1 + 2 = 1

I had a dramatic and disappointing illustration of the law of diminishing returns this weekend. It’s wood-butchering time on the homestead – actually, it’s well past the time that I should have been putting up next year’s firewood, but the woodlot was snowed in until only comparatively recently. I’m sure there’s still a snow pile lurking around here somewhere.

Last weekend, I went up to the woodlot and processed some wood by myself. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve got a number of steps to the process – loading the bucking stand, cutting the logs to stove-length, moving the bucks to the splitting table, splitting, loading the tractor bucket, and stacking. I can handle all that myself, and I was able to process 11 bucket loads in about 4 hours. That’s nearly 3/4 of a cord, so I figured six hours for a cord with one person. Kicks my ass, but doable.

This weekend, I decided to rope my older kids into helping. I figured that if one person can crank out a cord in six hours, three people ought to be able to do a cord in an hour and a half. With three people, one stays on the splitter, keeping it running continually. One person (me) loads the bucking stand and cuts the wood, and one drives the tractor. When the bucket is full, I go with the tractor driver to stack the splits, and the splitter keeps going, putting the splits in a bin next to the splitter – the buffer. When the tractor returns, we load the bucket from the buffer, I go back for more bucking, and the cycle continues. Continuous, poetic motion – a ballet of wood butchery.

Halfway there - not bad for twelve hours of work.
Halfway there – not bad for twelve hours of work.

Nope. Turns out the splitter is a seriously limiting resource in this process. The rate at which I can put wood through the splitter when working alone is almost the same as the rate with three people working. Consequently, with my son on the splitter, my daughter and I spent a lot of time standing around waiting, leading to friction and general unpleasantness. After three hours, when we hadn’t even reached the 11 bucket level of me working solo, I called it off. No sense in wasting three peoples’ time when one will do the same amount of work.

While the numbers didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, it still was a successful failure in some ways. First, at least I got my kids to see how hard I work for them to be warm. I hope that they’ll remember that when heating season draws around again. Second, I see that there’s essentially nothing I can do to improve this process without spending money. Since the splitter is the bottleneck, I’d have to buy or rent another splitter, in which case the process would take four people to run. Or, I could get rid of my current splitter and go with a faster splitter, like Uncle Buck’s much-beloved DR Rapid Fire Splitter. I agree with Buck that his splitter is fast, but the kinetic action scares the bejesus out of me, and at more than twice the price of the splitter I have, I can’t justify adding it to the fleet.

Even adding just a second person doesn’t help much – Mrs. P came out for an hour yesterday despite her wonky shoulder, and although we found that she was able to operate the splitter relatively well, I still spent most of my time just standing around waiting for her. Although it is nice to be working together on the wood – it’s kind of our thing. What can I say – I’m a cheap date.

Plenty more where that came from.
Plenty more where that came from.

So in the end, I just have to suck up the fact that working through the four cords or so that I like to have going into the heating season will take something like 24 hours of continual effort, and most of it will be me working alone. As it stands, I’m through almost half of it, so if I get decent weather next weekend, I should be able to get this done. And there’s nothing saying that I can’t knock out a quick hour of splitting after work either.

Free heat? Nope. Not by a long shot. More like “freedom heat.” And freedom is never free.

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