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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24 Comments

  1. Leslie
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 9:34 AM | Permalink

    Some details omitted from this otherwise delightful piece have to do with safety and protective gear. Proper (and preferably steel-toe) boots, eye protection and sturdy clothing should always be worn. The activity should take place well clear of windows or anything that might suffer from contact with flying pieces of the log or even the maul itself. One never knows!

  2. Frank Murray
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 10:38 AM | Permalink

    The picture shows every unsafe practice known to a hospital Emergency Department

  3. Pat Moore
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 11:28 AM | Permalink

    I am appaled by the picture of the young lady with the axe – no shoes, no safety gear at all and that is certainly not the way to split a log. This picture shows a complete lack of safety. How would your company feel if you found out someone, dressed the same way because that must be an okay way to dress to chop wood, cut off their foot or a toe or did an injury to any part of their body because of lack of safety gear. Shame on you Kaufmann Mercantile, I expect much, much better of you in the future.

  4. Cass
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 11:42 AM | Permalink

    Oh Pat! Don't worry! We don't endorse barely-clad ladies going out to chop logs in their slippers! It's a famous image by photographer Helmut Newton.

  5. Pat Moore
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 12:29 PM | Permalink

    I understand the artistic element but where is the disclaimer "don't chop wood like this". I am fairly sure that many of your customers when viewing this picture would not get it is artistic, next time a simple line to explain would be nice.

  6. Cass
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 12:42 PM | Permalink

    Sure. I'll add a disclaimer.

  7. Cass
    Posted December 27, 2012 at 12:47 PM | Permalink

    Leslie, thanks! Every time I've split wood, or seen it split, a sharp chunk flies out looking for an eye to blind. Goggles and boots! are mandatory. Thanks for adding.

  8. Posted December 27, 2012 at 11:42 PM | Permalink

    Well, I rather enjoyed this article and its look at the rural tradition of splitting wood. I also agree with the author's point that using a mechanical wood splitter seems to defeat the purpose of splitting, and burning, a renewable resource.

    Growing up, my dad taught me to split wood with a "sledge and wedge." You'd find a crack or fissure into which you'd tap in the wedge, and then one or two well-placed blows with the sledge hammer would easily split your log.

    I think we've lost something by using synthetic logs and gas furnaces to heat our houses. There's something peaceful and honest about cutting, splitting and burning real wood in your fireplace or wood stove.

    Thanks for this article.

    John

  9. Derrick
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:32 AM | Permalink

    If you need a disclaimer to tell you not to chop wood barefoot, you've probably never done manual labor to begin with and should put down the axe and move on.

  10. randall
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 12:46 AM | Permalink

    For a further meditation on splitting wood, see Robert Frost's poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time"

    This is the first stanza to get you hooked:

    Out of the mud two strangers came

    And caught me splitting wood in the yard,

    And one of them put me off my aim

    By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”

    I knew pretty well why he dropped behind

    And let the other go on a way.

    I knew pretty well what he had in mind:

    He wanted to take my job for pay.

  11. Posted December 28, 2012 at 1:46 AM | Permalink

    great article. wild picture by Newton. Def advocate a chopping block though. saves the axe edge too as you arent digging into the ground/stones as you split through.

  12. Ben Zimmerman
    Posted December 31, 2012 at 3:27 AM | Permalink

    "Chop your own wood. It will warm you twice" Henry Ford

    So true.

  13. Maurice
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 10:05 AM | Permalink

    I was going to say something about the young lady with the axe but everything I was going to say has been said and then some. Here, here.

  14. nick s
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 12:42 PM | Permalink

    'Where is the disclaimer?', someone asks. It is this kind of legalistic nonsense that got us to the place where we have "warning: contains nuts" on a bag of nuts. Please, no. I'm pro-block, but only once you reduce your wood past rounds that will sit relatively flat; without a flat surface, you'll find them squirt away and chip any kind of concrete surface.

