# Novelist asks: how long to cut 20 cords of wood?

#### MatthewMaryland

##### New Member
For a novel I'm working on, one of the plot lines involves two teenage brothers (AMISH brothers) having to chop enough wood to keep their family warm during a cold Pennsylvania winter. The firewood will be needed to heat their small home, warm their bath water, cook, etc. Their father has an injured back, so when in August or September he realizes he won't be able to cut firewood that year, he sends his sons out into the woods to fell trees, chunk and split them, then haul everything back home (with horse team).

Could you please provide guesstimates on how many cords of wood a family (father, mother, 3 girls, 2 boys) would likely need to get through a cold winter in Pennsylvania (with a surplus of wood left over, if needed) and how long it would take two boys in good shape (ages 14 and 15), using nothing but axes, wedges, and two-man saws, to cut and stack that wood? Let's say the trees are oak, ash, and maple, but feel free to substitute other species.

Ah, you're thinking about seasoning the firewood, which takes time. This is a work of fiction. It needs to be realistic, but the father doesn't have time for ideal seasoning of the wood. Would three months be minimally acceptable for seasoning the firewood? Again, this family doesn't have more time than that.

I guesstimated the family would need 20 cords of firewood to get through a hard winter (with extra firewood left over) -- and that it would take the two boys about five weeks to go from tree to stacked pile. Shows what I don't know, gentlemen!

Please throw in any technical terms or slang I should use to make this story read more accurately. I don't have a working title for the book yet.

Matthew

spuldup
If the family is dependent on firewood, they would always be cutting and splitting firewood for 2 yrs in the future in PA. If this is a small house (1500 sq ft?) then worst case would probably be more like 4-5 cords. Less if the house is well insulated and they have a modern, efficient wood stove.

I don't think you realize how much 20 cords of wood is. That is a LOT of wood. Wood is my main heat source and I burn 3-4 cords a year.

sloeffle
What time period? What are they burning the wood in. Fireplace, modern stove…

You want the story to be realistic. A family that presumably has been heating with wood for their entire lives doesn’t suddenly remember in August or September that they haven’t put any wood up for the year. Remember, they are using this wood to cook all year long. They never stop burning it. The boys and father would have been working on this wood all year long. The boys would probably have been processing wood as soon as they could operate the saw so they’d be pretty quick with it.

But, If they only had 3 months to get wood up to burn, they would choose their species very carefully as to what they harvested. They would know which species required the least drying time and selectively harvest them.

The novel is set in present-day Pennsylvania. The father suffered a nasty back injury two years prior, then reinjured it in the present. Due to the father's declining health, the family's wood supply steadily shrank. His sons were also responsible for farming their crops. These are "old-order Amish" traditionalists who live in a c. 1850s home. They cook on an old-school stove. They burn firewood in a traditional fireplace. They have no alternative fuel sources.

Perhaps I should say the boys are told to cut and stack 7 cords of carefully selected wood: "We will need extra wood to get through winter and spring and have a couple cords in reserve," the father says.

About how long would it take two teenage boys to cut and stack 7 cords? Which species would you recommend they cut? I guess the first 2 cords need to be seasoned, perhaps the remainder can season until they are needed.

Thanks again.

I couldn’t tell you how long it’d take. It’d depend on the wood gathered. I suspect that if I had to drop, buck and split everything by hand and a minimum of 7 cords I’d be choosing trees to fell that needed minimal processing. I’d be looking at trees a max of a foot in diameter, and would prefer 7 inches or so. I’d want to just buck the tree if possible, and only 1 or 2 splits out of a round to process into final size if I needed to split at all. There would be no large trees felled if I could help it. Too much time processing. After going through the larger wood, I’d send the ladies through to gather kindling and smaller wood. Nothing to waste…

Oh, larger trees would be cut down and processed for shingles in the winter. The scraps from that operation would be burnt also.

I’m trying to picture a 7 cord log pile. I’m just guessing it’s about a a medium sized 3 axel log truck? Somebody else can chime in here.

Once it’s all bucked splitting 2 and stacking 2 cords a day seems reasonable ( I don’t think that’s really working to teens used to manual labor that hard). Call it 3 cords a day. Im guessing bucking goes twice as fast. I’ve never used a cross cut saw but watched the series “below zero” and it was fast enough.

felling is fast, limbing and skidding logs out woth log tongs would just depend on a lot of factors. Terrain and distance. None of this would be new for a 15 year old Amish teen.

