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Amateur Lumberjacking

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If you go down in the woods today....

Long, dark winter evenings become the highlight of the year when there is a crackling, blazing log fire to give warmth and light to the living room.

If you've been out all day chopping and stacking the wood for it, then the enjoyment is enhanced by the gratification of having spent the day in the fresh air, labouring in a team with your family and friends.

This is how it is done in Germany.

The Fireplace

The majority of people in Germany build their own houses, so they can choose to have a fireplace and the necessary chimney right from the start. The most common type of fire is the Kachelofen - a large tiled oven built into the corner of the living room or kitchen, serving as an old-fashioned style of central heating.

The advantages of a 'live' fire over central heating, apart from the cheering sight of the flames, is that the air indoors is moister, which is of advantage to those who suffer from the dryness of central heating, typical of radiators.

What Wood is Suitable to Burn?

Hard woods (oak, beech, fruit and nut trees) burn longer and produce less soot and deposits on the surfaces in and near the fire (including the TV screen, which attracts massive amounts of black dust). The softer woods (pine, poplar, birch) are cheaper, more readily available and easier to chop. They are particularly useful as kindling for starting the fire, as they burn quickly, but need replenishing every 30-60 minutes if burned exclusively.

Each type of wood has its own special perfume - which can be smelt not only in the room but outside the house, when the smoke puffs out of the chimney.

The logs must be well dried, for the best results, but not too old, or they just disintegrate. Two to three years from the time of felling is ideal. This, again, depends on the type of wood - a healthy hard wood will keep for longer.

It is therefore recommended to start chopping wood a year or two before installing the fireplace, but more realistic to buy ready chopped and dried wood once it is actually working. This is considerably more expensive than chopping your own wood, but for families with small children or people with back trouble, this may be the only solution for the time being.

Where Can I Chop my Own?

In Germany, you apply to the local forester and he will allot you a section of the forest where trees have either fallen in storms or have been felled to thin out the woods, allowing the healthier trees more room to grow. He is usually very pleased to have people helping him in this way, and will spend some time with you showing you the area, pointing out the interesting bird life and flora, and giving you tips on what is necessary to do the work, and particularly on what is obligatory when working with chain saws and felling trees.

Advanced lumberjacks may be allocated a section where some trees are just marked for felling, and can try their hand at chopping down these, which are usually small soft wood trees.

What Does It Cost?

The forester will charge DM 10 - 20 per m3 (at the time of writing), but, as he is so pleased that people have actually voluntarily cleared his woodland for him, he is not exact about this, and will not charge for any logs under 10cm in diameter, and will often make reductions for lower quality soft woods1. If he charges at all... this Researcher has been phoning her forester for over a year now, trying to pay him for the last two lots of wood she took!

This compares with DM80 - 200 for ready-cut and dried wood, which is dumped on the street or in your drive and you still have to stack in your woodshed.

Basic Rules

Before describing the specific rules, regulations and common sense of working with axes and chain saws, there are many other things to consider.

This part applies specifically to Germany, and may even vary from one forestry authority to the next.

It is generally forbidden, anywhere in Germany, to do any strenuous work on a Sunday. This particularly applies to anything that makes a noise, like mowing lawns, or that which can be seen by others, eg, cleaning windows (at least those facing the street). So it is not permissible to fell trees or cut them up with a chain saw, or chop them with an axe (in the woods or in the garden at home) on a Sunday. However, if you have spent the Saturday sawing wood, you can always collect it together and stack it on the Sunday.

The time of year is also specified. Usually the forester will start allocating plots from about October, and no work should be done after a given date around the end of February, as this is when animals start breeding and they should not be disturbed.

There are also rules regarding the time of day: after 4pm all sawing should stop. This is no problem, because it gets dark around then in the winter, and the last hour or two of each session you should spend tidying up, and those who have been working with the chain saw are pretty knackered anyway.

Understandably, too, you are obliged to wear protective clothing - more about that later, under 'Safety'.

The forester issues you with a pass to allow you to drive into the woods with your car, and to take the wood. Make sure all possible cars are included because it is more practical to have two cars (in case of accidents, for example). This is also your permit for taking the wood - it is not unknown for people to report you to the police, especially if the woods are near residential areas and you are disturbing the peace of the local inhabitants, so this permit should be kept with you at all times, for presentation to the police.

