11 Considerations
for Buying a
Firewood Processor


So, you’re thinking about buying a firewood processor.  Whether you’re an established firewood business or are just tired of splitting by hand, it’s a big step to spring for a processor.  How do you even begin to sort through all the models, specs, and price points?
This guide should help you keep the big picture in mind as you decide what firewood processor fits your needs:


What to Consider:


1. Durability & Lifespan


When purchasing capital equipment, the durability of the equipment is perhaps the most important thing to consider.  The machine’s life span directly impacts your operation’s future costs.  The machine’s overall durability to withstand the rigors of running all day, every day, should be the first consideration for such a large purchase.


There are a few ways to evaluate a processor’s toughness – scan through a brand’s website, and you’ll see what they emphasize.  Customer testimonials are a big deal, and so are repeat customers.  Check out some of the biggest firewood operations and what machines they use.  Perhaps the best way is to actually see, feel, and test a processor.


Many commercial operations process thousands of cords per year, and downtime for a broken machine can put you behind on orders.  While minor repairs may be an inconvenience, major repairs can have a substantial impact on your bottom line.  The ideal machine would never break – it would keep running as long as you need it to.


Although no real machine is ideal, some machines are more durable than others.  For example, some firewood operations are still using processors that were new in the eighties!  To run one machine for that long takes dedication to good maintenance, but no amount of maintenance can ever make up for a poorly built processor.


2. Maintenance


All machines require maintenance – it’s just a fact.  As you inquire about different firewood processors, make sure the company will provide a good maintenance schedule and manual to you.  This is an indicator that the company cares about your experience beyond the sale.


Research circular saw versus bar saw options as well.  Bar saws usually require the chain to be changed after a few hours of cutting, and they require a constant feed of chain oil.  Circular saws are more expensive, but they come at a greatly reduced maintenance cost.  A typical carbide-toothed circular saw can run for about a year before needing the teeth replaced.


3. Service


While durability and build quality should be the #1 consideration, things do break.  Even a well-built machine can have an occasional problem.  So what do you do when something breaks?


Firewood processors are big machines, and DIY repairs are often out of the question for someone who’s not a heavy equipment mechanic.  At that point, you will need to rely on the service abilities of the manufacturer.


As you consider the processor you’ll buy, ask about parts availability and lead times.  Ask about how the company will help you if your machine breaks.  This is especially important if you are far from the manufacturer’s location, as shipping or hauling a machine can be very expensive.


4. Speed – Cords per Hour


Speed is a tricky metric because of the numerous ways of reporting.  Cords-per-hour is an industry standard measurement that refers to the number of cords (128 cu. ft.) which a machine can process in an hour.   All kinds of brands claim to have the fastest processor in the world, but speed is dependent on numerous factors:

  • Log diameter
  • Log length
  • Straightness of the log
  • Operator experience
  • Firewood length / cuts per log
  • Consistent loading

Whenever you read a cords-per-hour metric, notice the language used.  Some companies will report the max cords-per-hour of the machine – the fastest it can possibly go under optimal conditions.  Others report average cords-per-hour: a measure of how much you could reasonably process under normal conditions.


Not every log is perfect; you will get crooked, short, or skinny logs, and these will affect your output.  When setting your expectations for what a processor can deliver (and its impact on profit), a speed average rather than a speed maximum paints a more accurate picture.


5. Investment


The cost of a firewood processor should always be balanced with the expected profit the machine will create.  Firewood processors can impact profit in any number of ways:

  • Lower labor costs
  • Greater output of finished firewood
  • Safer work environments that impact insurance costs
  • Creating task efficiencies in your operation
  • Ensuring standard length bundles
  • Fuel efficiency savings

With capital equipment, many times the price is not published, and you will need to call or contact the business to get a quote.  This is due to yearly upgrades to machines as well as optional equipment that may affect the overall price.


The upfront price of the machine is not enough by itself to determine a return on investment.  The initial investment plus the operating costs will impact the length of time before your processor turns a profit.  After all, when you buy a processor, you buy it to use it.  The processor’s operating margin (profit) is what really determines if the processor is worth the investment.


6. Cost to Operate


Maintenance, labor rates, and fuel usage all impact a key figure: cost to operate.  Labor and fuel are easy to convert to hourly rates, while maintenance costs may need more calculation.  Once combined into one hourly rate, these three determine your cost to simply operate the processor.


