If you are considering conducting your own timber harvest or perhaps assessing the feasibility of becoming energy independent and producing your own firewood, productivity is a key factor to consider. How many cords of wood can a single man fell in a day with a chainsaw? The question can vary considerably based on the conditions of the harvest (tree size, skidding distance, etc), but a good rule of thumb is that an experienced feller can cut and skid about 13 cords in a single day, which conveniently enough is about one truck load. However, an operator with little to no experience felling timber would do well to cut a single cord! Clearly, experience plays a crucial role in the equation, but there are plenty of external factors as well (particularly when skidding). In this article we will discuss not only these external factors, but the reasons why experienced fellers can cut so much more. So if you are a bit of a greenhorn and considering your own timber harvest, be sure to read through: There is sure to be information here that could literally double your productivity!
Expected Productivity by Experience Level
Before we discuss factors affecting productivity, let’s cut to the chase and provide some rules of thumb for how many cords of wood you can expect to fell in a day with a chainsaw given various levels of experience.
Beginner (1-3 Cords)
So you have a chainsaw and know how to fell trees. Maybe you have taken down a tree or two, but that’s about it. Don’t expect to fell and skid more than 1-3 cords in a day–maybe even less. You are going to pinch your saw, hang up trees, mess up chains, and make a whole lot of errors. Don’t let that discourage you though. Even though it may not seem like it at first, you WILL get better, and your productivity will explode. You just have to master the fundamentals and get a feel for how to make your own operation efficient.
Intermediate (3-7 Cords)
Once you gain some experience, stop getting all your trees hung up, become proficient with limbing, and use your machine properly, you can expect to cut 3-7 cords. Not too shabby. At that level of production, you’d essentially be able to cut a years worth of firewood in a single day!
Small-Scale Expert (7-13 Cords)
Once you really master the harvesting process but are still limited to small scale machinery like tractors, you can expect to cut 7-13 cords. The largest limiting factor will likely be your machinery. Even so, that’s a decent amount of wood.
Full-Scale Expert (13 Cords+)
If you have that expert-level experience and upgrade to a full scale skidder or forwarder, you can expect to cut 13 cords or more in a day, and the limiting factors will be physical factors like the size of the trees, skid distance, and terrain.
Factors Affecting Felling Productivity
Let’s begin by discussing the factors that you have the most control over–the factors affecting how much wood you can physically fell in a day. Because most of these factors are a function of the feller’s experience and technique, we will break down the process by parts and discuss the difference between efficient and inefficient practice.
Setting the Notch and Hinge
Perhaps the most obvious time sink in felling trees is the process of setting the notch and hinge, which is to say the process of strategizing and designing the cut. A feller must carefully and meticulously assess any risk factors of felling, determine the lean of the tree and best lay, and then accurately and skillfully set the angle of the notch and width of the hinge. It can take time, especially for a beginner.
However, this is NOT a part of the process that you can or should make more efficient. This is the foundational part of the process that determines the safety and efficiency of literally every other part of harvesting until the tree makes it roadside. Thus taking MORE time here to focus on quality saves a lot of time and headaches (and money) in the long-run. It is important you don’t rush it. In fact, I recommend beginners block out at least 10 minutes to set up the notch and hinge and refrain from proceeding until that time is up. Such practice makes the time expenditure more of a sunk cost and precludes the possibility of saving time. It may sound foolish, but trust me: it works.
That said, as a feller gains experience, they will naturally be able to set the notch and hinge faster without sacrificing quality. But this happens as a natural result of the feller gaining skill, not as a result of trying to save time and rushing the operation. Trust the process and take your time.
Once the cuts are made, the tree may not fall immediately on its own. It may be necessary to encourage the tree with a wedge or felling lever. These are devices that help to lift up the back cut and lean the tree toward the felling direction. The more back-leaned the tree is, the longer this will take.
For smaller trees 18″ and below, I recommend using a felling lever whenever possible. They are faster and more efficient than wedges, and they are more effective as well. But they do not work on severely back-leaned trees. In such cases, you may need to use a wedge or at least wedge the tree first to bring it upright before proceeding with a lever, which I still prefer to finishing the job entirely with wedges.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much opportunity to speed up this process, aside from only felling trees in their direction of lean, which isn’t always possible or desirable. The good news is that wedging and levering is not a terribly significant factor in determining how many cords of wood you can fell in a day, especially as a function of time/cord. Assuming you have the tools on hand (which you always should), it should take no more than 20 to 60 seconds depending on the size of the tree.
This is potentially the largest limiting factor of the productivity of inexperienced fellers. Hang-ups can rob you of A LOT of time. a single hang up can take an hour to fix, in which time you could have otherwise cut an entire cord. This is a big reason why it is important to take your time when setting up the notch and hinge. Accuracy is everything, and inaccuracy in only a few degrees can be the difference between a clean fall and a nasty hang-up. Take your time.
Because of the denser stand conditions and lighter tree weights, hang-ups are going to be more common with smaller trees than larger. But the larger the tree is, the more time consuming and difficult the hang up will be. Hanging up a tree that is 6 inches in diameter will be no problem. But if you get a 20″ diameter tree lodged in a branch of another tree–Goodluck.
