Who doesn’t love a bonfire? Sitting on stumps around a blazing, crackling fire with friends, enjoying a beer or a mug of hot, spiced wine, and then as it burns down to coals, roasting meats, oysters, ears of corn, potatoes, marshmallows? Good times!
Of course, I’m such a pyro I don’t even need the festivities. I just want to get my brushpiles cleaned up. But I hate the smell of lighter fluid. It is a chemical pollutant and I have eaten more than my share of charred meat infused with its noxious odor. No more. If you can’t start your fires with a bow drill, or flint and steel, at least use a match, tinder, and kindling.
So I’m assuming you have wood to dispose of. If this is about a party bonfire, it seems wasteful to go buy nicely cut and split firewood. You should be working on creating a pile of wood that will not otherwise be useful- brush, dead branches, old furniture, garden trimmings, etc. If you are doing this over time it is too much trouble to worry about the construction of the pile, except that if it gets too big it will be too hot to get close to. My cousin builds his with a bulldozer and whole trees. His fires are spectacular yearly events. We could never have them if we had nearby neighbors. Which brings me to a point I hate to mention.
Make sure there aren’t local laws that you will be violating. Make sure you don’t have nervous neighbors who will call the law on you. Make sure you are above all things careful that your fire is under control and not able to reach something you don’t want burned up, such as a house or truck. And don’t imagine nothing will happen. Story: as a young bride I moved into a ground floor apartment in Jersey City (I know, I know). I went out to clean up the yard and started to burn my leaf pile, as I had done all my life. Within 15 minutes a firetruck pulled up, giant New Jersey firemen hopped into my back yard, scornfully hosed down my little leaf pile, and left with hardly a backward glance. Embarrassing. ‘Nother story: Once I was burning brush out in the field and it got into the hedgerow. It happened because I was getting overly enthusiastic about cleaning up leaves on the edge of the hedgerow. It caught in the dead catbriars and flew up into a tree with a huge rush of flame. Fortunately the tree was green and the vines quickly burnt out, but that taught me. Fire is nothing to fool with. I keep a hose or at least a bucket of water nearby, and a leaf rake. The leaf rake is for beating out flames that try to go where they shouldn’t. It works very well and I have never had any more problems.
Burn when the ground is wet. Be careful about wind. A little breeze is ok if your pile is well isolated from flammable materials, but if the wind catches your fire and tosses sparks onto a roof you’ll really wish you had waited for a better day.
Know your prevailing wind. That means, where does it blow from most of the time? Bear that in mind for safety, smoke, and starting the fire. Mine blows from the west, so I start my fire on the west side of the pile.
Arrange materials. Gather small twigs, large twigs, stick, and short limbs you can move around easily. Lay them within reach.
Dry goldenrod heads make great tinder and their stalks catch nicely as well
Gather some tinder- dead goldenrod heads are really easy to start, and some dead grass and leaves. Set two small logs in a v shape, open towards you and the prevailing wind. Pile the tinder on the bottom, in the V, then leaves and grass. Break up the smallest twigs and lay them criss cross over the leaves, just behind them. This is so as soon as the leaves catch fire the flames will blow back and rise up into the twigs. So behind those stack larger twigs criss cross, larger and so on, like a lopsided teepee, or that famous building in Sydney. Sheltering the flame from the wind with your body, light a match and put it in under the tinder, out of reach of wind. If there is no wind you may need to blow gently to encourage the fire. As the materials catch make sure the fire is feeding through the successively larger sticks you have put on. Rearrange and feed the fire as it grows. The bigger it is, the thicker wood it can eat, like a baby. Pull a few pieces from your pile on top of it as it grows. Eventually you will need to get back as it licks over the V and catches your main pile.
Or you can just save your junk mail in a paper sack and set that on fire to windward of your brushpile. That works pretty well.
As the pile burns you will need to toss in outer pieces. Use a rake, heavy leather gloves, and boots. A ball cap and safety glasses are also not a bad idea if you are concerned about cinders in your eyes and hair.
Kick ends into the center and rake to contain and renew fire.
