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.

Moving and stuff

I know I haven't posted in a while. I'm in transition right now, with a lot fewer opportunities to get out and do neat things outside. I moved out of my cool house in the woods because I didn't want to sign the lease for another year, so I'm temporarily living in an apartment in Waynesboro VA while I look for an awesome place to live. I did get a good test of my trailer on the move, and I found that I really like it.

Although I haven't been getting out as much as before that's not to say that I haven't been doing anything. I'm dating a wonderful girl. The two of us went backpacking last weekend, and covered a LOT of mileage. I estimate at least 18 miles saturday and again on Sunday, and another at least 12 on Monday. We didn't bring a camera though so no post is coming. I'm also planning a blitz of the Massanutten trail for weekend after this one, it'll be interesting to see how that goes.

A couple of weeks ago I helped a friend who owns a small meat farm slaughter and butcher a bunch of chickens. That was pretty interesting. This is a very small family operation and we of course did it as quickly and humanely as possible. Butchering any animal for sale was new to me, and it was interesting to learn what people care about.

Moving into a new place is always a bit of an adventure. There's all sorts of little things you need. I needed a shower curtain but just couldn't stand the idea of getting a plastic one. But I had part of a cheap canvas drop-cloth I bought a while ago for my MYOG backpack experiments. So, we hemmed it while watching a movie and hung it up with some rings from home-depot.


The rings cost cost ~$8.00. A plastic shower curtain would be cheap, but this makes me so much happier. And when I throw it away it'll actually decompose.

I also wanted some large S-hooks due to how the closet here is set up. S-hooks this large were ~$3.00 each at home-depot. That's just too silly. So I picked up a coil of wire instead. I then drilled a hole in a dowel I'd purchased as a curtain rod. Sticking the wire in the hole in the dowel I rolled the dowel along the floor (this is actually a lot of effort with wire this thick), using the dowel as a mandrill to make rings. I learned this trick originally from Lizza, who taught me how to make chainmail. Hat-tip to Jess for suggesting drilling the hole.


I tried using nippers and sadly put a giant dent in the jaws of my nippers. Damn, Luckily I got them for ~$3.00 at a garage sale or I'd be more upset. So I broke out the dremel and used the cutting wheel instead. Once I had the "spring" free I then used plyers to open up the last coil on the spring into an S-hook. Then used the cutting wheel to cut it off the the Spring. Repeat. I found it easiest to do about 6 at a time, just because the spring was an easy to work with size that way. The wire was ~$10.00 for the roll, and I've used a tiny portion of it. Though I probably used up another dollar or two worth of dremel cutting wheel.


So, life is moving along. Always learning and playing. I hope to report some good outdoor adventures in the not too distance future!