How Chopping Your Own Firewood Will Keep Your Pockets Full This Winter

chop your own wood
Neil Inglis under Creative Commons

“Chop your own firewood, and it will warm you twice,” said Henry Ford. His axiom holds true, but he leaves out another important benefit of chopping your own firewood — it saves you money!

Whether you use wood as the primary fuel to heat your home, or you enjoy the occasional hearth-warming fire for ambiance, chopping it yourself is often far cheaper than purchasing it from a supplier or buying small bundles at the grocery store.

In many locales, all you need to chop your own wood is an inexpensive permit from the U.S. Forest Service or another land management agency. However, before you go rushing off to grab your permit, take some time to evaluate your needs and plan your cutting expedition.

Assess Your Needs

First, determine how much wood you will need. To do this, evaluate your planned use. Will wood be your primary source of heat? Do you simply need wood for an occasional fire and marshmallow-roasting session? What kind of climate do you live in? Staying comfy in a southern California winter will require far less wood than surviving one in upstate New York.

Wood is typically measured by the cord; one cord is 128 cubic feet of wood (eight feet by four feet by four feet). Depending on the type of wood and your geographic location, a cord typically sells from $200-$500.

If you only need wood for a few fireplace sessions a week during the winter, you will most likely not need a full cord. A third of a cord or so should be enough, according to American Lawn Irrigation, which operates in New Jersey. However, if you are using a wood-burning stove to heat your home, depending on climate, you will likely need a cord or more.

Safety First

Before attempting any wood-cutting endeavor, make sure you are knowledgeable and have proper safety equipment. Always wear goggles and protective gear and make sure to follow all safety procedures.

You should have an adequate level of knowledge and training before operating any equipment or working with wood and trees. This type of work is inherently risky and even professional arborists and tree cutters face numerous job-related risks.

If you don’t have the necessary experience, don’t try to learn as you go. Instead, consider offering to work as an apprentice for a local firewood cutter or helping a knowledgeable friend in exchange for some wood. You could offer to stack wood and do other tasks while learning how to safely cut firewood — then be able to go out on your own, safely, next year.

Where Can You Cut Your Own Firewood?

Now that you have determined your wood needs, made sure that you are knowledgeable about all the risks involved, and acquired adequate knowledge and safety equipment, it’s time to figure out where to get your wood.

First, ask around to see if you have any friends or neighbors with downed trees on their properties. Many people will pay professionals to haul away these downed trees, especially after a storm. With a few hours of work, you could clear them for free and add to your woodpile. Always have permission from a landowner before harvesting any wood from their land. If you gather wood without permission, you can be prosecuted for theft and trespassing! Keep an eye out for power lines and other dangers. You may want to look into liability and personal injury insurance before clearing any trees.

Additionally, contact local tree-cutting services to see if they may have any wood from their last few jobs. In some regions, tree-cutting services have to pay to dispose of downed wood and may be happy to have someone take it off their hands for free.

Another option is to evaluate public lands nearby where you can harvest your own wood. Be sure to look into options that are close to home — if you have to drive hundreds of miles to collect your haul, it could easily negate any savings from cutting the wood yourself.

Additionally, it is often illegal to transport wood and plant materials from one state or area to another due to invasive species regulations. A good rule of thumb is to avoid transporting wood more than 50 miles. Be sure to look into local rules and regulations for your area. To find nearby public lands where you can cut your own wood, contact your local Forest Service office.

Typically, a permit to cut a cord or two of wood will cost $10-$20. In Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, a permit to cut four cords of wood starts at $20. When you pick up your permit, Forest Service offices typically provide an extensive list of rules and regulations, including where and when you can harvest, how you are required to tag and report the wood, and more.

Also, many states have Departments of Forestry that permit wood cutting on certain state-owned lands. Connecticut has a lottery for firewood permits. Contact your state’s Department of Forestry to see if your state has a program you can use.

Heading Out to Cut Wood

When you’re ready to cut your own wood, be sure to team up. It’s safer, easier, and much more fun to chop wood with friends. And it reduces the expense if you need to purchase or rent equipment — and you can split the gas bill on your way out to your wood source.

Of course, you will need proper tools, including safety equipment. Depending on what type of wood you are cutting, and in what quantity, you may need a variety of different tools. (If you’ve done your homework and learned the proper techniques and safety processes, you’ll know what you need.) Determine how much wood you are going to cut and consider renting a wood splitter.

Be sure to wear the proper clothing, including work boots, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and use appropriate safety equipment, including safety goggles, work gloves, a hard hat, hearing protection, chaps and a face shield. Do not wear any type of clothing, jewelry or other item that could become caught in your tools or machinery. Oklahoma State University provides a helpful safety brochure.

When you arrive at your wood-harvesting area, collect wood from environmentally friendly places. Avoid areas near streams and creeks, where wood removal could cause erosion. Also, avoid fragile areas and hills. If you’re not sure what areas are the most ecologically friendly, check with the Forest Service for their recommendations in your area.

For the best seasoned wood, do your cutting in the spring, so the wood can dry out all summer and be ready for fall. Leaving wood in summer heat often does a good job of seasoning it. However, it’s not too late to cut wood for this winter: make sure to only harvest dead trees, whether they’re still standing or have already blown down.

Can You Sell Excess Wood?

Selling some of the wood you chop may also be an option, though be sure to check into rules and regulations to make sure it is legal in your area. Check invasive species rules as well as laws pertaining to the type of land it was harvested from. If you are a commercial wood harvester on public land, special rules apply.

Purchasing Wood

If you are going to purchase wood from someone else, rounds are often cheapest (rather than split, ready-to-burn firewood). Simply rent a splitter or use a maul and do it the old-fashioned way to split the wood yourself.

Also, wood sellers usually have different prices for delivered and stacked wood. To get the best deal, offer to pick up your wood. If they only deliver, be sure to just have them drop the wood and save money by stacking it yourself, as they’ll typically charge extra for a stacking job.

Your Turn: Do you heat your home with firewood or enjoy an occasional fire? Where do you get your wood?

Kristen Pope is a freelance writer and editor in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.