  15. Cecil
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 10:57 PM | Permalink

    Who ever said that a dull maul worked better never split wood. Plain physics applied.The reduced friction of a sharp point helps drive the business end (the wedge) deeper. Also most mauls are used in conjunction with a sledge hammer to help drive through greener or tougher logs.

  16. Allan
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 12:16 AM | Permalink

    Your section on maul weight has some physics problems. You say that "It’s force that does the job." I'll believe that, but force is not simply a function of the velocity of the maul as you appear to claim.

    Force = Mass * Acceleration. For the purpose of splitting wood, acceleration is basically just the velocity. So the velocity and the mass of the maul are equally important in determining the force generated.

    It sounds to me like you're just not strong enough to swing a 10 pound maul. If reducing the weight by 30% increases your swing velocity by 100% then yes, a 7 pound maul will produce much more force. If you're a 6'6" lumberjack, you might not see any real increase in swing velocity, so then you've just cut the force by 30% for no reason.

    You will always want to use as heavy of a maul as possible while still maintaining proper form and a "full-speed" swing. For you that happens to be a 6-7 pound maul, but you shouldn't recommend that as the best weight for everyone.

  17. Dave
    Posted September 25, 2013 at 2:18 PM | Permalink

    I prefer to chop wood with a stainless steel flask in my back pocket, which clearly helps with my balance and mental stability. I think the sharpest, heaviest maul possible is also my tool of choice. I then get out my pencil, and try to figure out this simple equation: Sunlight hours + temperature (weight of maul + eggs for breakfast/cups of coffee + swigs from the flask) and multiply by (smiles x 215lbs). This produces a result that equals N. N being for "No Way I'm worrying about disclaimers when I'm lucky enough to be chopping a pile of wood". Go out and enjoy the day and take some responsibility for your own happiness. :)

  18. Posted September 26, 2013 at 6:18 AM | Permalink

    Good point, Allan. We tweaked that last line for the mightier axe swingers among you.

  19. Nita
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 1:18 PM | Permalink

    Is it easier to split green wood or dry wood?

  20. Monte
    Posted February 8, 2015 at 5:05 AM | Permalink

    very nice article…. not sure if this is what you meant, but swinging the maul generates far more force when swung from your dominate side i.e. left handed or right handed with your left or right foot placed forward… as opposed to directly over your head and down with feet placed side by side… no leverage is gained in this manner… right foot forward for instance allows you to use power from your more powerful hips and legs especially when you bend slightly at the knees while striking. Thank you for the article is was a good read, I could not imagine why anyone would attempt splitting wood on soft earth, so much energy is lost.

  21. LM
    Posted February 14, 2015 at 4:07 PM | Permalink

    Here is a simple line to explain, Pat. You’re not very bright!

  22. Neil
    Posted May 19, 2015 at 12:10 PM | Permalink

    The equation you give is not the right one for this situation. Force = Mass * Acceleration is about how much force is necessary to impart a given rate of acceleration to a given mass, not the forcefulness of the blow, for which you would also need to know the duration of acceleration in order to determine the velocity upon impact. The variable that chops the wood is the kinetic energy upon impact, which is half the mass times the velocity squared. The fact that the velocity figure is squared shows just how very much the of the impact power is down to speed, not mass.

  23. Maria
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 11:34 AM | Permalink

    It is true that the invent of high-tech hydraulic wood splitters have simplified the way you can cut the huge wooden plank into pieces.
    roombafan.wordpress.com

  24. Patrick Gillen
    Posted June 30, 2015 at 1:12 AM | Permalink

    I’m six feet tall and conspicuously strong yet prefer a six pound maul. Perhaps it’s harmonics. The shock from a fast six pounder splits better than a slower ten pounder and stops without hitting the chopping block.
    I might try an eight pound maul with wetter tougher wood. Some time I’ll try one of those offset splitters.
    If I was stronger, I’d use a longer handle, not a heavier head. Incidentally, if the sides of your ax are convex, it won’t get as stuck in the wood.

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