaw is the world’s most obnoxious tool unless you’re the one using it. In that case it’s great. For about the cost of two cords of wood you can buy a very good chainsaw that will cut hundreds of cords. Getting a cheapo with the idea that you’ll work your way into a better one if you like it is not the way to go. The lightest ones are underpowered and you have to press down on them instead of letting the saw do the work which is dangerous. That timber beast ‘good deal’ on Craigslist is overpowered, unwieldy, and probably an old beater.

Most towns in Southeast have a shop that sells and services good chainsaws. Local dealers want to make sure you walk out with the right size saw for what you’ll be cutting and that you know how to start it, stop it, use the chain brake, adjust the tension of the chain, sharpen it and how to pop off the back cover to clean the air filter. All quick and easy once you know how.

The bar length is stamped on the bar. For limbing and bucking downed trees into firewood rounds, a 20 inch bar does all that most home woodcutters need to be done. In everyday work a smaller bar is less likely to hit the tip on something which causes kick back. Working from both sides, a 3 foot diameter log is doable with a 20 inch bar. For felling trees over 20 inches, or bucking downed trees too big for my saw to reach the center, I’m a firm believer in paying experts to do the job. Handle the bar carefully, it’s got sharp edges. Flip the bar over when you change the chain to help keep it aligned.

The chain rides around a groove in the bar edge like a monorail. Left and right cutters alternate on either side of the chain with drive links in the middle. Drive links have a tang below the link to keep the chain on the bar. The proper thickness tang for a given bar is stamped on the bar. Check that when you buy a new chain. Eventually bars and chains get worn and need to be replaced. Hang on to them for spares in case you pinch a bar in a log and can’t get it out. You simply take the saw off the bar and chain that are stuck, put on the old ones and cut the log away from the stuck bar.

Maintenance tools are cheap and simple. A chainsaw wrench lets you easily adjust chain tension and change the bar or chain. A round file keeps the saw sharp. A gauge and flat file will keep the rakers at the proper level. A tooth brush will help clean dirt and sawdust out of the saw. You want a carrying case for the saw and blade.

You’ll also want a gas can (two gallon is a handy size) and chainsaw oil (it’s a special kind) to mix with the gas when you fill the can. Adding that oil is mandatory. Running a chainsaw on straight gas wrecks the motor. You need bar oil, too. There’s a squirter at the front of the saw that sprays bar oil on the bar and chain so they don’t overheat from friction. The saw has a reservoir for bar oil, another for gas and is engineered to run out of gas before it runs out of bar oil. Top off bar oil every time you fuel the saw. Let the saw cool down before refueling.

Safety Gear: Helmet, earmuffs, gloves, chaps, heavy boots.

Not everyone uses safety gear. An old-school wood cutter once let me know he didn’t approve. He had a great deep voice and growled, “If you get cut…you made a mistake.” I said, “Buddy, I make mistakes before I get out of bed in the morning. I’m wearing the gear.” Statistically chainsaw accidents happen most often to the left hand (which is closest above the bar), left leg (which is closest below the bar) and upper body/head (from kick backs).

A helmet with earmuffs is ideal. They’re comfortable and keep your head dry when it’s raining. When the saw’s not running you can click the muffs away from your ears so you can hear. Chainsaw gloves and chaps have Kevlar padding. If the running saw touches them Kevlar fibers shred and jam the saw almost instantly. They work very well. Chaps also save your pants from getting fouled with bar oil.

Not essential but nice to have are a peavey, axe, wedge, pickaroon and log tongs. History’s great lever man, Archimedes, said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.” He was a peavey kind of guy. This long lever with a metal spike welded to a half-tong at one end lets an average person roll massive logs. You can cut rounds most of the way through all along a log then roll it over to finish. That way you avoid cutting into the ground where rocks would damage your chain. It comes in handy to brace a log or lift it slightly to take pressure off.

On small branches a good axe can be as fast as a chainsaw for limbing downed trees and it’s quieter, safer, saves fuel, etc. You can use the axe to pound wedges. On a downed log that’s supported on either end, compressed in the middle, a wedge can separate a cut to keep the saw from binding. If the saw does get pinched you can sometimes drive a wedge into the cut and open the groove enough to free it. Yes, I know, ‘If you pinch the bar…you made a mistake.’

A pickaroon saves your back. It’s like an axe with a spike instead of an axe head. Smack the spike into a round and lift it or toss it without having to bend over. To the same end, the Swedes have small one-handed log tongs for those rounds that are just a little too big for getting one hand around. You don’t have to bend down and pick up the wood with both hands. One of these is going to be my Father’s Day gift to myself.

Scandinavians say wood you plan to burn the following winter should be cut by Easter. Being a year ahead is even better. While the fish are headed this way, wood out there on the ground is looking for a home. All we have to do is go get it.