Do it Yourself Timber Harvesting, by SMJ

Wood is one of the most readily available materials for homestead construction projects and is also an important fuel source for many of us. I’ve always loved forests and trees, so I drew on my experiences growing up in Alaska and my work in the timber industry in Western Washington to write this post. 

If you are lucky enough to own your own forest, I highly recommend the book A Landowner’s Guide to Managing Your Woods by Hansen/Seversen/Waterman.  This book will give you an excellent overview on how to keep your forest healthy and profitable, as well as giving you a broad overview of the logging industry. 

You are most likely already familiar with some logging tools. The most versatile and important tool is the axe, and you should have several. I prefer a double bit axe for felling and a single bit for limbing and pounding in wedges. Antique/junk stores can really help out here, as old axe heads of high quality can be had on the cheap often only needing to be sharpened and cleaned of rust. Supplement your limbing axe with several small hand saws.  A Peavey is another important tool that consists of a long lever with a hook for rolling logs. Again, you may be able to find one on the cheap at an antique store. Make sure to have a good supply of plastic felling wedges, which come in very handy when you are felling trees with a funny lean to them, as they take pressure off the saw when making the back cut. When using a chain saw, never substitute metal wedges for plastic or hardwood, as this could result in severe damage or injury if the chain makes contact with the metal. For moving logs, you will want a choker, a cable that can be wrapped around the end of a log to drag it from place to place. Additionally, you may want some extra cable, a come along, and few blocks or shivs.  For some larges species of tree to be cut by hand, you may need a spring board, which is a 2 x 4 with a steel spike at one end. Placed in a tree above the gnarled flare of the tree, it allows the lumberjack (or lumberjill) to make cuts with axes and saws in the softer, narrower part of the trunk. If you are going to be doing a lot of felling and bucking, you will want a logger’s tape measure to ensure you buck to just the right length. Otherwise, you can use an ordinary tape measure for the job. 

Every prepper should have at least one large crosscut saw, preferably a two-man. Some of the older saws are superior in quality and craftsmanship, but ones in good condition can be very expensive. There are kits available for sharpening crosscut saws, and you will need to get one of these as well. Sharpening crosscut saws was specialized work back when they were in wide use, and it is a skill I have not mastered. Youtube has a few excellent videos on the step by step process for this, but I think the best way to really learn is to find someone who is willing to teach you. Another tip to make your lumberjacking easier: If you look at photographs of the old time lumberjacks with their “whips of misery,” you will often see what looks like a whiskey bottle off to the side. These bottles were filled with the oil used to lubricate the saw to make cutting through large trees easier. 

After you’ve cut a few trees by hand, you will think of a chainsaw as your best friend. I’ve always been a skeptical about keeping machines running post TEOTWAWKI without the benefit of substantial stockpiles of fuel, lubricants, and extra parts which most of us can’t afford. The one machine I make an exception for is the chainsaw. There is no power tool more versatile to the homesteader. Besides its obvious use for felling and bucking logs, it makes log construction a much easier task. Post-TEOTWAWKI, I believe that anyone with a reliable chainsaw and a good stockpile of premium gasoline, 2 cycle oil, bar oil, chains and spare parts will be able to trade their services for a high price. In one afternoon, a man with a chain saw can do the work work that 24 men with crosscut saws did in a day. When electricity is unavailable, the chainsaw can be pressed into use for carpentry projects as well. Of course, keeping a low profile may make using a gas powered saw unacceptable, so always have the much quieter crosscut saw as a backup. 

Although there are many brands of chainsaw, Stihl and Husqvarna are the only two that I trust. Both of these brands have saws at the lower end of the price range that are intended for the suburban home owner market. Avoid these and choose a saw that is professional grade. The Stihl Farm Boss is a good choice for many people. It is a reliable saw, big enough for most tasks that a homesteader has to take on, but light enough that it can be used by smaller folks. In keeping with the “two is one” mantra, I recommend that you have multiple chainsaws of the same model, as well as spare parts.  