How Much Time Do I Need?

To cover an average-sized lot will require about ten visits. Most of these can be covered in the Christmas holidays, with a few Saturdays into February. Never expect to be able to work two consecutive days, even for the average fit adult male this is too much exertion on unaccustomed muscles. Get as much help as you can - it can be a very sociable affair and is more fun and takes less time the more able adults and teens you have helping. Lure friends with promises of an evening round the fire with delicious food and drink as a reward!

Cold, snow and fog are no obstacle. The only problem is wet ground, which makes walking very difficult. Frozen earth is far better for keeping boots and car tyres clean. So allow for a few days of inactivity due to rain.

Who Can Help?

The whole family can join in. Even the smallest children, as soon as they are sure on their feet, will have a wonderful time playing with leaves, twigs, insects and watching the birds, even doing little jobs like carrying a few logs - letting them help will make them feel important.

From the age of eight, children can help stack the wood and will readily join in - but don't expect or force them to keep at it for more than they want, especially if they are hungry or tired. They can amuse themselves building houses, lighting a fire in a safe place if the forester has allowed it, climbing trees and exploring.

Clothing

If you are manning the chain saw it is recommended, and in some places even obligatory, to wear protective dungarees and steel-capped shoes. Gloves are indispensable. But it is strenuous work, and underneath these necessary items it is best to only have two or three layers of cotton shirts, sweat shirts, etc, which can be removed or changed as necessary.

Ear protectors are vital for your hearing, as well as your sanity. Protective goggles are also a good idea as flying chips of wood can sting the eyes.

The rest of the crew are best equipped with hiking boots or Wellingtons; in all cases a good tread is important. And for your own protection, the shoes should be as thick as possible. Carrying wood around and walking miles back and forth to the wood pile is also hard work, and several thick layers of cotton are ideal for stripping off bit by bit as things heat up.

Without gloves, lifting the logs soon becomes hard work and damages the hands, so do not skimp on these. They should be as heavy duty as possible. Gardening gloves will soon be reduced to shreds or a soggy green mess, and the logs will slip out of the small hands of the women and children of the party. Some manufacturers have now started producing smaller sizes of heavy duty working gloves, so kick up a rumpus at your local DIY market until they get some in. Even then the gloves are usually difficult to keep on, so wear some thin cotton or wool ones underneath to get a better grip.

A bandana is very practical for keeping hair back, as a sweat band, and round your neck it will stop annoying and sharp little wood chippings getting inside your clothes.

Equipment

Although chopping your own wood is a saving in the long run, the initial outlay for equipment is quite considerable. The chain saw should not be too small - a 40cm blade is the largest manageable; do bear in mind that the smaller the blade the harder work it is to attack whole tree stumps or any of the other larger pieces. Try the weight and the handles for comfort, bearing in mind that you will also need to be able to exert some pressure with the saw when in use. An electric one is no good out in the forest, of course.

Your shopping list will look something like this:
  • Chain oil
  • Two-stroke fuel
  • A spare chain2
  • Two funnels - one for oil, one for petrol
  • One or two axes
  • Smaller wood chopper

Optional extras:

  • A trailer to cart the wood home3
  • A wire brush4
  • A wheelbarrow (useful if your allotted area is far from the nearest road, but fun for the kids in all cases)

Safety

This is, of course, top priority. When the chain saw is in use, the protective clothing is to be used at all times, and kept in good condition.

There is a lower age limit of 16 in Germany for wielding the chain saw. Even then, it must be borne in mind that a tank runs for ¾ - 1 hour, and the person working with it should be able to keep up the strain for this length of time. A change midway is, of course, possible, but once that noise starts up you will want to avoid it running as much as possible.

It is not advisable to cut a log upwards - always work downwards and away from you. Sometimes this is unavoidable, for example, when a tree has fallen onto another and is hanging at an angle, at least to start the cut.

There should always be at least two adults on site when the saw or axes are going to be used.

Smaller children will keep away from the chain saw because of the noise alone, but instruct them carefully beforehand.

Not only the chain saw is a source of hazards, but the wood chips it produces shoot out at an incredible speed, and can easily get in your eyes. Common sense tells us:

  • Never stand directly behind someone using the chain saw.

  • Never lean over the chain saw while it is cutting.

  • Make sure you have a good foothold when you are assisting, so that you are not in danger of losing your balance and falling on to the saw or its operator.

