When is Waste Not Waste?

When is Waste Not Waste?

If you handle waste wood as part of your process, don’t just consider it waste. Instead, turn it into a viable renewable natural resource and profit center.
By Bryndon O’Hara

This article appeared in the December issue of Waste Advantage Magazine

When is waste not waste? The very simple answer is “when it is recyclable.” And we all recycle as much as we think we can. But, there is one product many people still don’t put to the best use. Waste wood. Not old pallets or building materials, but the wood from fallen trees and broken limbs. Some of you will take the “easy” way out, hire a tree service and let them handle the whole project. Others choose to do the work themselves and this may be an opportunity to view waste wood in a new light. It’s usually just “in the way” and takes up space. Most take one of two routes (or even a combination of the two) with wood waste—mulch it all or give it away. How about turning it into a valuable renewable resource instead? Firewood. I know some of you are seeing horrifying pictures of saw bucks, bow saws and splitting mauls—and lots of sweat. With the rise in outdoor boilers and awareness about using renewable fuels, firewood is becoming more valuable each year. More people are burning wood now than any time in the last 50 years—and that number continues to grow.
From the standpoint of the recycler, this means for a fairly small investment (as little as $8,000, but generally $20,000 to $30,000) you can turn waste into cash. Whether you create your own woodlot, process onsite or sell to someone else for processing, there is money in wood. Considering the Sizes The first thing to consider is how to handle it—where and how you are cutting it? Smaller pieces, below 4″ diameter typically are best to mulch, and have limited value as firewood. Anything over 16″ (relative to local markets) is usually headed to a mill if you are selling wood outright. We’ll concentrate on the wood between those diameters. Wood in that grouping should be cut into 8″ to 12′ lengths and then can be hauled to your woodlot, where it can be dealt with, processed on the site where it is being cut or stacked for sale. What do you do with the logs? This depends on the area of the country, and sometimes even on a very local basis, diameter and length are the biggest

Wood Beaver Model 16 Bad A** Beaver. Photos courtesy of Resource Recovery Systems and Wood Beaver Forestry

Wood Beaver Model 16 Bad A Beaver.
The business end producing valuable firewood

Left: The business end producing valuable firewood. Right: The business end, where cutting and splitting occurs.


considerations, followed by species of tree. Are you selling them whole or do you plan to sell it as firewood? Either way, it is best to keep the wood at least organized by hardwoods (oak, hickory, etc.) and softwoods (most of the “evergreens”). Most people that burn for heat want only hardwoods because they burn better. Campfire people really don’t care nearly as much and softwoods work fine, burn bright and fairly quickly. There is a lot to know and understand about firewood and this article will not go into enough detail for you to understand the industry. It is a primer to get you thinking. Suffice it to say that firewood is typically “cull” wood. It is the wood that is too mean and ugly and needs to be cut out of the herd—but not wasted, by any means. Once you have decided that firewood is the route you are following, you need to take big logs and turn them into useable firewood pieces. For most people burning wood, pieces between 16″ and 24″ are the norm. So, what is the best way to get 8′ or 12′ logs cut and split? Everyone knows about chainsaws and log splitters, but is there a way to accomplish the task with less man hours, less sweat and less backache? The answer is a resounding yes. Enter the firewood processor.

Processing Firewood

Processors aren’t really “new” technology, but it is technology that is just coming into its own. What is a “processor?” In the simplest terms, it is a machine where a log goes in one end and cut and split firewood comes out the other. Like most machines, the prices and capabilities are all over the map, starting around $8,000 and reaching above $150,000. They can generally be broken into 4 diameter categories—up to 13″, 16″ and smaller, 20″ and smaller, and larger than 20″. The pricing on the last two groups typically makes them something only large commercial firewood producers would buy. The 16″ size is by far the most popular size because of pricing and best uses of the wood overall. The 13″ group is often referred to as “homeowner” models, but plenty of commercial operations use them as well. Use the rule of 80/20 to determine what size fits your needs—if 80 percent of the pile fits through a 16” hole, a 16” machine is probably the best choice. You’ll need to consider how much firewood is going to be produced. A cord of wood is a 4′ x 4′ x 8′ pile (128 cubic feet). Processors can be found that will do anywhere from one to three (or more) cords per hour. A word of caution—be careful with production claims. Watch videos and time what is happening. Most manufacturers are pretty fair in their claims, but there are some that are prone to exaggerate. Most also make those estimates with wood nearing the

maximum sizes for the machine—smaller wood will typically reduce overall cord per hour production. That said, weigh the difference between time, labor hours and initial cost of the machine. Consider how you will load and unload the processor. Does it need to be loaded by hand from the pile? Or do you have a skid steer or tractor to load a deck? For unloading, are you building a stack and pushing it away as needed, or loading into tubs, cages or even truck beds?

Sawing and Splitting

Probably the most important decisions come in the saw and splitting. There are two types of saws available, chain and circular (slasher) saws. Chain saws have lower initial cost, lower maintenance costs and a higher margin of safety. Slashers can offer faster cutting times with other tradeoffs in cost. Splitting has two elements, speed and piece count. Splitting speed is often the slowest portion of the overall process. Consider this when you think about the saw—a one-second cut with a six-second split cycle gains you nothing. Most processors have splitter cycles in the six to 10 second range, while the fastest ones on the market are under four seconds. Splitting speed generally should be a close match to cutting speeds; it really sets the pace for cords per hour of production. Piece count is how fine you want to split. Most 16″ units come standard with a wedge that can be adjusted for splitting two or four ways and be adjusted for height to split at or near the middle of the piece. Many also offer a six-way or even an eight-way option for making smaller pieces.

It is Not Just Waste

So, to wrap it up into a nice little package and put a bow on it, if you handle waste wood as part of your process, don’t just consider it waste. Yes, some will still go through the grinder, but there is no sense in taking a valuable resource and destroying it. Especially not when there are people that are willing to pay you for something you may be paying to dispose of. Are you ready to take what was once waste and turn it into a viable renewable natural resource and profit center?
Bryndon O’Hara is General Manager of Resource Recovery Systems and Wood Beaver Forestry (Hartford, WI). He has been involved with firewood in some way for over 40 years. Now he gets to help people take the backache out of firewood. He can be reached at (800) 569-6813 or (262) 673-6801,
e-mail bryndon@rrsinc.net or visit www.woodbeaver.net.