Split Wood

Cutting wood in a Helmut Newton photograph, 1978.

Swing like you mean it. (Image by Helmut Newton, 1978.)

How I dream of walking down the stairs from the apartment building where I live, and into a wooded backyard for some good quality exercise with a purpose. Alas, I live in Brooklyn, and everywhere a car is taking up the place of a tree, and there are no well-padded spots tucked down near the edge of the woods where lumber piles are waiting to be turned into firewood.

I didn’t used to feel that way about splitting wood. A person is not just born loving (and yearning!) to mutilate logs, nor do they just know the proper way to do it. They have to learn, by first becoming disgusted with it.

My first experience chopping wood was awful. The backbreaking struggle to remove my axe from the stump in which I had naively embedded it, the frustration of breaking the axe handle as I twisted and pulled. In the end I threw up my hands, storming off cussing.

Now I love splitting wood. It’s not complicated. It sharpens the mind.  It’s one of the most meditative, satisfying procedures I’ve ever done. Much more so than turning on a clicker to produce a gas fire, or feeding wood into a hydraulic splitter, a contradictory method anyway, of using fossil fuel to process renewable fuel.

How I came to learn about splitting wood is thanks to a father who insisted that a young girl should grow up knowing how to do manual labor.  In this way, I will share a few things I learned from a lifetime of watching my father split wood, and then finally, from a few years of handling the maul myself.

Bits of an Axe

Axes broken down by region. (Image by Seth Smith)

Axe vs. Maul

One of the first things I learned about splitting wood (in spite, or because of, my own first attempt) was the difference between an axe and a maul. An axe is extremely sharp, and therefore a hindrance, unless, of course, a person is collecting kindling, which we never did. At our house growing up there were only massive logs, cut from the hundred year old locust and maple trees constantly falling down in the backyard. Unlike an axe’s sharp square blade, better for chopping down a tree or cutting thin branches, the wedge of the maul was meant for splitting. Its design placed outward pressure on the wood, which after a few heavy hits allowed the wood to burst apart.

There are all levels of experts who say a maul’s value is in how much it weighs. But it’s all about velocity, how fast you can bring it down. When splitting wood you are not sawing it or cutting it, but smacking it so it splits open (this is why people say a dull splitter works better than a sharp splitter). When on the downswing, the maul should hit the wood with as much speed as possible. It’s force that does the job. So a 10 pound maul is less desirable than, say, a six or seven pound maul – unless you can really swing that 10 pounder with ease.

Where to Hit

Before you hit the wood, it’s a good idea to check the round for splits and cracks. If the wood already has weak spots, it’s smart to make one of them your target. Avoid hitting knots, which are gnarled spots in the wood where the grain runs irregularly. Knots will be very hard to break apart, and will take all your energy when they could just be avoided.

The best blow will always be delivered near the edge of the round, not the center. Closer to the bark of the tree, the growth rings are wider and more vulnerable, and will be easier to work apart.  You should always turn the piece of wood upside down from the way it grew. I was always told, for example, if you have a Y-shaped log, where a branch started to fork out, it should be chopped with the Y side down.

Using the Maul

Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, and wearing protective eye goggles, raise the maul high above your head so it’s vertical with the rest of your body. Up on tiptoes, you are positioned to lay down the most velocity. Move the hand closest to the maul head back so it rests next to the one holding the butt of the handle. When someone splits wood as a beginner, and until they get really good, they should always use two hands and hold them together so the handle doesn’t slip.

The next thing is to lock your eyes on the place where you want that maul to hit, and as you bring the blade down don’t take your eyes off the spot. It’s a lot like karate, or bowling. You have to visualize the follow-through. Bend at the waist and bring the maul down over your head. The whole way down, envision that blade hitting the target.

Splitting wood can be back-breaking work. And I’ve learned there’s nothing more wasteful than slamming down the maul with less than your full strength. If you do, you’ll never split the log, and will waste all your energy meanwhile. Rest, rest, rest between swings if you cannot muster full power. If you feel tired, winded and weak, but continue to swing, you will change grip, which will produce a large change at the striking edge of the maul. It’s better to put the maul down, then hit the same spot again when you’re ready.

A wood splitting log is an essential companion when you're cutting wood. (Image courtesy Mr. Bloo via Flickr)

An essential companion: the splitting log. (Image courtesy Mr. Bloo via Flickr)

Chopping Block Or Not

Some splitting savants, like Ron Hall, lifelong wood chopper, insist on chopping wood without a block. “By eliminating the block, you gain a foot or two in swinging distance. The speed of your swing increases gradually at first; rapidly near the end. The speed gained in the last 18 inches will more than compensate for the absence of a block.”

Splitters who rely on the wood block say it offers just the right ratio of give and resistance. If you take your logs down in the yard instead, for instance, and try to split them without a block, you’ll just sink your log down into the yard, basically pounding the round into the earth with every blow. Split it on cement, without a stump, and you’ll jar your spine every time the maul lands. With a stump, the maul has some give that won’t kill your spine or bust up the surface you’re splitting on. Plus, it seems to provide a safety net that allows a splitter to never fear for their feet. But Hall rebuts this claim:

“I don’t know how you could hit your feet splitting wood. I never have had any such problem swinging at wood sitting on the ground in front of me. On the other hand, I would be nervous about swinging at something that’s up in the air in front of me, but to create such a hazard, I’d need to use a chopping block.”

Vermont Life magazine, Wood Splitting

Wood splitting the Vermont Life way. (Image by Richard W. Brown)

The Woodpile

Whatever kind of wood you split and burn, hard or soft, it doesn’t matter a whit unless it’s seasoned. Most all firewood splitters know this. For non-splitters: Splitting wood isn’t as simple as bringing it in and making a fire. Oh no. It’s got to sit. Like a fine wine, down in the veritable cellar, a piece of wood that will burn hot and clean has got to sit six months, depending on what kind of wood it is. Oak? A year at least!

As for the woodpile itself, pick a dry location to stack. It’s swell if you have a cement-floored patio with a roof. The cement will keep the bottom layer of wood from growing mold, and the roof will keep the snow and rain off.

If you must stack your wood in the yard, build a foundation layer with already-rotting wood that you can stand to sacrifice. Then make sure the wood is kept somewhere where air and sun can dry it thoroughly, with appropriate covering (a good tarp will do).

There are myriad ways to stack wood. If you build two cords together, always remember to pull wood evenly from both sides so neither end will topple. Here is an experiment with different styles of stacking wood that may be useful.

To the uninformed, there may not seem much to cutting up a few pieces of wood for the fire, but hopefully this article has proved just the opposite, and provided some awareness of the strength and endurance necessary for keeping a wood fire burning the old-fashioned way; a strength which few of us possess, mostly from lack of opportunity.

What are your tips and tricks for wood-splitting?  Wood stacking? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

 

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