Six years ago, my wife and I slipped the surly bonds of suburbia and sought refuge in less densely populated parts. We settled in a log home in the woods. The northern woods in winter are beautiful but cold. Keeping warm led to a discovery: propane is expensive. So in the interest of fiscal responsibility, we henceforth heated our home by the sweat of my brow.
The details of felling trees, limbing, bucking logs, and hauling billets belong to a tale for another day. My story today concerns splitting wood: the experiences of a smooth-handed greenhorn reducing billets of wood into pieces that will stack and dry well and then be easily handled as they are fed into a wood stove.
I began my wood splitting journey with the heritage of my fathers: two axes, one inherited from my father, and one inherited from my father-in-law. The planes of my father’s axe are concave, tapering gently up to the eye where the head of the axe surrounds the handle. The planes of my father-in law’s axe tend toward the convex, curving more quickly outward toward its maximum width as it sweeps up toward the eye. These characteristics make my dad’s axe a felling axe, and my father-in-law’s axe a splitting axe.
The felling axe cuts deeply but spreads little. This makes it good for cutting across the grain of the wood. The splitting axe widens the cleft abruptly, before the energy of the blow can be dissipated by the friction of penetration. This makes it good for forcing the billet apart as it explosively creates a cleft parallel with the grain of the wood.
Although it is old, my father-in-law’s axe is a finely crafted and highly effective tool. I have subsequently used many different splitting tools, but I was blessed to begin my wood splitting journey with one of the best.
Many a fine splitting tool may be found at a garage sale or thrift shop, overlooked by most and sold for a fraction of the cost of a newer tool. Old tools are often among the best, products of an age when wood splitting was a matter of importance and widespread experience.
Wood and Fiberglass Handles
Like many other tasks, there are a host of wrong ways to split wood. Many of these wrong ways involve hitting the billet of wood with the handle rather than the head of the axe. As a result, inexperienced users can be very hard on axe handles. After I had broken two rather nice wooden handles in relatively rapid succession, I decided it might be worth while to give a fiberglass handle a try.
The union of my father-in-law’s axe head and a fiberglass handle is a happy one. They are still working harmoniously together many years after first being joined. I believe this is partly due to the superior strength of fiberglass as compared to wood. I also flatter myself that greater experience has made me less of a hazard to the handle than I was previously.
Based on this initial success, I subsequently united fiberglass handles with splitting maul heads. These unions were not as happy. The heavier heads placed greater stress on the epoxy that joined the heads to the handles. These stresses gradually cracked the epoxy, resulting in repeated separations and eventual divorces.
These sometimes spectacular separations emphasized another important lesson of wood splitting: be aware of what you are splitting toward. A lost axe head may split something you do not intend to split. This problem was partly responsible for the establishment of the cities of refuge in ancient Israel. As we are told in Deuteronomy 19:5, “As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live”.
When a smooth-handed greenhorn splits wood, he quickly becomes interested in the question of gloves: which ones provide the best protection, are the most comfortable, wear the longest, and cost the least. Gloves are a highly personal subject matter that excites strongly held opinions. It is therefore with some trepidation that I assert that some synthetic materials hold up to the stresses of splitting better than genuine leather. I suspect that there may be some dispute on this point. I bought my current favorite gloves after they were placed on clearance at a local hardware store. I am hoping to find a suitable replacement before the entire supply that I secured through that clearance sale wears out.
What you have under a billet of wood while you split it is almost as important as what you are splitting it with. An extremely firm surface that will not damage the edge of the tool is vitally important.
By happy coincidence, I needed to fell a 100 foot hard maple tree right in the area where I desired to concentrate my wood splitting efforts (the tree was shading our garden). The deeply rooted stump provides a thoroughly solid base for my splitting. Since the billets I split average about 16 inches in length, I cut the stump level at about 20 inches above the ground. This places the tops of the billets at a convenient height for splitting.
I found early on that I could expend a great deal of energy picking up split pieces of wood off the ground. Splitting inside an old tire placed on top of the stump usually keeps the split pieces within the tire. This is a more convenient location for collecting them and placing them into a wheel barrow for transport to the wood stack. The tire can also help to support billets that otherwise might be unstable and tip over.
The sidewalls are cut away from the underside of the tire to keep from collecting rain water. There are enough mosquitoes in the woods without providing them with a prime site for laying their eggs.
The Eight Pound Splitting Maul
Although my father-in-law’s splitting axe is an excellent tool, it is not heavy enough for some of the more difficult splits. An eight pound splitting maul can apply considerably more force at the point of impact than a splitting axe. My eight pound maul initially came with a wooden handle. When I eventually broke that handle, I tried to join the head to a fiberglass handle designed for a sledge hammer. This was one of the unhappy unions mentioned above. After repeated separations, that effort was abandoned.
I finally replaced the fiberglass handle with a wooden pick handle. This has been a happy and enduring union.
The Four and a Half Pound Splitting Maul
Swinging an eight pound splitting maul can become tiring. This reality led me to purchase a four and a half pound splitting maul. It is an effective intermediate tool for splits that are too difficult for a splitting axe, but which do not require the full force of an eight pound maul. I eventually noticed a flaw in the design of the smaller maul. The stress of supporting the moderately heavy head is too great for the epoxy that joins it to the fiberglass handle. The epoxy eventually fails. After re-gluing the handle a number of times, I took advantage of the maul’s five year warranty to replace it.
Th epoxy on the replacement maul is now also showing signs of upcoming failure. When those prophecies are fulfilled, I plan to replace the current handle with a wooden pick handle.
God’s word tells us in Ecclesiastes 10:10, “If the iron be blunt, and he do not whet the edge, then must he put to more strength: but wisdom is profitable to direct.” Taking good care of tools greatly increases their effectiveness. Each time I put my splitting tools away, I perform three basic maintenance tasks. First, I clean the head of the tool with a wire brush. This removes any excess dirt and vegetable matter that may retain moisture and thus encourage corrosion.
Second, I take a sharpening stone and gently hone the edge of the blade about 20 strokes on each side. This smooths away any dings or dents that may be developing on the edge.
Finally, I spread a thin layer of motor oil over the head, and polish it with a rag until it is no longer visible to the eye. This provides some corrosion resistance while the tool is in storage.
The Sledge and Wedge
I also inherited some wedges and a sledge hammer from my father. This can be an effective set of tools for especially difficult splits, since the wedge does not need to be withdrawn from the cleft between each stroke like the head of a splitting axe or maul needs to be withdrawn. Thus no energy is wasted by removing the head or by reopening the cleft during the next stroke. The process of using the wedge and sledge, however, is noisy and tiring. I don’t generally need to wear hearing protection while splitting wood, but it may be advisable to do so when using the sledge and wedge.
I have come to the point where I rarely invest effort in a billet that is so difficult as to require the use of the sledge and wedge. I have enough good billets to split without wasting my time on the most difficult ones. Instead, I usually just burn especially difficult pieces in my outside fire pit.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)