Louisiana Man Expands Firewood Business

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Rainier Hydraulics Chomper Machine Enables Man to Develop Business by Himself

ST. TAMMANY, Louisiana – Cutting and splitting firewood is a thankless task, especially when you’re doing it by yourself.

But James “Jay” Hurston, owner of Warm Hearth Firewood in St. Tammany, Louisiana, has found a way to make firewood for his clients without help, using a Rainier Hydraulics Chomper firewood processor. The Chomper enables him to cut and split firewood with a minimum of hassle — and without having to hire help, except during the height of his busy season.
Jay, a probation and parole officer with the Louisiana Department of Corrections, started Warm Hearth Firewood several years ago after he helped someone clean up after a hurricane.
“After Hurricane Georges, one of my uncle’s neighbors had a couple of pecan trees that were knocked over,” he recalled. “I went and got the wood and split it. I had to rent a splitter from a local equipment rental place.” Jay sold the firewood to Louisiana Pizza Kitchen in New Orleans for their wood-fired pizza oven, and his part-time business was off and running.
“At the time I was working out of Mandeville,” he said. “I would cut and split the wood, load up my truck, and take it over to New Orleans. I did it with a chain saw and one of those splitters that you get from Home Depot.”
Jay ran his firewood business that way until three years ago, when he developed a second customer, a Cajun-style smoke­house in Baton Rouge. “They make smoked sausage, boudin, cracklings, and all that kind of stuff,” Jay said. “He buys wood to smoke the meat.” Jay also started bundling firewood for sale to Shop Rite stores in the Lafayette area.
At that point, Jay figured he needed to become a “real” business. He incorporated as Warm Hearth Firewood LLC. Shortly afterwards, he picked up another pizzeria customer in the French Quarter in New Orleans.
“It got to be too much,” said Jay. “Every weekend, if I wasn’t hustling wood I was splitting and delivering. It was just too much work bending over the log and cutting it with a chain saw, and then sitting down and splitting it with the splitter I had. So I dropped the pizza kitchens but kept on delivering wood to the smokehouse, to the Shop Rite stores, and to my individual clients.”
Jay, 56, wanted to establish his firewood business on a more solid footing so he could continue to do it when he retires from the state Department of Corrections. He knew it was time to invest in some equipment that would help him move in that direction. He started researching firewood processing equipment, and before long he settled on the Rainier Hydraulics Chomper.
“When I first got it, I was showing it to my brother, and I told him, ‘I’m going to name this thing ‘The Spoiler,’ ” Jay said. “It cut out a lot of work and a lot of backache for me. It also increased the volume I could do. I could do in an hour what it took me four hours to do the old way. The old way I would have to cut the log into pieces with a chain saw and then sit down and split it. Now, the Chomper cuts and splits the log at the same time.”
The Rainier Hydraulics Chomper is somewhat unique among firewood processors. First, it processes firewood logs at ground level, so there is no need for an elevated log deck to hold the logs – nor equipment to lift the logs and set it on the log deck. There is no need for special log handling equipment for two reasons: the Chomper is mobile and can be moved, and it uses a winch to pull the log into the machine to be processed.
Second, the Chomper uses a shear to buck the wood into firewood lengths. Other firewood processors typically use a bar saw or circular saw.
After bucking, the wood is pushed through a splitting head, and the firewood exits the rear of the machine.
Jay has been pleased with the machine. “The only problem I’ve had was learning how to use it and getting used to how it works,” he said. “I had one small hydraulic leak where I had to tighten a fitting, but that’s it. It’s a good machine.”
One of the reasons Jay chose the Chomper is that he can operate it by himself and does not need to hire any labor. Plus, he does not need any log handling equipment.
“I looked at a lot of other machines, and for all of them I’d have needed a lift to put the logs up on a rack,” Jay noted. “With the Chomper, I just hook a cable onto the log and pull it into the machine right there on the ground. That was the main thing that sold me on the Chomper.”
James McCracken, general manager at Rainier Hydraulics, said the specific model that Jay purchased is the Chomper Simplex 14-S. It is powered by a Honda 24 hp v-twin gasoline engine.
James reiterated the features that make the Chomper attractive for firewood processing. “With the Chomper firewood processor, you don’t have a log deck that you have to load. The Chomper is designed for single-person operation to keep labor costs down.”
James explained that the Chomper Simplex model uses a hydraulic winch to pull the log into the machine. When the log is loaded into the machine, the operator removes the winch line. The winch is capable of pulling 1,200 pounds, and the infeed ramp is adjustable, so the log is skidded up the ramp and into the processor.
“The processing action of the Chomper itself keeps the log feeding through the machine,” James said. The operator controls the shear and the carriage, and the log is advanced after every cut.
The shear blade has several advantages over a bar saw, said James. It can cut through nails or other metal without damaging the shear; a saw chain would have to be replaced or sharpened. The shear never requires sharpening. It is safe, too; unlike the bar saw, there are no high speed rotating parts.
The Rainier Chomper Simplex models are available with different power options, including the 24 hp engine and an 18 hp engine.
The Rainier Chomper Simplex 14-S can process logs up to 14 inches in diameter. The minimum log length is 6 feet, but there is no maximum length because of the Chomper’s log feeding system.
“It’s in-line processing at ground level,” James said. “It’s just the easiest way one person can cut and split firewood.”
Of course, demand for firewood is seasonal except for a customer like the meat processing company, which operates year-round. Jay is busier during the winter.
“In the spring and summer, I cut about a cord of wood every six weeks or so,” he said. “The main thing I do is cut bundled wood for the Shop Rite convenience stores.” He usually begins seasonal deliveries to the stories in October.
“I might leave 50 bundles at one store and 20 bundles at another store,” said Jay. “When they run out, I re-supply them. So it’s really hard for me to say how much I cut during any given period for them.”
Jay usually is able to do the work by himself with the Chomper. Every now and then during the winter he hires temporary help so he can keep up with the increased demand for firewood.
Jay’s biggest challenge is getting a steady supply of firewood logs. He cannot always find the wood he needs when he needs it. He is in the process of developing an arrangement with a customer in Texas to bundle wood under the client’s name, but he needs a consistent supply of wood.
“Right now I’m getting my wood wherever I can find it,” said Jay. “I know some tree cutters, and for a while they would have me drop my trailer off, and they would fill it for me. Another friend of mine clears land, and sometimes I can get some trees from him.”
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Jay had found a landowner near Folsom, Louisiana, who wanted some trees thinned. Jay was glad to work for him and get the wood. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.
“The storm blew over more trees, so I was working up there for quite a while,” he said. “Now I’m getting trees that are still down around Mandeville, but I’m looking for a steady supply.”
Neither Jay nor his customers are particularly picky about species as long it is hardwood. “I cut just about everything but pine,” he said. “Mostly I cut oak and pecan and a little bit of hickory every now and then when I run into it. Hickory isn’t especially plentiful around here.”
If trees need to be felled, Jay usually prefers for someone else to cut them down. He would rather have someone with more experience in felling do that task.
“I’ll only cut a tree if it’s away from a building or structure so it can’t do any damage,” said Jay. “I’m just not good enough at cutting trees to cut one so it will fall in a certain direction. I’m concerned that I’ll misjudge the center of gravity and have a tree fall where I don’t want it. I’ve been practicing, and I’m getting better at it, but I still don’t trust myself to cut a tree near a house or another building.”
Jay plans to retire in a few years and then run his firewood business on a full-time basis. Once he finds a consistent supply of wood to meet the requirements of his potential customer in Texas, he will be on the way to achieving that goal.