Posts tagged #splitting firewood

Splitting Axe Cut Wood With a Sharp Felling Axe, Safety and Effectiveness

The first video is a short trailer or propaganda piece to promote the second video.  Below are a few non-technical points I wanted to elaborate on.

I just have a few points I want to emphasize or elaborate on.  I made this video in response to a lot of questions from people about how to deal with wood that is bucked with an axe, since it can't be set on end, or on a block.  Also, because of how I'm operating with one axe, I assumed that it would be a small short axe and that it was intended to retain the edge in chopping condition.  That wasn't so much a plan as it was just how it turned out since that's my world right now.  It is not the only way to approach it.  You could, and most probably do, have a dedicated splitting axe, or maybe a splitting edge on one side of a double bitted axe that can taste a little dirt here and there without much worry, especially if it's ground with a fat bevel that is less likely to suffer severe damage than a thinly ground edge.  A longer heavier axe with a fatter grind is great, as is not having to baby it.  However, using a small, short axe and keeping it sharp requires one to refine technique and strategy, and I think that is a good thing.  I'm also very interested in making whatever tool I have work, and in processing wood with one axe.  You'll hardly find anyone out there recommending an axe ground for felling, limbing and bucking as a splitting axe.  Probably the opposite in fact.

One of the important points in this video is that it requires some investment to figure out what is possible.  Many will discount the possibility of using axes, but not always out of experience, but rather assumption.  I've been guilty of this to an extent myself and it's a mistake.  I personally think that it's worth some investment to figure out what is possible and where an axe is more advantageous than a maul.  I really like splitting with a maul and with some of the stuff I have to split, like dry hardwoods with knots and forks, I'm not likely to ditch my maul altogether.  But, I will keep pushing my limits with axes of various kinds to find out what those limits really are. 

It is not enough to just just smack a few rounds with an axe to see if anything falls off.  It takes some investment in yourself to develop good technique and at least a basic understanding of strategy as presented in these videos.  The flick technique, as Buckin' Billy Ray Smith calls it, or the twist as the Vido's call it, is essential to develop for splitting anything difficult with an axe.  It is just a way to use the power generated in the swing to good mechanical advantage by prying the wood apart on impact instead of just wedging it apart with the shape of the axe.  It can make up for the lower mass of an axe head v.s. a maul in some cases.  I believe that Tom Clark, inventor of the buster axe, an axe optimized for this technique, actually hit the wood with the head tilted at a slight angle.  I think I twist it on impact, but it's hard to know for sure without a slow mo study.  Either way, you'll develop a feel for what works.  It is a skill that has to be learned by some time spent as it's rather clumsy at first to get the timing right. If you have a very sharp short handled axe that you are trying to stay out of the way of, which often requires somewhat awkward positioning, and on top of all that are trying to hit the center of a knotty piece of wood within a quarter inch, you can imagine that some time will have to be put in to gain a reasonable level of skill.  The catch 22 is that it's only by gaining a certain level of proficiency that we can find out what is really possible and not.

The flick technique can be used as an alternative to generating velocity in splitting at times, but should not be thought of as a permanent stand in for it.  The ability to generate a high velocity is a critical tool to have and will only complement that sideways torque when both are needed.  I didn't go much into it, but will in the future.  From my observation and experience so far, high velocity is primarily created by the axe head scribing an arc around a relatively fixed, or at least more fixed, point, like the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist, or a complex combination of all of those.  it is a complex topic.  With the target at a certain height, it becomes less possible to generate velocity, and the higher you go from there, the harder it gets.  That is one reason I don't use splitting blocks much.  Working close to the ground has the advantage that it is easier to generate velocity, because you have more distance in the swing and can use body mechanics to better advantage.

For me, doing the axe cordwood challenge, in the way I approach it, has been perfect for developing these skills.  I stick pretty much with the axe I'm chopping with, which for now is always small and sharp, and I split in the field with no blocks or contrivances of any kind.  I can only remember abandoning two, maybe three, pieces of wood that were just really knotty or more likely forked.  Even those could likely be split with enough energy, but I know when not to beat my head against a wall for a peanut.  I'm glad that I've invested in this skill, because it will ultimately increase my splitting efficiency in all arenas.  I now have a pretty good idea of what I can get away with and am further refining and defining when an axe will be more advantageous than a maul in splitting sawn rounds as well.  For what it's worth, these videos at least show some possibility that can be put to use or invested in later.  It's not for everyone, and not for every situation, and possibly not for every species, but in the right circumstances it is remarkably efficient and satisfying.  I can say, that just splitting what I incidentally have to cut here, which is Madrone, Bay, Fir, Tan oak and Black oak, that none of those species are consistently difficult to split when young trees are cut and split green.  Older Madrone and Bay can develop some wicked cross grain, but a person is not likely to be cutting those for firewood with an axe, and if they were, large trunks would have to be split, probably with wedges, before bucking, not after. 

The axe and the technique of using it with good strategy are just another set of tools in the bag to be applied where they are best suited, or when necessary.  But, again, it is a tool that has to be developed and refined to be appreciated and applied to anything but the most easily split woods.  I'm glad I've put in some time and forced my progress by using axes that are not ideal for the job and I get to reap the rewards of that from here out.

Did I mention that it's fun?  It's really fun :D

Splitting Wood by Hand, #5, Just Splitting Some Wood.