I highly recommend you check out my article about tree hang-ups and how to deal with them. It will give you a good idea of the best, safest, and most efficient way of dealing with this nasty problem.
Limbing and Bucking
While hang-ups can be major time sinks, they are avoidable. Limbing and bucking are not. Thus, as a necessary part of the process limbing and bucking are going to take much of your time and be a major factor in determining how many cords of wood you can fell in a day. Efficiently limbing and bucking is all about technique. The key is to keep the saw’s center of mass close to your body and rest the saw on your hip or knee/leg as much as possible, sweeping the saw back and forth, flush against the stem as you go. Take a look at this video showing a Swedish logger showing off his masterful skills:
He makes it look easy. It is not. It takes a tremendous amount of practice. And the more fatigued you get, the harder it is to keep proper form, The worse your form is, the more fatigued you will become. The key is to consciously practice and improve your skills every time you pick up your saw.
Luckily, limbing is not always difficult. It is more of a time factor when cutting conifers. In stands of hardwood with clean stems, there may hardly be any branches to clean off. It may be merely a factor of cutting off the tree’s top and moving on. It is also possible the limb the tree in the skidding process. Dragging a tree on the ground can break off many limbs, especially dead ones. This is especially true in winter when the limbs are frozen and more brittle.
An important factor that determines how many cords of wood you can fell in a day is the average size of trees you are cutting. Certain parts of the felling process are more or less constant regardless of the size of the tree, but larger trees are going to yield substantially more wood. To illustrate this concept, imagine a stand of 5-inch diameter wood and a stand of 25-inch diameter wood. In the stand of 5-inch wood, you may need to cut thirty trees to get a cord. Cut thirty notches, thirty back cuts, use the felling lever 30 times, etc. In a stand of 25-inch wood, you may only need to fell three trees to get a cord: Three notches, three back cuts, etc. Obviously, getting more wood for less work is going to be more efficient and take less time, so your productivity is going to be largely a function of the size of trees you are cutting.
That said, there are diminishing returns here. If trees become too large, they can add extra costs in transport and handling, which can offset any productivity gains. If you are interested in reading more about the relationship between tree size and productivity in chainsaw operations, take a look at this 1997 study from the Forest Products Journal here.
Factors Effecting Skidding and Forwarding Productivity
While physically felling the wood is often the focus of productivity assessments, it is only half the process. It takes a lot of time and effort to the move the wood to its destination, and so this transportation (called skidding when wood is dragged and forwarding when it is placed in a bunk) is a key factor in determining how many cords of wood you can fell (and move) in a day. Here are the factors affecting skidding and forwarding productivity.
A primary factor to consider is the machine you are using to move the wood and what its capacity is. Obviously, the large the machine and the larger its capacity, the less time it will take you to move the wood. A full size forwarder can hold around 7 cords in its bunk, so a full day’s production can be hauled roadside in a trip or two, which will take no more than 40 minutes. On the other hand, the tractor-hauled “forwarder” owned by yours truly (seen below) only holds about a cord, so a full days production for me takes several trips and usually a couple hours.
Skidding presents a similar dynamic. A true cable skidder can haul several cords at a time, but if you are hauling logs out with an ATV, for example, you’d be lucky to pull .3 cords at a time. The smaller the machine, the greater the percentage of your time will be occupied by forwarding/skidding.
Of course, regardless of the size of your machine, a large factor in how long it will take will be the distance the machine actually has to move. Longer skid distance–More time. Imagine that. This works in conjunction with the capacity of your machine. The lower the machine’s capacity, the more its productivity will be negatively impacted by longer skid distances. Luckily the exact impact is easy to calculate. Just use google earth to measure out the distance and compare it to the machine’s expected speed.
Poor ground conditions can make moving wood a much more difficult and time-consuming process. Mud and snow reduce traction, increase the chances of getting stuck, and potentially reduce your machine’s capacity. One could argue this is the most important factor at all, as it can actually reduce your productivity to ZERO. If there is 3 feet of fresh snow on the ground or you just got 3 inches of rain, it may simply not be possible to move your wood. Luckily, with experience, you can navigate the weather and plan your harvest to work around conditions. Cut on bad days and skid on good days. Operate on high ground when it rains and operate on low ground when it is dry. Forward wood in the morning when the ground is frozen and cut in the afternoon when it warms up and gets muddy. You get the idea.
Similar to ground condition, terrain presents obstacles to how many cords of wood can be moved in a day, but it is less avoidable. Slopes, rocks, and bodies of water can throw a wrench in your plans. All you can do is design your trails intelligently and work around them.
Process Improvement is key!
Clearly there is a wide range of how many cords of wood you can fell in a day with a chainsaw, but regardless of the experience or machinery you bring to the table, it is crucial you bring a mind for process improvement as well. Be conscious of the time constraints unique to your operation and be creative in how you address them. I have met many loggers in my career, and the most successful loggers all have a similar trait: They are what I would call economic artists. They see the problems and constraints within their harvests and find ingenious ways of fixing and alleviating those constraints. Luckily, that is a skill that I believe anyone can hone if they try. Even if you are only planning to cut firewood for your own consumption, treat your harvest with a business-like mind. Not only will you save a lot of time, you will have a lot more fun in the process.