Despite its burly reputation, splitting wood is not about brute strength.
[Note: I’ve added part 2]
The more you hone your technique, the less force you need to use. This means that people of many sizes and strengths can be good at the job. While there are many woman who are accomplished wood splitters, I bet that there are many more who would enjoy it.
First, the basics. A tree stands in the forest. It falls down or is selected to cut. With a chainsaw, the trunk is cut along the length into logs. At this point, the logs will be the circumference of the tree.
For better burning, and in order to fit the logs into your fireplace or stove, they need to be split with an ax. Bigger logs need to be split with wedge, but we are focusing on axes because I love them.
This is a women’s guide to splitting wood.
Step 1. Get ready
Always think about safety. You need a sharp ax, a chopping block, sturdy boots, work gloves and, ideally, protective eye gear (I don’t have something to cover my eyes in the photos, but I should). The biggest danger, after you’ve shoo’d any kids away, is driving an ax into your foot or shin. The key to preventing this is your stance, which is covered in Step 5.
Your ax head should be heavy. The weight of the wedge, the ax head, helps to split the wood. But, it shouldn’t be too heavy. Don’t expect that your Uncle Joe’s ax will necessarily be the perfect size. You should be able to fairly easily swing the ax over your head. Mine is about 5 lbs.
Look at the two logs in the photograph on the left. The log on the bottom was very satisfying to split. I tapped my ax in, swung and it split in one swing (like butter).
This is because 1) the size is manageable 2) it is ‘dry’–ideally the wood has been stored in a shed for a year after being cut 3) the grain in the wood is straight.
The top log in the photo has knots and twists. These catch your ax blade and make it harder to swing through. It took a few tries to split.
When you first start splitting, pick the best looking logs. I always leave the ones that are too heavy or look like beasts. I save these as ‘night logs’–ones that I leave whole to burn through the night once the fire is hot.
You want the blade of the ax to bite into the grain of the wood. Take a good look at the surface of the wood before you do this and pick your spot.
If you’ve chosen a friendly log, you might be able to see a line through the diameter. This will make for a clean split.
At this point, you should have your chopping block to hand. This is a broad, flat piece of wood that serves as a platform for chopping. Mine is just behind the log in the photo. Ideally, it would be broader and bigger around like the base of a tree trunk (my good one is somewhere buried in the snow, oops).
After you’ve got the ax to bite into the wood, give it a tap or two so that the log stays on the head of the ax when you swing.
Step 4. Go with the grain
Given that an ax head is shaped like a wedge, you can see how it might not take much more force to make a full split. This is where the finesse comes in. Splitting a log is just using the weight of the ax to travel down that line.
Think of your muscles are guiding the ax, rather than being responsible for creating the force that does the splitting. Leave that job up to the weight of the axe head. The handle of the axe is a lever that increases the force of the wedge.
The better your choice of log, aim and angle, the more satisfying the split. Remember: It’s not all about muscle.
I included a photo to the left as this mental imagery is important. Don’t focus on the log, focus on guiding the tip of your axe into the chopping block.
This helps with aim. It also helps to keep the ax away from your shins. Lastly, it helps you think about using the weight of the ax to make the split, rather than using your precious arm strength.
If you are splitting an entire pile of logs–something to which I hope you aspire–it is only physically possible to do with good technique. Even the most burly among us would become exhausted if trying to smash through the logs using sheer strength.
Step 5. Swing
With your stance wide and the ax tapped into your log, swing the ax up and bring it down onto the chopping block.
The most important safety point: Your legs must be apart. I always put foot slightly in front of the other as I find it much easier, but they were wider apart than they look in the picture (that said, I was posing as my camera person was struggling to keep up).
Imagine if I missed the chopping block. If the ax continued to swing towards me, a leg or foot in the path of the ax head will get chopped. By keeping your stance wider, the axe will swing between your legs.
The first few swings will feel awkward. Try swinging in a smaller arc until you get comfortable. Don’t expect perfection right away. No one gets it right at the start. Ignore your audience and play with your grip on the axe, stance and swing until you find a combination that feels comfortable.
When you start to feel tired, stop. It’s not a good idea to wield an axe when fatigued, but try again later. The more you practice, the easier it will get.
Keep trying. When I was starting out, I often got the ax plucked from my hands. This was always done with good intentions and often for a demonstration, but I also had a hard time getting the ax back. I’ve since developed a good snarl that warns people off.
The first time you split a log in two with one swing, you will smile. By the second time, you will be in love with splitting wood.
Update: I’ve been hearing from some of the great wood splitters out there. We all seem to agree on the deep satisfaction that comes from partaking in this activity. Make sure to read the comments for great advice on stance including the all important knee bend and holding your core steady. Also, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer says on Facebook, “if your log is big and gnarled, split against the grain along the edges.”
Update 2: This gem from Kelly Graham, “Dad used to say wood was the fuel that warmed you 4 times: when you cut down the tree, chopped the logs, stacked them and finally burned them.”
Please add your tips.