This is #5 in my wood splitting video series, but it's being released out of order.  After shooting the footage for segments3 and 4 on technique and strategy, and trying to explain it all, the gears in my brain really started turning.  I feel like I can do a much better job of explaining and demonstrating those things now.  Having put it all into language in my head I also feel like I have a better personal understanding too and can probably further refine my technique.  So the technique and strategy videos will be re-shot this year, although I'm putting a few bullet points and a teaser below.  Also below are a list of other wood splitting videos worth watching.

I also have better slow motion capabilities now, which I can use to make a study of the mechanics of splitting.  Some of the important stuff that I'll be talking about in the technique video is presented in this segment as subtitles.  I'll make blog posts with photos explaining segments 3 and 4, but this video stands on it's own more or less, and it is intended for visual learning anyway.

I just spent a couple of hours looking for a few decent wood splitting videos to link in this one, and I can tell you, my stuff is top shelf compared to the vast majority of what's out there.  Hopefully people will actually see it.  I'm still ranking low in the search engines.  Comments, likes and shares anywhere help me reach more people.  I'm very excited to make the next two videos and get deeper into the details that matter and which could really help people increase their splitting effectiveness!  The previously released videos, along with this one, are in my firewood playlist.


Some notes and bullet points.

You'll notice that I don't favor using a splitting block for the most part.  Splitting on the ground requires a tool with a pretty obtuse edge for strength, but it has some benefits as follows.

*We don't have to move the wood to the block, especially important with big rounds.

*We don't have to pick up pieces and set them on (or back on) the stump.

*We don't have to set the tool down to pick up wood

*We have better mechanical advantage (more speed can be generated if target is lower)

*It is safer, since the work is closer to the ground.

*Less interruption to the work flow.

I've come to think that the equation Mass+Speed= Inertia/Momentum/Power is a core principal here.  I believe that any energy transfer to the target after contact is negligable compared the energy embodied before impact.  By having a low target and tightening the radius of the swing into a shorter arc at the end of the stroke, you can generate a tremendous amount of speed which equates to stored energy.  I know there is more involved than just that, but I suspect that things like the shape of the head, angle of attack and any twisting or manipulation of the head is really secondary to that equation.  Even if twisting, the head, at the moment of impact to open the split, you are still using mostly that stored energy, you're just sending it off in a different direction.  Aim and Strategy are of course also extremely important.  But, assuming you know where to strike and can hit the target, being able to embody a great deal of energy in the maul or ax head will most certainly serve you well, even if you don't need it all the time.

These video stills helped me understand my technique better and will no doubt lead to further refinement.  They are evenly spaced and shot at 24 frames per second, so covering just 9/24ths of a second.  Notice how much faster the maul head travels from frames 4 to 6, due to a tightening of the radius of the swing. It is hardly visible in frame 6, too fast for the camera to catch. 

After frame 5, the arc revolves around my fixed wrist position.  Between frames 5 and 9, my wrists move very little, but the head moves 4 feet or more.  I'm not pushing the head through the wood, I'm whipping it on the end of this long handle to throw it through the wood.  The force generated by this technique can be very powerful.  It's about taking the mass you have to work with and accelerating it very fast using simple leverage.

Also, note that because of that tighter radius, the angle of attack is significantly toward me.  If the round were up on a block, that could put the mauls edge pointing dangerously at my ankles or feet... not to mention that I would have less time and distance in which to generate speed unless I'm 7 feet tall.  A low block is an option, but requires moving each round onto the block.  Of course, this much momentum is often unnecessary.  Splitting blocks are great sometimes, but I've come to use them less and less for the type of splitting I'm usually doing around here.

Other youtube videos worth watching

Wood splitting videos worth checking out.  I had to sift through a load of crap to find these few gems!

*Damn, can anyone say badass?  I like the splitting horizontal pieces on the ground.  Been playing with that for smaller pieces.  

*And another bad ass!  A serious professional.

*Score one for the badass ladies.  115 pounds of hellcat!

*Delicate and graceful, but effective.  And splitting over rocks even.  Just beautiful.  this is one of the Vido Daughters.  I have communicated with them about scythes and other self reliance/tool stuff.  Lovely people, check out their youtube channel, scytheconnection for some amazing videos, and also the scythe connection website. These people are the real deal!  When they talk, people should listen.

*This guy split professionally with a relatively light and very thin axe he designed just for splitting.  Entirely different than my generally heavy handed maul approach.  Here he races a hydraulic splitter.

*Eustace Conway, subject of the book The Last American Man.  I met him when I was 19.  He blanked out a piece of wood for me with his hatchet.  I was trying to make a bowl out of it, but I only had a dull swiss army knife.  It was the first time I saw anyone use a hatchet with any proficiency, a Eureka moment for sure.  I've been in love with axes and hatchets ever since.  Anyway, his technique is interesting.  Poetry in motion!

*I like this guy's video.  His wood is easy splitting and sounds/looks frozen, which makes it even easier, but he's using a small short handled axe and he clearly knows what he's doing.  He's got the speed building rotation around the wrists thing going on too.  Also, very interested in his hit overhanging the far edge of the round technique.  I'll definitely be playing with that.

*This guy is great.  he's got a big old axe and is just totally berserk, but very effective and deadly accurate!  I'd love to see what he could do with that axe on some of the harder wood I split around here.  It's nice to use an axe when it does the job it just sort of slides on through, unlike the fat maul bits I use most of the time, but when axes jam up, the narrow bit sinks in deep and is a lot harder to pull out.   Watch beginning of part 2 as well. with the very straight, grained soft, easy splitting wood though.

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.