Wood Splitting Series: Part 1, Introduction

This is the first post and video in a series on splitting wood by hand with a maul.  It is also sort of an experiment in posting blog posts and videos of the same material at the same time.  I know some people like to read and some people like to watch.  I often have at least a rough script of my video content already, so it's not too horribly time consuming to polish that up into a post.  It is more work though.  I'd appreciate, and actually always appreciate, feedback on how my content and approach works for you.  As much as I'm narcissistic and think I know what everyone should want, I do want to adapt to, and serve, my readers.  Every writer should try to do so to a great extent, especially in the realm of how-to information.

The other reason I'm tempted to do both posts and videos of the same content is for the benefit of the few people who will actually have the interest, time to take advantage of both.  Repetition is one of the keys to learning, but repetition in different forms is probably that much better.  In this case, I think the video trumps the written word, and that is probably true in many cases, but both must surely always trump either alone.

Splitting your own wood is not always convenient, and it can occasionally be difficult and frustrating, but as an overall experience, I love that I do it, and also just love actually doing it and look forward to putting in the firewood every year.  I was thinking last year about doing a video on splitting firewood, but I figured it was probably already pretty well covered on Youtube.  When I looked around at what is out there though, I didn’t really see what I’d like to present on the subject, and if it’s there at all, it’s not in one place that I’ve been able to find.  A lot of the videos deal with a specific type of tool or gimmick, or they don’t talk much about technique and strategy, which are a huge part of the game.  Splitting wood efficiently with a simple maul is a deeper subject than it might appear to be when observing it from the outside.  Force is certainly required, but brute force coupled with poor technique and/or poor strategy, or just plain inefficiency, is going to wear your ass out and do squat toward filling your wood shed.  Hard work just isn’t enough as anyone who just starts randomly flailing away at a challenging chunk of wood with a maul will find out soon enough.  A person can waste tremendous amounts of energy trying to split wood and hardly get anywhere at all.  If we understand the problem and work on combining a few factors, we can certainly do better than if a person were to just stand there like an ape wailing away at the stuff, which is how most people start out!  I know I did.  This article, and my video series, are basically a fast-track to more efficient splitting.

This post and the accompanying video series is going to be relatively long, but from what I’ve seen the video may very well be the most comprehensive and ultimately useful offering currently available on youtube about splitting wood by hand.  If you are already very experienced I imagine it will be mostly redundant, or maybe all redundant.  If you are a newbie or only have moderate experience, I think it will probably be worth your while to watch or read the whole thing, or preferably both.  If I can increase your efficiency in wood splitting just a little bit, it will have been a good investment and will pay back that time spent pretty fast.  No one taught me to split wood.  I just started and gradually came to understand the problem.  As is so often the case, things that seem self evident now, took time to sink in.  But the problem is not difficult to understand, and with some pictures, videos and diagrams, I feel confident that I can transmit a pretty good understanding quickly.

So, this will just be my take on splitting wood as I see it at this point in time in my personal evolution.  My experience is considerable, but still moderate compared to some people.  I live in a fairly mild climate, so, even though I have been a wood burner for many years and almost always split all the year’s firewood, I still only have to split so much of it.  On the other hand, I have split my way through miles of the stuff over many years, and often have to split pretty challenging wood, because the nature of wood where I live is often not super uniform or easy splitting.  There are some videos that go around facebook and forums of people splitting wood really fast, often with some new kind of tool, or device.  But the wood is always easily split straight grained softwood.  That’s not the kind of wood a lot of us are often splitting.  So, my credentials are reasonable, but I’m sure I have new stuff to learn too and would love to hear your personal experience in the comments section.  I’m always interested in how people split wood and the tools they prefer.

   California wood is often hard and gnarly

California wood is often hard and gnarly

So, why split wood by hand?  I’m often in favor of elegant low tech solutions.  A hydraulic splitter is not that.  It’s a complicated machine relative to a simple hand tool like a splitting maul.  It is expensive, bulky, not very transportable, dangerous, noisy and consumes a lot of non-renewable resources.  A maul is long lasting, transportable, quiet, cheap and uses the very renewable and extremely efficient resources of food energy and your body.  The efficiency of the human body in terms of heat calories consumed will tear any combustion engine a new one.  Armed with knowledge and skill, this simple piece of metal on the end of a stick can do a lot of work consuming only your time and the food energy you put into your body.  As a by-product, you should become more skilled, have a more intimate understanding of the material you’re working with, better overall hand eye coordination, and it should ultimately be able to make you stronger and healthier, very little of which you’ll get out of a wood splitter.

Eat-Split-Repeat.  The human body is incredibly efficient.  I can split a lot of firewood on that gallon of OJ.  nah nah NAH nah nah na!, when I was a young boy, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, about the age of five, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, my mama said, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, I'd be the best wood splitter alive, nah nah NAH nah nah na! now I'm a man, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, way past twenty one, nah nah NAH nah nah na, and you know splittin' wood, nah nah NAH nah nah na, is a whole lotta fun!, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, cause I'm bad!, nah nah NAH nah nah na, b-b-b-b-bad!, nah nah NAH nah nah na!, bad to the bone, nah nah NAH nah nah na!  :)

I’ve used wood splitters and they are great in a way, but I enjoy splitting wood by hand.  When I’m warmed up, I’m good at it, and so it’s sort of like playing a sport or doing anything that you’re good at.  There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from that.  You can really see the results pile up too and it’s always a good feeling to know that you are taking care of your own needs.  Wood splitters are pretty expensive, and an effective way to lose a finger, or two.  I’m also not crazy about working so much close to the ground, or if the splitter is higher, lifting all the wood high enough to get it on the splitter.  Some hydraulic splitters also basically require, or are better used with, two people.  They have their place and I understand that some people won’t be able to split their wood by hand, but the day I give up my maul for a splitter will be a sad day, and I’m not going out easy.

First off, lets get something straight.  what we are doing here is splitting, not chopping.  Those two terms are often confused, but they are not the same and it’s an important distinction.  Chopping is cutting, or slicing, across wood across the grain.  Splitting is dividing the wood fibers apart with the grain.  Think of a piece of wood as long strands of wood glued together into a bundle with weak glue (maybe not totally accurate, but for purposes of discussion it works).  We’re splitting the bundle apart along the fibers.  In chopping we would be cutting through the bundled fibers from the side.  So don’t say, “I’m off to chop some wood” when you are going to split wood.  If you actually chop your own wood, you are a total bad ass and everyone should have mad respect for those people, which is a camp populated by almost no one, and for good reason.  The rest of us are cutting and splitting the year’s firewood.

  Splitting v.s. Chopping, an importnat distinction

Splitting v.s. Chopping, an importnat distinction

So, lets look at the factors involved.  The way I figure it, there are four main things we can sort of divide up and look at.  The wood, the tools, the strategy and the technique.  

There are a variety of tools that can be used to split wood, but having a decent tool is critical.

The Wood will vary in form, size, character, splitability, green v.s. wet and so on

Technique is basically where you and your expended energy meet the tool and how you apply that to the wood round to good effect.

Finally, strategy is how you approach the various splits in the log taking into account it’s form and character.  Mostly, where you hit and in what order.

Next in the series will be a discussion of tools.

Posted on October 9, 2015 .