Wood Splitting Series, Part 2: Tools

This series will be almost solely about using splitting mauls, with a nod to axes and wedges.  Splitting with a hydraulic splitter v.s. hand tools is discussed in part one, the introduction.  If you are out in the wilderness with an axe, then you need to use that, but the maul is a much better tool for splitting a lot of woods.  An axe is designed to bite deeply and cut across the grain of wood, not to split it apart.  An axe made for chopping is acceptable in some cases, and even good in others, but not purpose made for heavy splitting.  There are splitting axes that are fatter, but they are kind of stuck between two jobs and I’m not sure what the advantages of a splitting axe are over a maul are.  I don’t think I’ve ever used one, so I wouldn’t really know.  They seem like a partial modification of an axe that hasn’t quite evolved all the way into a purpose built splitting tool.  For the wood I end up splitting a lot, I’m sure a splitting axe is more likely to get stuck.  That’s not to say they aren’t useful.  I’m sure it is just contextual.  See this link for a cool example of splitting wood using an axe by Eustace Conway, subject of the book The Last American Man.  This technique would not work very well on a lot of the wood I end up splitting.  Again with the context.


There are a lot of special maul designs out there, most of which I haven’t used.  One that I have used and am not a fan of, is the huge heavy triangle of steel, sometimes called a monster maul.  Yes, it may hit hard from all that weight, but you have to pick it back up and throw it around over and over and over again, while most of that time the extra weight is overkill.  Those monster mauls also have a steel pipe for a handle, which simply sucks.  They transfer more shock to your body.  A tool handle should flex so that it absorbs some of the shock of the blow instead of transferring it all into your body.  Lastly, they never stick.  You’d think that’s a good thing, because you never have to pull them back out, which requires energy.  But when a maul fails to stick and bounces off, I find it very jarring, no matter what type of maul it is, but more so if the handle is a steel pipe.  Your mileage may vary, but if I owned one of those I’m sure it wouldn’t see frequent use.  Maybe that type of maul could come in handy sometimes, but as an only splitting tool, it doesn't make much sense to me.

The Fiskars maul I have was given to me, and I’m not crazy about it, though you will read rave reviews all over the net.  The handle is too short on the small model I have,  which is a total deal killer.  I don’t like the balance or the feel of it all that well anyway.  It is weighted heavily forward so it points down easily, but that makes it awkward to swing around, making it a poor fit for my style of splitting.  It has no eye, so when the plastic handle eventually breaks it can’t be replaced, at which point it’s just a wedge.  It also has a thin bit which is more fragile.  I could see it working really well with a long handle and maybe on not super hard to split wood, but I wouldn't want to abuse that edge too much like I do on my regular maul.

The maul I’m using currently is medium in weight, so it’s not too hard to throw around, though it’s plenty heavy enough to do a lot of work.  The head is just one I grabbed out of my metal scrap pile, where there are several more, probably none of which I paid for.  I’m sure there are improvements that could be made and probably have been.  Out of all the tools I’ve tried, I have still always migrated back to a basic medium weight maul, and lets just say that I’m not highly motivated to look for something better.  This essential design has stood the test of time for a reason.  If I had a bunch of money, sure I’d like to get a slew of different splitting mauls and test them all and figure out what works the best.  Looking for a better design is not motivating though since my basic maul does the job quite adequately.

Standard American splitting maul.  No doubt it could be improved a little, and that even sounds like a fun project I'd like to undertake sometime, but it works well enough that I'm not motivated to throw money out to find a better design.  Aside from the handle, it was free.


I love wood handles and I have made a lot of my own.  Splitting mauls is one place that I’m in favor of fiberglass handles though.  Wood handles on a splitting maul are very vulnerable.  The main enemy of wooden handles is hitting them on the piece of wood you're splitting.  Eventually they become splintered and break.  They at least need a rubber bumper or some kind of guard, or to have rawhide shrunk on at the neck.  Another heavy stress on them is pulling them out of the wood when they stick.  With a fiberglass handle, I don’t even have to be careful, which makes splitting much more efficient.  The handles come with epoxy.  If the head ever comes loose, just use any epoxy to fix it.  There are lots of splitting maul heads floating around out there on which someone busted a wooden handle and never replaced it.  I have a pile of them.  If I lost the one I’m using now, I’d just go grab another one out of my stash and buy a fiberglass handle for it.  I do prefer the feel of a wooden handle and, if anything, my fiberglass handle is a little too flexible rather than the other way around.  The advantages of wood in feel, and even function, still don’t outweigh the remarkable durability of fiberglass though.  If I need or want to, I can always revert to wood, but my splitting efficiency would go way down.  I would have to be much, much more careful about how I use the tool, and spend more time knocking the maul out of the wood when it sticks rather than just yanking it out.