When your pile is burned down, you can use the coals for cooking, toasting marshmallows, or starting a new fire in the morning, but don’t just forget about it. Rake the outside to the center and be sure there is no way the fire can get out of control while you are not watching. The best way is to drench it with water, and if you are in an area where the ground is flammable because it contains a lot of humus, as in a forested area, it’s mandatory. Fire can travel underground. My grandmother put out a cigarette on the ground in Canada once, and in the morning she found a tiny spiral of smoke rising from the ground 6 feet away. If she hadn’t noticed that and drenched it, the whole island could have gone up in flames, including the houses.
Fire is a wonderful and primally satisfying thing. I love to spend a winter day cleaning up debris and feeding it into the flames. But I never let myself forget what would happen if it got out of control. Be careful.
Cutting wood is doubly satisfying for me. Not only am I keeping my house warm, but I’m cleaning up. Here on the farm trees fall down and drop branches all the time. When I moved back to the farm in 1999, I had a wood stove and a teacher’s salary. As children growing up in a big drafty house we all carried the wood my father cut, but we never even carried the chainsaw. Time for a change.
If you are interested in learning to cut wood for yourself, make sure you have a good familiarity with handling and maintaining your chainsaw. Here is my last post on that.
Cutting up downed trees is easy, but you just need to understand how the wood will fall or shift as you cut it. Where is the tension; do you need to cut from the top or the bottom? Where should you stand? Really think about it, or you will at the very least pinch your chainsaw and there it will stick in the tree until you get other tools or another chainsaw to get it out.. At the worst, you will get hurt. Seriously, here is a scary story, required reading:
My mother wanted a satellite dish. The installer said that a certain branch was blocking her reception. My father said fine, you can use my ladder and my chainsaw. The clever young man declined, but offered to hold the ladder while my 70 year old father ascended about 30 feet into a poplar tree to do it himself (needless to say had my mother or I been on the farm we would have dissuaded him). The branch he cut swung down and knocked the ladder out from under him, and he fell to the ground, breaking his pelvis in two places, tearing several tendons in his ankle, cracking his skull, and lacerating his scalp. He had to be airlifted to Baltimore. Thank God he wasn’t hurt worse.
This asymmetrical dead cedar will be easy to cut up, except for the cat briers.
OK, back to work. Let’s start with this old cedar tree that blew down. It had been leaning on another tree for a while, and there is a reason they call those widowmakers. I wasn’t going near it. But now it is down and you can see that because it grew close to another tree all its branches grew off to one side. This will make it easy to get the main trunk away, and if I want since it is in a hedgerow I can just leave the brush there. However there is a lot of complicated tension in the branches, and I will need to watch it not to get my saw blade pinched in a cut.
I made small cuts from either side until I saw where it was going
Cut side branches off flush from main trunk. If this tree had been lying differently I might have first cut the branches off at the smallest usable thickness and worked my way in so as to keep from cutting small branches on the ground and dulling my saw in the dirt. The disadvantage of doing it that way is that if the branches are flexible they can shake around and pull the chain off the bar if you have carelessly allowed it to get loose. This picture shows how a heavy branch can slide when you cut it, rather than bend up or down. I was lucky not to pinch it. I had my feet well clear and I made small cuts from both directions until I saw what was going to happen.
Here you can see how easily this trunk came away. When you are cutting up a big trunk like this, think about how you will be splitting the “rounds.” Cedar is super easy to split, unless there are knots in the wood, and there often are. “Bucking” a log is marking out how you will cut it by making small nicks in the trunk with your saw. I know how deep my woodstove is, but I also know a hard-to-split mess when I see it, so I try to really gnarly logs a lot shorter, either in hopes of splitting them anyway, or sliding them in the stove as a disc, or just throwing them on a bonfire. A nice boring straight round is what I want.
Now I can throw the big rounds (dead cedar is light) in the truck and clear space to get at the branches that are big enough to bother with. I really love the smell and crackle of cedar, and will cut pieces as small as my arm, or even smaller for kindling. Dry cedar catches nicely.
Ok, now lets take another cleanup project. I have a low dead osage orange branch that is really good size, and I have decided to cut it off the tree to open up the view and ease the weight on the tree which is leaning anyway. For now I decided to leave a piece of it there because it makes a nice place for us to sit and admire the sunset. I know the branch is going down, but may twist, so I take off branches that could whack me first, standing out of the way and cutting from the top down.
