Heating With Wood Part VIII: Time to Split

 

Fresh alder. After splitting, the creamy white wood quickly oxidizes to tawny red.

The old timers say to split a little every day

And stack it away to season well,

but from March to November I rarely do remember

December will find me in a rut…

traditional folk song*

A couple from down south gives me a lesson at the wood pile:

This summer I lucked into a great mass of rounds from a lot someone was clearing. Was just beginning to split them near the street when a car with a handsome couple stopped. The woman said, “We’re on vacation. We could use some exercise. Can we help you split wood?” Wow. Usually splitting is my own space but this was so extraordinary that I heard myself say, “Well sure. That would be great.” The woman was about my age and the man, I think, was her son. Both of them had abundant good energy. The young guy wanted to split and he showed himself to be a pre-Industrial Revolution champion for the working day: strong, confident and tireless. He split, she carried, I stacked. They were such a pleasure to work with that to think of them is to think seriously about the skill of getting along with others.

Splitting

Splitting wood is an old timey art. Some people chop rounds right on the ground and don’t mind when the maul plows into rocks. Except for really large diameter rounds, most of us like another round under the wood being split. Call that round the block. If the block’s too tall it’s a pain to hoist wood up there and your swing will be less effective. If it’s too short, the block will break apart from the impact. When you’re having wood delivered ask the wood cutter to include a round about 16 inches tall for you to split on.

An ideal length for stove wood is about three inches shorter than the inside width of your stove. If you order wood it will arrive pre-split but the pieces are often thicker than you want, plus you’ll be splitting some for kindling. Since short rounds are much easier to split than long ones, people after easy splitting can order shorter pieces from the wood cutter. Avoid splitting a piece of wood on the edge the block closest to you in case you miss. In the same vein, some high end mauls are honed very sharp to cut wood instead of breaking it. If you hit the edge of the wood with the top edge of the blade it can cut right through and keep heading for your leg. To avoid that, use what pool players call ‘English.’ Strike the wood with the lower edge, or along the straight edge, of the maul. Drive the blade straight down parallel towards the ground until it settles into the block below. Sometimes you get rounds about a foot in diameter that are full of knots. You bang away at one with no results then say, “Oh yeah, right.” and lay it on it’s side, hit it once and it splits in half.

The round you’re splitting will almost always have a crack somewhere on the face. Hit there. Sometimes it pops on the first swing. Other times you can scribe a line from the edge to the center with chops and eventually even big rounds open. The correct swing is whatever works for you. Some people plant their hands on the maul, keep them in place, lift the maul straight up and bring it straight down. Others swing the maul around to the side in an arc. I switch one hand at top dead center in mid-swing. Don’t know where that came from but it works.

Pay no attention to YouTube guys who split half a cord in five minutes. They’re using short, narrow rounds with few knots. Around here a chopper has to figure out what’s happening inside that round. When you’re in the zone, you can sometimes cut slices all the way around without cutting all the way through and, with the last hit make the whole thing fall away neat as a chocolate orange. If you don’t like picking up wood, or you’re in a hurry, you can: 1) Stand the wood, or a couple pieces, inside a tire. As you split, the tire keeps the wood from falling over so you don’t have to pick it up after every swing. 2) Hold a bunch of rounds together with a bungee cord. Walk around splitting. They don’t fall over because of the cord.

Tools

You use the maul more than any other part of your wood gathering kit. There’s no end to the internet debate on which one is the best. Typically, someone compares several mauls by splitting rounds with them. At the end he either shrugs and says, “Well, it really depends on what you like.” in the end he’ll pick the one he’s most used to using and recommends it based on some minutiae that is apparent only to himself—then 500 guys argue about it in the comments. Mauls cost between $5 for garage sale beaters with a cracked handle wrapped in duct tape, to $200 Gransfors Bruks mauls handcrafted at a forge in Sweden that carry a lifetime guarantee. Stihl, Husqvarna and some others also sell excellent mauls. A proper maul is well balanced for accurate swinging. Sharp ones push out kindling quick and easy. They’re a pleasure to use and one day your great grandchild should be able to pick yours up and say the same.

Maul heads are a blend of hardness, flexibility, ability to absorb shock, ability to hold an edge and corrosion resistance. Some with good steel have a concave flair back from the edge. This configuration keeps them from sticking in a round. Cheap mauls can sink deep into a round and be a struggle to get out. Sometimes you see people pound a stuck maul with another maul or a sledge hammer. Don’t do that. Pound in a wedge next to it to open what’s stuck. Some high end mauls advertise that they’re able to pound wedges with the poll but why do that when you can use a $20 sledge hammer?

A lot of people like fiberglass handles. To me they don’t feel right and don’t absorb impact in the same way top quality American hickory does. Cheap mauls use inferior wood handles that break. You replace the handle or buy a new maul. Then that breaks. Rubbing with castor oil helps protect good wooden handles in this climate. Some forges offer longer handles for tall people. Mauls should let you see that the wedges holding the head are tight in place. To replace a maul or an axe handle, saw the handle off next to the head and drill out the wood. Burning a broken handle away from the head compromises the temper of the steel. Most handles break because the chopper overshoots and smacks the handle against the round just below the head. That overstrike gongs through you all the way to your fillings. Good mauls have a metal collar wrapped around the handle below the head to save the handle from overstrike.

A light maul (usually 5 pounds is minimum) won’t penetrate properly and you end up whack, whack, whacking at a round. A maul that’s too heavy (the legendary ‘Monster Maul Pro’ weighed 17 pounds) is hard to keep swinging and will eventually wrench your back. For the home wood chopper a splitting maul between 6 and 8 pounds works well with the type of wood we have around here.

Sledge hammer and wedges: There’s a joker in every class. Sometimes a round has big knots or buttress wood with grains going every which way. You can wail on that all day but the wood refuses to give up. Show it a sledge hammer and three or four heavy iron wedges. You want a few because you might drive one all the way down into a green round that doesn’t split. Sometimes you can bury two in the round this way but rarely three before it splits. Safety glasses are common sense when using a wedge. If a round is so unruly that wedges don’t work, set it aside until if freezes and try then or, go get the chainsaw and show it who’s boss.

Hydraulic splitter: Here at Woodshed Manor we throwbacks avoid them. Keep on chopping.

* Sweet version of the ‘Wood song’ by Malcolm Dalgish, Grey Larsen and Claudia Schmidt is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SflOzSww2EA