Teacher Has Learned the Firewood Business

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Pennsylvania Man sees multiple benefits from Rainier Hydraulics Chomper processor 

SWEET VALLEY, Penn. — Some college professors are stuffy, ivory-tower eggheads who wouldn’t know a chain saw or a piece of firewood processing equipment if it walked up and introduced itself. The exception, of course, is forestry professors. In fact, quite a few of them can cut up a tree and reduce it to a neat pile of firewood in no time at all.
And then there is Art Saxe. Art is a 62-year-old associate professor of mathematics at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke, Penn., where he has taught for 35 years. Besides teaching, he owns a small business, A&C Enterprises, in which he operates a mowing service, a firewood business and a few other endeavors.
Why would a mathematics professor have a part-time firewood business?
“I love work!” Art said. “The Lord has done a lot for me, and one of the things He has enabled me to do is to like to work. I think life would be so boring if you didn’t like work.”
If his teaching duties and various small businesses were not enough to keep him busy, Art has another seasonal venture. He and a professional staff prepare income tax returns during the late winter and early spring for about 1,200 clients.
Art lives near Sweet Valley, which is in northeast Pennsylvania about 25 miles from Wilkes-Barre. It is a very rural area.
“There aren’t any red lights out here!” he said. “I was raised on the farm next door that’s still there.” After Art mustered out of the Army and finished college, his father gave him part of the property for him and his wife to build a house. Art later bought more of the farm property from his father.
Art made his first foray into the firewood business about 25 years ago. He, his brother-in-law, and a neighbor cut and processed firewood for a short time, using an old tractor, a loader, and an old splitter that ran off the three-point hitch on the tractor. They made deliveries in an old dump truck. For a variety of reasons, the first venture did not last long.
Art set up A&C Enterprises for him and his teen-age son, Chip, about 20 years ago as a mowing business. After his son graduated from high school and went to college, Art continued mowing lawns for a while. He still does some lawns although he doesn’t solicit any new business.
“The trouble with mowing lawns is that the grass grows rapidly in the spring,” Art observed. “Then everyone wants their lawns mowed at the same time, and I no longer have any help, because now Chip is a computer programmer.”
In 1995 the notion of cutting and selling firewood came around again, and Art decided to get back into the business. He invested in a tractor, a dump truck, a conveyer and a firewood processing machine. He put up a Quonset building on his property for storing wood. And he converted A&C Enterprises to a sole proprietorship so he could use the business name for his firewood venture.
Art began by cutting trees on his own property to process into firewood. Eventually, however, he began purchasing logs from a logging contractor. He also hired someone to help him — a neighbor, Dale Brandon. Dale is retired after working as a Ford mechanic for 40 years.
“He makes most of my deliveries and keeps our fairly new dump truck running,” Art said. “In fact, someone asked me the other day how I like my new dump truck, and I said, ‘I don’t know; Dale won’t let me drive it!’ ”
Art’s firewood business has grown steadily. “In 2003, I bought 16 tri-axle loads of logs,” he said. “We sell quite a bit of wood, a lot of it uptown, toward Wilkes-Barre, to people who have fireplaces. And then there are quite a number of people who burn wood for heat in outdoor furnaces to heat water, and the pipes run through the ground into the house to heat the house. They’re fairly common up here. If you have access to wood, it’s a very good way to heat your home.”
In fact, Art and his son both have the same kind of home heating system, and they use waste wood from the firewood processing operations. “I throw anything that’s questionable into a pile for me, since I need wood anyhow,” he said. “I don’t sell that, I only sell good stuff.”
His insistence on supplying good quality firewood has paid off in customers who have been with Art for a long time. “Most of my customers are repeat customers, year after year,” he said. “Some of them buy four or five or six dump truck loads every year, and my dump truck holds about one and one-third cords.”
Art’s base price for a cord of firewood is $115, and he compared that to what people pay retail for a small bundle of wood at a grocery store. Recently he saw a small bundle of wood that he estimated was about three-fourths of a cubic foot; it was priced at $3.95. “If you figure that out, it works out to be about $700 per cord,” he said.
Art and Dale process most of the wood during the summer months, storing it until winter in the Quonset building. “That’s a big plus in what we do,” he said. “There are other firewood businesses that don’t have their wood under roof, so it’s not dry.”
Art’s firewood business is equipped with a Rainier Hydraulics Chomper firewood processor. One benefit of the Chomper, he noted, is that the cutting process actually speeds the drying and seasoning of the wood. Most firewood processing equipment bucks the log with a chain saw, but the Chomper uses a hydraulic-powered shear.
