Firewood Business Heeds Market’s Call

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By Thomas G. Dolan

WOODSTOCK, Illinois — When you think of clear, high quality cherry or hickory, you are likely to think of cabinets, furniture or a number of other high end wood products. The last thing you probably think of is firewood, which is typically produced from low-grade logs and tops.
However, Jack Foss, president of Lumberjack Inc., based in Woodstock, IL, about 50 miles west of Chicago, has an entirely different perspective of firewood. His company’s firewood not only burns well, it is clean, uniform, and delivered in precise volumes.
In other words, his firewood looks nice. It has aesthetic appeal. Because of this, he has carved out a unique market niche for himself, one that offers him virtually no competition and allows him to charge premium prices.
Jack recalled that he went to college “to play baseball. Outside of learning how to speak Spanish, I didn’t get much out of it. I graduated in 1992 without a whole lot of ideas about what I wanted to do. I was 21 and had a friend who had some wooded property. I rented a chain saw and a log splitter, and that first year I spent more money on rental than I did in making money from firewood. But I liked doing it, and wanted to find a way to have it earn me a living.”
There was a sawmill in the area that was making some improvements. “The mill asked me to clean up some old logs,” said Jack. “I bought a firewood processor. I thought I would have enough work to last me 10 years. I was done in a month. I had a machine, but no wood.”
Jack found more sources of logs, but he sold the processor. It was a good machine, but not for the kind of logs he was working with, Jack explained. The logs available to him were large and often crooked.
“I was using an eight-way head” for splitting, Jack said. “It would cut, but it was not selective. I would get a lot of sawdust and wasted material. And with an eight-way head, you would end up with eight big pieces of wood. But the people around here don’t want big firewood. Ninety-five percent of them are not using the wood for heat primarily, but aesthetics. They want ultra-small pieces — split three or four inches in diameter.”
Jack hired his brother to pick up logs at land-clearing jobs and haul them to his wood yard with a tractor-trailer. He purchased another firewood processor — the same make, in fact — but used a four-way splitting head instead of an eight-way head.
“By using the four-way head, we could split the log twice,” Jack said. “We got the ability to come in with smaller pieces of wood, and the re-split was ok, but it was still not perfect. We still had to finish it off when it came off the head.”
He invested in a third firewood processor that was used only as a cut-off saw. “This was about eight to 10 years ago when we got our first Power Split splitter,” said Jack. “Then we realized we didn’t need the processor. We would just use a chain saw.”
Jack now has four wood yards. Each is equipped with a Power Split machine from Canadian-based Power Split International Inc. Two are the PSI Double-Vertical model machines and two are the Single-Vertical model. Now, Jack gets just the sizes he wants, with no waste.
Here’s how his operation works. He buys tree-length logs, about 15 to 20 feet long. His men buck the logs into 16-inch lengths. “With quality chain saws, which cost much less than a processor, the men cut the logs the way they want them.”
The Power Split machines use a single wedge to split one piece of wood in two. “People think a single wedge is slow, but the end result is faster,” Jack said. “Because you’re selectively splitting, if there’s a knot on one side, you can take that log and split it in half, throw out the bad part and go on with the good part. If you’re dealing with a firewood processor, the whole log can’t be split if there’s a knot; you’ll get a really ugly piece of wood or you’ll break something. Now, big or crooked wood is not a problem.” Scrap material, ‘ugly’ wood or pieces with knots or other waste, is tossed into a bucket.
“A processor can handle 5- to 20-inch diameters and you still won’t have a finished product,” said Jack. “This splitter can handle 5- to 35-inch diameters.”
On a typical 12-inch diameter piece of wood, when the pedal is pushed, the Power Split wedge will come down, and the operator will repeat the process to split the wood into in 3-inch increments. Then the remainder of the piece is turned 180 degrees to be split.
An advantage of the vertical design of the Power Split splitting ram and wedge, as opposed to a horizontal splitting configuration, is that it requires less work. The worker operating the machine does not have to hold the piece of wood in place because it is stable when the wood is stood on an end.
The difference between the Power Split double-vertical and single vertical model is that the former has two independent operating rams. The force per ram is 28 tons. Both models are a little over 6 feet tall, 6 feet wide, and have a wheelbase of 10 feet and overall length of 26 feet. Each has a single stage hydraulic pump. The splitting cycle is 5 seconds, and a machine can split up to 12 face cords per hour. They are powered by Honda 20 hp engines. Options include diesel engine, heavy-duty hydraulic log lift, heavy-duty gauge work tables, extended work tables, a roof to protect from sun and rain, and wood hooks.
Jack has the standard 25-foot conveyors for his machines. The Power Split machine is self-propelled so it can be moved easily; it is on four wheels and has hydraulic steering. Typically, the finished, split wood is dropped by the conveyor and formed into piles about 15 feet high. The machine is moved a short distance to begin making another pile.
Bucking the wood by hand with chain saws and splitting it into only two pieces at a time requires much more labor than a firewood processing machine, Jack acknowledged. For him, that is the point. “The bigger processors will lift the log onto the deck, buck it, split it, then drop it off,” Jack noted. “The naive person would think, ‘Cool, that’s the answer,’ because it’s automated. But the problem is it is automated.” For the type of firewood he sells, the wood that comes finished out of a firewood process still needs additional processing, he said. “The Power Split machine is more hands-on, but you get what you want the first time with no waste.”
