Lose the chopping block. Forget the hydraulic splitter. Swing like it matters.
I love splitting wood. It exercises your resolve. It sharpens balance and concentration. It’s not complicated. Hit that crack. Hit it hard.
How I’d like to step out of my high rise condominium, go down the elevator and walk across the street to a wood lot where I could engage in exercise that had some point to it. Like splitting wood.
Alas, I live downtown – I mean 48 E. 4th St. downtown – and every flat space within walking distance has cars parked in it.
At times I think I ought to get back into it though, work out a deal whereby I can take a bus out to the burbs and split someone’s wood for them. But it ain’t gonna happen tonight. I can write a tutorial though.
What not to do
If you want to become disgusted with wood splitting – to the point where you never want to try it again – follow these simple steps. Buy a brand-new, sharp axe. Grab the whet stone from your kitchen and make it really sharp. Select a large round of soggy cottonwood weighing say, 90 pounds. Wrestle it up onto a chopping block and turn it so the one, big knot is faced right at you. Smack the axe into the wood hard, but not with any zeal. Save your energy for the second, third and fourth try. Pull out the axe and swing harder and harder until it’s good and stuck. Now get ambitious. Try to free the axe head by yanking and twisting the handle. When the handle breaks, slam it down on the ground and storm off cussing.
Splitting wood was one of my chores as a child, and I hated it, because I’d work and work and never get anywhere. This is not to fault my teacher. The tools he handed me – sledge, axe, chopping block, wedges – these were the state of the art in 1960s Colorado. During the 70s, many ran out to buy the hallowed power wood splitter, the investment that would turn their extended period of unemployment into a “business”.
I sincerely doubted the wisdom of forking out a thousand dollars for the privilege of hauling around a smoky, noisy device that needed its own trailer. What I learned is that it is easier, quicker and cheaper to split wood by hand than it is to use a hydraulic splitter. An accomplished hand-splitter can keep pace with two equally industrious Businesspeople working together on a power machine.
I say power splitters are obnoxious and dangerous. I know, because I’ve used one. I’ve been struck by exploding firewood. I helped pay to have the damn thing fixed when it broke.
Use a maul
A maul is a light-weight, wood-handled splitting tool. One end of the head is flat and broad, like a sledge; the other end tapers down to a bit. Unlike an axe, the bit is not intended for cutting or chipping. It tapers out quickly, so that it begins to spread the wood grain as soon as it makes contact. An axe, by contrast, tapers slowly – more like a knife blade. When used for splitting, and axe will penetrate deep into the wood, spreading the grain relatively little. The axe head will frequently stop before the wood grain “cracks.” Your axe is then stuck.
I am not saying that a maul never gets stuck, but I can say that a properly dulled maul rarely sinks far enough into the wood for that to happen. When you swing a maul, one of two things usually happens. Either the impact is inadequate, in which case the maul bounces on the surface, or the sudden separating force of the wedge sends the wood flying apart with a satisfying “pop.” The bouncing-on-the-top is a minor let down, but it’s nothing like the madness of having your splitter stuck in the wood.
Perhaps now you won’t be surprised to learn that the first thing I do with a new maul is to file it dull. Put on a pair of thick work gloves and run a file straight down the new edge until you can clearly see a blunt strip about 1/32 of an inch wide (as opposed to a truly sharp edge, which is invisible). As I explained before, a sharp edge at the contact point only helps the splitter sink into the wood. On the other hand, the flat surface you’ve created on your contact point will actually land on top of a small amount of wood grain, forcing it downward so that it buckles – directing even more of the force of impact horizontally. Now the chance of getting stuck is reduced even more; either the maul bounces back up or it sails on through.
If the wood is really dense – apple, oak, walnut – you may not want to dull your maul. These grains are hard to get into, and will likely split readily once the edge has penetrated the surface. As a rule though, I would rather not see tight-grained woods split for firewood. Before you cut up these up into rounds, consider sending them to a mill or putting them on a lathe.
There are other more suitable firewoods. Aspen and boxelder make perfectly lousy lumber, and yet they burn clean and hot. Juniper and pinon pine are very aromatic when they burn, and rarely grow large enough to have any other use. Spruce, pine and fir with a gentle twist in their grain will make twisty lumber. Burn them instead.
Choose a maul that isn’t too heavy, because you will be swinging it over and over and over. Added weight is a joke, because it can’t be delivered with any ferocity. The worst maul ever offered for sale was called the Monster Maul: the head was an enormous triangle of steel, welded onto a thick pipe handle that added even more weight. The whole thing weighed a good 15 pounds. You can compensate for the lighter-weight maul by swinging it at a higher rate of speed. A really big maul will just wear you out.
Find and aim for the crack
I won’t dwell on this because it’s pretty straightforward. If you can see even a hint of a crack radiating out from the center of the round, start there. The corresponding no-no is trying to split down the center of a knot. If there is no crack, choose the one place on the round that is furthest from a knot. The shady side of the tree may also be a little softer, so you will have better luck on the crisp sunny side.
