Wednesday, 22 December 2010

How to make a Firewood Cutting Frame

The finished log cutting frame loaded with 1 meter logs that have
just been cut at 50cm. The 50cm cutting position is on the
opposite side of the frame where the chainsaw can fit easily
between the supporting legs to give the maximum width of cut.  
When I moved to this part of rural France I found that almost everyone used wood as a source of heat during the winter months. Firewood is almost always cut into 1 meter lengths for stacking and drying before being cut into shorter lengths that can fit into a woodburning stove or cooker. The most common method of cutting up these 1 meter pieces is on a saw bench, which is a fairly quick and efficient method. Personally I have an deep instinctive fear of repeatedly having my fingers so close to an unguarded circular saw.

The alternative is to use a sawing horse and cut the wood with a chainsaw. I very quickly found this method slow and inefficient and infact on ocassions dangerous for cutting smaller round logs which can get hooked on the saw teeth of the chainsaw and spin as if they were on a lathe.

You find that you are endlessly putting logs on and off the saw horse, sometimes even resorting to secure the log with your foot to maintain it's position - some years ago I saw a Frenchman doing this very thing whilst wearing slippers!!! Each time you need to put on another log to be cut you have to put the chainsaw down on the ground. I found that all you end up with is a small pile of logs and backache.

The cost effective alternative to the above methods is to use a firewood cutting frame or rack to pack all the logs into, then to cut through all of the logs held within the frame with a chainsaw. It takes me around 5-10 minutes to fill the frame, packing the logs in tightly, in as good a fit as possible. 30 to 60 seconds to cut through the logs depending on how many cuts are to be made and another 5-10 minutes to remove the cut wood from the frame and throw it either into the log shed or the back of the van for delivery. It generally takes me about 60 to 75 minutes to process 2 cubic meters of wood if it is cut to 50cm lengths and about 90 minutes as 33cm.

For myself, I find this to be a much safer, faster and more efficient way to produce firewood than using a sawbench or sawhorse. Of couse it will never beat a firewood processing machine, but unless you are a large scale firewood producer the huge expenditure on these machines cannot be justified.

The logs are packed as solidly as possible into the frame which
minimises the settlement and log movement during cutting. Any
small diameter round logs are best NOT placed on the top of the
 stack because the teeth of the chainsaw can snag them and
make them spin dangerously. 
The dimensions that I have given below will make a firewood cutting frame that will contain 0.5 of a cubic meter of wood. The 1 meter pieces that it contains can be cut into three to yield logs that are 33cm long or into two to give 50cm logs. Of course logs of any length can be produced by changing the distances between the legs and cross members when constructing the frame. I have positioned the legs in such a way as to enable the chainsaw to fit fully between them to enable the maximum possible cutting width with my saws 50cm guide bar. You can of course make a frame to cut a smaller volume by reducing the height of the support legs. I, myself am quite tall and have a lot of chainsaw experience and therefore feel confidant holding the saw at around head height to start the cutting at the top of the frame. A shorter person might find it safer and more comfortable to have the wood stacked to a lower height.

Cutting frames like this but made of steel are available I have seen a tiny one in a DIY store in Limoges for 80 euros, it has the capacity for maybe 6 or 7 logs at a time. I also have a deep mistrust of using a chainsaw in close proximity to metal. From time to time the unexpected can occur and I would rather end up catching the structure of a saw frame made of wood rather than one of steel. A wooden frame is easy to patch up if a mistake is made, I have one that has cut well over 1000 cubic meters of firewood and it's still going strong, although it has had 2 major patch ups so far.

