Philadelphia’s firewood suppliers have a tough job, but they love doing it

Sweat runs down Andrew Mays’ face as he lifts a segment of freshly sawn oak from the back of his firewood processor, stored in his parents’ rural home in Hammonton. He guides the log – taller than he is and almost as wide – into a cage-covered chamber, then cuts it into chunky rounds with a chainsaw. The rounds drop onto a platform below, where a mechanical arm rams them against a star-shaped blade, splitting them into six wedges of roughly hewn wood. They go up a treadmill and fall in a heap.

Mays’ job isn’t done yet, not even close: he has a delivery to make, so he’ll fill the back of his truck with half a cord of wood and deliver it to the customer, where he’ll unload and put away – it carefully. He can’t stand a sloppy pile of wood. “I have OCD,” he says. “If it looks like a mess, I’ll definitely stack it.”

Mays is a South Jersey native, former Army heavy equipment operator, new dad, budding entrepreneur and one of the Philadelphia area’s hottest local firewood suppliers. He made a name for himself on social media by posting about the little-known field of firewood workers. In the three years since founding his Delaware-based company, Amaysing Wood, he has supplied dozens of residential customers as well as the likes of Heavy Metal Sausage, Martha, Dock Street and blacksmith Steve Pellegrino.

Keeping Philly’s chimneys burning and wood-fired ovens burning is a tough job, as can be clearly seen after watching Mays break a few poles. But for wood suppliers, this work is a hobby – a back-breaking side hustle that brings its own rewards.

“I was going to lose money”

The supply of firewood requires a lot of manpower and equipment. At a minimum, you need access to the wood, a vehicle to transport it, the know-how and machinery to break it down, and the time and space to dry it. And the price to make that hard work worthwhile often exceeds customer expectations. In short, it is not an easy industry to succeed.

“You have all kinds of guys getting in there and trying to make it work, and it falls apart,” says Phil Stoltzfus, owner of Phil’s Firewood, a 13-year-old business that sells packaged firewood to residential customers. and at several area restaurants, including Sally’s, Stina Pizzeria, Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar, and Aqimero at the Ritz-Carlton.

Stoltzfus started much like Mays, delivering lumber in his Lancaster County Ford Ranger. “My parents had a little 20-acre farm there and I was trying to look at Craigslist ads and get free firewood, split it at my parents’ house, and then take it to Philadelphia,” he said. “It took me about two months to realize that I was going to lose money.”

A Temple graduate and lover of fires and firewood — he installed a wood-burning stove in his townhouse — Stoltzfus became a distributor, or “a glorified middleman,” as he calls it. Every year, he works to find firewood producers, “guys who do land clearing, pruning and felling of trees”. Its sources are as close as Bensalem and as far away as Lebanon County. The wood is split, dried and ready to burn when it arrives at Stoltzfus’ Northeast Philly lumber yard.

To make an otherwise heavy load manageable, he started packing wood in IKEA bags. They are about 1/35th of a cord and range from $15 to $40 each, depending on the variety. Stoltzfus offers air-dried or kiln-dried wood in oak, cherry or mixed hardwood. Customers can pick up or have it delivered, which includes dragging the bags inside.

This level of service attracted longtime Phil’s Firewood customer Neil Frauenglass, who moved into a house on Elfreth’s Alley in 2015. He and his partner enjoy a fire almost every night, so finding a good wood supplier. They began to inquire shortly after moving.

“Someone finally said, ‘There’s this guy who will deliver wood to you in giant blue IKEA bags, and he’ll bring them into your house and put them wherever you want,'” says Frauenglass, marketing director of Visit Philadelphia. . Every winter, he orders five bags for the fireplace on the ground floor and five more for the floor. “It was the click, because he takes the bags upstairs in our tiny little internal spiral staircase and stacks them for us – it’s so amazing.”

“It’s a moment of reflection”

Last year Phil’s Firewood sold over 11,000 bags, well over 300 lanyards. That’s enough work for Stoltzfus to hire a handful of part-time seasonal workers to pack and deliver, but not enough to make a living. He works full time for a bioinformatics company.

