(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the two-part series.)
The Straight Stack
I initially stacked my split wood in straight, eight-foot sections about four feet high. This made each of those sections contain approximately a face cord of wood. Three face cords comprise a full cord. We typically burn six to eight full cords each winter.
I put a strip of tarp on the top of each stack and weighted it down with extra pieces of wood. This kept the rain off the top of the stack while allowing the wind to blow through and the sun to dry the sides.
One problem with straight stacks is that as wood dries, it shrinks. This may make a straight stack shift and become unstable as the drying process progresses. It was not unusual for a stack to fall over and need to be re-stacked, especially around the time of Halloween each year.
The Round Stack
Several years ago on my birthday, my daughter gave me the book Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting. This delightful book talks about “chopping, stacking, and drying wood the Scandinavian way”. One topic touched upon in the book is round wood stacks. I was inspired to try my own version of the round stack. Since I wanted the stack to be especially stable, I began with a ten foot long wooden piling sunk three feet into the ground. I then built a round wooden base around the piling. The starting point for this base is eight 37-inch 2X2’s laid out as an octagon centered on the piling.
I then built up the bases using a variety of salvaged materials. For my most recent bases, I had a number of treated 2X6’s that I had salvaged from a wooden walkway. Because they were treated, they were not safe to burn, and I was not eager to place them in a landfill. Instead I re-purposed them, first as supports to run between the sides of the octagon.
I then used the rest of the 2X6’s to run perpendicularly over the supporting 2X6’s, and fastened them down with deck screws. I used pieces of 2X2 as temporary spacers while I was placing and fastening down the upper 2X6’s. Next, I tied a loop in one end of a rope and placed it over the piling. I then tied a second loop in the other end of the rope just beyond the most distant corner of the octagon. After placing a pencil in the second loop, I drew a circle on the upper level of 2X6’s.
Then I took a circular saw and cut a straight line that approximated the curve drawn on each piece of 2X6. When the 2X6 base is ready, I begin to stack wood around the outside edge of the base. As the stack around the outside edge become higher, I begin to fill in the middle with oddly shaped pieces. As it becomes necessary, I supplement by filling with more regularly shaped pieces.
Since the circumference of the circle is greater at the perimeter than it is 16 inches in from the perimeter, the wood tends to naturally slope toward the outside. When this slope becomes too pronounced, I reduce it by propping up the outside edge with extra pieces of wood running along the edge. When the stack becomes about chest high, I begin stacking each subsequent row closer to the middle, until it touches the piling at the seven foot level.
The round stacks have been much more stable than the straight stacks. Because the wood tends to slope toward the outside of the stack, the round stacks naturally shed rainwater. The wood from my initial tests has dried adequately, and has burned well.
The Three and a Half Pound Axe
A few years ago, my wife and I vacationed in a log cabin that was equipped with a fireplace but not an axe. We bought a three and a half pound axe at a Walmart to split our wood while we were there. I hoped that upon returning home, the axe might replace the four and a half pound splitting maul while being free of the flawed handle design that plagues that maul. That hope was disappointed. The axe is adequate for vacation use, but it does not split as well as either my father-in-law’s splitting axe or the four and a half pound splitting maul.
The Double-Bitted Axe
A couple of years ago my daughter, who delights in encouraging my wood splitting mania, gave me a double bitted axe for my birthday. Because the faces of the bits are not particularly convex, I did not expect the axe to work as well as my father-in-law’s splitting axe. I was wrong. Even though it was designed for felling, the double-bitted axe splits small wood rounds like a hot knife through butter. It quickly became my primary wood splitting tool.
The Impact Manual Log Splitter
By this time, experimenting with wood splitting tools had become a bit of a hobby (some might say an obsession, but that would be uncharitable). I decided to try an impact manual log splitter. It works by driving a heavy handle down a shaft onto a captive wedge. It is even noisier than the sledge and wedge, and hearing protection is a must. Also like the sledge and wedge, I question whether any piece that requires the use of this tool is worth the effort.
