It's a given in most preppers minds that they'll heat their homes and cook their meals with wood, in the event of a major disaster, especially in a grid-down situation. I have to agree that wood makes the most sense, at least in the majority of the country. But there are areas where wood may not be very plentiful, places where there just aren't many trees.
If you happen to live in one of those areas, you'd better rethink your plan to use wood. For that matter, no matter where you live, you might want to look at alternatives to wood, because harvesting wood by hand is a lot of work. An alternative might be nice, especially if it is something that the kids can do.
Wagon trains moving west faced this problem, especially during the long months that they were crossing the prairie. At that time, the Midwest was known as "the Great American Desert," even though it wasn't really lacking in water, if you knew where to look. But to those traveling by wagon, the endless miles of prairie looked much like a desert.
Those pioneers ended up using dried buffalo chips as their firewood. While that might sound a bit disgusting to you and I, it worked quite well for them. They would sling a piece of canvas below the bed of their wagon, and as throw any dried buffalo chips they found along the way in it. That way, they had a constant source of fuel.
Yet buffalo chips are a rarity in modern times, mostly because the vast herds of buffalo are no more. While the buffalo have had a tremendous resurgence, from near-extinction, we'll probably never see herds of buffalo as far as the eye can see again.
Dried cow chips would work much like buffalo chips; but only if you live in an area where there are a lot of cattle. Much of the land used for raising cattle in this country is rather sparse, in areas where they don't count the number of head of cattle they can raise per acre, but rather the number of acres required to feed one steer. In such places, finding dried cow chips is going to be difficult.
Developing Your Tree Harvesting Cycle
While it may seem unimportant to you, the timing of cutting your trees is actually very important. You have to realize that working by hand, it's going to take months of work to get enough wood cut, split and into your woodpile, in order to ensure that you can keep your home warm the next winter. So, you need to get an early start on it.
One of the best times to start cutting trees is in the springtime, before the trees start putting forth new shoots and leaves. The sap of the trees goes down to the roots in the wintertime, which is why the leaves turn brown. This prevents the sap from freezing and damaging the tree. It also means that trees which are cut early in the spring, before the sap begins flowing, will have a lower moisture content. That's important, because you need the wood dry before winter rolls around again.
Another great advantage of cutting trees early in the spring is that it gives the trees a chance to recover and regrow. Most trees have enough nutrients stored in the roots to fully regrow, if cut. By cutting early, you give that tree the entire growing season to start the process of sending up new shoots. While it will not fully regrow in that one year, that year is critical. The tree needs a good start, so that it can actually regrow, rather than just dying off.
With the sap still in the roots, the trees will be lighter as well, making them easier to work with. Granted, a tree is still a tree, so we're talking about a lot of weight; but that's why every little bit helps. Even a five percent difference in the weight will make the tree much easier to work with.
Once you've cut down enough trees to get through the next winter, it's time to switch modes and start bucking the tree into logs that can be hauled back to the homestead. You'll want to do this as soon as possible too, just to keep others from stealing your logs. But at the same time, you'll probably be planting your crops, so you're going to have to be careful about how you manage your time.
Selecting Trees for Harvesting
In this article, we're basically talking about harvesting trees for firewood. But you've got to keep in mind that firewood isn't the only reason you might be harvesting trees. The last thing you want to do is cut down a valuable hardwood tree for firewood, and then not have that tree available when you need boards for building something. It's important to think ahead while selecting trees.
The starting point is always on the ground. Trees that have already fallen are great for firewood: dead, dry and easily accessible. They are also unlikely to be home to any wild animals, so removing them from the forest isn't going to disturb the wildlife in the area. Besides why cut down a tree, when you can save yourself work by using one that's already on the ground?
In olden times, they taught that you should avoid cleaning up the deadfalls that are near your homestead. Instead, you should range farther afield, picking other deadfalls that you can use for firewood. That way, if you run out of firewood sometime, you have the deadfalls close to home that are available for harvesting.
When you run out of available deadfalls, you're going to have to start harvesting standing trees. That's when the decisions you make need to be thought out carefully. You'll want to look for trees whose loss is going to have a minimal impact. Trees which are damaged, as well as those whose trunk and branches are made of lots of short branch segments, so that it would not be possible to cut boards out of them, are best used as firewood, leaving the better trees for other purposes.