I bet 2-3 days work to make a log pile. A day to load and haul home? A day or two buckling and 2-3 days splitting? I bet they could do a bit more than a cord a day?
They have done all of this before. Chances are, by 15 on their own. I Don’t see getting firewood for the year as a major obstacle to overcome unless something happens. My interpretation of the Amish is that they have perfected efficiency. If it’s too wet to get into the fields that’s when you buck and split firewood. You slid logs in the winter after the leaves drop and the ground freezes.

I just found this on YouTube. The trees aren’t big. This for firewood not lumber.

I have read from more than one source, including one referenced many years ago on this forum, that the typical household did indeed use something over 20 cords of wood per year in 18th century Pennsylvania. In fact, memory tells me the number was even closer to 30 cords, and I remember it being a topic of much surprise and debate on this forum. Of course, things changed a lot in the transition from fireplaces to woodstoves, and then again when we stopped using wood-fired stoves for cooking and hot water.

In any case, with tractors, winches, chainsaws, and all the modern convenience of hydraulics, I'd guess I can average nearly 1 cord per man per day of processing wood. That includes felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, and stacking. Taking away any one of these modern conveniences, most particularly chainsaws, could easily increase the time required for that task by 2x to 4x. In fact, I think the chainsaw alone could speed the bucking phase by more than 10x, although this is but one short phase of the whole process. Splitting takes more net hours, and there the savings is much less dramatic, maybe only 2x for a well-practiced hand.

I would think that 3 "man-days" per cord isn't an unreasonable expectation, especially given these boys will have other chores to do before and after the firewood, each day. "Man day" is defined as one man for one day, or two men for a half day. Adjust accordingly for boys and girls, depending on age and stamina.

I’m trying to picture a 7 cord log pile. I’m just guessing it’s about a a medium sized 3 axel log truck? Somebody else can chime in here.

Once it’s all bucked splitting 2 and stacking 2 cords a day seems reasonable ( I don’t think that’s really working to teens used to manual labor that hard). Call it 3 cords a day. Im guessing bucking goes twice as fast. I’ve never used a cross cut saw but watched the series “below zero” and it was fast enough.

felling is fast, limbing and skidding logs out woth log tongs would just depend on a lot of factors. Terrain and distance. None of this would be new for a 15 year old Amish teen.

I bet 2-3 days work to make a log pile. A day to load and haul home? A day or two buckling and 2-3 days splitting? I bet they could do a bit more than a cord a day?
They have done all of this before. Chances are, by 15 on their own. I Don’t see getting firewood for the year as a major obstacle to overcome unless something happens. My interpretation of the Amish is that they have perfected efficiency. If it’s too wet to get into the fields that’s when you buck and split firewood. You slid logs in the winter after the leaves drop and the ground freezes.

I just found this on YouTube. The trees aren’t big. This for firewood not lumber.

They are efficient until they have some Pepsi then sit around drinking it til it's gone.

Neighbor had Amish log his property. They used two teams of large draft horses and must have been able to fell and skid two log trucks worth per day. Unfortunately one of the other neighbors with a different Amish crew had an injury where a young Amish kid/guy got hit. He eventually died from the injury weeks later.

Sure the old order don't use chain saws? The ones I'm familiar with all use Stihl saws. These are PA ones too.

Ashful
Sure the old order don't use chain saws? The ones I'm familiar with all use Stihl saws. These are PA ones too.
Yep, didn't say or mean to imply otherwise. There are so many different and ever-evolving rules between individual congregations within the Amish community, that it's hard to keep track. Most of them seem to have adapted to pneumatic and gas tools. This is where the author will need some other consultation, or creative license.

Yep, didn't say or mean to imply otherwise. There are so many different and ever-evolving rules between individual congregations within the Amish community, that it's hard to keep track. Most of them seem to have adapted to pneumatic and gas tools.
Yeah their rules don't seem logical to me. For example they won't use a cell phone but will use a cordless phone since it goes out a land line. They will use tractors but can't have tires with air.

I had two different new order crews do work and they both had cell phones and would text, smoke, swear some and had all lithium power tools.

Ashful
One contractor who did some work for me used a cell phone, and even owned a nice F250, but had to have a teenage boy drive him around in it. I like to pick on the Roman Catholics in my family, for always trying to "game the system" and "win on a technicality", but the Amish do seem to have an awful lot of loopholes in their own rules.

In any case, the author will need to make some decisions on which of these modern conveniences this crew will allow themselves, as it can make a big difference in total processing time. An interesting discussion for us, but surely not the primary focus of the book.

farmwithjunk
Sure the old order don't use chain saws? The ones I'm familiar with all use Stihl saws. These are PA ones too.
Old order around us (PA) also use gas saws. 20 cords with a crosscut saw - those boys would be in as bad of shape as the father!

Also, in cases such as this the community often lends a hand (or more like 100 hands over a few days). Your story told this way would kill the plot, obviously. Just a bit of info.