Jack has been pleased with the Power Split machines. “The Honda engine is bullet proof,” he said. “Everything is right there in the open if something needs to be welded or a hose changed. There’s nothing to the machine; it’s so simple. That’s what makes it so good. I go to the trade shows and have seen every splitter there is. If I’d seen anything better, I’d have it. Cost is not a factor.”
Jack employs six men processing wood, a full-time truck driver, a secretary and three part-time workers; counting him, there are 12 employees.
The logs that Jack buys are not typical firewood logs. He buys tree-length logs, including cherry and other species that elsewhere would be bought by a sawmill to process into lumber.
“If we were three hours to the north or to the west,” he said, “this wood would go to sawmills, but there are no mills in the area, although there are a lot of pallet makers that use a lesser quality wood.” Jack said. “It’s a shame to turn such nice big logs into firewood,” but there is no other market for the logs in his region besides pallet plants.
Jack buys logs for the equivalent cost of about $150 per cord. Processing costs are about $20 per cord. “We go through 2,500 cords a year,” he said. “Because we pay so much, we charge $360 a cord delivered and dumped. Stacked costs more.”
He also buys about 700 cords wholesale at about $210 per cord to supplement his production. “It might seem silly not to buy it all (wholesale) for it would be cheaper than paying my guys, who I pay well, $10 to $15 an hour. But if they weren’t making wood, they wouldn’t have anything to do.”
Jack’s company usually sells firewood by a fraction of a cord. A face cord is one-third of a normal cord. “We have dozens of baskets of 1/3-cord each, and sections of our trucks are partitioned off so there’s no guess work,” said Jack. “There’s no question of volume. People get just what they ask for.”
The logs he buys are relatively clean. The trees typically are felled with a mechanical cutter or chain saw instead of being pushed over by a bulldozer and pushed into a pile.
Jack buys logs for about $800 a truck-load. “It’s not uncommon for me to get three loads five days in a row,” he said. “There’s no such thing as ordering logs. The contacts I’ve made I’ve maintained. There are a lot of variables. They’ll sell to the highest bidder, but often it comes down to the time factor.” His wood yards are located strategically near the land-clearing jobs.
“If it’s a choice of shipping them155 miles to a mill or 25 miles to me, especially considering the price of fuel, I’ll often be the choice,” he continued. “But I can’t shut the door. I buy the logs when they’re available. I feel the money is better invested in inventory than it is in the bank. It’s also true that I’m sometimes overwhelmed.” At times he has about $100,000 worth of logs in his yards.
Having a hefty inventory of logs for next season also enables him to make sure the wood is thoroughly dried; the wood has six to nine months to dry. Jack does not sell green firewood. “I have my own moisture detector,” he said. Wood that is 30% moisture content is green, and 20%-25% is borderline.
Allowing the wood to thoroughly dry is another factor in producing quality firewood that he sells year-round. It is also a factor in pricing.
“Because we have to pay such a ridiculously high amount for our wood and go to such extraordinary lengths to make sure our product is of high quality, we have to charge accordingly,” Jack said. “I’m not going to bother starting the truck if I’m not sure I’m going to make a profit. We don’t do tree work or landscaping. Firewood and mulch are all we sell. I don’t offer discount sales or value discounts, and I don’t sell cheaper in the summer. We set our price and we stay with it. That’s the only way to stay in business.”
An advantage of selling quality firewood to people who are willing to pay a premium is that “we have no real issues with our customers,” said Jack. “If there’s any problem, I personally go right out to the customer. Invariably it’s something like not having a damper open or the customer needing to know something else about starting a fire. Selling firewood is not rocket science. It’s a real simple business. Just make sure your wood is clean, dry, and uniform and you sell the right volume, and you can’t go wrong.”
On the other hand, said Jack, “My customers tell me that a lot of guys selling firewood come on looking very shady and unprofessional, as if they’re just out to make beer money. It’s almost comical how easy it is to raise the bar.”
Along with selling quality firewood, Jack strives for a professional image. His dozen trucks are all nicely painted black and the company has a high profile Web site.
“The biggest thing about this business, as far as I’m concerned, is that I love what I do. I’m not just doing it to make money. I love the work, and the fact that I make money doing it seems like a happy surprise. I’m passionate about what I’m doing, and believe I’m on the cutting edge. If there was a firewood association, I think I’d be at the top, pushing for regulations and some sort of cohesiveness, establishing guidelines for everyone to follow.”
Jack, 36, has been married for six years. “Jodi is a great wife, very supportive,” he said. His hobbies are physical fitness, hockey, and golf. He’s an avid tournament golfer who plays with a 6 handicap.
“For the first 10 years I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, and I’m not above jumping on a machine or picking up a chain saw if there’s a need. Recently when I bought a new yard, which had to be ready in a month, I put in 20-hour days.”
“When I work I am totally involved in it, and as a result I can step back and use the rewards that the business affords. I could make much more money, but a bunch of money won’t make you happy.”
Jack said his brother-in-law once told him something that stuck in his mind. “The sign of a successful business, he told me, is being able to step away from it and have it still function as if you were there. I have good people working for me. I pay them well. By being willing to delegate authority, I can love my business without getting burned out.”