  • Never approach the saw operator from behind.

  • Despite these warnings, if you are using the chain saw yourself, still look behind you before you start.

  • While the chain saw is in use you cannot hear anything.

Carrying logs, especially when the wood is wet, can also be hazardous. Try not to overdo it, make sure you can see where you are treading.

Falling trees are, of course, an extremely lethal affair. During the forestry work following the Lothar storm in 1999, some half dozen unskilled workers who had been taken on to cope with the extra work were killed by trees falling on them, due to insufficient training and instruction, undue care and ignorance.

Using the Chain Saw

Once you have decided you are capable and willing to do this, you must get it started. The starting mechanism is like a lawn mower with a string-pull ignition. Fill both the oil and fuel tanks and then set the saw on the ground. Use a large piece of cardboard as protection against mud and dirt, and as a base to place the funnels and tools on. The saw has a foot-hold to hold it down while you jerk the string upwards to start the engine.

Most of the work involves cutting tree trunks that are lying down. Cut into small, manageable pieces about 18" long - depending upon the size of your fireplace. Try and avoid leaving larger bits which will need more work when you get them home. Chop off branches and twigs which are sticking out to make it easier for your assistant before you start.

Cutting upwards, as mentioned above, is only advisable in very few cases.

Examine the angle of the wood beforehand to make sure the blade will not get wedged between the two halves of the tree trunk half way in. This is detrimental to the motor, and it requires enormous effort to get it out again.

Decide what you are going to do before you start the motor. Once it is going, you cannot communicate, and you will not want to have it running for longer than necessary.

Avoid getting leaves, moss or mud on the chain at all costs. When the chippings become rough-edged and you feel some strain, change the chain. Professionals do this 2-3 times per session.

Clean the saw after each use.

Assisting the Person on the Saw

There are many techniques for feeding the logs to the saw. How each trunk should be approached has to be decided spontaneously and done quickly.

The most common method is to place a small log at right angles underneath the tree trunk, which is moved back until the last little bit forms a see-saw (it is easier to move a small log than it is a whole tree trunk). The last piece is secured with your feet until it is sawn through.

Some trunks or branches are suspended in mid-air; these must be held tight to prevent them vibrating so that the cut goes clean through. Press them against your chest, bearing in mind that the chain on the underside of the blade will pull towards the saw.

Some middle-sized and smaller trunks just have to be grabbed and held against your knee while the lumberjack attacks them.

Communication is not possible while the saw is running. On top of the noise of the saw, both of you will be wearing ear protectors. Vague hand movements are no good, so it might be useful to work out some hand signs and practise these before you start.

Stacking Wood

Usually you will see the logs neatly stacked between two trees at the side of the road. If this natural support is not necessary, it helps to put the end logs crosswise in each second row, to stop the pile sliding down at the sides.

The forester will also ask that the treetops which are useless for fires be stacked together. This is a very awkward job, but the piles can be as many and as higgledy piggledy as you like. These piles make good homes for insects in the spring.

If you are feeling tidy and energetic, you can even collect middle-sized twigs and take them home in baskets to use as kindling.

After that, an enthusiastic housewife will feel an urge to go round and vacuum up the leaves.

Getting the Logs Home

If you don't have your own trailer, you need to borrow or hire one.

The Germans say that the wood heats you at least three times. Once when you are sawing and chopping, once when you are loading it up to get it home (better than any aerobics session, bending and stretching) and again when you actually set fire to it.

It's too late now to worry if you have space in the garden to stack it all. The least you can take is 10m3 - and it's more likely to be double that!

1Please note that this Researcher only has experience of her local forester, so this may not be a typical case!2After two sessions at the most, the chain needs sharpening, and you need a spare one to use while this is being done, unless you have your own sharpening gadget.3 Alternatively you can hire/borrow a trailer at the end of your work or take the day's yield home in the car each day. Check with the forester where he would like you to stack the wood to assess how much you have taken - at the side of your allotted plot or at home in your woodshed.4Use a wire brush to scrub the areas where you start sawing, to avoid moss and soft bits of bark clogging up the chain, but the Researcher's experience showed that, as you work very quickly, you often don't take the time to do this, and, after brushing, you fling the wire brush down somewhere to pick up the saw with two hands and can't find it again afterwards. If you want to try this, paint the handle bright red.

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