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The Zen of wood making

In to the Wind

November 22, 2011
By Mike Gilchrist ( , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

I have visited this subject before in this space. I have learned a great deal in the years since.

"Making wood" is one of those terms only someone intimately familiar with the Zen of firewood preparation would use or understand. Some people "buy" wood for their wood stove or fireplace; others make wood.

The term does not appear to be a Midwestern colloquialism; instead, it seems to be in common usage throughout the country. Although we burned firewood in our fireplace when I was a kid, and I cut a lot of firewood for our wood stove when I lived in Iowa City a long time ago, the term, when first heard, seemed alien to me.

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I first heard the term used by my friend Ray. He asked me one day if I was going to "make wood?" I remember responding that only God can make wood, but I was going to cut some firewood. I now use the term myself. It has taken me a few years to develop certain pertinent skills which constitute my personal Zen of making wood.

Gilly Hollow has around 38 acres of timber in forest reserve. The deep ravines and "hog backs" contain a wide assortment of mostly hardwood trees. Oak, elm, walnut, cherry and hickory trees predominate.

There is a collection of certain knowledge, which is refined by experience that leads to enlightenment in the Zen of making wood. I will arrogantly admit I have become an artist where making wood is concerned. I relish the entire process; from finding and felling the tree, to sawing, hauling and stacking. At every step there is a great deal to know; right ways, wrong ways, easy paths, and hard ones.

I have learned the splitter, which a large, heavy piece of equipment needs to be operated on level, firm ground. I added this knowledge to my personal Zen when, while splitting wood on an uneven surface along one of my trails, a certain tugging at a stuck piece of wood sent the splitter rolling like a barrel to the bottom of a ravine. Creative extraction with ropes and pulleys retrieved it intact, but a valuable lesson was learned.

You have to be able to scan the timber for quality, accessible wood. This one sounds a little simplistic, but it does take an experienced eye to spot a prime tree. There is a hierarchy of wood, ranked by quality. This quality criterion takes into account ease of cutting or location of the tree in relationship to a trail or other access for a vehicle with hauling capabilities, as well as the heat one gets from the wood when burned.

A cherry tree makes good firewood, but not great. Red elm is my favorite. However, a dead or downed cherry tree close to one of my trails is a better choice than a fine elm tree half way down a ravine. This has become less of an issue, now that I have a portable winch, strong pulling ropes, and an assortment of cables and pulleys. Using a collection of straps, log chains, "snatch block" pulleys and that winch, a tree which is felled properly can be maneuvered to a more convenient staging area. I pull felled trees to the edge of the timber where processing can happen safely and conveniently.

I have been watching certain trees for a few years now. Dutch elm disease is a slow death to an elm tree. When the beetles first invade, bark near the trunk of the tree begins to fall away. It takes a couple years for the tree to die. Red elm trees can be magnificent trees. Fortunately the larger, over sixty foot ones seem to have enough energy to fight the disease. It is generally the smaller ones, four to eight inches in diameter, growing too close to each other which succumb to the disease. Thankfully, these trees become prime candidates for making wood.

Many of the branches are small enough in diameter; they don't need to be split. Red elm is one of the only trees that actually dry out while standing in the timber. A dead red elm tree may stand for 10 years or more. The hard wood becomes as dry as if it had been kiln dried. It also burns with a vengeance, and creates that coveted bed of coals which will give off heat for hours when burned in the wood stove.

Oak will burn hot and true, but the coals have to be raked to get new fuel on the grates and in contact with the hot coals; not so elm. Elm wood will collapse its own coals and keep the wood in contact with coals next to the grate.

One skill I am continually honing is the art of making a tree drop right where you want it to drop. If you don't do it just right, it can fall against another tree and be a real pain to liberate. If you're not careful, while you are trying to coax a tree to fall the way you want, it can pinch and capture the bar of your chain saw. Usually you can use the second chain saw to undo your mistake, but some times it takes a couple chains and a "come along" type hand winch to liberate the chain saw.

I have learned to tie a long rope around a tree as far up as I can reach. I tie the other end to the front of the Jeep, or the portable winch, and back up a ways until there is a lot of tension on the tree in the direction I want it to fall. I then cut a deeper than normal notch in the side of the tree facing the length of rope. When I make the final cut on the opposite side of the tree above the notch, the tree will usually hinge down in the desired direction, but not always. I have snapped some stout ropes using this technique when the laws of physics insist on causing a tree to take a fall path other than what I intended.

A very dry old elm tree can also drop its crown, or upper part one direction, while the rest of the tree drops another way. Old timers call these "widow makers." I have learned to listen to the creaks and groans of the tree as it starts to fall and in all instances have already planned my escape route; so far, so good.

There is also a certain Zen to the art of making a fire too, but that is fodder for a future column.

Stay warm dear reader!

Until next time--

You can read past columns by visiting and clicking on "view all" next to "Local Columns."

In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342.



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