It’s amazing to consider the versatility of wood. In a single sustainable resource, we’re offered the opportunity to create three distinct essentials: heat, light and shelter. Besides that, we can use wood to create any number of wonderful objects: furniture, boats, crafts, even works of art. The possibilities are endless.
And while many people must rely on purchased wood grown and harvested miles from their home, hobby farm owners may have a unique opportunity available to them: a woodlot on their own property.
In some cases, this woodlot may consist of trees that were specifically planted with harvesting in mind. But many times a homestead woodlot is simply a natural forest that exists within your property’s boundary. And with some planning and a little care, a woodlot may have the ability to provide you with multiple useful products for years to come.
Let’s look at a few of the possibilities.
You might love the idea of using the forested areas of your property to harvest wood for burning, and this can be a satisfying pursuit. If your goals are small—say it’s mainly to harvest wood for campfires, an occasional fire in the fireplace or, perhaps, sporadically heating a small cabin—it might not matter too much what kind of trees you have.
The heating quality of the wood in these situations is negligible.
However, if you’re seeking to heat a home with wood over a winter, you’ll want to research a bit about wood types. In a nutshell, hardwoods make better wood for heating, as the denser quality of the wood fibers makes for a wood that burns hotter and longer.
While many fruit and nut trees fall into this category, they may obviously have other uses that are more valuable than burning. That leaves you with a few standard favorites:
(In far northern regions such as Alaska, where traditional hardwoods can be scarce, birch is a very popular wood for burning.)
Most softwoods such as spruce and pine trees make generally weaker firewood. However, some softwoods—cedars and Douglas fir—can pull their weight when it comes to heating.
It’s relatively easy to crosscut a log against the grain. Chainsaws are the go-to tool today, of course. In the past, however, simple axes and single- or two-man crosscut hand saws were standard equipment. In any case, cutting a log short ways takes a relatively short amount of time and effort.
But if you want to cut a log lengthwise along the grain, you’re in for a challenge that has been with humanity for a long time, as it’s not easy. But there are plenty of incentives: the chance to create lumber of all sizes, fence posts, flooring, siding, paneling—all extremely useful items to come out of your woodlot.
Being able to cut a log lengthwise opens a large world of opportunities and increases the productivity and usefulness of your woodlot.
How can you reach your woodlot’s full potential in this way? In the old days, farmers and pioneers used crude methods to essentially force a log in half down the middle, often using metal wedges to slowly pry the log apart. Pa Ingalls does this in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books using the rough flat section of each log to create a simple wood floor for the family cabin.
Splitting logs by this method is certainly still viable and can be fun to try (though time-consuming!), especially to make some rustic log furniture such as a bench seat. Still, most modern woodlot owners probably seek something more refined. For this, you’ll need a home sawmill.
For the most power and the ability to tackle large projects and create a significant amount of lumber, a permanent home sawmill driven by the PTO of a tractor is a great option. The tractor provides a high amount of horsepower to help cut through large logs quickly, sometimes with a massive circular blade or sometimes with a band saw.
Circular blades can speed up the workflow if you’re planning to make a lot of lumber. Add in the fact that the tractor’s power is responsible for moving the log back and forth as you cut. And you have a great option for serious lumber millers.
However, the size and financial commitment of a permanent sawmill may be more than some landowners care to invest in.
Much more affordable and appealing to the majority are portable sawmills with self-contained engines. These systems typically utilize a band saw. This is a slower process, but the finished wood may feature a somewhat cleaner cut and require less sanding/planing after the fact.
Portable sawmills are often constructed on wheels like a trailer, so they’re easily towed with a truck or tractor to any place on the farm where you may need it. This gives you the option to bring the saw to the wood and limits hauling logs.
More advanced models feature hydraulics to assist with the work. But the cost of the unit can be kept down by choosing a fully manual sawmill (though this translates into more work for the user).
Finally, a very simple sawmill can be created using a tool you probably already own: a chainsaw. These “sawmills” are essentially metal guides that keep your chainsaw straight and squared and permit you to slowly rip a log into slabs and create rough lumber. While inexpensive, this type of setup is very slow and labor-intensive.
