It seems easy. You probably do it all the time to stock up for the occasional bonfire gathering outside or to give fuel to the furnace or fireplace inside. It’s even a relaxing stress reliever. The enjoyable chore that it is, cutting and splitting firewood can also add some revenue if you’re blessed to have a woodlot or are in contact with a plentiful supplier. However, with every great idea, there needs to be a solid plan of action.
I got the wood, but do I have the time?
It’s a no-brainer, right? Maybe there’s untapped monetary potential in that woodlot and your chainsaw is ready, but you must remember… this is not a hobby anymore, Joseph Orefice, assistant professor of forestry at Paul Smith’s College in New York, said.
“A lot of people do firewood. I heat my house with firewood myself. You can spend a lot of time cutting wood and enjoy doing it,” he said. “You can say to yourself ‘Hey, I could sell this for $200.’ But you figure, in order to make a living of it at scale, you need to become more efficient. It’s a lot of work if you are not managing that time.”
Most start a firewood operation as a side business or as part of a larger business such as a logging contractor. Orefice’s advice for those starting from scratch is simple: Handle the wood as little as possible.
“You can cut the wood, pile the wood and split it; Pick it up and put it in the truck. Then unload the wood from the back of the truck,” he said describing the usual firewood delivery process. “But you find that you’d wasted your time and it won’t be worthwhile because you’ll end up making $3 per hour by the end of the day.”
This action alone can wreak havoc on the bottom line, Orefice noted. Depending on the demand in your area, it might make sense to work with a supplier.
“Try to set up a system where you’re handling the wood as little as possible,” he advised. “Maybe the whole log comes in (from the supplier), goes on a firewood processor, gets cut, then goes on a conveyor into a pile and that can get picked up and put on a truck.”
Cutting (and splitting) no corners
Although there are many advantages and disadvantages to consider when choosing to harvest or purchase your wood, the cutting and splitting will still require the proper recommended equipment.
For those brave enough to self-log, Dean Solomon of Michigan State University Extension warned in his essay, “Cutting and Selling Timber from Your Farm Woodlot,” that it’s dangerous work.
“Many types of farm equipment are simply not designed for woods work.
This is especially true of field tractors that may easily tip over under the strain of moving heavy logs,” he noted. “In addition to the safety considerations, improperly designed farm equipment can be easily damaged during logging operations. At a minimum, all tractors used in the woods should be equipped with roll-over protection.”
When choosing to harvest, purchasing a high-performance chain saw or a skidding winch for your tractor may be a suitable option. Power log splitters and other firewood processors are highly recommended when venturing into a firewood operation, and where you should spare no expense.
“A lot of people want to save money by purchasing used equipment. But you run a risk of having to fix your equipment all the time,” Orefice said. “The people that get into this don’t often consider the depreciation of equipment as part of their operating costs. So working that in is an important factor.”
Whether using the required cutting equipment for trees in your land or logs from a trusted supplier, make sure to check with your local natural resources district for advice and appropriate requirements.
According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, insects are found in almost half of retail firewood. The main culprit, the emerald ash borer, will be a formidable adversary when entering the business of lumber. That and the Asian long-horned beetle have forced New York and other eastern and Midwestern states into quarantined restrictions of the movement of ash wood and trees.
As New York’s environmental conservation department stated, its regulation “prohibits the import of firewood into New York unless it has been heat treated to kill pests. The regulation also limits the transportation of untreated firewood to less than 50 miles from its source.”
Even within 50 miles, operators must have a self-issued certificate of origin, and the firewood must be sourced within the noted distance of the destination.
“And that goes on to not just business, but personal,” Orefice said. “If I have a wood at a camp five miles down the road from my house, and bring it back to my house, and I get pulled over, I should have a certificate of where that wood came from. It is my responsibility to have that.”
Who are your customers?
Generally speaking, firewood is a recession-proof item. Everyone will need to be warm at some time and burning logs have been time-tested and are a proven method of proving heat. For you, the new owner and operator of a firewood operation, there’s one question: Who is your base?
Are you going the wholesale route in providing for other businesses that can kiln dry and bundle, heading for the retail side for the “pleasure burners” or both? The demand for wood and the area in which you live should be determining factors in that decision.
Also, you must also grab hold of the nuances that come with selling firewood – for example, the difference between “full” and “face” cord.
“There is a lot of slang used in terms of firewood. Cord is different than a ‘face’ cord.
“Face cord is 4 feet by 8 feet. People assume that it’s 16 inches long. It doesn’t have to be,” Orefice said. “It could be 12 inches long or 40 inches long. It’s only a two-dimensional unit. Whereas a full cord – a stacked pile of wood – is 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long. That’s measured in volume.”
Since most deliveries will happen via truck, having an approximate awareness of a cord’s dimension will make the difference in providing customers ultimate value while saving your business time and money during the sale.
Orefice also noted that potential firewood operators should be cognizant of their reputation after the transaction. For instance, a customer might have confusion over what’s seasoned/green or kiln-/air-dried firewood.
“If (firewood operation) delivers a gorgeous load of dried firewood, it’s seasoned and the customer was charged a premium as they should, and that person leaves that firewood spread out on the ground all season it is actually going to gain moisture,” he warned. “Then they’ll say, ‘You sold me green wood and you said it was dried.’”
Most importantly, Orefice advised that a good policy for a firewood operation is to ask for cash upfront.
“Firewood is a cash business,” he said. “Get the money from the customer before you drop the load. That is key. Most customers are spectacular, but you have to get the money before the load is delivered to ensure payment. It makes things much easier.”