Osage orange has major BTUs and catches easily, so I will use every bit of this branch. Besides, it is an area that needs to be cleaned up anyway. I do actually cut the branches into lengths right on the branch once it is down (not safe to cut over your head) because they are small and I will definitely get into the dirt and dull my chain if I cut flush at the major limb first. It is pretty stiff and I made sure my chain was on tight. Any brushy stuff left over can start a brush pile right in the field, since I plan to cut up some living small trees that are growing up too close to the shed. The heat of dry osage orange is what I need to get a green brushpile to start.
Cut off branches too small for use, being careful not to endanger your chain.
The wood is a gorgeous yellow color, which might mean the tree has medicine in it for liver ailments. In the Amazon every tree has miraculous healing powers that are known to the indigenous people. I sat and sketched and took notes all day. So why not our own trees? We have lost so much by destroying Native American culture.
Ok, before we quit, let’s cut up this dead cherry tree. It is leaning out so I know I can easily stand next to it and cut downward, and it will fall right down without any surprises. It has been dead long enough that there is no brush to deal with.
when the heavy part of the trunk is cut I will be able to pull the rest of the tree off the cinderblocks.
The only thing I have to watch is that there is a pile of cinderblock rubble somebody forgot here. It was meant to go down the bank for erosion control many years ago. If my blade touches it there will be sparks and a dull chain to sharpen. I will just buck it out, slicing out the fork as short as I can because it is hard to split, and then cut in all the areas that are safe, then pull the now easily movable log to where I can cut it, finish up and start loading the truck.
That was a satisfying day’s work, and I am ready for a hot shower and a beer.
It is winter, and the winds are howling outside, but our big living room is toasty warm despite big windows and french doors. The small woodstove kicks out good heat, and the kettle hisses comfortably on top of it, alongside of a pot of fragrant bean soup that is gently simmering. Outside the door is a stack of wood I cut, split where necessary, and stacked, from dead trees in the hedgerows on this farm.
I think keeping the house warm is a character forming skill for children. Fire-making is a simple competence that is central to human survival, male or female. As the oldest of four girls I learned many skills from my father that he might not have taught me if there had been sons. As the daughter of a German woman I learned early to like work. So as a little girl I gathered kindling, and as I grew bigger, I helped carry and stack the firewood my father cut, along with my little sisters. Especially in the house we lived in in Virginia when he was teaching at Sweet Briar College, this was not just for the benefit of our characters. During the bogus oil embargo in the Seventies, a professor’s salary couldn’t heat a big, drafty house with oil. That house was freezing, and those mountain winters were snowy. It was cold, our feet and hands were numb, and the hills were steep and slippery, but we did what had to be done as a family to keep the fires going. I have to say I don’t think I was sufficiently understanding or fair when my son was 11 and we were hauling wood on the mild, flat Eastern Shore of Maryland. I was divorced and it’s hard for a mother to raise a son alone. Somehow he learned to be strong and protective, and he learned to split wood along the way.
It took some big changes in my life to turn me into a chainsaw woman. My father kept us well away from his Stihl. It was a woodsman thing; no woman could possibly run it without cutting off an appendage. But when I moved back to the farm in ’99, I had no man to cut wood, and there was a cute little Poulan chainsaw at the Lowes for less $99. I had a breakthrough. What a man has that I don’t have is utterly useless when it comes to cutting wood. I had watched this all my life. English professors do this. I could do this. You can do this. Just be careful in everything that you do. Maintain the saw, keep the chain tight so it doesn’t fling itself off the bar and cut you, watch how the wood you are cutting is going to be affected by gravity as you cut so you don’t pinch the bar or drop a tree on somebody. Know what you are doing before you do it, and never hurry.
