The winter of 2011/2012 so far has been amazingly mild, but the nice weather hasn’t stopped me from preparing for next year. Next year I’ll be depending on wood heat, and if you’re going to cut any of your next year’s wood it’s already time to start. My wood lot is tiny and I’ll only be taking what it provides willingly — limbs pruned from the fruit trees and fuel salvaged from the hardwoods that expired from being alternately flooded and desiccated. If you take advantage of what happens, even a little piece of property provides a lot of fuel.
[Updating 2/8/2018: A simple way to search for good saws of this type on Amazon is to click here: Crosscut Saws. I get some good log saws right up top today, and there’s also some shopping advice at the end of this article.]
If I were cutting all my wood myself, I’d get another chainsaw. Even though I hate the beasts, they work pretty darned well. For a pleasant amount of work I wouldn’t even fire one up if I had one handy, because hand tools perform efficiently if you’re willing to set them up properly. People don’t usually know to do the things that make hand tools work well, so a few ineffective tries sends them back to power tools again. Working by hand can get very complex even though it looks simple when someone knows what they’re doing. It’s good knowledge to have around if an ice storm blows through and you’re trapped at home for a few weeks without any gas. Heck, it’s just fun to know these things and be able to fend for yourself. Also fun to have a nice pile of firewood, clean air to breathe, healthful exercise, and off in the distance the sound of somebody who’s spent the last hour and a half trying to get a chainsaw started. That happens more often than you’d think.
What you need, if you want to cut up a few pieces of downed wood or the pile of limbs you pruned from the ancient apple tree, are the tools almost no one sells any more. You could work with a pruning bow saw, of course, but those little aluminum frame saws work so badly that you’ll really dislike them. You also need a way to hold the wood still while you crosscut it into smaller pieces. The method my father and most of my neighbors used in the old days was to have their children clamp it to a bigger piece of wood with their body weight. Unless you have heavy children, that doesn’t work very well and causes lots of yelling and general unhappiness.
When people cut all their firewood by hand, people used a very neatly designed system. You need a good crosscut saw designed for sawing timber, not carpentry; a chopping axe; and a sawbuck. Along with that you’ll require maintenance tools like a saw set, jointer jig, a small machinist’s hammer and a smooth bastard file.
Crosscut saws cut across the grain using a tooth pattern specially designed for that task. Carpenter’s crosscut saws were made for accurate cuts on dry lumber. Use one on a green limb and it just gums up and jams. You need a special tooth pattern and large teeth to cut green wood. In the old days people used buck saws, large wood-frame saws that held a narrow steel blade. You can still find buck saw blades, but having built my own buck saw frames and used these blades, I would guess that many blades sold as buck saws today are not what people used in olden times. Make sure you get one with a tooth style designed for the work, like the lightweight aluminum-frame saw shown here.
A log saw cuts much better and when you use one it’s easy to believe that the world used to run on such tools. Log crosscut saws come in two sizes and two types today, but used to be manufactured in many lengths and tooth styles. In virgin timber, loggers used crosscut saws as long as 20 feet, with a handle and a man at each end. Today’s two man saws run about four to eight feet in length, made in either a narrower felling style or a wider and stiffer bucking style. Divide the length by three for a reasonable idea of how large a log diameter the tool handles best.
A one-man log saw looks like a carpenter’s saw on a larger scale. With a blade 32 inches long, the saw can easily cut a 12 inch diameter log. You can cut larger logs but it will take an exaggerated amount of work, and you’ll have to pull the saw out of the cut from time to time to rake the sawdust out. Log saws cut in both directions, push and pull. One type of tooth slices along the side of the kerf, slightly deeper than the central raker tooth that actually removes the wood. Teeth slice to the left and to the right alternately, leaving a narrow ridge in the center that the raker tooth plows out. When the saw works correctly, you get shavings instead of dust. When the saw works perfectly, you get shavings with cleancut edges. Ragged shavings mean you need to stop and sharpen the saw, because you’re wasting sweat. Sawdust means you just don’t get the concept as yet and should probably buy a chainsaw and a bunch of extra chains.
I’ve found it possible to use a two-man saw by myself, in a vertical cut, just by removing the handle hardware at one end. You do need to have the saw tuned up properly, and you can’t muscle it through the cut. If you can find a cheap two man saw somewhere you might try that out, but a one-man saw actually works better for the smaller jobs.
Holding the log still and up off the ground is the other half of the problem. If the log moves while you’re cutting, the blade bends and jams in the kerf and the saw might be bent out of true if you tried to overcome the problem by force. Then the saw won’t ever work right until you get an expert to hammer it out again. Experts are in short supply for that sort of work today. It’s possible to cut through a larger log on the ground, first from the exposed side and then by rolling the log and cutting the rest of the way from what was the bottom. Sounds simple. It’s an easy way to wreck the tool and possibly severely injure or kill yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Even on level ground, large logs can suddenly roll as you remove limbs and change the web of forces that holds the downed tree in position. Add a slope to the problem and it becomes a puzzle that justifies some sitting and thinking before you actually do anything. I’ve seen trees do amazing things while falling and even after falling. There’s a reason large timber companies and even the Forest Service make rules against working alone. If you’re cutting firewood, one of the smartest things you can do is cut the brush in the area first. That way you can run like hell without tripping and falling. Few people I’ve worked with want to take that cautious extra 15 minutes. I always have and it’s probably saved my legs and my life a few times.
The one-man crosscut saw works best on smaller logs that aren’t too heavy to lift. You can cut them into manageable sections with a chopping axe and drop them onto a sawbuck for crosscutting. In the old days people made sawbucks on the site from whatever was handy. I made the one I used in the Ozarks from persimmon saplings, something I had in abundance. A sawbuck is two or more X’s of wood in a short row, framed together on the bottom half of the X’s. Drop a small log into the top of the row and it lodges in the V’s. Keep moving it through the sawbuck as you cut pieces off the outer end. Works great if you build it correctly. You can access complete plans for a folding sawbuck at Building a Flexible Sawbuck on the Lake Charles Woodworkers Club website.
Two helpful things to know about sawbucks are that they’re great at busting knuckles and toes, if not entire feet. Make sure you have enough room between your saw hand and the frame of the saw buck before you start cutting. If the saw stutters in the cut it’ll throw your knuckles sideways and you’ll leave some skin on the sawbuck frame. Also, as you create a little pile of firewood at the end of the sawbuck, pieces start dropping end-wise on your feet. Clear things out before that happens and don’t try to work with rounds of wood laying all about. Things happen that force you to move quickly, and it’s rare to cut wood without getting a little bruised and bloody.
Woodcraft Supply sells Putsch crosscut saws through Amazon, their own website and by mail order catalog. If their saws don’t remain on Amazon, check their website. They’ve been selling them for years and years. Sometimes I forget to mention Lehman’s Hardware but click on the name and you’ll see their crosscut saw listings, they supply tools and hardware to Amish farmers and you can’t go wrong with them. They are my go-to people. I’m laughing, they list the free Forest Service Crosscut Saw Manual I posted up top for $9.95. Oh, those tricky Amish : ).