Since cracks and knots play such a big role, I recommend you work a lot on your aim. Devote a seemingly unreasonable amount of time to this. Aim as though nothing less than landing right in the crack will do. Close does count for something, but why not go for the splitting equivalent of a ringer?
Avoid round handles. They fit the hands poorly and add unnecessary weight. Instead, go look at the handles used for a full-size double-bit axe: light-weight, flattened on the sides, straight. (I don’t mean the “s” shaped handle many single bit axes are mounted on.) This double-bit axe handle is the same I prefer on a maul. Especially important is the flared end on the handle that gives you a better grip when swinging. In order to use this style of handle, you’ll need to find a maul head that has a slot for the handle, rather than a round hole. The slot allows the handle to be mounted in line with the bit, so that you can feel by the position of your grip that the wedge is coming straight down into the grain.
A round hole has other disadvantages – it only accommodates a small amount of handle wood and there is no taper within the slot itself. Properly used, a maul flys and smashes – and even the best hand-splitting technician occasionally overreaches and brings the handle down on the wood instead of the bit. All of this puts strain on the end of the handle, and will eventually break the bit from the handle. Losing a maul head off your handle in mid-swing is a scary, dangerous thing. Hammering the broken stub of a handle out of the maul head and refitting the handle is real chore I’d like to do only once a season at the most. If the maul bit has a slot, then there will be more handle to break.
A truly well-designed maul head has a slot which is bigger on one end than the other. It’s possible to stick the handle in the big end of the slot and hammer it until the compressed end of the handle sticks out the other side, but DON’T DO THAT. You’d be asking for it to slip right off in mid-swing. Instead, shave the handle carefully until it can just barely be forced through the small end of the slot. Then put the handle on and drive in one big wood wedge to spread it, and then however many metal wedges it takes to make it ridiculously tight. Now, with every swing, the handle will fit the head tighter and tighter. It may some day break off, but it will never slip off.
I keep coming back to the flying maul head for a reason. This having a loose chunk of steel flying somewhere above your head is – well – don’t go there if you can help it.
Another way to put off the day when your handle breaks is to buy the best handle you can find. It should be hickory and absolutely straight. Since the position of your grip on the handle is your guide to whether the bit is coming straight down upon impact, avoid any amount of twist. Also inspect the grain of the wood. If the center grain of that handle doesn’t run all the way from end to end – if it peters out anywhere on the side – it will someday come apart in your hands, and you won’t have time to think about letting go. You’ll hang on to this shattered handle as the maul head pulls half of it out of your grip.
While I don’t mean to make wood splitting sound dangerous, you can get into a whole lot of trouble, and when you do none of it happens slowly. You can and should take the time to examine every handle in every store as though you were selecting a pool cue.
I was once enthralled with a PBS course on karate. It aired twice, and I never missed a lesson.
Here I must digress a moment. I’ve never laid an ungentle hand on anyone. Ask me to and you’ll be disappointed with the results. Anyone who knows how little I know about fighting and still wants to fight me is a coward. If you know I’m not going to hurt you, you’d be a litte man for wanting to fight me. Okay? Alright.
The constructive applications for karate in wood splitting became obvious in short order. Over the years I intermingled a little Zen in the technique, like “Always treat your first attempt like it’s your only attempt.”
Speed compensates for mass. A splitting tool needs to match its power source. A lean person of 300 pounds might in fact have success with a monster maul, but the rest of us (I was 5 feet 7 inches, 135 pounds) needed a more appropriate alternative.
If you’re going for speed, that flare at the base of the axe handle is going to be very important. There will be a lot of force working to pull the handle from your grip, especially as you get into what I’ll describe as the decreasing radius portion of the swing. You’ll need to cultivate a strong grip, but this will come with practice. At the end of the swing, you’ll want to be hanging onto the very end of the handle, and that just wouldn’t be an option if you were dealing with an ordinary round stick. When there’s a flare at the end of the handle, your grip will tighten as the outward inertia increases.
As I said just above, you’re first shot is your best. “Three times is a charm” is not a strategy I care for. A big round of wood will defeat you if you’re faint of heart. And after all, it’s only one round. Assuming you cut up the whole tree, there are going to be a score or so others just like it.
Confronted with a big round of wood, your objective should always be to halve it with one swing.
Swing with attitude, and you will not be disappointed. Down the road you may get a knack for telling which pieces will require less than all your strength, but for starters swing like hell. Have some fun. Swing for the stands. Take what the cowboys call a “round house” swing.
My use of the term “round house” is no accident. You want to swing in a great big circle. Jabs will not impress the wood. Nor can you lift a splitter straight up to the sky and then hope gravity will do the work in a mere distance of 3 or 4 feet. No, for maximum effect, you need to start as far from impact as you can, building momentum at every point along the way. The big-circle technique allows a person of average height to deliver a blow that has traveled 15 to 20 feet before impact.
I go a full four-fifths of a swing with only one hand on the grip. With one hand on the handle the arc of the swing can be greater, adding valuable feet to the distance of the swing. Also, if the weaker arm (in my case the left) is to reach across and be part of the swing from the start, that will require the trunk of your body to twist to the right and then twist to the left with every swing. This twisting movement is unnecessary and tiring. It doesn’t feel natural. I think it also invites strains and repetitive stress.