Buying your first Chainsaw:
OK, let’s get started. You need a saw. Cheap saws are a good start. Not electric- that’s too cheap. Imagine running around the woods followed by extension cords. Gas. You can get a new Poulanat the hardware store for less than a hundred dollars. Go and heft them. Not everybody has the upper body strength and endurance to cut with a 22 inch Stihl, and if you make a mistake you’ll hurt yourself badly. Start with a 14 inch Poulan. I have two 14 inchers and one 16 inch, because they can generally last a year with someone who doesn’t know how to take small engines apart and fix them. And actually, one of them still runs, if put to it. You probably don’t have too many trees that are too big for 14 inches anyway. You might get a used saw cheaper, but if it is your first saw, make sure it is in really good condition and starts on the first pull. Get the instruction manual off the internet and read it through if you don’t get one that comes in a box. Check out all the youtubes. OK, you think you are too good for a Poulan? If money is not that tight, a Husqvarnais the next step up. Stihl is when you are ready to cut with the big dogs. They are pricey but last forever if well-maintained. My husband got me a very old used #41 Farm Boss, 22 inches, for $300 last year, and I take it in once a year for a tune up, which costs me $80 (for 2 saws.) I only use ethanol free gas in it, mixed with a good quality 2 cycle oil, I clean and sharpen it obsessively, and only certain people are allowed to touch it. It is all metal and says “made in West Germany” on it. It is very heavy and if the chain is sharp it goes through a downed locust tree like a hot knife through butter. It would do the same to my foot, if I slipped, so I keep well away from the blade. My back hurts a lot when we have a big blow and I have to cut a lot. Try to alternate between the big and little saw; work until one tank is empty, then switch to the other saw and do a different task. So think about this. Start with a small, light saw.
My niece showing us how it’s done
While you are at it, get protective gear; safety glasses and ear protectors. And steel toe boots. A friend of mine got a huge chunk of wood right in the eyeball while bush hogging and had to go to a specialist at John Hopkins to save his eyeball. When I have forgotten to wear safety glasses the flying sawdust reminded me in a hurry. For your ears there are those little foam rubber plugs, considerately neon colored so when they fall out of your ears you can find them in the leaves. My father used spitwads. They aren’t much good. You can hear just fine with them in. Honestly, you can get excellent quality cheap ear protectors that are made for shooting. I paid about $10 for some Winchester ear protectors at- I admit it- I went- sorry- Wallyworld. The Husqvarna ones ($17) are tougher though. People are always borrowing mine. If you don’t wear them, your ears will feel funny and you won’t hear very well. Seriously. Damage can become permanent, plus ear protectors are nice and warm. As to boots, I live in barn boots- Wellingtons or whatever. It’s just me. They get sweaty, but they are light and I can slip them off and on while shaking sawdust out of them, and wade through mud and muck without a worry. You might prefer some lace up work boots with steel toes.
This is a t-shaped tool that has a screwdriver on one end and two hex drivers on the other. You can’t live without it. It loosens and tightens your chain, the nuts that hold your bar on, and even opens the gas and bar chain oil tanks. You will always be losing it, so spray paint it neon pink or something. Saves cussing.
The new ethanol mix gas tears up small engines, especially if you leave it in the saw for more than a few days. You really should leave the saw either totally empty and dry or full while you aren’t running it. If you aren’t using it for a month or so, fill it with gas mixed with Stabil. Leaving it totally empty for too long can cause the seals to dry and crack. I go to a gas station that has ethanol free gas and fill up my 2 gallon can 95% full. If I’m using a 1 gallon, same thing. Chainsaws used mixed gas. You buy the good quality 2 cycle oil,measure it very precisely, and mix it into the gas by shaking. It’s easy though. The oil I mix it with is either pre-measured or squeezes into a measuring container that is designed for 1 gallon. I want to make sure I err just a tad on the side of less than a gallon, and I can tell how much I bought by looking at the pump. A few pennies of gas is not worth having to overhaul your saw.
pouring bar chain oil into the oil chamber. Don’t get them mixed up….
When you fill your gas tank with the mixed gas, fill the oil reservoir on the other side of the saw as well. They run out at about the same rate, and if you don’t have oil constantly lubricating the bar the chain will overheat and lose the temper of the metal, among other awful things which have never happened to me because I am religious about bar chain oil. Then it won’t hold an edge. Clean off the sawdust so you don’t get dirt in either reservoir. When you are cutting if you are afraid the chain isn’t lubricating hold the chain above some bark and rev the saw. You should see a fine mist of oil darkening the surface. If not, cut off the saw and check the oil.
