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Philly’s firewood suppliers have a tough job, but they love to do it

Sweat streams down Andrew Mays’ face as he hefts a freshly sawed segment of oak onto the back of his firewood processor, stored at his parents’ rural Hammonton house. He guides the log — taller than he is and almost as broad — into a cage-covered chamber, then slices it into squat rounds with a chainsaw. The rounds drop to a platform below, where a mechanical arm rams them against a star-shaped blade, splitting them into six wedges of roughly hewn wood. They travel up a conveyor belt and fall into a heap.

Mays’ work isn’t done yet, not even close: He’s got a delivery to make, so he’ll fill the back of his truck with a half-cord of wood and deliver it to the customer’s house, where he’ll unload and neatly arrange it. He can’t live by a sloppy woodpile. “I got OCD,” he says. “If it looks like a mess, I’m definitely gonna stack it.”

Mays is a South Jersey native, a former heavy-equipment operator in the Army, a new dad, a budding entrepreneur, and a one of the higher-profile local firewood suppliers in the Philadelphia area. He’s gained a social media following by posting about the little-known field of firewood workers. In the three years since he established his Delaware-based business, Amaysing Wood, he’s supplied scores of residential customers as well as the likes of Heavy Metal Sausage, Martha, Dock Street, and bladesmith Steve Pellegrino.

The business of keeping Philly’s fireplaces stoked and wood-fired ovens blazing is a tough one, as one can plainly see after watching Mays break down a few poles. But for wood suppliers, this job is an avocation — a back-breaking side hustle that brings its own rewards.

‘I was going to be losing money’

Supplying firewood is labor- and equipment-intensive. At a minimum, one needs access to wood, a vehicle to haul it, know-how and machinery to break it down, plus time and space to season it. And the price point to make that hard work worthwhile often exceeds customers’ expectations. In short, it’s not an easy industry to succeed in.

“You have all kinds of guys who get into it and try and make it work, and it just fizzles out,” says Phil Stoltzfus, owner of Phil’s Firewood, a 13-year-old company that sells packaged firewood to residential customers and several restaurants in the area, including Sally, Stina Pizzeria, Jake’s and Cooper’s Wine Bar, and Aqimero at the Ritz-Carlton.

Stoltzfus started out much like Mays, delivering wood in his Ford Ranger from Lancaster County. “My parents had a little 20-acre farm out there and I would try to look at Craigslist ads and go get free firewood, split it at my parents’ place, and then bring it to Philly,” he says. “It took me about two months of doing that to realize I was going to be losing money.”

A Temple grad and a lover of fires and firewood — he installed a wood stove in his rowhouse — Stoltzfus transitioned to being a distributor, or “a glorified middleman,” as he calls it. Every year, he works on finding firewood producers, “guys that are doing land-clearing and tree-trimming and tree removals.” His sources are as close as Bensalem and as far as Lebanon County. The wood is split, dried, and ready to burn when it arrives at Stoltzfus’ Northeast Philly woodyard.

To make an otherwise unwieldy load manageable, he started packing wood into IKEA bags. They fit about 1/35th of a cord and range from $15 and $40 a piece, 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 lugging the bags inside.

That 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 nearly every night, so finding a good wood supplier was key. They started asking around soon after they moved.

“Somebody finally said, ‘There’s this guy that will deliver you wood in giant blue IKEA bags, and he will bring them into your house and put them wherever you want,'” says Frauenglass, chief marketing officer for Visit Philadelphia. Each winter he orders five bags for the downstairs fireplace and another five for upstairs. “That was the clincher, because he brings the bags upstairs in our tiny little internal spiral staircase and stacks them up for us — it’s just so amazing.”

‘It’s a moment of reflection’

Last year, Phil’s Firewood sold more than 11,000 bags, well over 300 cords. It’s enough work that Stoltzfus hires a handful of part-time, seasonal employees to pack and make deliveries, but not enough to make a living on. He works full-time for a bioinformatics company.

“It’s very difficult to do firewood as your main gig,” he says, estimating that to do so would require investing in hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.

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

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

Although the work is physically hard, Mays says it’s also therapeutic. “When you’re out here by yourself, it’s a moment of reflection. It’s almost like yoga.”

You’ll hear that 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 morphed into something more for the full-time CPA: Stango started selling wood to others, mostly friends of friends. He took courses in logging and tree-climbing, becoming an insured logging subcontractor. That allowed him to amass enough wood to start supplying a handful of area restaurants, 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 crunch any numbers when it comes to this,” he says. “After being a CPA for almost 20 years, sitting at a desk, I just appreciate being outside in the woods.”

‘A better experience’

Like Mays and Stoltzfus, Stango got into the firewood business in part because he had bought from other suppliers himself and was left wanting. He hears that from customers, too. “You’d just be surprised how many stories you hear about, they got lousy wood and they got taken advantage of,” he says. “That’s been my mantra from the get-go: Just create a better experience.”

Wood from a small-time supplier will be more expensive than a bundle at the Acme, but these entrepreneurs are offering customers better service, education, and — most importantly — higher-quality wood. With properly seasoned hardwood, your fire will burn longer and hotter and need much less maintenance.

That matters for folks like the pizza cooks at Eeva, the hybrid bakery/restaurant in Kensington.

“When you operate a wood-fired oven,” says co-owner and head chef/baker Greg Dunn, “you’re constantly feeding the oven, reading the temperature of the floor, visually reading what the embers look like.” Eeva’s cooks start the fire up at noon and keep it going until close, and wood prep is part of the service. “If there’s downtime, if there’s no food to prepare, then you can chop wood,” Dunn says.

Eeva has sourced air-dried wood from both Amaysing Wood and Phil’s Firewood. There have been times the restaurant’s run out of the good stuff and bought a few bundles elsewhere in a pinch; cheap wood basically goes up in smoke. “A lot of times if you get wood from Home Depot, it’s so dry, it’s often very small,” Dunn says. “We’re asking for specific cuts of wood, the size of the wood. That stuff’s really important.”

For smoked meats, wood quality is even more paramount. Kyle Smith of South Jersey’s Smith Poultry is known for raising pastured poultry and pigs, and for making excellent whole-hog barbecue. When he can, he cooks over smoldering wood coals — ideally oak, a little hickory, and pecan wood. “You put those coals underneath the meat and it gives it another flavor profile that’s just amazing. It can’t 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 about $6. Finazzo says Riverwards customers are happy to find firewood that aligns with their buy-local mentality.

As Smith put it, “Do you see the guy who split the wood at Acme?”

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