In my considerable opinion, a maul bit should not be too thin.  If it is too acute, like an axe, it will be more likely to stick in the wood and require some screwing around to pull it back out.  It will also be more fragile.  I like to split at ground level for convenience most of the time, so my maul edge is getting slammed into the dirt and gravel of the driveway over and over.  A relatively acute edge is not going to hold up to that kind of abuse and will dull more quickly.  It may even chip.  This is a compromise and I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what the best compromise is in terms of an angle.  I rarely measure the angle of any edge when I’m sharpening.  If you are sticking the maul deep into the wood frequently, and having to wriggle it out, think about using a maul with a more blunt shape.  It will stick sometimes, and almost any maul will stick in very spongy, soft, wet wood, but in most cases, when the maul sticks, it should not stick too deep and it should be relatively easy to unstick most of the time.  If it’s sticking deeply over and over, you are wasting a lot of energy pulling it back out and should think about a more obtuse tool.  To me, there is a compromise between a tool that always bounces off and one that almost always sticks.  A tool that bounces off occasionally and sticks occasionally, but does neither too often, or too extremely, is the compromise embodied in many of the standard splitting mauls I’ve used.


And lets talk about sharpness of the edge for a second.  The edge of of a maul doesn’t need a fine grind.  It just doesn’t make that much difference.  Yes, there is a point where it is too blunt and time to dress it back up, but it’s not a cutting tool.  It’s a splitting tool.  It has to be sharp enough to easily start the split, but after that the edge is not even touching the wood.  The wood is wedged apart by the sides of the maul once the split is started.


Wedges.  I don’t use wedges very often.  In fact, if I own any, I’m not sure where they are.  If I wedges to split a long log or something, I just make some out of whatever wood is handy.  Or, if I'm splitting something small, I use an axe or hatchet and pound on the back with a wooden mallet.  I find that with good technique and strategy, I can split most pieces of firewood without a wedge.  If a piece of wood is so hard to split that I have to bust out a wedge, I’m more likely to toss it in a pile to burn in a bonfire at a party, or sometimes I toss them in a gully for erosion control.  I just don’t get excited about using wedges either.  It’s not as fun as splitting wood with a maul.   Part of that is that I'm impatient.  Using a wedge is also loud enough that you should wear earplugs, just another thing to have on hand and have to deal with.  Still, wedges are really remarkably effective and are great to have around when you encounter something really tough.  They’re also going to be handy until your technique develops, or if you don’t have that much wood and have to split every piece.  They are also good for people who are just not strong enough or experienced enough to power through more difficult splits, especially in tall firewood rounds.  You can use an old axe head, but don’t use it if it’s a nice one.  The back will mushroom and the eye may eventually bend out of shape.  you’ll find axes like that all the time.  It’s almost uncommon to find one that is not beaten up at least a little on the poll (back).  most of them are still salvageable, but eventually they will be completely ruined if that kind of abuse is kept up.  So, if it’s a nice head, save it for someone to use as an axe someday.  Axes are actually cool again now, reflected by ebay prices.  The shape of an axe isn’t ideal for splitting firewood anyway.  Typically a fatter wedge will work better, again depending on the wood.


Wood splitting is dangerous, though not nearly as dangerous as using a sharp axe for chopping.  Be aware that as you beat on a metal wedge or old axe head with a metal sledge, or the back of your maul, it will begin to mushroom.  Eventually, these bits of metal will bust off and go flying.  Seriously, they can really zing off of there like a bullet.  You should grind them off occasionally, and of course you should wear safety goggles.  Personally, I choose not to wear eye protection when splitting wood, but when I’m pounding on a mushroomed axe or wedge head, I always wear goggles.  The mushroomed metal should be ground off every once in a while.  It is also quite possible to send chips of wood flying into your face when splitting with a maul, but not commonly enough to make me wear googles.  No doubt there is a risk though.  These are personal choices.  A maul may be dull, but it can be used to hurt yourself with its weight and momentum, so watch where that tool is going to swing if you miss or follow all the way through the split.


So to sum up, if you use a very heavy maul which is overkill for most of the wood that you split, you will be using a lot of extra energy unnecessarily by picking it up and throwing it around over and over again.  My experience splitting wood year after year has led me in the direction of a pretty standard medium weight maul as the sweet spot for general use, although that may be largely specific to my circumstances.  It is heavy enough to blast through some hard splits with good technique and repeated blows, but not so heavy as to be too burdensome most of the time.  Regardless of anything else, I can say from experience that the medium weight maul, used strategically and with skill is a good workhorse.  If you need to or want to use a gigantic heavy maul, reserve it for really heavy splitting.  If you do most, or all of your splitting with a medium weight maul, it will make you good at splitting wood, because you’ll have to be on your game when you split difficult pieces.  It is also blunt enough not to get stuck very often, but not so blunt as to bounce off and shock your arms, though both will happen occasionally, which just proves my point that it’s in the middle of those two extremes.


There is no reason to adopt my opinion as yours.  In fact there are plenty of reasons not to.  Be open to whatever comes along that works.  That’s what it’s about after all.  What works for me may not work for you.  I’m not conservative about this stuff at all.  I like trying new tools if just out of curiosity.  I think a 6 pound maul with a fiberglass handle is a good starting place, but it may even be overkill if you are splitting straight grained soft woods most of the time.  


Finally, there are always these videos of new splitting maul designs and various gimmicky wood splitting techniques and devices floating around on facebook and on forums.  I doubt any of them are a huge improvement over a good standard design.  Any advantage is good, but they won’t make up for a total lack of skill and understanding of strategy, or do the work for you.  In the next installment we’ll look at how to use the maul, and after that at the nature and composition of wood and strategies for tackling various situations.


I'd love to hear your comments about what works for you.

Posted on October 18, 2015 and filed under tools, firewood, Homesteading.