Pine really isn't the best wood for firewood or building things. The many branches produce wood that is rarely clear of knotholes, making it less than ideal for furniture making. Its low density makes it a poor choice for firewood as well. But in some parts of the country, you're going to have more pine than anything else.
The "Lodgepole Pine," found in the Rocky Mountains is a great tree for building log cabins and was a favorite of pioneers. The tall, straight trunk is ideal for log cabins, because it takes very little milling to make it usable. There are few branches along the lower part of the tree, so once it has been felled, all that is needed is to cut it off to length.
Log cabins aren't the only thing you can build out of lodgepole pines, It's a great tree for lots of other building projects as well, such as bridges and bans. Therefore, it's a tree that you want to avoid cutting for firewood or even furniture building.
While you're looking for trees to cut, you also want to be looking at how the removal of that tree will affect the forest around it. Trees which provide shelter to animals or food for them to eat are ones you want to avoid cutting. Better to seek out trees that are deformed or have been struck by lightning. That way, you are helping to keep the forest healthy, even while taking what you need from it.
As part of this, you need to look at the space available for the tree to fall into. At times, the forest growth is so thick, that one falling tree could damage several others. You need a clear or mostly clear area for the tree to fall into and that area must be someplace where it is easy to get the tree to fall. Picking a clear area that's along the slope of a steep hill, where the tree might try to roll once it falls, isn't good planning.
Finally, you want to think of how easily you can move the fallen tree back to your homestead. Ideally, you'll be able to go downhill all the way. Moving logs uphill is much more work, even if you have power equipment or horses to help you move the tree. Better to avoid problem areas all together, rather than to cut a tree and find that you can't move it once it is down.
Felling the Selected Tree
How you choose to fell a particular tree will depend a lot on what equipment you have available to work with. Ideally, you'll have a chain saw to use, but if the crisis lasts too long, you might have trouble finding fuel for it. In such a case, chances are you'll be stuck using axes and saws after a while.
The first step, after selecting the tree to be harvested, is to determine where you want the tree to fall. With practice, you can get a tree to fall exactly where you want it to, each time, every time. I remember seeing a video of someone cutting down a tree behind their house, and they managed to fell it into a space between the house and the shed that was only about three or four feet wide. That's skill.
Wind can play a factor in a tree falling, as well, especially a strong wind. If you have a strong crosswind to the direction you want the tree to fall, you may want to reconsider your plans. It's better to have the wind helping you, rather than working against you; a tree is a large sail area and a strong wind could push it sideways.
Once you've determined where you want the tree to fall, you need to determine your escape route. Trees are living things, and as such, they are not consistent. So you can't be sure that the bottom of the tree won't "kick out" when the tree falls. Therefore, prudence says that once you finish your cuts, you get out of the way. A falling tree moves fast and being struck by a log moving 100 miles per hour would cause a lot of damage to your body.
With the direction of fall selected, notch the tree on that side. This is the critical cut. The tree will fall exactly towards this notch, so if your notch isn't facing the right direction, your tree won't fall in the right direction.
If you are using an axe to cut the tree, you'll need to make a 45 degree notch, about one-third of the way through the tree. Do this as close to the ground as you reasonably can, so as to not waste any wood. However, you'll find it harder to work on, the closer you get to the ground. So, what you'll end up doing is picking a height that's a good compromise.
If you're using a saw or chainsaw to cut the tree, and not an axe, make your first cut parallel to the ground, going about 1/3 of the way through the tree. Then, make a second cut, coming down from above at a 60 degree angle and meeting up at the deepest point of the first cut. Remove the wedge that this cut creates.
With the notch cut out, double-check the direction of fall of your tree. If you find that you've made the notch a little too far to one side, it is still possible to adjust it. But you need to do that at this point, before making your second cut. Once you start that second cut, coming back to modify the notch would be extremely dangerous.
The second cut needs to be a couple of inches higher than the first, on exactly the opposite side of the tree. Once again, location is important. If you are off to one side or the other, the tree could fall unpredictably, as it would twist while falling. Making it higher causes the tree to fall into the notch, when it breaks, helping to control the fall.
