To wannabe weekend lumberjacks: Clearing a wooded lot is serious work

May 11, 2012

I’m going to build a home on a wooded lot that I own. To save money, some friends and I intend to do all the clearing ourselves. What should I know about lot clearing? Do you think this is a good thing for me to do? What are the biggest challenges, and how might you best prepare for them? The estimates I got for this task took my breath away, so I’m trying to save money.

— Randy C., Moultonboro, N.H.

I understand your desire to save money. With the economy sputtering along, it makes sense to be as frugal as possible. As crazy as this sounds, it may be worthwhile to get a few more estimates. Many contractors are not too busy, and you could get some competitive quotes. I’d exhaust that option first before doing anything else.

If you decide to get more estimates, be sure that each contractor is bidding on the same job. In other words, you need to write out a very accurate job description that says exactly what you want done. You must specify what happens with the trees, the branches, the stumps and any large rocks that might be in the way. You need to describe exactly what the lot will look like when the job is finished, using photos from other cleared lots if possible.

Speaking of trees, make sure you exploit the value of the timber you are planning to clear from your land. It could add up to a substantial amount, and you could be none the wiser. It would not be the first time a naive landowner was taken advantage of by a cunning contractor. I know of landowners who paid to have high-priced timber cut down and carted away, allowing the contractor to make additional money selling the logs to a lumber mill!

If you think you have marketable timber on your land, then you need to call in lumber brokers to get quotes on the value. Once again, you need to be very careful and have them mark exactly what trees are the money trees and how many of each there are.

Let’s say that, even after getting many bids from contractors to clear your land, you and your buddies decide to become weekend lumberjacks. The first thing you need to know is that clearing land is very dangerous work, it’s hard, and, if you’re not used to it, it will wear you out faster than running up the Mount Washington Auto Road.

Here’s a short list of the equipment you’ll need to make a dent in this project. You’ll need several powerful chain saws with 18-inch bars, all the safety equipment for each saw operator (chaps, helmet, visor, heavy gloves, etc.), a timber jack tool that will allow you to lift logs to cut them, chains, a tractor and possibly an excavator.

Tool rental businesses should be able to rent you all the mechanical equipment you need, but you will need training on how to operate them. Be aware that these machines are extremely dangerous; if you don’t know how to make them stable on wet, slippery or sloped ground, be extremely careful.

As for a plan of attack, scout out the best path to get from the road to the building area, so you put the driveway in the right spot. Think about drainage; ensure that the driveway is slightly elevated so it doesn’t wash out.

When you are ready to cut trees, get the smaller ones out of the way first so you have room to work when you have to bring down the larger trees. Think about what you’re going to do with all of the slash — all of the tree material that’s not taken away to a lumber or pulp mill. You generally have to burn it, grind it up or pile it on the lot so it decomposes naturally. If you decide to burn it, be sure to find out what the laws are about this in your county and municipality. You will undoubtedly need a permit to burn slash.

If you’re going to turn the trees into your own firewood, you can cut the logs up into links as you work or stack the long logs off to the side to cut up later. Be sure you stack the logs at least 20 feet away from where a foundation wall might be. You have to make sure you give the builder room to work. The last thing you want to do is move giant logs twice.

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. He can be contacted through his Web site, askthebuilder.com.

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