“Wood that’s sheared seasons a whole lot faster because you’ve fractured the fiber,” explained Art, “and the sap just runs right out of it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to believe that at first, but now I’ve actually seen it, and I’m a firm believer in it.”
The cut, split wood seasons faster, and Art can sell it faster. That means a faster return on the money he spends to buy logs and a better profit. Getting a faster return on the money he spends to buy logs is crucial to keeping his business in the black, especially since he buys all his raw logs.
“I pay $375 for a load of logs,” said Art. “That’s roughly $45 per cord. To go into the woods, first I have to own the trees, then take them down, limb them, cut them into pieces and drag them out, get them back here, and then run them through the processor to finish them up and split them. When I buy trees, the price averages $5 to $6 per tree. Can I go into the woods and do all that work to get a tree out for that price? No. Although it hurts to pay $375 for a load of logs, it’s certainly a lot more cost efficient, and I use a lot less Ben-Gay. So it makes sense to me to buy logs.” Art buys mainly oak, cherry, maple, birch, hickory, and a little elm.
The Chomper firewood processor is the second machine that Art has bought from Oregon-based Rainier Hydraulics. He bought the company’s Simplex firewood processor about six years ago. Art was pleased with the performance of the Simplex, but his business grew and eventually he needed a more productive machine.
“It had a smaller motor than the one I have now and didn’t work as fast,” he noted. “I decided to upgrade to the middle model.”
The Chomper is “a very nice machine,” said Art. “It’s well designed and does a good job for us. It has a 50 hp engine and runs on diesel, so it has plenty of power. Everything is hydraulic, and it has a cable winch. When a logger comes in with a load of logs, he piles them in a row. We set the processor up near the load of logs, hook a cable to a log, and winch it right into the machine.” The Chomper winches the log into the machine at ground level, so there is no need to load the logs onto a deck. Once the log is winched into the machine, the Chomper works automatically; it cuts the logs to the length that Art has set the machine for and splits each piece. “It’s an impressive piece of equipment,” he said.
Maintenance on the machine, which is performed by Dale, is easy. “He does all of my routine maintenance,” Art said. “He changes the oil and the filters. We had what appeared to be a very nasty leak a couple of weeks ago, but it turned out to be nothing more than a loose fitting. So it wasn’t anything serious at all. As far as that machine is concerned, we’ve had virtually no problems with it.”
Art returned to the topic of seasoning firewood and how cutting with the Chomper shear provides the added benefit of speeding the drying process. “Seasoning is important in selling firewood,” he said. “Some people sell firewood that’s green, and you can’t burn that. Customers often ask if firewood is seasoned and if it’s split up completely.” He usually buys logs in the spring to be used for firewood that will be sold for the following winter.
Another feature of the Chomper that Art likes is the hydraulic power. “It has a ramp that raises and lowers, and that’s hydraulic,” he said. “It has two big hydraulic arms that align the logs. The winch, the shear blade, and the table that moves the log into the splitting wedges are all hydraulic.”
The Chomper has benefited his business in a big way, according to Art. “Making firewood is back-breaking work if you have to do it with just a chain saw,” he said. “The Chomper makes it much more enjoyable, and I get so much more output than I would if I were doing it with a saw by hand.”
Bucking logs and splitting the pieces into firewood generates waste wood material, but Art came up with a good use for the scraps. “There’s a lot of bark, and a lot of little splinters and tiny pieces about the diameter of my thumb,” he said. “We just gather those up and give them away as kindling. With every load that we deliver, we give the customer a five-gallon bucket of ‘starter wood.’ ”
Art plans to continue his firewood business after he retires from teaching. “I still like to work, and so far the good Lord has given me pretty good health,” he said.
“When I retire, I don’t know if I’ll get into firewood in a bigger way, but probably not. I have too many other irons in the fire. Plus, my helper is 70 years old, and this all isn’t going to last forever.”
He is exploring the feasibility of adding equipment to package the firewood into bundles for eventual retail sale. His decision will depend on market conditions.
Competition does not concern him. “I haven’t spent any money on advertising in the past two years, and I’ve sold everything I’ve had,” said Art. “And the others — well, they have to eat, too.”
To what does Art attribute his success? “The grace of the good Lord,” he said. “And in nearly everything I’ve done, I’ve tried to be as honest as possible. I try to be honest with customers, and I try to be consistent and fair. Those are the main reasons I’ve been successful at everything I’ve done.”