Wednesday, January 20, 2016

As Promised - Splitting Wood

Splitting wood can be tiring, it can be dangerous, it can also be fun and rewarding. Using the right tools and taking certain basic precautions can save you a lot of headaches and protect your limbs. 

Trees are felled or dead trees have already fallen to the ground and are ready to be cut up into firewood. You need to measure your fireplace or the firebox of your wood stove so that you know how long to cut your wood. My wood stove is shallow so my wood gets laid side to side. My dad's wood stove is deep so his wood goes in front to rear. Although his wood stove is much larger than mine, I can burn longer logs. But my wood stove is not very high so I can't burn a log bigger than six inches in diameter. My dad's can take logs almost 12 inches in diameter. So I have to split more wood for my stove than I do for his stove. I cut my wood 18-20 inches long for my stove. The longer the firewood piece is, the fewer cuts you have to make. Over time this matters. So cut your wood as long as is practical.

Once a log is cut into fire wood size lengths, you have to decide whether or not it needs to be split. I have found through several decades of experience that you get faster drying and better burns if you split anything that is over four inches in diameter. Unless you have a very hot fire or bed of coals, round logs are hard to get burning and keep burning. But that works out okay for the last log you put on before going to bed. That slow burn will last longer into the night. My firebox is small and even with a full load of hardwood my fire goes out by about 0200 hrs (2:00 AM). But there are stll hot coals and the room will stay above 65 degrees into the morning.

Okay, so you decide you need to split some logs; what do you need? Well, if you have the money (but if you did you wouldn't be reading my blog) you can get a hydraulic wood splitter that runs off a gas engine or electric motor. A decent one of these will cost you well over a thousand dollars. My dad has one, which we share, but he got it when he was 75 and needed the power to do the work. You have to split a whole lot of wood to get your money back out of a hydraulic splitter though.

The tools below will suffice for most people just cutting enough wood for their own use.

wedges, sledge hammer, gloves, maul, hearing protection, ax

On the right is a plain old, full-size ax. Next is a set of hearing protection. Then a splitting maul, heavy work gloves, an eight-pound sledge hammer and finally two splitting wedges. The bottom wedge is a traditional wedge and the top one is the new cone-shaped wedge. I'll discuss each piece of equipment below. One thing missing is eye protection. I wear eyeglasses so that is covered for me, but if you are fortunate enough to not wear corrective lenses, then you should wear safety glasses when splitting wood.

The standard ax is fine for small diameter, easy to split wood. I use it when splitting Sassafras and Maple, which I have a lot of. But if you can't split the wood with one hit the ax can be a problem. Ax heads are not made to be hit with a hammer or maul. The sides of the ax head, on either side of where the handle goes through the head, are very thin. Also, most axes today are cast, not forged. Cast steel is very brittle and the ax head will shatter if you hit it with a sledge hammer. The other problem with an ax is the cutting edge. An ax is designed to have a sharp edge that cuts wood. Ideally, when splitting, you don't cut the wood, you cause it to separate along the grain. The ax edge often cuts across the grain and quickly gets stuck in the log. If you swing with the ax and miss the wood, or you hit off center and the ax is deflected, it could very easily cut through your leg; and I mean all the way through your leg. We've all seen the TV shows and movies where the burly man is splitting logs with an ax lengthwise, taking a mighty swing and hitting the log on the top. Effective but dangerous. The video at this link shows a much safer way to split wood with an ax: VIDEO

The next tool in my line-up is a splitting maul. These are designed with a heavy head, 8-10 pounds generally, a much wider profile to wedge the wood apart, but with a blunt edge.  Opposite the splitting edge is what looks like a sledge hammer face. That is what it is used for. There will be a warning label on the handle telling you NOT to hit the splitting maul with another tool (such as a sledge hammer) but that is for their liability disclaimer. If it is a decent quality maul, that face is used to hit with a sledge hammer to drive the maul through a tough log if you don't split it with one swing. BUT, there is always a danger when you hit steel on steel. As I have explained before, small pieces of metal can shear off one of the surfaces and that is a dangerous projectile. So always wear eye protection and it is a good idea to wear hearing protection because the PING will damage your hearing over time. Make sure you hit center to center so the edges aren't damaged or mushroomed. The maul is also dangerous if you are inexperienced or tired. The edge is blunt but if you hit your leg with a full swing you would shatter your leg bones and cause a crushing injury to the flesh.