“Making firewood your main job is very difficult,” he says, estimating that it would require investing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment.

Amaysing Wood is a smallholding. Mays supplements his income by working as a mechanic, and he also recently started an event business called Amaysing Promotions. He started Amaysing Wood in 2020 after developing a deep appreciation for wood, sparked by the first time he felled a tree. It has sources in both South Jersey and Delaware, and often barters logs. He splits them himself, then seasons the wood in a makeshift greenhouse.

During a tour of his parents’ Hammonton yard, which he used as a base camp before moving to a larger property in Delaware, he points out the characteristics of several varieties of wood. There’s a lot of oak and pine (“no one wants pine”), maple, poplar, red cedar, cherry (“you’ll smell a flowery smell”), peach, walnut, apple, even a pile of rare Osage orange wood that Mays got from a friend (“it’s one of the hottest woods”).

Although the work is physically challenging, Mays says it’s also therapeutic. “When you’re here alone, it’s a moment of reflection. It’s almost like yoga.

You will hear this sentiment from others in the trade. Berwyn resident James Stango started cutting his own firewood 12 years ago, mainly to heat his home. The hobby turned into something more for the full-time CPA: Stango started selling lumber to others, mostly friends of friends. He took logging and tree climbing courses, becoming an insured forestry subcontractor. This allowed him to amass enough wood to begin supplying a handful of restaurants in the area, including Mike’s BBQ, La Cabra Brewing Smokehouse and Holy Que Smokehouse.

Stango’s business has little profile beyond an Instagram page. He doesn’t do any marketing beyond reaching out to restaurants he thinks he can take on. His wife helps him keep the balance sheet. “I don’t want to do any math when it comes to that,” he says. “After being a CPA for nearly 20 years, sitting at a desk, I just enjoy being outside in the woods.”

“A better experience”

Like Mays and Stoltzfus, Stango got into the firewood business partly because he himself had bought from other suppliers and was being left behind. He also hears it from customers. “You’d just be surprised how many stories you hear about, they’ve had lousy wood and they’ve been exploited,” he says. “It’s been my mantra from the start: just create a better experience.”

Lumber from a small supplier will cost more than a lot at Acme, but these contractors provide customers with better service, better education, and most importantly, better quality lumber. With properly seasoned hardwood, your fire will burn longer and hotter and will require much less maintenance.

That matters to the likes of the pizza makers at Eeva, Kensington’s bakery/restaurant hybrid.

“When you’re using a wood-fired oven,” says co-owner and chef/baker Greg Dunn, “you’re constantly fueling the oven, reading the temperature of the floor, visually reading what the embers are like.” Eeva’s cooks light the fire at noon and keep it going until closing time, and preparing the wood is part of the service. “If there’s downtime, if there’s no food to prepare, then you can chop wood,” Dunn says.

Eeva sourced air-dried wood from Amaysing Wood and Phil’s Firewood. There were times when the restaurant ran out of good stuff and bought a few packs elsewhere in a heartbeat; cheap wood goes up in smoke. “A lot of times if you get wood from Home Depot, it’s so dry that it’s often very small,” Dunn says. “We ask for specific wood cuts, the size of the wood. This stuff is really important.

For smoked meats, the quality of the wood is even more important. Kyle Smith of Smith Poultry in South Jersey is known for raising poultry and hogs on pasture and for making excellent whole hog barbecues. When he can, he cooks over smoldering charcoal – ideally oak, some hickory, and pecan wood. “You put those coals under the meat and it gives it another flavor profile that is just amazing. He cannot be touched.

Smith has known Mays for years. They frequently collaborate on events. He introduced Mays to several contacts in the restaurant industry and to Vincent Finazzo of Riverwards Produce, which sells bags of Amaysing Wood for around $6. Finazzo says Riverwards customers are happy to find firewood that matches their buy-local mentality.

As Smith said, “Do you see the guy who split the wood in Acme?”

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