Driving a wedge with a sledgehammer may be needed for splitting some logs or "rounds."
Photo by Dan Armitage
The coldest months of the season are just around the corner, and you’re going to want a cache of easy-burning fuel to keep the cabin snug. Trouble is, a stack of freshly split firewood has to dry and season for a year before you can burn it efficiently and without creosote buildup in your chimney. So now is the perfect time to prepare those trees you took down this year for next year’s firewood. Split and stack and you’re on the way to providing your own source of warmth for next year.
The First Step
The first step is to cut the felled tree into lengths, or “rounds,” that are short enough to fit into your woodstove or fireplace (12-16 inches is the norm).
Now comes the fun part: splitting the wood into pieces that will dry and season well, so they’ll catch fire easily and burn more efficiently next year.
That pile of rounds isn’t going to split itself, and greener wood splits easier, so the sooner you get to the task, the better. To take full advantage of the old adage about self-split wood warming you twice, you’ll need some woodsmans’ tools and elbow grease. You can either rent or purchase a log-splitter, or to split that wood manually, you’ll need three tools:
- Axe or maul
Either way, you should also don protective eyewear, gloves, long pants and leather boots. The plaid wool shirt is optional, but it certainly finishes the lumberjack look. Now, let’s split some wood.
Going to the Maul
If you’re lucky and have freesplitting wood, you’ll only need the maul, which is really a combination of all three tools. A wood splitter’s maul combines the cutting edge of an axe that thickens into the shape of a wedge, which lends it the weight of a sledgehammer. They come in a variety of weights from 6 pounds and up, but a lighter maul can be swung faster and easier.
It’s also helpful to have a splitting block upon which to tackle the mauling. You can use a stump or a large-diameter round, either of which will provide you with a raised, solid, level base to support each log on end while it is being split.
You can split logs set on the ground, but if the ground is even the slightest bit soft, it will absorb a lot of the impact of each blow – making the job much harder.
Follow these eight steps for some lickety-splits that won’t leave you with anchors for arms. The shorter the log or “round” the easier it is to split. So are those free of knots. Start with the shorter, knotfree rounds until you get in the swing of things. Place the log’s bigger end down on the block. Most logs split easier when impacted against the direction in which they grew. Practice your swing by placing the maul on the point of impact while holding the handle in both hands and setting your legs shoulder-distance apart. Raise it slowly over the shoulder on the side of your dominate hand and bring it down in a controlled swing to make sure you are the proper distance from the log.
Look for splits or “checks” that may have already started to occur along weak areas across the grain. Concentrate your first blows with the maul on these pre-existing cracks to take advantage of the weakness.
If the grain is clear of cracks, concentrate your initial impact on the edge of the round, not the center. That will allow your blows to land at more of a right angle to the growth rings where they are most vulnerable to cracking. Work your way across the log end as you see and hear the crack widen.
Don’t hold back on the blows; make each one count. Half-hearted swings won’t split the log and will only tire you out.
If all goes right, the log will split with the first blow. If more than a few swings still can’t get the job done, it’s time to employ the wedge.
Insert the wedge in the split and drive it down with smooth, steady blows from the sledgehammer until the pieces separate.
Depending on the diameter of the log you had to start with, and how small you want your pieces to be, you can keep splitting the splits. At some point the pieces will get small enough that you will have trouble getting them to stand on end. That’s your cue for moving on to the next round. Don’t be tempted to try to hold a piece of wood with one hand and split it with singlehanded chops with the other or you just may end up single-handed yourself.
Dan Armitage is a frequent contributor to Cabin Life and a riverside cabin owner from Ohio who is too frugal to buy firewood.