2015-08-27

old post: Cut up a tree by hand

This is an old post that for some reason I never published. I don't even live at that house anymore, but I think it's a pretty interesting post particularly for anyone considering cutting wood by hand:

A while ago in http://www.blog.smalladventures.net/2014/11/cutting-wood.html you might recall that I felled a tree with an axe, and was bucking and splitting it for firewood using only hand tools.

Well, I finally finished today. This tree was oak, dead but not rotten, and mostly heartwood. The standard way to measure a tree is diameter 4' off the ground, and by that metric this tree is probably about 2.5ft. In short, it's a pretty damned big tree.

I've lost track of the hours spent cutting this tree. The upper branches were rotten and useless, so I only chopped up the trunk, which is actually the hardest part. From the trunk I'd estimate that I got about a half-cord, though I burned some before I was done, so I don't know for sure. That trunk took about 15 cuts to buck in to 18" logs for our fireplace. If you're careful about your fenceposts that comes to around a 25 foot log, which sounds about right. Earlier I said it took about 30 minutes a cut. Optimally cutting time ought to be proportional to the surface area of the end of the e.g. piR^2, in reality it's a bit worse as the log grows, because saws work most efficiently on narrower cuts (this is why a saw with more bow to the blade is almost always a good thing, mine has fairly little). At the time I measured I was cutting the narrow end, on the wide end I'd say it probably took more like 1 hour. So. lets call it 45 minutes per cut. Add in 10 minutes to split, 5 minutes to futz and shift things, and we get about 15 hours, add in 4 hours to drop the tree, 4 hours to drag the tree around and get it off the drive, probably another 4 hours spent rolling the thing around to position it for cuts, 4 hours sharpening the saw, and we get something like 30 hours total. That's still ignoring all the breaks I had to take. Those are all vague numbers, just to try and get an idea. So order of magnitude is probably about 40 hours, or about a week of work.

Overall that rate of cutting isn't bad, but way below what the old guy across the street from me said he accomplished in the CCC. In the process though I've gotten to the point where I can actually buck and split 2 rounds a day without hurting myself. This means that given a week at ~3 hours a day I might be able to cut 1/4 of a cord. That's okay, but not going to cut it if you live in Maine. I'd say that people just used to work really hard, but somehow they used to pull this off while feeding their families and without hurting themselves. So, I'm sure that I'm still missing something that could make me hugely more efficient. So what could that be?
  • One major issue is that I'm cutting a dead log. Cutting deadwood is MUCH harder than cutting green-wood. Each stroke of my saw is pulling off a few fibers, where each stroke of a good bucking saw on green-wood pulls out long beautiful strips of wood. I'm pretty sure this is the largest factor.
  • Another problem is almost certainly that I'm still learning to sharpen my saw. I know that I under-sharpened it because I was nervous and didn't want to wreck it. Next time around I hope it comes out a bit better. For dead oak I think I need slightly more aggressive fleem angles so it digs in more, and for sure I need to make sure there are no flat spots. Undoubtedly learning how to properly microbevel this tooth pattern would also help. 
  • I grew up splitting and wood, and learned to fell fairly young. I did some bucking as a kid, but working entirely with very dull saws that I didn't know how to sharpen. I think overall my bucking skills still have some way to go to catch up with my splitting, for example.
  • I'm cutting a pretty big tree, and using a single-man saw. 2 man saws are significantly more efficient especially on larger trees.
Regardless of all of that though, I'm convinced that bucking will continue to be the bulk of the work related to cutting by hand. I find that was pretty interesting. Splitting is easy, and felling is only slightly more work than one bucking cut, maybe twice as much.

I'm not going to quit cutting wood by hand. I want to keep getting better and someday be able to actually cut a full winter's wood. But, that said, the next time I really need to cut a large quantity of wood I may give in and use a chain saw. It feels really good to cut wood by hand, but it's hard to say that feels better than being able to cut all the wood you need by yourself.

The settlers dropped trees like this all the time, but there's a reason the crosscut saw had nicknames like the "misery whip". No-one likes crosscutting. It's hard hard work. American Indians simply wouldn't cut a tree like this, if they had to they'd burn through it. That's how much harder larger tree are to cut than smaller trees. Over about 6" across they just get really really difficult

Still... It's great to finally have that tree completely off the driveway and know that I did it all with tools available 200 or more years ago.

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