Ask Tim Garrison - The Builder's Engineer

Smarter Than Cordwood?

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Dear Builder’s Engineer,

What do you think of the old saying, “Measure Twice, Cut Once?

Not much, actually. That saying, in my opinion, is for amateurs.

Allow me to illustrate. In my 52 years, I’ve cut a lot of firewood. Growing up on a cattle ranch in Modesto, Calif., we lived in a circa 1920s rambler. It had three heat sources: a fireplace and two wood stoves. It contained not a stitch of insulation and wind blew through its single-pane, sash and counterweight windows like a lawn chair. Winters in Modesto were damp and chilly—we wouldn’t see the sun for months through the tule fog.

So my three brothers, myself, and my dad spent summers cutting lots of firewood.

Nowadays I live in a modern house with actual in-floor hydronic heat. The problem is, my boiler is oil-fired and diesel costs $4+ a gallon. I have a wood stove and several lifetimes’ supply of alder and maple growing just outside the door. Of course that wood doesn’t hack itself into small pieces, so if I want firewood, I have to get out there and cut it, which is what I do every year, about ten cords’ worth.

You would think with all that wood cutting and splitting under my belt I’d be decent at it. Well, I do know my way around a chainsaw and splitting maul pretty well, but I shocked myself this year at what I did not know.

For years I’d shop at Woods Logging Co. in nearby Sedro-Woolley for supplies: wedges, bar oil, chains, and the like. I’d wander the isles checking out the latest gear, which for firewood cutting never amounts to much. I’d always pause at the tape measure and marking paint section to chuckle at the fools who would waste their money on such unnecessary items. Any woodcutter worth his salt can easily eyeball the length of a round before setting saw to it, right?

Nothing is more annoying than a piece of firewood that doesn’t fit through the opening in your wood stove. While you’re jockeying and prying to get it in there, escaping smoke burns your eyes and fouls the house. When you finally give up after trying every possible orientation, angle, and wedging technique, you’re left with an irritated wife and an unusable piece of wood that must now be taken back out to the chopping block for additional mauling.

To avoid this very annoying thing, I’ve gotten into the habit of splitting the rounds into very small pieces. For example I might split an 18-inch round into six, pie-shaped sticks. That’s a minimum of five whacks with the maul, and five bend-overs to set up the yet unsplit pieces. All those pieces must also be carried, stacked, and transported several times before nestling into the warm embrace of my woodstove’s belly.

After about my fifth cord this year, I had a thought: What if I actually measured the pieces I was cutting and splitting? That way I would be absolutely sure to avoid the very annoying thing. As I split, bent over, and carried a few hundred more times, I convinced myself that this was indeed a very good idea. So I got a couple of measuring sticks, cut them to the exact length and width of my stove’s opening, and began using them.

It was like the glory of the heavens opened upon me.

Suddenly I was confidently cutting rounds at exactly the correct length without having to trust my eyeball, which is not actually as accurate as I’d like to think. And even better than that, I found that an 18-inch round can be split into three planks rather than six pie pieces and still fit into the stove. Three planks take two maul whacks and only one or two bend-overs. This revelation saved me approximately half the effort of splitting and setting up, and increased my productivity proportionally. The amount of time I spent measuring was miniscule compared to the overall time saved.

I thought to myself, Say, maybe the guys at Woods Logging aren’t so dumb after all. Maybe there are even more tricks I can employ. And sure enough after some deliberation I came up with another dandy. If I could cut and split right next to the stack I could save a short haul and a touch on every piece. As I write that sentence it seems so obvious, but if so, why didn’t I do that before? Probably because my dad did it that way and I never thought any differently.

Which brings me back to this article’s original question: Why don’t I think much of measure twice, cut once?

Doing anything twice is inefficient, whether it’s measuring or cutting. Sure, cutting twice is much more so than measuring twice, but if we’re in competition to be the best at our trade, we darned well need to do things only once. A much better saying is: Measure once, correctly.

Another lesson here is that no matter how long you’ve been at something, there are still tricks to be learned. Status quo should be questioned constantly. To quote Sam Walton in his book, Made in America: “Swim upstream. Go the other way. Ignore the conventional wisdom. If everybody else is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Today I’ll top off this year’s wood stack. But I can hardly wait until next June when I do it all over again. Because who knows what nugget of cordwood inspiration I’ll come up with then.

Tim Garrison is an award-winning author, public speaker, and professional engineer. He welcomes correspondence via his blog at



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About the Blogger

Tim Garrison, P.E.

thumbnail image Tim Garrison, the Builder's Engineer(tm), is the president of ConstructionCalc Software, Inc. He is the author of four books, including, Green Framing, An Advanced Framing How-To Guide. Tim stays current with industry trends as a practicing professional engineer. He is an active member of his local builder's association, teaching seminars on Green Framing, Microsoft Excel, and How To Profit In A Down Economy. Tim lives and works in Mount Vernon, WA.