The smell of campfire hangs in the air above the axman—30-year-old Brooklynite Alex Hiller. With a lot of forethought, he wields an 8-pound maul through timber.
“I need this tank top to keep my arms unencumbered, I need this bandana to keep the sweat out of my eyes, I need these boots to protect my toes from falling timber, but I should be wearing long pants,” he says. “Most of all, I need these gloves to protect my hands from the ax, but fingerless so I can feel the strength and character of the wood.”
With the crack of the log, Hiller switches to a smaller ax to continue breaking down the piece he’s working with—he has five different axes and mauls of different weights to negotiate the different hardwoods: oak, maple cherry, ash, and beech. He chops wood day in and day out at a pizza restaurant in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. It’s his only job.
“I try to use the wood like Native Americans used buffalo,” Hiller says. His thick black glasses are Croakied to his head. “Not even the smallest piece goes wasted.”
Hiller opens a barrel, lifts out wood particles and pieces of kindling, and lets them run through his fingers. Near the burning hot wood-fired oven, under the shadow of loft-converted factories, we’re miles from the nearest woodland. In a metropolis where technological advancements pass by the day, a nearly invisible industry relies on one of mankind’s oldest: firewood.
“The thing about wood is that it’s a very primitive industry. The more you process it, the more expensive it becomes,” Adam Rubin, co-owner of a Bronx-based firewood brokerage, says. Once a week, his company, The Woodman, delivers two face cords—a $325 quantity of cleaved logs in 4-foot-by-8-foot stacks—to Hiller’s place of employment (a pizza restaurant). “It's not economical to use wood for anything,” Rubin says. “The price is probably higher than gas or oil.”
His customers in New York City are made up entirely of hotels with wood-burning lobby fireplaces, restaurants with wood-burning ovens, and large homes with the space for a fireplace. It’s an utterly aesthetic fuel, used for taste, smell, and ambiance only. One website for a Pennsylvania-based firewood producer refers even to how the wood looks in its unburned form, referring to its “shelf presentation.” In the city, wood is not a fuel for shelter or safety. It’s a fuel of comfort.
“Wood is plentiful as fuel out of the city,” Rubin says. “But in the city, it's a specialized commodity that has to be brought in from a great distance.”
For Rubin and his co-owner, Ted Whitehead, a set of legal restrictions on wood crossing state lines helps drive business; they’re the middlemen. You see, it’s illegal to bring untreated firewood into New York state. “Untreated,” in this case, refers to firewood that has not been heat-treated. In 2009, the Department of Environmental Conservation passed a firewood ordinance aimed at eliminating wood-borne invasive species, specifically the emerald ash borer and the Asian long-horned beetle.
Firewood is tracked down to “source documentation,” which producers must provide to purchasers. If you have firewood in the state, you have to have the source documentation. It can’t be moved more than 50 miles away from its source, unless it is heat-treated. The New York State standard is heating the wood to 160 degrees for 75 minutes, and labeling it as "New York Approved Treated Firewood/Pest-Free" by the producer. The Woodman keeps track of all of this, on behalf of its customer.
Rubin wouldn’t divulge the specifics of his supplier, on the grounds of compromising his business model. But his 8-year-old company could choose from a handful of lumber kilns within hours of the city.
“It’s five bucks a bag,” says a representative from Gish Logging, an eastern Pennsylvania-based firewood producer. They make a 0.75 cubic foot bag of firewood blazing with a Hotsticks logo. “In this neck of the woods you can buy it at Turkey Hills and gas stations like that,” the rep says.
To dry wood, Gish uses wood boilers. Though the company imports its wood from a timber supplier, they cut and process it. Collecting the sawdust—which they also buy by the tractor-trailer load—Gish uses the runoff to fuel the very heaters that reduce the moisture in the firewood.
The environmental cost to cure the wood is small, though the carbon footprint is high. The regulations in New York state, which demands the wood be moved, increase that impact. Likely, The Woodman taps the facilities of a much larger, more-specialized operation like Loyalsock Firewood in Montoursville. Instead of the minimum New York state standard of kiln drying at 165 degrees, it stacks its wood in 215-degree ovens for 30 to 60 hours. The company says this produces wood that ignites easier and burns cleaner, with less creosote and ash.
“It’s so arbitrary,” Hiller says, “Why not just use coal? Why not use a machine to cut the wood? You’d need someone to feed the wood into the machine. And someone to retrieve the wood from the processed end of it. And the machine would take up room and be noisy. You may as well have someone with the sensitivity to chop this wood properly anyway.”
Hiller’s referring to the temperature sensitivity of the wood-fired Napolitano pizza ovens, two of which burn all day at the restaurant he works for. This style of woodfire cooking is prone to sudden fluctuations in temperature due to the subtleties and different sizes of wood. In the summer, when business is bigger, Hiller estimates the chefs use about nine barrels of wood a day. He says he can chop about three an hour, and two face cords translates to 36 barrels. Hiller himself has met one other person who shares his profession, a woodchopper for a barbecue smokehouse in Red Hook, a south Brooklyn neighborhood.
“We geeked out over axes,” he says. “It’s kind of a rare job to have.”