Materials list

For the 6 vertical parts of the frame I have used 9.90 meters of 63mm x 75mm
For the bracing cross members and support rails I have used 9.92 meters of 40mm x 60mm
approx 48  70mm wood screws
approx 20  120mm wood screws
Cordless drill with correct screwdriver bits
6mm spurpoint or twist drill bits for predrilling screw holes
Set square
Permanent marker pen
Disc sander for rounding off the carrying handles (optional)


Cut 6 pieces of 63mm x 75mm into lengths of 1650mm - these will be the 6 vertical legs
Cut 2 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of  830mm - for the two lower leg bracing rails
Cut 2 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 1430mm - for the two upper bracing rails that support the cutting bed.
Cut 6 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 600mm - for the cross members for the cutting bed
Cut 4 pieces of 40mm x 60mm into lengths of 450mm - for additional wood supports for the cutting bed

The 3 legs for one side of the cutting frame already
marked for the position of the two rails. One at
7cm and the other at 380mm. The rails sit above
the marks.
Mark a pencil line on each one of the narrower edges of all 6 legs at 70mm from the end and then a second line at 380mm from the same end, these mark the lower positions for the two horizontal rails.
On a flat surface, position 3 of the legs parallel to each other, place the shorter (830mm) rail above the pencil mark made at 70mm. Screw the two outer legs flush with the end of this rail and position the middle leg at 390mm from the left side and drive at least 2 screws into each point where the pieces overlap each other.

The two rails attached to make up one side of the frame. The top rail sticks out to form carrying handles to enable the frame to be moved around more easily.

The two halves laid out on the floor an exact mirror
 image of each other.

Next position the cutting bed support rail (length 1430mm) just above the pencil line made at 380mm, position the rail centrally so that 300mm sticks out from each side of the outer legs on each side- these will be the carrying handles for the cutting frame to make it easier to move around. When you are happy with the position screw them into place. Remember that the rails will run on the inside of the frame. You have now made one side of the cutting frame, now you have to make the other. It is important to remember that this needs to be an exact mirror image of the first side!

One side of the cutting frame with the first four
bracing pieces attached to join the two halves together
The next stage is to lean one side of the frame on something secure and with the rails on the inside attach four of the 600mm bracing pieces with 70mm screws as shown in the photo to the right and then move the other half of the frame into position and drive in two 70mm screws where each bracing piece attaches to each leg. It helps to have someone to help hold the frame sections in place, but I managed without. The frame is now stable and it is just a matter of attaching the final two 600mm bracing pieces and the four, 450mm log supports that stop the cut logs from falling through the frame when they are cut. Each of the 450mm log supports is fixed to the support rail underneath with a 120mm screw, for added security I have also placed a screw vertically down through all of the bracing pieces into their respective supporting rails.

Note -All of the short pieces are predrilled to prevent the wood from splitting when the screws are driven through them.

To make it a little kinder on the hands I rounded off the square edges of the carrying handles with a disc sander and I find them much improved and it is well worth the less than 5 minutes that it takes ( this was done after these photos were taken). Finally I marked the cutting positions with a permanent marker.                                            
The two halves of the frame joined together.

The finished frame with all the bracing pieces and log supports fitted. After the photo was taken I rounded off the carrying handles with a disc grinder.
Including my planning and preparation time it took well under 3 hours to make. If I was to make another the same I expect that I could shave easily another hour off that. The cost of the wood at a small, local French builders merchant was 30 euro's. I probably could have got it for less if I had gone to a bigger mechant further away but would have easily lost any price advantage with the added fuel costs.                             

Tips for cutting your firewood

When loading the frame it is important to make sure that the individual pieces fit together in the best possible way. It is preferable to make sure that the frame is packed as solidly as possible. If it is not well packed then the logs will change position greatly when the log lengths are cut and makes it more likely for them to fall out of the cutting frame. Make sure that all the smaller diameter round logs are placed in the lower part of the frame where they will be held solidly. If they are placed loose on the top of the loaded frame then the chainsaw teeth can catch them and make them spin dangerously. I always put larger, heavier logs on the top of the frame and also any larger pieces that are of an awkward shape and do not fit well into the frame. It is not normally neccesary to secure the logs with a ratchet strap if you follow my advice, but the use of one does slightly decrease the movement within the frame when the logs are cut and give a little more security to the cutter.


