Fire First

100% wood

Our neighbor Scott runs a small chainsaw repair and sales shop. It’s tucked into clearing on a gravel road, constructed of rough sawn lumber and a cracked concrete floor. There’s a wood stove with a glass viewing door that’s been broken for at least a couple of winters. Like as not, there’s something wrapped in tin foil set on the stove’s surface to warm for lunch. Once, when I stopped by the morning after a storm, I found a snowmobile parked at the entrance and a sign on the front door: We’re out on the snowmachines. If you need us, take the Skidoo and follow our tracks. You can sort of see what kind of place it is.

We have two chainsaws, and they get used a fair bit, so I stop by the shop pretty often. Plus, it’s only about a half-mile up the road from our place, and sometimes I get lonely, so there’s that. But generally I like to have at least a plausible excuse, so I go to buy bar and chain oil, chains, air filters, and so on. I even go to have the saws worked on. Chainsaws can be a little finicky; they run at ridiculously high rpm’s (your car generally runs at about 3,000 rpm’s, while a chainsaw runs at about 13,000), and are subject to a fair bit of abuse, so it’s not uncommon for things to break.

Scott has a single employee, a 20-something fellow named Levi, who, far as I can tell, has been working on chainsaws since he had to be careful not to spill bar oil on his diaper. I like Levi a whole lot. He’s a Grade A bullshitter, a story teller, a yarn spinner. As one might imagine, we get along real good. (PS: I like Scott a whole lot, too)

Most of the things Scott and Levi fix on our saws are pretty simple, and I’m always a little embarrassed that I didn’t at least try to fix it myself. But then I wouldn’t have had the plausible excuse to stop by and shoot the breeze while one of them tinkers on my saw for a half-hour or so and then charges me $10. I’m not sure how they decide what to charge – no one watches a clock or writes anything down – but it’s almost always $10. If I need a part, it comes of one of the 1,000’s of salvage saws piled in one of the adjoining rooms. Come to think of it, the part’s usually about $10, too.

Often another customer stops in while I’m there. Scott and Levi are quite popular among career woodsmen, so like as not, the man coming through the door (and it’s almost always men; I rarely see women in there) makes his living in the woods. These are folks who buy bar oil by the case. They drive large-ish pickup trucks that are dented, because logger trucks are always dented, as if the standing trees are exacting some small revenge for their fallen brethren. They have heavy northern Vermont accents, and speak the vernacular common to the region. For instance, Don’t for doesn’t (as in, it don’t matter to me). Good for well. And ain’t. They tend to say ain’t pretty often. Shit and fuck get tossed around a fair bit, too. They have thick arms and thicker chests, or they’re wiry in that muscle-over-bone way, and if they’ve been cutting softwood, they carry the sweet smell of spruce and fir. They are usually cheerful but occasionally are not.

Wood is huge factor in our lives. We put up all our firewood, and we mill much of the lumber we use for our building projects. Just today I spent a couple hours bucking and splitting firewood, then a couple more hours running rough pine boards through a borrowed planer to make wall paneling. We warm our house with wood, we cook on wood, we make maple syrup and sugar on wood, our water is heated by wood, we build with wood Truth is, I bet we spend more time with our hands on dead trees then we do with our hands in the soil. Our lives are at least as dependent on the forest as they are on the garden, and I guess this makes sense, because for at least six months of the year ‘round these parts, you’ll freeze to death before you’ll starve.

What I’m saying is: Fire first. Then food. Remember that, and you’ll do just fine.

Also: I wrote a bit more about Scott’s shop here.





15 thoughts on “Fire First”

  1. Ben, since you brought it up, I”m curious, what kind of a saw do you use for cutting your trees into boards? (ok, yes, novice here). Do you ever use an Alaskan sawmill, using your chainsaws, to do this work?
    And, love your last comment re. freezing vs. eating!

    1. We have a bandsaw mill. I don’t have any experience with an Alaskan, but it seems like a good, inexpensive option, particularly if you’re not too fussy about the end product. You need a big chainsaw, tho… probably 75cc or more.


      1. Thanks, Ben, for your reply. A big chainsaw is not a problem..I think we’re going to go this route with a huge red oak tree that’s down, and try to get some beams out of it.
        Would you mind sharing the brand of bandsaw mill that you have? Or ones you know, from yours and others experience, that work well? That’s out next step…we have lots of ash that unfortunately needs to be taken down b/c of the ash borer…

  2. Sounds like the kind of place I’d like to visit… except that I have no affiliation with engines, oil and stuff like that. I’d take my saw there too without even trying….

  3. I have an old beech tree, half a mile away that I visit for many of the same reasons, to sharpen my saw so I can cut through the … Old opossum lives there and waddles around cussing. There’s a string of paw paw and persimmon seeds piled along the top of the log so you know what kind of place it is.

    1. lord yea because i sit with the waddling possum do i fear no poems nor the writing of poems nor the pawpawed masses who know not poetry from their dull dull echoes

  4. Loved this post. My Papaw was a woodcutter. I can never smell sawdust and chainsaw oil that I don’t think of him. While my husband cuts wood for our heat, we don’t depend on it for the rest of the things you mentioned. The post also reminds me of the old joke I’ve heard older men in my area say they thought their name was Git Wood until they were grown : )

  5. What a beautiful basket!

    One of my high school teachers, Roger Ingoldsby, lived out in the Vermont hills, near Chelsea or Tunbridge, and heated with wood. I recall that he was a big Jonsered fan back in the early 1970’s, while we were Homelite, McCulloch, and Poulan users. I remember that my Father bought a used McCulloch “professional” saw that had a primer rather than a choke, but he could never get the GD thing to start. I found it in the back of the wood shed a couple years after he passed away. Even after cleaning out the gummed fuel and using an entire can of starting fluid, I couldn’t get it to start either! My Parents heated with wood until my Father because too old/infirm to handle the process of cutting, splitting, stacking, and hauling wood. He always liked to have two years inventory of firewood cut, split, and stacked in 16″ lengths, so from the early 1970’s through the mid-1990’s he always had ten to twelve cords in the rotation. He didn’t like to burn wood until it had been cut, split, and stacked for at least eighteen months and it must have worked, as he never had any problems with creosote or chimney fires.

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