If you’re in the tree business, you’re in the wood business. The question is: What do you do with the wood debris you generate on the job? The answer for many tree care companies is to chip the wood and give it away, pay to dispose it, or produce mulch and sell it for landscaping applications. However, some tree care pros opt for a different route: They’ve entered the firewood business.
“It’s not a huge moneymaker, but it helps keep you going during slow times of the year,” says Glen Bowling with Real Tree Tree Service in Newburg, Maryland. He markets the firewood through the local Yellow Pages and newspapers, but many buyers are those the company has previously done tree work for. “They notice that I sell firewood, too, so they contact me for that,” says Bowling.
He says the prices he can charge in southern Maryland are only about half of what firewood is selling for just to the north in the Virginia suburbs around Washington, D.C. “Every market is different, and prices seem to be all over the place,” he notes. “You really need to research prices in your area to figure out what the going rate is.”
Though he could sell the firewood for more in other areas (up to $300 per cord versus $150 per cord locally), Bowling has decided to keep his deliveries local, partly due to the cost of trucking, but also because of regulations. “The Department of Natural Resources in Maryland sets the standards and guidelines that we have to follow, and I don’t know the rules for Virginia. I don’t want to break any laws. Some people might not care, but I try to do things the ethical way, and I don’t want to take any chances,” says Bowling.
Maryland, he notes, requires a license to sell firewood. “I know there are a lot of people that don’t follow that rule, or maybe they don’t know about it, but a Forest Products Operators License is required every year here,” says Bowling. “It’s not difficult to get, but they just want to make sure you know about the different types of wood out there and some basics about firewood.”
The tree care part of the business is more profitable than the firewood, emphasizes Bowling, but one feeds the other, as tree removals become the source for firewood. “That’s where I get my wood. I don’t go out and buy the wood, and I don’t go log for it,” he explains.
Bowling prefers to start processing firewood in the summer so it has time to season. “I try to start in the early summer and do it little by little, so I eventually have a big pile of 20 or 30 cords split. But we’ve had several storms in this area over the past year, and when that happens we’re so busy with tree work that it’s hard to find the time to do the firewood,” he explains. “But if you don’t, you won’t have seasoned wood.”
In those cases, he’s honest with customers when they call and tells them that all his wood is green. Bowling takes the time to explain to customers that dry firewood is important, and he even recommends other firewood sellers in the area who have seasoned wood available. Sometimes they appreciate his assistance and will wait until he has dry wood available rather than buying from someone else, notes Bowling.
He says that selling firewood does help reduce his costs; if not for his firewood business, he would need to purchase a large tub grinder and develop a market for mulch, or pay to dispose of the wood at a landfill, he explains. “Those landfills are very expensive; they charge by the pound, and if you go in there with a chipper truck full of chips, it’s going to cost you $200 or $300. So we try to find people who will take the chips, but that can be a challenge,” Bowling states.
T&T Tree Services, based in Stockton, New Jersey, has been very busy in recent months because of the damage from Hurricane Sandy. Even on a regular basis, crews generate plenty of wood on jobs to supply the company’s firewood business, explains Brenda Slack. “We have tons,” she emphasizes. For the most part, the wood is brought back to the yard in log length, where a T&T employee processes it into firewood. “He’s busy year-round with that, and we have other employees who handle firewood deliveries,” Slack explains.
It can be challenging to keep on top of firewood orders in the aftermath of a storm, when there’s a lot of emergency tree work to be done, says Slack. “There isn’t the money in firewood that there is in the tree work, so sometimes that has to take a back seat,” she explains. “Still, if we have very loyal customers who have been with us for a long time who really need firewood, we’ll make sure they get it.”
Keeping existing tree care customers happy and attracting new tree care customers is perhaps as much a reason to sell firewood as the potential profit. “By the time you add up the numbers, there really isn’t that much money in it. But, at the same time, it is a nice way to add a little extra income and also make our customers happy — it’s a nice service to be able to off them, and that’s the big thing,” Slack says.
Fortunately, selling firewood hasn’t meant a lot of extra equipment to buy. The company purchased a splitter, and the existing fleet of trucks, equipped with dump bodies, is used to deliver the firewood. However, Slack notes that there can be a significant investment in labor. Beyond the time required to cut and process the firewood, deliveries can also be involved. “Most of our sales are to individual homeowners, and the deliveries can be complicated. People want the wood in a specific place; they want you to call first; they want to be there when the wood is delivered. So that becomes a logistical challenge.”