Chainsaws are potentially very dangerous tools and it is advisable that anyone who operates one has had some training and is both competant and confident in their use.

You must also wear eye and ear protection and steel toe cap boots are recommened.

The chainsaw should have a guide bar long that is long enough to reach across the entire width of the cutting frame to minimise the risk of kickback.

The guide bar should be in good condition and not worn otherwise the saw will not cut stright. The saw chain must be correctly sharpened. If the chainsaw is running correctly and the saw teeth are sharp the saw will cut through the wood using only the force of it's own weight - you will not have to hardly use any downward force at all to cut through the wood.

Happy sawing - Michael

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Woodland Tree Guide 1 BEECH

In an effort to add a little bit more diversity (and volume) to my blog I thought that I would include a guide to woodland trees. I do not however intend to include every bit of minute information about each species -this is available widely elsewhere, I will therefore (as usual) be expressing my own opinion as to the merits and bad points of each tree species. I intend to alternate these posts with my output of more general tree information. I have drawn up an initial list of around 60 species to cover, so not knowing quite where to start and not wanting to do it alphabetically I thought that I would start with one of my favourites.

Beech  fagus sylvatica
The beautiful smooth silvery trunks of two Beech trees just
down the road from where I live.

Found almost everywhere in western Europe, many of you will already know that these trees are a wonderful combination of grace, beauty, adaptability and usefulness.

If you are looking to plant Beech as a potential timber tree you have several choices as to where to get your planting stock, firstly if you have trees of good form in your locality you can usually quite easily find some self sown seedlings. If these are dug up carefully during the dormant season and placed in a plastic bag for storage and ease of transport, so that the delicate roots cannot dry out.If they are then planted out fairly quickly (within a few days) you can sucessfully move young trees that are up to about 1.3 meters in height. These will have reduced growth for a year or so after planting but will then grow away nicely.

If fact 7 years ago, I found a young Beech tree of 2.4 meters in height that had been ripped from the ground by a large forestry machine, luckily the weather was mild and damp so my young son and I carried it to one of my fields and planted it close to the boundary.It has not only survived without any dieback but has since thrived and become a fine specimen.

Largest Beech Specimens

To the best of my knowledge the tallest European Beech tree, stands at 45.4 meters in the Sonian Forest, Hoeilaart, Belgium. The tallest in the UK is in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire and is a very respectable 43 meters. The tree with the greatest girth (the trunk circumference, usually measured at 1.5 meters above ground) is a tree at Plas Newydd, Llanfairpwll, Anglesey, Wales and was 9.62 meters in circumference when measured in 2006

In the nursery trade Beech is thought of as being difficult to transplant but as you can see by my example above that it can do well bare rooted, even at quite large sizes if the conditions are right-This fundamental rule goes for all bare rooted trees, DON'T LET THE ROOTS DRY OUT! Once they dry their ability to survive the shock of transplanting is greatly reduced, and the longer they are allowed to dry the lower your survival and initial growth rate will be. Root drying is most severe on windy Spring days and I would recommend that for best survival and growth that broadleaved trees are planted out in Autumn when the soil is still warm. The tree can produce new roots before the onset of winter and be in a much better state of establishment than one planted in the Spring.

Another choice would be to grow trees from your own collected seed, collected from good quality local trees this sounds easy but do not underate just how difficult a task this can be. Most of you however will choose this last option of buying your nursery stock from a tree nursery. The best Beech forest in Europe is the Sonian Forest, Belgium which is just to the south east side of Brussels. Nursery trees grown from seed collected from here are with good reason highly sought after. However almost any Beech seed collected from a registered European seed stand will perform well.
The magnificent Beech trees of the Sonian Forest also known as the Foret De Soignes,
Belgium, note the people at the bottom of the photo for scale.  The forest covers an area
 of 4421 hectares (10920 acres) at the start of the 19th centuary it covered more than
twice this area Photo by Donar Reiskoffer

Beech is useful as it is very shade tolerant, you can underplant it beneath trees that cast only a moderate shade such as Silver Birch or even Oak, I have found that the young trees are not attractive to Roe deer which can cause a lot of damage to young trees of many species such as Ash, Wild Cherry, Willow and Douglas Fir.