This second cut is usually done with a saw, not an axe; although if an axe is all you have, then you'll have to use it. There is no real reason to notch this side, hence the preference for using a saw. The notch helps guide the tree's fall and you don't want it falling towards this side.
As you get close to the first cut, you'll want to slow down and be careful. You won't actually cut all the way through to the notch. At some point, the tree trunk won't be strong enough to support itself and it will start breaking. That's what you're looking and listening for. At the first sound of breaking wood, you want to pull out the saw and back away, down your escape route. Go far enough away so that the top of the tree can't hit you, even if it falls directly towards you. Then add a few more feet for good measure.
Trees start falling slowly and pick up speed. The tendency is to watch the top of the tree, to see it fall. But that's actually the last thing you want to do. Instead, you want to watch the bottom, where you cut it. If there is going to be any danger, it's going to come from there, as the tree trunk "kicks" out. That doesn't always happen, but when it does, it's dangerous.
Cleaning Up the Tree
With the tree on the ground, it's time to clean it up. More than anything, that means removing the branches. This can be done either with an axe or a saw, usually using a saw for the larger branches and an axe for the smaller ones.
While many people look at the branches as nothing more than scrap, many of them are useful too. If nothing else, most branches can be cut down and turned into firewood. Branches can also be used for making furniture, grain bins, roof beams and a host of other useful things. Don't be quick to dismiss them and leave them to rot. You need all the wood you can get.
The trunk of the tree and the major branches, will need to be cut to their use length. This can be done immediately, or left till later in the year. If you are trying to cut down all your trees early in the year, you're better off leaving bucking and splitting wood till later. But you don't want to wait too long, as the wood will need time to dry as well.
Bucking, or cutting a trunk and branches to length, depends on the intended use of the tree. Obviously, trees that are harvested for building a log cabin will need to be cut into longer logs than those which are harvested for firewood. You should know how you're going to use the wood, before chopping down the tree, so this shouldn't be much of a problem.
Splitting Wood for Boards
I'm not going to bother you with a description of how to split logs for a fire, as I assume you already know how to do that. I'll merely mention that you want to make sure you have the right tools to work with. An axe should never be used for splitting wood. Either use a maul (which is essentially a wide-headed axe) or wedges. That will make the job a whole lot easier.
But if you want to use the wood for other things, you may need to convert it to boards. That's typically done by a sawmill, but few of us have access to that sort of equipment. Fortunately, there is another way to make boards; that is by splitting a log.
For many pioneers, a split log floor was the only chance they had of installing a wood floor. Without a sawmill around, there was no other option. Most simply put up with having a wood floor, but for those who wanted something better, the split log floor was the answer.
To split a log into boards or for a split log floor, you need:
- A cradle to hold the log steady, usually off the ground
- Sharpened wood wedges (about as sharp as an axe)
- A sledge hammer
- A string and a couple of nails to make a straight line
- A long pry bar
In addition, if you want to smooth your log, once it is split, you'll need:
- An adze (an axe-like tool, with the head turned sideways. Swinging it down by your side in a natural arm swing allows you to cut chips off the surface, leveling and rough smoothing it)
- A jointer plane (this is a long wood plane, used to smooth the surface. A long one is used to help prevent waviness)
- Winding sticks (two perfectly straight square wood sticks of the same size and different colors. They are placed at opposite ends of a board and sighted along to see if the board has any twists in it)
You only want to try splitting logs which are straight, knot free and whose grain is straight. Softwoods, like pine, will have too many knotholes to split well, although they can be split. Logs which came from trees that are twisted by the wind should be avoided, as they won't split straight. Likewise, logs with burls or other deformities on them should be avoided. Those logs can best be used for other things.
Start by examining the log in its cradle and determining where you want to split it. If there's already a crack in it, that might give you a good starting point, but don't count on it. You want the line of your split to be perpendicular to the ground, with the line you're going to drive the wedges in exactly at the top, so turn the log, as necessary, to get it to that point.
Mark the split line with the string, by hammering a nail partway into each end of the log and tying the string to it. Double check that this line is parallel to the length of the log by sighting along it. You don't want it to be cocked to one side, as that would cause a crooked split.