If at first you prefer to use both hands throughout the swing, then by all means do so. Your grip in one hand may not be strong enough to keep the handle from slipping out as the inertia builds. It may take a while before you develop the balance and eye to keep the crack in mind throughout a one-handed swing. This tutorial can proceed without going into an alternate set of rules that govern a two handed swing. I’m sure I started with both hands and gradually used my left hand less and less. I’m sure others could make that transition also, without any coaching.
The big circle
With one hand, grip firmly just above the knob on the splitter handle. Place the maul bit on the ground at arm’s length in front of you and 18 inches short of the round to be split. Throughout the swing there is little or no brute muscular strain (except for the grip). The objective is a steady increase in the momentum, and achieving the highest speed possible.
Your first pull draws the bit backward along the ground and starts the orbit around your center of gravity. Breathe in as you draw the bit back away from the wood. When the bit first begins to rise from the ground behind you, step forward towards the wood. There are three things going on here. By stepping forward, you are increasing the distance the maul bit travels. By stepping forward you are causing a whip effect that speeds up the bit. Your step also makes a statement: “This is it; I’m coming wood; you’ve had it.”
When your bit leaves the ground and rises behind you, start your exhale. If you must go “heee-yahhhhh” well okay, but breathing out is much more dignified, and says, “No big deal. I split impossibly huge rounds in one blow all the time.”
Put it out of your mind that the biggest of rounds will not split in one blow. Every blow is the one that’s going to send this chunk asunder. If you don’t approach every swing with that attitude, it will take you twenty blows instead of three. Uh, I mean one.
Don’t pull your arm in too much as the maul sails over your head. The step forward has made the swing zip, but you want it to go faster yet. As it’s passing the peak, decrease the circle’s radius again by a slight bend in your knees and waist. Then decrease the radius more by pulling your arm inward. This will test your grip, and now you’ll need your other hand. Pull in enough with your right arm so that your left hand can grip over your right hand. Now pull in with both arms in the last moment.
Only two things matter now. Aim has been a focus ever since you raised your head and looked at the next round. Speed you already have. Braun you don’t need. Grip. At this point, both hands should be needed to keep the handle from slipping out of your grip.
The karate instructor explained that there’s a natural tendency to let up just as you reach the point of impact. To guard against this, he said to aim several inches beyond the point of impact. I adapted this for my purposes, and from then on I swang – yes spell checker, “swang” is as American word – from then on I swang as though the top 4 inches of the wood didn’t exist.
What chopping block?
You’ll notice there’s no mention of a chopping block. I try not to think about why anyone would use a chopping block. I’ve puzzled over it just now, and developed a little question and answer section for the skeptics:
Q: “You don’t want your splitter getting in the dirt, because it might hit rocks and get dull.”
A: A dull splitter works better than a sharp splitter.
Q: “The ground is soft, and a wide chopping block provides a more firm base.”
A: This gets my vote as the most compelling argument for using a chopping block, so I’m giving it three rebuttals.
1) I suppose there are extreme situations where the ground is truly spongy, but such ground would give whether you use a chopping block or not. I’d avoid splitting wood in a bog, and if it means passing up the occasional tree, so be it.
2) 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 chopping block was intended to help you with.
3) If a piece of wood is skinny enough to drive in to the ground, or won’t stand up on its own, you’ve split it enough. If your stove has a teensy little door, get a stove with a more sensible opening.
Q: “The ground is uneven. The pieces fall over too easily. The chopping block is consistently flat.”
A: If the ground is uneven, there are high spots and low spots. Place the wood in one of those places, not in between.
Q: “If you miss the piece of wood, then the splitter will hit the chopping block, instead of hitting your feet.”
A: 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.
Q: “If the piece is small enough, you can sink your axe a couple inches into the grain. Then, with the wood stuck on the bit of your axe, you can bang it up and down several times on the chopping block until you’ve forced the axe through the piece of wood.”
A: As absurd as that sounds, it’s exactly how they do it in the movies. I’m thinking in particular about that schoolmarm in True Grit.
Q: “You need a really solid surface to split kindling on.”
Good point. Before you split the second round of the tree, feel free to use it as a solid surface to split kindling on. This hasn’t been a treatise on splitting kindling though. I was cutting and splitting wood for sale. Making kindling is more of an end user activity.
I half expect someone to challenge me to a race. They’ll split with a power machine, and I split by hand. I would have gladly won that race back when when I was in shape, but it really doesn’t interest me now. I get winded quicker now, and my glasses have robbed me of my depth perception.
Just know that splitting wood by hand is a hoot. There’s no noisy, smoky motor and you only have to lift the wood once (to throw it into the truck).
Best of all you can tell people you split wood by hand. Arrrr. Don’t forget to tell them why.
This is a draft chapter from Hall’s Wood, my memories of cutting wood in my 20s. If you like it, please check out Goodenough Road,3 Cords a Day, Mr. Forget’is Name Who Bought Me Dinner and Why I Won’t Let Myself Run for Office.