However, if you’d like to experiment with the novelty of creating a small amount of lumber from your land, a chainsaw sawmill can be a fun choice. They could also prove useful in remote off-grid situations.
With any of these machines, it’s an easy (though meticulous) matter to adjust the width and height of your blade so you can create lumber of any dimensions you wish, provided the log is thick enough to do so. Length will be dictated by the length of the log and the capacity of your mill.
Once finished, your rough-sawn lumber can be refined with a planer to create higher-quality boards suitable for interior projects.
While lumber from your woodlot can obviously be used in any number of applications, one excellent homestead use is to build simple garden beds. For one thing, they use large-dimension lumber.
Raised garden beds often utilize large lumber such as 2-by-8, 2-by-10 or 2-by-12 to create a deep bed with plenty of soil. This translates into fewer cuts at your sawmill. And it takes a lot less time to make a few 2-by-12s than an equivalent stack of 2-by-4s.
Even rough-sawn home lumber can work nicely for garden beds and may even add a certain rustic atheistic. Also, garden beds are an outdoor project that benefit from non-treated lumber because the chemicals used in that process are better off left out of the garden anyway.
On those frozen winter nights, long after the chores are finished and thoughts of felling trees are a distant summer memory, a lot of enjoyment can be found in woodcarving—especially if the raw material is from the trees on your land. You could try making a decorative art piece such as a carved animal or some utilitarian items such as a wooden spoon.
Once again, it’s important to select the right type of wood. For instance, a soft wood such as basswood is useful for whittling projects, where slices of wood are carefully removed. Projects where the wood is chipped away require a stronger wood such as cherry or maple.
No matter what tree species you have, you should be able to find a carving project suitable for the wood.
You don’t have to live in New England to harvest syrup in the spring! While that region is probably the most well-known for its stands of sugar maples, the trees do appear farther south in the U.S. as well as throughout the upper Midwest. And while sugar maples are prized because they offer the highest sugar content per gallon of sap, other maple varieties offer a close second.
These include silver maples, black maples, red maples and box elders. But there’s more.
You can realistically make syrup from the sap of sycamore, butternut and black walnut trees, which are quite popular. The sugar/sap ratio won’t be as high, but these trees can still do the job. Birch also works well, giving far-northern regions an excellent tree for heat and tapping.
Don’t forget about ready-made food of the forest! With proper identification, you can enjoy the nuts and fruits of many varieties of trees in your woodlot, with little to no participation on your part for the growing process.
Walnut, hazelnut, hickory and black cherry all offer fun and edible crops. In young forests, you may find patches of blackberries, raspberries, blueberries and others as well.
Some foragers who have the research and experience to make 100 percent-accurate species identification may be interested in collecting edible mushrooms, growing on and off trees—species such chicken of the woods, morels and many others. And in the spring, you may be able to locate wild ramps, which fill the forest floor with a beautiful carpet of light green leaves, long before other ground cover is growing.
There is one last “product” from your woodlot that may not be immediately obvious: wildlife! You and your family can derive much enjoyment from watching deer, squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, fox and innumerable birds. But you may also be interested in maintaining a woodlot for hunting purposes, or possibly from the benefits of predator animals that can keep rodent populations to a minimum around your farm buildings.
Farms aren’t just open fields and row crops. Your wooded areas represent a slow-growing yet valuable resource: an inspiring place to visit, a reserve for animals and a source of fuel and lumber to supply your property for years to come.
Summer Tree ID
As I’ve said, the species of trees in your forest dictate a great deal of what you’ll be able to do with the wood, so it’s critical that you make positive species identification. While most conifer trees can be identified year-round, you’ll definitely want to make an effort to study your hardwoods during the summer, when leaves can easily be compared.
It’s certainly possible to identify a tree in the winter using just twigs and bark. But this is quite challenging. Subtle differences in species (say, a sugar maple or a red maple) may be nearly impossible without leaves.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.