Now it's time to get to work. Hammer a wedge partially into the log, near one end and alongside your string. You don't want to drive it too deep, as you're not trying to split it yet. Repeat this, down the length of the log, driving in as many wedges as you have to about the same depth. Take extra care as you do this, to ensure that you're keeping your line straight.
The split should follow the grain. But if there are any weak points in the wood, the split might deviate. By using a series of wedges and driving them equally, you help ensure that the wood splits evenly, rather than just trusting it to do so on its own.
With the wedges in place, it's time to drive them in farther. Starting from one end, hit each wedge a couple of firm blows, all the way down the line. Repeat this action, going back and forth down the line of wedges, until the log splits.
When the log starts to split, change your strategy slightly, working from that point outwards. You want to end up with one split down the length of the log, not several which are close to each other. This might require repositioning some of your wedges, but hopefully won't. By working outwards from the existing split, you help keep it straight.
Splitting will be a process, rather than an event, with the split gradually forming and growing as you drive the wedges in further and further. Depending on the density of the wood and the moisture content, you might reach a point where it gives up and just breaks at the split line, but you'll most likely end up having to work all the way through the log.
You might find that your wedges are driven all the way into the log and it hasn't yet split, especially on a large log. In cases like these, there's a good chance that the log is actually split, structurally speaking, but it's just hanging on by a thread. In those cases, you should be able to separate the sides the rest of the way with a pry bar.
Split logs can be split again, especially if you are planning on making boards out of them. Just make sure that you have the split edge exactly vertical, before you start working on it. Then, measure the distance from your split to match your board's thickness and start a new split.
Please note that if you try to split too thin a board, you'll end up breaking off a piece, rather than actually splitting it. About the thinnest board you can split in this way, is two inches thick.
The finished surface you get from splitting will depend a lot on the type and quality of wood you are working with, but no matter what, you won't have a board that's as clean and smooth as one you would get from a sawmill. If you need smooth boards, it's going to take some additional work.
The adze is used to flatten the surface of a split board. It is held in the hand and swung with a backwards motion, much like an underhand throw of a ball, behind you. The blade of the adze chips off pieces of wood, removing high points.
Most modern adzes are forged with a ring for the handle to go through, much like a hammer or axe. The one shown in the picture is forged for strapping onto a handle. I've shown this picture specifically, because in an emergency you could much more easily make an adze in this manner, rather than trying to find one you can buy.
Basically, the blade of this adze is like a wide cold chisel that has been sharpened well. While the one in the photo has a handle that has been cut and formed, in an emergency, you'd be better off using the Y formed by a branch coming off a tree. Such a point is very strong and less likely to break, than having the blade of the adze attached to a part where the grain is running across the wood, rather than along the length of it.
Please notice the ledge at the back of the blade, where it buts up to the main part of the handle. This part is critical, as it is what will prevent the blade from sliding backwards with every blow. It looks in the picture like the blade is attached to the handle with a fine cord. This can be done or a high quality duct tape can be used.
If you've ever been in an old sailing ship or building and looked at the beams, you've probably seen marks in them, which look like they were cut with a large chisel or scoop. These marks are actually made by the adze. The carpenter or shipwright who built that, squared the beam from a log with an adze, but didn't go any farther to make it smoother.
Smoothing the beam or board farther than what the adze can do requires a jointer plane. This is like any other plane, only longer. The extra length is to span any dips and rises in the board, helping to level it out and make a flat board out of it.
If you don't have a jointer plane, you can fake one by clamping two straight boards to the sides of a standard plane. A little bit of double-sided tape would help hold them in place, preventing them from twisting on the side of the plane.
The winding sticks I mentioned earlier are used in conjunction with the jointer plane. Placed across opposite ends of the board being straightened and smoothed, they can be sighted along, to see if a board is twisted or flat. If it is twisted, the plane can be used to take off material on the high side of the twist, flattening it out. This is a tedious process, but it is the only real way of making sure a board is absolutely flat, when that is required.Fortunately, such boards are really only needed for making fine furniture. For most survival needs, including building a long-term shelter and furnishing it, rougher boards will work. So, the plane and winding sticks really aren't a requirement for survival building, although the adze would be useful.