The Hydraulic Manual Log Splitter
My wife found a hydraulic manual log splitter inexpensively on Craigslist, so we gave it a try. The hydraulic splitter proved to be an extremely slow but effective way of splitting difficult billets. We have found that the seals on the hydraulic pump do not hold up very well. They fail under pressure like an unprepared student taking an algebra test. Like the sledge and wedge and like the impact manual log splitter, I question whether any billet that is so difficult as to require the use of this tool is worth the effort.
Reading the Wood
One of the key skills and fun challenges of splitting is reading the wood. Pieces with consistently straight grain are easy to split. Pieces with multiple Y’s or other complex patterns in the grain can be challenging, and a correct reading of the wood becomes helpful. For example, it is usually difficult to split between the arms of a Y within the grain. It is usually somewhat easier to split from the center of the top of one arm to the center of the top of the connecting arm.
With large billets of wood it is usually best to split a series of pieces off the sides of the billet, working your way around the outside of the billet. In this way you gradually make your way in toward the center of the billet, until finally the remaining billet is small enough to be split in two.
Wood Splitting as Golf
With practice, wood splitting became somewhat like playing golf. In this game, my tools were like the various clubs. I would assess a billet and select the appropriate tool for the next split just as one might assess the lay of a ball on the course and select the appropriate club. My three most-used tools were initially my father-in-law’s axe, the four and a half pound maul, and the eight pound maul. Eventually the double-bitted axe replaced my father-in-law’s axe as one of my three most-used tools. The object of “wood splitting golf” is to split each piece off the billet with the fewest possible strokes of the appropriate tool, just as the goal of golf is to place the ball in each hole with the fewest possible strokes of the appropriate club.
The Fiskars 36 Inch Splitting Axe
Eventually, a friend shares my wood splitting mania gave me a Fiskars 36-inch splitting axe as a birthday present. I cannot say enough good things about this outstanding tool. Like my father-in-law’s axe or the double-bitted axe, it is light enough to swing for extended periods of time without excessive fatigue. Like the four and a half pound maul or the eight pound maul, it can handle difficult splits that other axes cannot handle. Now, instead of playing “wood splitting golf” by selecting a tool for each split, I just use the Fiskars splitting axe for virtually all of my splitting. If the Fiskars axe cannot split a billet, I usually just use it to fuel my outdoor fire pit.
The Fiskars splitting axe comes with a lifetime warranty, but it is durable as well as effective. It does not look like I will need to avail myself of the warranty any time soon.
The Fiskars Eight Pound Splitting Maul
The same friend who gave me the Fiskars splitting axe later gave me the Fiskars eight pound splitting maul. It is heavy and tiring to use, but very well-made. This maul is superior to my previous eight pound maul, but I use it very little. As I mentioned previously in this article, if the Fiskars splitting axe can’t split a billet, then I no longer usually bother to split it.
Gasoline Powered Hydraulic Wood Splitters
I have used, but do not own, a gasoline powered hydraulic wood splitter. Although they may be useful for especially difficult billets, they are extremely loud and somewhat slow. I can split a typical billet much faster manually than I can using a powered hydraulic splitter. In view of its limitations, I have not yet considered a powered splitter to be a worthwhile investment (although if someone offered me a really good deal on a used one, I don’t think I would say “No”. Please see the words “mania” and “obsession”, above.)
I have mentioned a number of products in this article. I did not receive any financial or other inducement from any manufacturer, vendor, or supplier in return for mentioning these products. This is a simple factual account of my own experiences: good, bad or indifferent.
Editor’s Closing Note: This article provides a good introduction to the subject. There are a few safety issues that I’d like to re-emphasize: Always wear eye protection when working with wood. I do not recommend using a double-bitted axe for wood splitting. The exposed rearward-facing axe head creates too many risks of injury. Also, be sure to regularly grind off any part of a splitting wedge that has mushroomed. (If a piece flies off, it can be “a formidable projectile.”) Lastly, to extend the life of your axe, maul, and sledgehammer handles, be sure to install rubber bumpers. These are inexpensive insurance.