The number of cords per hour determines the materials (pulp wood) cost per hour as well as the hourly value of finished cords.  Speed (cords-per-hour) ultimately impacts the top-line profit and creates a margin, assuming the value of the finished cords is greater than that of the pulp wood.  The operating margin determines how quickly you will earn back the money you invested in your processor.  


Operating Margin = Value of a Finished Cord * Cords per Hour - (Operating Cost per Hour + Cost of Pulp Cords per hour)


Below is the formula for how many machine hours you must run your processor to pay off the initial investment:


Payback Period = (Initial Investment) / (Operating Margin)


Durability will have a big impact on this margin, as one major breakdown could massively affect cost and output.  If you intend to use these rates to predict financial return, then the machine’s toughness really matters in determining the stability of the margin.  And so durability, that #1 factor for picking a processor, impacts operation cost over time, and therefore ROI.


7. Size of your Operation


Consider your operation as it currently exists.  Why do you do operate the way you do?  What tasks would change if you had a firewood processor?  What are the efficiencies you would gain from a new firewood processor?
To find the right model for your needs, here are some more questions to ask yourself:

  • How many cords of wood do I plan to process this year?  Next year?  Three years from now?
  • How am I generating demand for more of my finished firewood?  How will I grow that demand?
  • What kind of cords-per-hour do I need to provide enough profit margin for my business?
  • How will a purchase this large affect my cash flow?

If you’re just getting started in the firewood industry, all these financial questions can seem daunting.  As you grow, you might find you need more processors or higher output…


8. Resale Value


The bigger companies in the firewood processor industry offer trade-in programs for used machines that allow you to upgrade to a bigger processor.  However, the best processors typically have a high residual value, and you may be able to sell your used equipment online.  Either way, durable machines with a long life tend to sell better on the secondary market.


If you think your operation will be growing fast enough to trade in a processor, be sure to do your research before buying your first one.  Make sure the controls and maintenance systems are similar enough between machines so that your operators spend less time re-learning.  Operator proficiency is one of the factors affecting speed, and so processor systems that scale with your operation will be more cost effective.


9. Ease of Use


Ease of use is another big factor in determining the right machine for you.  Most machines today feature electric over hydraulic controls, some of which are user-friendly joysticks.  For someone who’s never operated this kind of equipment before, it may take some time to gain proficiency.  


If you have the chance, test out a model!  Or, if you’re too far from the company’s location, see if they have a dealer or customer nearby who will let you try out a processor.


10. Safety


All firewood processing companies emphasize safety – it’s a necessary part of the equipment, but it often is not a differentiator.  Almost all companies have metal screens, two hand operation, and bullet-proof glass to ensure your safety.


One of the often overlooked safety features is the type of controls.  Fully electric controls (which keep hydraulic lines away from the user) are actually a safety feature, as a hydraulic line burst can be fatal.  Hydraulic fluid is high-temperature and high-pressure, and it can cut and scorch exposed skin in the rare event of a line rupture.  


11. Comfort


Depending on the size of the processor you buy, it may come with a seat or a cab.  Comfort is a big deal if you’re processing all day long.  
Small machines often leave the operator standing as a cost saving measure.  Mid-sized machines may have an outdoor platform, seat, or optional cab to ease the burden on your knees and back.  Large machines often come standard with a cab and have options for A/C or a radio.


These little comforts can make the difference in wanting to process all day, or wanting to quit after a couple of hours.  If you process year-round, those cold winters and hot summers can really make a cab seem like a necessity!


Overall Evaluation


In the end, it’s up to you which machine is best for you.  But here are some final thoughts:

  • Output is a function of speed and time.  Both are important in that equation, and a machine’s durability directly impacts running time.  A higher cords-per-hour only delivers profit over the long run, which requires a machine that’s built to last.
  • Sticker shock is real, but a little bit of calculation can show you if a processor is too big, too small, or just right for your operation.  Remember, it’s an investment that should provide a return.
  • Have a vision for the future.  Make sure the processor you buy will be useful for as long as you need it, or will at least have enough resale value to help you upgrade to a bigger processor.
  • Always consider the operator, whether that’s yourself or an employee.  The best processors will be easy to use, safe, and comfortable.

 

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