I doubt that it’s any exaggeration to say that everyone who likes to split firewood believes, either privately or publicly, that they’re better at splitting wood than anyone else in the world. There’s something about swinging a splitting maul or driving a splitting wedge that just makes you feel really competent and successful. One well-placed swing skillfully aimed against a target wisely chosen, and a previously smug and invulnerable block of solid hardwood cleaves into two neat parts. Suddenly you’ve actually made a mark on the world, through honest hard work, like in the good old days when people swung at buffalo and wildebeests with stone blades hafted to saplings. My father was the best log splitter in the world, and so were all my older neighbors, and now so am I. I’ve even read stories on the internet about other world champions, even if they’ve only had a couple of hours of practice. Splitting wood just makes you feel like that.
I like to split wood enough that if you give me a pile of sawbucked logs and a splitting maul I get a gleam in my eye and a grin on my face and people who don’t know me give me some extra space because they can tell something primeval is about to happen. This is something I understand. I can eyeball a billet of oak two or three feet in diameter and see all those interminable hours of geometry and trigonometry and physics classes about to efficiently unleash themselves behind a flying chunk of steel. There’s really nothing quite as forceful as a wasted education suddenly put to use. Not that any of that education is needed to make firewood, but it really is a wonderful thing to see all that information reflected in an actual activity. An object in motion stays in motion at the circumference of the circle and bam! Somewhere in there it all makes sense, while I’m standing in the middle, at the operating end of Pi = 3.14159, with a sledgehammer in my hands.
Well, I do remember that it wasn’t always this good. I grew up splitting firewood, and carrying firewood, and cutting brush — when you heat the house with a fireplace that’s what you do, if you’re between the ages of 5 and 18 and haven’t escaped home yet. Splitting wood actually is entertaining if you don’t have to do it all the time, but to split wood well you need the right tools and some knowledge they don’t teach you in geometry class. How smart you have to be depends on what’s in your woodlot and where you live, because every kind of tree reacts differently to the splitting maul and wedge. Some accommodate, and some resist so stubbornly that smart woodcutters pass them up. In olden times when trees measured twenty feet at the base and grew straight, cleaving made lumber faster than sawing, provided you knew how to do it right. Today most of the woodlots in this country contain the third or fourth generation of trees to pioneer that landscape, and with each succession the quality drops. There’s hardly anything you can cut today that splits into twenty foot lengths of clean lumber. That used to be extremely common.
If you live out West, you probably don’t need more than a single-bit chopping axe to split firewood. Aspen busts up a lot easier than the hardwoods you find in Eastern America. Woodsplitters from Colorado think people from mid-America are wimps until they try their system on oak and hickory. Then they’re just embarrassed. Oak is actually pretty easy to split, with the right tools, but if you try to split it with an axe you’ll just stick the axe in it really well and then have an axe with a big chunk of wood on it. There’s no name for that tool because it’s not good for anything.
Today, there are two camps of wood-splitters in the eastern half of America: those who use splitting mauls; and those who use sledgehammers and steel wedges. There are advantages to both, and I will use both of them plus some other tricks and tools when needed. I much prefer the splitting maul, a more refined tool in my opinion. A splitting maul combines sledgehammer and splitting wedge into one tool. If you swing it accurately and hit the right place, you can split a large block with only a few blows. If you don’t use it well, it just makes you tired.
The wedge and hammer method takes a little longer but works inexorably well. Splitting wood with wedges can be very dangerous, even if you do know what you’re doing. Years ago when our Ozark farm still held a stand of oaks over a hundred and fifty years old, we had blocks of wood nearly four feet in diameter to break up for the fire. Wedges were necessary for something that big, and those oak billets often spit them right back out again, after they were driven two or three inches deep. I almost enjoyed watching them, because they erupted about 15 feet into the air and hung briefly at the peak of the path like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, before homing in on the slowest person in the crowd. If you didn’t move fast enough, you got hurt. Everyone I know moved fast enough because we all knew it was life or death.
A line of steel wedges driven into the top of a block can split almost anything. Almost. Some types of wood outsmart the system. Ash and hickory split well only on the day you cut the tree, and not even for all of the day. After that, something magical happens to the grain of the wood, and instead of splitting it turns into a mass of interwoven ribbons that don’t want to come apart at all, even when broken. Time is everything when you’re working with those trees. If you’re smart, you work them up in one day, even if you’re tired. Ash and hickory aren’t the only trees that do this, but they’re the ones people encounter most often.
The collection of tools I carry when I’m working on a serious amount of firewood includes several things that were common on the American frontier, but not too many modern people know anything about froes or gluts. Both of them come in very handy for recalcitrant wood that’s fibrous, full of knots, and clamped solidly onto your last splitting wedge.
If you can crack a block open, you’ve won half the battle already. Billets check within minutes after crosscutting. Radial fissures, or checks, open up on the cut surface, marking weak points in the block. Straight wood often shears cleanly when you hit one of those fissures solidly. If the block only cracks, the maul or wedge might be stuck there permanently, because the block closes with intense pressure, like the jaws of a vise. You don’t want to have your fingers in that gap when you knock the wedge loose, or you’ll be wearing the block on your hand for awhile.
A froe, which is a simple horizontal steel or iron blade attached to a long perpendicular handle, slips into that gap. Once used for making split-wood shingles, the froe has plenty of leverage and a twist of the handle often gains enough space to tap the other tool free.
Often a steel wedge doesn’t have enough thickness to fully split a block, even though it opens the block up and completely buries itself in it. From that point you don’t need a steel wedge. Any durable wedge of larger size will do the job. The best wood for a large splitting wedge, or glut, is dogwood. You don’t find many dogwood trees that big — you need a wedge about 18 inches long, with the top end about 4 or 5 inches thick. If you’re working on long logs, you might need a glut that’s even bigger. Unless they’re dogwood, they don’t last long.
It’s always tempting to try to finish the job with brute force, but often the simpler approach works best. Using a hatchet to slice any ribbons of wood you can reach inside the split releases the wood’s grip on your other tools bit by bit. Take your time and try to work with intelligence instead of overpowering strength. Overpowering strength usually doesn’t work.
If you split wood a lot, you do run into ornery wooden beasts who refuse to go down easily. You might think it odd that a man can struggle all afternoon with one block of wood that won’t bust, when all around him are billets of straight-grained hardwood just waiting to fly apart. That’s the way it is, though, when you find a challenging piece it’s a puzzle and a contest combined, and you’ll invest the rest of your day and every splitting tool you have in its conquest. On some occasions, the block wins. The next day you sneak back with a chainsaw or a chopping axe and carefully liberate your tools from where they got stuck the day before, but that piece of obstinate cellulose will haunt you until you win. It might take a year and a lot of weather, but eventually you’ll find a way. Then you’ll pause for just a second, look off into the distance over the next horizon, and smile.