Beech grows well on deep well drained loamy soils that are either acid, neutral or alkaline. I have seen it growing very well in limestone areas and I find that it also performs very well on the sandy acid soils that we have here, particularly on the lower hill slopes where the soil is deeper. It does not like poorly drained soils and periods of waterlogging can be lethal especially to small trees. It should also not be planted on very shallow soils that are prone to drying out. Beech is shallow rooted and particularly prone to drought stress.

This is more of a steady tree with reasonable growth sustained over a long period than than a quick starter. For the first year or two after planting provided your methods of weed control are adequate it will probably grow  perhaps between 15 and 40cm/year depending on the size and quality of the planting stock (generally speaking smaller plants survive and grow away better than larger ones)
A young Beech tree 4 years after planting as a 1.2
meter sapling dug up from the surrounding woods.

Once the trees are established and begining to assert some dominance over the competing ground vegetation the growth rate will speed up to around 40-60cm per year. Beech does not make a good pioneer species of open ground and tends to grow better with some side shelter in the form of what are known as a nurse trees, such as Norway Spruce, Scots or Corsican Pine, European Larch, Lawsons Cypress or Western Red Cedar. The use of these conifers will greatly improve the microclimate of the new woodland for the young Beech trees and they will grow substantially faster due to the presence of the conifers. This has been proven in many trials.

As the plantation grows and the conifers start to compete with the Beech they must be removed if your aim is to have a pure Beech woodland. I myself prefer a more mixed and diverse forest composition.

The best broadleaved trees to use as a nurse tree for Beech is Wild Cherry or Silver Birch, these mature at a relatively early age compared to Beech and also only cast light shade. You must be careful especially with the Birch because of it's fast growth rate, that it does not dominate the young plantation. Plantations of pure Beech should be planted at relatively close spacings, certainly under 2 meters apart to ensure plenty of choice of final crop trees of good form and to provide the mutual shelter and competition that they need to grow well in their establishment phase.

One other consideration is that when they are in leaf, Beech trees are very frost tender, so a late spring frost can severly damage or even kill small to medium sized trees. I have seen well established trees that are 20-30 years old in Cumbria (NW England) killed by a severe late frost in mid may. Therefore Beech trees are best not planted in frost hollows or areas that are prone to late spring frosts. If a mature tree is badly frosted after it has come out into leaf it can reduce that years wood increment by as much as 90%.

Despite this tenderness to late spring frost they can be a remarkably hardy tree and can be seen growing together with Sycamore in many woods and shelterbelts high on the windswept hills and moors of  North Yorkshire (UK) where I spent my youth.

Pests and diseases
In this area, Beech grows really well and is not subject to any damaging pest and disease problems, however in many areas it can be very prone to damage by grey squirrels which gnaw away patches of bark on the trunks and branches of younger trees from about 15-40 years of age. This can be a very serious and damaging problem that can usually only be resolved by trapping. Beyond this age range they are usually less prone to damage.

The one serious disease that Beech can suffer from is Beech Bark Disease where an infected tree shows dark, weeping tarry spots. This is associated with dense infestations by the felted beech coccus which is a minute sap sucking insect. This combined attack can badly damage or kill trees usually between 20 and 60 years old. Trees that are stressed by drought or by poor site selection are more likely to be affected. Conversly Beech trees that grow in a mixed species woodlands are less likely to be seriously affected Click on the link to find out more.