Tightening the Chain
Your chain should be seated in the groove on the bar with the cutting edges forward. There should be a picture of a chain link with the correct orientation on the blade or the saw somewhere. You may laugh, but I have put the chain on backwards more than once. It doesn’t cut- just makes a sad little groove on the log. Like I said, be careful and watch what you are doing and not only will you avoid removing your legs but you will also avoid the humiliation of revealing yourself as a dork. Of course with the chain on backwards you’d probably just go through the pants and some meat. Researching this post I actually saw that they sell chainsaw safety pants. What’ll these Yankees think up next? (Actually those clever safety conscious Germans, but it’s just something my grandfather used to say.)
You should be able to slide the chain back and forth on the bar easily with a gloved hand, but it should pull away and snap back when you pull it up off the bar. If you are cutting and it is making a rattling or even jingling sound, cut it off and check that the chain is not hanging loosely on the bar. It can flip off and hurt you. If you are lucky, it can flip off and make all kinds of little bumps and dents on the chain that will prevent it from sliding smoothly in the groove. Then you have to file or grind the links smooth again, which takes a long time, and it will never cut as well again. So be aware of how much the chain can loosen ass it heats up, as it wears, and if you didn’t tighten the nuts really well. Check your saw frequently. If you have been cutting for 15 minutes, you probably can cut off the saw and spend a few minutes pulling brush into a pile, putting logs in a cart or the back of a truck or something, while your saw cools enough for you to check it. This is also good for your body. If you do the same thing for too long without varying, you will get sore and not be able to do as much. Do stretch. If you are loosening and tightening the bolts, check to see if there is a lot of debris under the panel and clean that out. Sometimes I get the bit in my teeth and overheat the little saw.
opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench. Dont lose bolts!
To tighten the chain, using the hex head on your scrench, loosen the two nuts holding on the side panel until it is loose enough to wiggle a tiny bit. Locate the tightener screw next to the bar that tightens the chain. Now, using the screwdriver tip of the scrench (see how useful it is?) turn the screw clockwise until the chain is tight enough to snap when you pull it off the bar, but loose enough to slide back and forth on the bar. If you have to take the chain off to clean the saw, take the side panel right off, carefully putting the 2 nuts in the upside down panel and in a safe place. It is amazing how losing those can waste your time. Tip the bar to give yourself enough slack to remove the chain. Don’t sling the chain around as it will turn into a Chinese puzzle. Just lay it carefully on a relatively clean surface in a circle.
Clean dirt, sawdust, and oil off the saw. Some saws can get so dirty the bar chain oil won’t flow, which is bad for the blade. I clean mine before or after each use, and if I am doing something else to it I clean it to make it easier to work.
Putting the chain back on is a little trickier but just do it and you’ll get the hang. First, locate the chain tightening screw on the detached panel and turn it counter clockwise, noticing how the little nub that fits into the hole on the bar moves back. You’ll need to do that so the hole on the bar fits over it. Clean the bar, remembering the groove, and lay it back on the bolts. It doesn’t matter which way. Turn the chain tightening screw until it sits over the hole when you put the panel on the bolts. You can fuss with this later but I just think it’s easier to do it when you are putting the bar in place. Looking carefully at the forward direction of the teeth on top, put the chain over the tip of the bar and around the sprocket, and pull it into place along the groove so that the whole thing aligns. Put the side panel in place and semi-tighten the screws. Make sure the chain tightener is in the hole in the bar and tighten the chain. You might have to slide the chain back and forth a little as sometimes the chain is on the top or bottom of the sprocket and it has to ride over so it slides straight in the groove on the bar. When it is tight enough to snap and slides smoothly, tighten the bolts as tight as you can with the scrench. If you don’t the saw’s vibration will loosen them and the chain will become slack, which is inefficient and dangerous.