It's set in present day PA, Amish families today have wood stoves, they aren't heating with open fireplaces and don't need anywhere near 20 cords. With cooking and hot water they still would need less than 10 cords a year.

Often times large Amish homes around here have wood fired furnaces set up to gravity flow the hot air....PSG Caddy furnaces are (were) popular

Maybe it's just me but this part has me confused: "They cook on an old-school stove. They burn firewood in a traditional fireplace." Why wouldn't they, like most people of the old days, just use the stove for cooking and heat? They obviously know the stove would be much more efficient so why make more work for themselves? My buddy used to live in an old farm house, colonial style built in the early 1800's in Connecticut without much insulation at all. He had a decent sized woodstove that sat in the large fireplace in the kitchen which heated the entire house. He burned about 10 cord a year so to think people in VA would go through twice that in a winter seems a little unrealistic, although if they were strictly burning it in a fireplace, then i can see using that much but the logic isnt there if they have a stove also. Also, if they were in a sudden predicament where they needed to harvest timber for that coming winter, they'd look for already dead trees, not live ones cause they'd know better. And if they absolutely had no dead trees, they'd go after a softer hardwood such as maple that dries faster than oak.

I have heard that old-timers used to girdle trees that they were going to use for firewood. This involves chopping out a ring of bark around the tree so that it will die. It would take a few years for it to dry out standing dead to make good firewood. This would be good for several reasons. First, dead trees are much lighter than green trees, so transporting them would be much easier. They would also be easier to cut with a crosscut saw, as the dry wood would not gum up the saw like green wood. Then they would not have to handle the wood twice, stacking the green wood to dry separately, and then transferring it to a dry ready-to-burn stack nearer the house. Do not know how this could be worked into your story.

I have read from more than one source, including one referenced many years ago on this forum, that the typical household did indeed use something over 20 cords of wood per year in 18th century Pennsylvania. In fact, memory tells me the number was even closer to 30 cords, and I remember it being a topic of much surprise and debate on this forum. Of course, things changed a lot in the transition from fireplaces to woodstoves, and then again when we stopped using wood-fired stoves for cooking and hot water.

In any case, with tractors, winches, chainsaws, and all the modern convenience of hydraulics, I'd guess I can average nearly 1 cord per man per day of processing wood. That includes felling, hauling, bucking, splitting, and stacking. Taking away any one of these modern conveniences, most particularly chainsaws, could easily increase the time required for that task by 2x to 4x. In fact, I think the chainsaw alone could speed the bucking phase by more than 10x, although this is but one short phase of the whole process. Splitting takes more net hours, and there the savings is much less dramatic, maybe only 2x for a well-practiced hand.

I would think that 3 "man-days" per cord isn't an unreasonable expectation, especially given these boys will have other chores to do before and after the firewood, each day. "Man day" is defined as one man for one day, or two men for a half day. Adjust accordingly for boys and girls, depending on age and stamina.

QUOTE: "A household in early America required from twenty to thirty cords (1 cord equaling a 4-by-4-by-8 foot pile, or 128 cubic feet) of wood per winter, an amount easily harvested by rural homeowners."

Ashful
I have heard that old-timers used to girdle trees that they were going to use for firewood. This involves chopping out a ring of bark around the tree so that it will die. It would take a few years for it to dry out standing dead to make good firewood. This would be good for several reasons. First, dead trees are much lighter than green trees, so transporting them would be much easier. They would also be easier to cut with a crosscut saw, as the dry wood would not gum up the saw like green wood. Then they would not have to handle the wood twice, stacking the green wood to dry separately, and then transferring it to a dry ready-to-burn stack nearer the house. Do not know how this could be worked into your story.

Forgotten ancient forestry

Check out this video, and then spend 5 hours getting lost watching several of their well made videos. The dugout canoe is my favorite

So, when this book gets published, I think you have a few guaranteed readers in this group. Please let us know the publisher and title, when the time comes.

QUOTE: "A household in early America required from twenty to thirty cords (1 cord equaling a 4-by-4-by-8 foot pile, or 128 cubic feet) of wood per winter, an amount easily harvested by rural homeowners."

Yes, but they were using open fireplaces to heat, modern day Amish are using wood stoves and furnaces. Comparison of the two is apples to oranges.

Ashful
So, when this book gets published, I think you have a few guaranteed readers in this group. Please let us know the publisher and title, when the time comes.
I will contact you folks -- and credit you in my novel. I greatly appreciate your expertise and generosity.

Replies
4
Views
954
Replies
6
Views
876
Replies
13
Views
1K
Replies
71
Views
7K
Replies
47
Views
4K