A huge Beech tree at the estate Den Bramel, Bronkhorst, Netherlands. Its girth is 7.4 meters, unfortunatly this tree died in the summer of 2009 due to fungal attack. 
Photo by Tim B. Monumental Trees

Beech woods are very charcteristic by their long silvery trunks and carpets of russet leaves with a mostly bare woodland floor beneath with very little or no ground flora. Beech trees cast such a deep shade that very little can grow beneath them, this makes them a dominant species that are capable of growing through other trees such as Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Silver Birch, outperforming and eventually shading them out. This heavy shade makes walking through Beechwoods a wonderful experience for us, but not so great for wildlife which thrive when rich ground flora and a shrub layer is present. Holly and Yew are the only species that I have seen growing as a sub species in Beech woodland, but I expect that Box would also grow too.
The amazing Beechwoods of the Forets de Soignes, Belgium
in Autumn. Photo by kind permission of Philou Philou

Beech belongs to a valuable group of trees that produce an edible nut. These are an especially important food reserve for birds and rodents. We too can also eat them although they do contain tannins which carry a slight toxicity if eaten in large quantities. It is possible to press an oil from Beech nuts and they can also be ground into a flour which can only be used after the tannins have been leached out by soaking.

Beech trees only start to flower and produce nuts when they are at least 30 years old and possibly as late as 80. Trees must first build up their carbohydrate reserves in the previous year in order to produce the flowers that may result in a successful seed crop. It is usual for all the trees in a large geographical area to all crop in the same year. The heaviest crops, known as mast years, only occur after hot, sunny summers and almost never in successive years. If the summer is too cold and cloudy, many if not all of the nuts will be empty, the further north that you are in Europe the frequency of good seed production years decreases.

Most people of my generation and earlier sat at school desks made from Beech wood. Chosen for this purpose due to it's excellent finishing qualities, hardness and resistance to compression and splitting. It is great wood for gluing, staining and varnishing. It is excellent for flooring manufacture and furniture, in fact almost any woodwork that isn't either structural or outdoors as it has no rot resistance. It is excellent for firewood and wood pulp but straight pieces are potentially much too good to be used in this way.


The Meikleour Beech Hedge in Perthshire, Scotland is the worlds
tallest hedge. Image courtesy of Tour Scotland Photographs.
Beech is one of the very best hedging plants, beautiful at all times of the year, it adds a classic elagance to any garden. Beech hedges have a special feature called marcescence which means that the dead leaves are retained by the trees until the Spring when the new leaves emerge, so the hedge is never bare. The worlds tallest hedge as listed by the Guinness Book of World Records is the Meikleour Beech Hedge situated 18km north of Perth in Scotland, it was planted in 1745, stands 30 meters tall and runs for 530 meters. More information at
For myself this is one of my favourite trees and I plant them in preference to any other hardwoods. I find them such a good all rounder with good steady growth, being fairly easy to manage, a beautiful looking tree with good Autumn colouring together with the potential to grow wood of great quality, versitility and value. How can you resist?

A Beech seedling in it's first few weeks of life, full of future promise.
Photo by Thue.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

My Favourite Tree

Here is a short piece before my next in depth post comes out in a few days.

A short while ago I joined the Small Woodland Owners Group (SWOG). They produce a monthly newsletter which includes a feature called My Favourite Tree. As I have many favourite trees and having just been out with my camera I decided to send in a photo of one of them with a few words attached thinking that there would be no possibilty of it making the December newsletter. This morning, much to my surprise I found out that it had been included.

SWOG is a great little organisation full of useful information for the small woodland owner. Lots of useful advice and the membership is free. You can have a look at the newsletter following this link You can also follow the following link to access the general SWOG website and forum

The photo capture below has lost some of it's original quality and can always be seen in it's full glory in the newsletter. The original photo, along with many others can be seen in my picassa web albums which can be accessed from the link on the top right hand corner of this blog.