With a little maintenance, you can keep a quality saw running correctly with minimal problems. The most important preventative maintenance you can do is cleaning the air filter often. Remove the filter and use an air hose to clean it out from the inside and remove the junk that it accumulates. If you don’t have access to an air hose, you can use a can of compressed air duster for electronics. Use quality 2 cycle oil, this is definitely one place not to skimp, ideally from the saw’s manufacturer. For bar oil, you might be able to find cheap stuff at Wal-Mart or the like. Some folks I know use old motor oil for bar oil. This is not a good idea because the viscosity is different from real bar oil, and may damage your bar. Additionally, bar oil is biodegradable, which will help ensure the health of your forest. Some important spare parts to keep around are extra bars, air filters, chain sprockets, and a cylinder replacement kit. You will need lots of extra chain, which can be purchased in bulk rolls from Bailey’s, an online logging supply store. 

For safety equipment, a hard hat, Kevlar chainsaw safety chaps, eye and ear protection, and boots with excellent ankle support are musts. If you are going to be doing a lot of logging, you will also want a pair of caulks (pronounced ‘corks’), which are spiked boots for walking on slippery logs and soft hillsides. 

An important thing to understand is that felling trees is the easiest part of the job. You make your cuts at the butt end of the tree, and gravity does the rest. Moving a tree that weighs several tons once it is on the ground is much more difficult. For the logger working without the benefit of heavy equipment, felling timber in exactly the right place can mean the difference between successfully harvesting the tree and leaving it on the ground to rot because you are unable to move it. The best resource for learning about safe felling is a booklet from the State of Oregon entitled “Fallers Logging Safety,” available free as a PDF online. Follow safety procedures and stay within your skill level. Nothing can replace hands on experience, and I can’t emphasize the importance of proper falling technique enough. Seek out real experts who will teach you the safe, correct procedures for felling so that you can develop good habits (as with many aspects in life, people who tell you they are experts are often anything but).  

Hand logging is the art of moving timber to the mode of transport with human power. Old time lumberjacks would typically work a hill side from the bottom to the top. Trees would be felled across the hill, limbed, and the rolled downhill to the stream, sea, road, or railroad by lumberjacks using peaveys. Sometimes, trees would be felled down the hill on top of several small logs laid perpendicular to the larger tree. The log could then be skidded down the hill on a path made of these smaller logs. Moving large logs uphill is going to be nearly impossible, so make sure you always fell trees into the best position for being moved. 

The sheer difficulty of moving large logs without heavy equipment may necessitate the adoption of building techniques that use shorter, smaller pieces of timber. My friend and former employer lived on the tree line in the mountains of Alaska where most of the timber was on the scrawny side. Never the less, he was able to build a sturdy log cabin with spruce logs that he cut to lengths of  6’ to 12’. If you live in an area with a good snowfall, winter can be the best time to harvest timber, as logs are much easier to drag across the spring’s firm snow pack than the summer’s uneven forest floor. A snow machine (called a snowmobile by you lower 48ers) is excellent for winter timber harvest because they can get to areas inaccessible by wheeled vehicles. A timber sledge for a snow machine is easily constructed by using two long 2x6s as runners, allowing you to haul long logs for cabin ridgepoles and larger structures. Another reason that winter is an ideal time for harvesting timber is that the sap will all be in the roots, meaning there will be less moisture content in the wood, always a consideration for firewood. Spruce and Douglas Fir harvested for cabin logs in the winter will be perfect for peeling in the spring. Often the bark can be removed in large strips using nothing but a hatchet. 

During summer months, you can use trucks and ATVs to harvest timber, vehicles with a winch being especially useful. Using a choker, logs can be dragged out of the woods to the road or trail so that you can pull them to where they are needed. The problem with this is that you will be restricted to only those areas accessible roads and trails. Another primitive way to move timber is with draft animals, giving you a much better option for those hard to reach timber stands. I think for any sort of large scale post-TEOTWAWKI logging, this is going to be the only way to get any real logging done unless fossil fuels are still available. Without machinery and only human power, you will reduced to using only the smallest logs, greatly diminishing the size of structures that can be built. An Alaska mill another possible solution to the problem of moving timber without heavy equipment.This device uses two chainsaws to form a primitive sawmill. With one of these, you can rip felled trees into lumber while still in the woods, allowing you to avoid moving large logs. 

On a closing note, my favorite story from the Hebrew scriptures has always been the story of Gideon, one of Israel’s judges. It is a story about faith versus doubt, the importance of watchfulness, and God giving victory to the righteous in the face of overwhelming odds. While doing some research the other day, I was interested to learn that Gideon in Hebrew means “destroyer,” “mighty warrior,” and also “a faller of great trees.” Happy cutting, and stay safe in the woods.