Next in the line-up is a sledge hammer. The sledge hammer is used to drive the splitting maul if needed but more commonly it is used to hammer wedges into the log. I show two of the many types of wedges that are available.

So let's look at using the standard, triangular wedge.
You can generally split a log (in some areas they call these short firewood logs "rounds") up to 14 inches in diameter with one wedge. If the wood is green or much bigger than that, you need to have a second wedge available. With one wedge you just hold it in the center of the log and align it with any obvious cracks that you see. Tap it with the sledge hammer until it will stand by itself as shown here. You could use either the sledge hammer or the flat face of the maul to do this if you can only afford one tool. I prefer a sledge hammer because it is balanced better. Once the wedge is firmly seated in the wood, you can step back a bit and take partial swings to hit with some force. You don't have to go crazy, it is not a "ring the bell" game at the fair. The inclined plane of the wedge will split the wood with just a little effort. Watch the wood and as it starts to crack open you can hit with less force. You don't want to take a full swing and have the wedge become a projectile as it exits the wood.

One more tap here and it will split the log in two. Notice that I am splitting on top of another log. You should do this whenever possible. I always cut a good, solid, large diameter log for a stable base. This brings the log you are splitting up to a better working level. It also protects your tools in case you go right through the log you are splitting. I see some people splitting logs on the ground and that is generally not a good idea. The ground is soft and will absorb a lot of the impact of your tool. This causes you to do more work. The ground will also quickly get soft and mushy, getting dirt on the wood. Lastly, it just isn't a stable platform unless the ground is frozen solid down at least six inches.

Once a larger log is split in half you can generally use the maul to quickly split the halves into quarters or thirds. I usually like a piece of wood with the outside rounded edge not wider than four inches for my stove and that dictates whether I will split the log into four or six pieces.
So here I will now use the maul. But there is a big problem with this piece of Hemlock. Can you see the knot on the left hand side, just about mid-way between the top and bottom? Check out this close-up below:
There is no way you will split through that knot. What that is is the remnants of a branch that grew from the tree when it was very young. It goes all the way to the inner ring of the tree. So I need to split this log down the brown line. That will cleave off nicely. I can then split the log again but parallel, to the back side of the knot. The whole knot then will be contained in one of the split pieces.

The other type of wedge that I have, I got it from my son on my last birthday, is a Collins Wedge from The site claims that it will split the wood in multiple directions but after using it a full day that never happened; it created one split just like a triangular wedge. I found no advantage to the shape and no disadvantage. It seems that a wedge is a wedge.

It starts easy. There are reports of the tip breaking off. On a couple logs that had lots of knots I ended up using both wedges to get the log split. I'll use them both and see if I find any difference.

So click on this link to see a VIDEO that shows a comparison between using a splitting maul and a wedge. He uses his maul instead of a sledge hammer to hammer the wedge. Now, I don't approve of his jumping swing technique, nor of his complete lack of safety equipment. He also doesn't use a chopping block so his tools go into the dirt and hit each other often. Just pay attention to the amount of force and time he uses to split the first log with a maul.

So that's about all there is to splitting wood. 

Safety Notes:

1. Wear gloves, eye protection, and hearing protection. Steel tip boots would be great but they are not cheap.

2. Start out slow and with easy controlled swings. With experience you can swing harder in a safe manner.

3. Spread your feet apart to a comfortable, balanced position. If you do miss the log, and most beginners do, the maul or ax will hopefully go between your feet and not through a foot.

4. Use a solid, sturdy chopping block. I'm 6'1" and an 18 -20 inch tall block works for me. The heavier the block the better.

5. Stop when you are tired. This is a movement that fitness gurus use for cardio and strength training. It WILL wear you out. Split a few logs and then go stack them to have a break. Pace yourself.

6. Keep a clear area around your work site. Split pieces of wood can fly off with a great amount of force and speed. Keep pets and kids at least 20 feet away.

7. Clean, inspect, and maintain your tools. Handles will crack, eventually. If a handle starts to crack, replace it immediately.  Go to my post on how to replace a tool handle HERE. Oil your tools. A rusty tool is dangerous and will not split as efficiently.

8. Stack your wood under cover so it dries properly. Wet or green wood does not burn efficiently and can cause creosote to build up in your chimney or pipes. That is a fire hazard. You can build a very cheap wood shed out of pallets like I did. Check out that posting HERE.

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