Clean the groove out whenever you have the chain off. Put a rag over the screwdriver end of your chainsaw tool and run it down the groove. There is a grease gun you can buy to put lubricant into the tiny holes in the bar. I got some and lost it. I never heard of anybody doing that anyway. If the groove gets too worn the chain will wobble and not cut as well. Sand in soil will accelerate this- another reason to keep your chain out of the dirt. You can buy a replacement chainsaw bar but they cost $25- $50.
Starting the Saw
If you have mixed gas and oil in the chambers, your protective gear is on and you are ready to go, here’s how to start it. Put the choke on. Because I don’t have the upper body strength to hold it with one hand and pull it with the other, I put my boot in the handle, hold it down with my left hand, and pull with my right. Generally one good fast pull will start a happy saw. Then give it some gas and the choke will come off automatically. But saws aren’t always happy. According to which saw you have- those directions are good to read- pull 5 slow pulls, half-choke it, and one good pull. If it almost starts, take the choke off. The next pull should do it.
If you aren’t giving it a really fast pull and you end up flooding the carburetor, you will smell a lot of gas. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and try again. Some saws have a little plastic bladder pump that you push to prime the motor. Those work well but eventually the plastic cracks. You can fix them but by then you might be ready for a new saw anyway. If it just won’t start it could be that you used old gas. (Gas that sits for even a week in a half-full gas can isn’t fit to use, especially in warm weather, unless it has stabilizer in it. It’s the new ethanol mix that makes it so bad. You really should buy gas in small quantities and use it, or try to get ethanol free.) I throw old gas in my ancient Chevy pickup. It doesn’t care. Chainsaws need fresh gas. If you have been trying to start it using bad gas you may be in trouble- the cylinder may be scored; all kinds of horrible stuff. I have gotten away with just emptying it out, letting it sit a little, refilling it with fresh mixed gas, and starting it. It smoked for a moment but then all was well. I have never had the problem be the spark plug. I do sometimes open the Husqvarna and cleaned the airfilter, but it isn’t that dirty. Honestly, the annual trip to A & L Small Engine Repair in Church Hill is all I need (If you are local to me and want his number I’ll give it to you. Excellent, efficient, and honest. Shoot me a comment.) After you get used to your saw you won’t have any problems. I do like to keep my saws in the greenhouse in winter so they won’t be too cold, but it isn’t really an issue in this climate.
One last caveat for fellow dorks. Are you sure you flipped the ON switch? I won’t say a word….
Watch your arm. Sometimes when you pull the pull start string it pulls roughly and you get your arm jerked. It hurts for a day or two. I don’t really know what the reason for that is, but if you pull it slowly out a few times it will pull smoothly again.
the lines on the metal attachment on my dremel tool show me how to angle my grindstone.
Sharpening the Chain
When the chain is dull, you will know it. You won’t be cutting as fast, and eventually you will see scorch marks on the wood. You don’t want to wait that long, as you may ruin the temper of your chain and then it won’t keep an edge. When you look at the chain, you will see tiny chips and wear marks on the forward edge of the teeth, like a layer is wearing off. The trick to good chain saw wear is even sharpening, and sharpening at the correct angle (30 degrees). You can get a set of little round chainsaw files that go to your saw. The Poulans, Husqvarnas, and Stihls each take a different diameter file. Make sure you find out the diameter you need. My father just set the file at the correct angle and did 10 one-way strokes on each tooth. You can get a device to hold your file the right way as you stroke. My life improved when my DH gave me a cordless dremel chainsaw with bits to sharpen my saws and an attachable guide to show you where 30 degrees is. Just look and be sure you are right up on the edge, and count aloud to make sure you sharpen each tooth the same amount as the Dremel takes off metal quickly. There is also a little curved rise behind each tooth that you should grind down a tiny bit each ten regular sharpenings. If you don’t, as your teeth get shorter you will take off smaller and smaller shavings of wood. There is a chainsaw gauge you can buy very cheaply that you rest on the chain while you file which makes it easy. It is hard metal though. But by this time you will be hooked and won’t mind a bit. A sharp chain is a joyful thing. Once your teeth are nothing but little squares or you have burnt or dinged up the chain you may go buy a new one. They range for 7 to 24 dollars depending on how you buy them, and after all, you are cutting wood to economize.
Now it is time to talk about wood. Click on this link to read about which woods make the best firewood for what.