In the same way, customers can be picky about the firewood itself. “You really have to watch your quality,” advises Slack. “People will absolutely call you on it if they get rotted pieces or if the pieces are too big or too small. Firewood customers have very specific requirements based on the size of their woodstove or fireplace.”
In Rochester, New York, Expert Tree Service has found a way to bypass some of the finicky complaints about firewood size: The company sells only log-length firewood. “Years ago we did split firewood, but unless you have a firewood processor, it’s a lot of work,” explains owner Art Giamberdino.
There’s a reason beyond labor that he’s switched to offering log-length firewood. “We’re limited in the space where we are, and that’s one of the reasons we do it this way,” Giamberdino explains. With his business based in a yard in an industrial area, there isn’t the room or ability to process large amounts of split wood, but there is some space for short-term storage of logs while they await delivery.
Log-length firewood customers include do-it-yourselfers who heat with wood and aren’t afraid to cut and split their own firewood. “Then we do have firewood producers who have their own processor, and we’ll sell to them in bulk,” Giamberdino adds.
Selling log-length firewood means there are no precise measurements required when cutting up logs on the job site the way there might be if the wood was going to a mill or woodworker. While hardwood is ideal for firewood, there are customers with outdoor wood boilers and other heating systems who don’t mind a mixture of hardwood and softwood. “If we keep the prices reasonable, we don’t have a problem selling the softwood,” he says.
Selling firewood this way meant purchasing a log truck, but it eliminated the need to buy a firewood processor or splitter. “This is a good avenue for now. If I did have a larger piece of property, I would consider buying a processor and selling [split] firewood again. If so, we would probably also look at getting a ‘pincher’ that would go on a skid steer to bust up some of those larger pieces you wouldn’t normally be able to process,” says Giamberdino. “We’ll just have to crunch the numbers to see how many thousands of face cords it will take to make those investments worthwhile.”
Demand for biomass, including firewood, has shifted the way those in the tree care business need to think about wood. “Years ago, we used to have to pay dumping fees to get rid of the wood, but things are changing,” he says. “For us, firewood is a source of additional revenue rather than an expense.”
In Muskegon, Michigan, Tom’s Tree Service also specializes in log-length wood, which owner Tom Froster says cuts down dramatically on the amount of labor involved with selling firewood. “We don’t deal with splitting or storing or seasoning or stacking – that’s a whole other business venture. We do the trees and the stumps,” he explains. “I’m in the tree business, not the firewood business.”
He’s come up with a system that minimizes the costs involved in transporting the logs. “I get a list of people who want log-length wood, and we deliver it right from the job site to their field or driveway,” says Froster. “I try to keep a list [of those] in all of our service area[s] who are interested so we can save on fuel and time to deliver the wood. Fuel is money, and time is money. Selling the logs for firewood allows us to make a little bit of money, or at least it covers the fuel costs in a worst-case scenario.”
Rick Decker, owner of Family’s Tree Service in Gallatin, Tennessee, says he’s had good luck over the years processing and selling split firewood. “We try to put our byproducts to use, and all of the good wood from our removals – the oak, the hickory, the ash, maple – we bring back and process into firewood,” he explains.
Decker says that firewood has been a good complement to the tree care operations, because the wood can be brought back to the company’s main facility year-round, and then worked on as the weather gets colder and demand for tree services slows down. Family’s Tree Service delivers firewood to customers from December to March. “From spring to fall we’re usually busy doing nothing but trees, trees, trees. In the winter months we have a little time to process the wood and get it delivered,” he explains.
The wood is brought back to the company’s facility in log form on flatbed trucks; this makes jobs go quicker because there isn’t the need to cut up or chip the wood on each job site. Just as importantly, he says, is the fact that firewood allows him to provide an additional service for existing tree care customers, which helps boost that end of the business. “Sometimes we have firewood customers who become tree care customers,” Decker adds. “It’s a way for us to advertise, because people see our trucks driving around on deliveries.”
Decker says they specialize only in high-quality firewood cut from 18 to 20 inches in length because that’s what the majority of customers demand. “That’s the size of the typical prefab fireplace today,” he notes. Family’s Tree Service uses a 22-ton hydraulic wood splitter to process the firewood manually. “I’ve looked at firewood processors, because it is amazing the amount of labor involved in firewood. When you’re paying labor and then worker’s comp, there’s a lot of money involved in processing the wood,” Decker stresses.
“It makes us a little extra money, and it allows my employees to get a full paycheck in the winter months when we would otherwise be slow,” he concludes. “I wouldn’t want to rely only on firewood, but it’s a good supplemental business.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2013 and has been updated.