How much wood can I chop chop chop if I know not how to chop wood?
April 21, 2010 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Tips for newbie to safely chop firewood by hand?

I find myself with a mature red oak, already sectioned into rounds of various sizes, and a need for exercise. I am a woman of average size and strength, with good physical control and exercise form. I would very much like to not chop off my toes or sever my femoral artery, or cause massive property damage.

Preliminary research suggests that a wood splitter maul like this or this would be my tool of choice.

Any advice on choice of tool (longer handle? shorter? I've swung a sledge and anything over 6 lbs is probably not practical for me), distance from structures (how far do things tend to fly?), and proper form would be appreciated.
posted by acanthous to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
in my experience, it is frequently easier to use the splitting maul to open an initial radial cleft in the round piece you are attacking, then set a splitting wedge in the gap. using a heavy sledge, then pound the face of the wedge until you split one section away from the round. lather, rinse, repeat.

otherwise, I have found that if one good swing of the maul isn't enough to substantially split the piece, you are then stuck with the head of the maul getting buried deeper and deeper into the piece. that leads to a lot of wasted energy pulling out the head of the maul again and again.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:06 AM on April 21, 2010

Legs more than shoulder-width apart, and bring the axe straight over your head and down into the wood. The idea is that if you miss and the ax head swings down towards your feet, it will land harmlessly on the ground between your feet, and not cleaning slice either of them off.
posted by Grither at 8:07 AM on April 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

How "seasoned" (how long has the wood been dead/cut/drying) is the wood? The answer to this question would determine what your (or anyone else's) splitting method should be.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:07 AM on April 21, 2010

(And for god sakes. It's 2010. There's no reason for anyone to ever need to use a wedge-and-a-sledge again. A splitting maul is fifty times easier for a beginner, and fifty times more productive for a non-beginner.)
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 8:10 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agreed on the wedge. You use the maul's blade to create a place for the wedge, then drive it using the flat face of the maul or with a sledgehammer. You can finish the split (if the halves are sticking together) with a quick chop from the bladed side again.

Six pounds ought to be fine; I think mine is only five or six, and I've split a fair bit of wood with it.

One trick that I've found handy is, if you get the wedge stuck halfway into the round, picking the round up, inverting it, and then dropping it (in a controlled manner) down on your splitting stump, wedge first. So instead of using your six pound maul to drive the wedge in, you're using the much heavier piece of wood to do the job. Just be sure to lift with your legs and not with your back if you do this repeatedly.

If you find yourself having to do this a lot, it could be that your wood is too fresh and could do with more seasoning. I had a cord of wood that was almost impossible to split, and finally I gave up on it and thought I'd have to rent a splitter. I came back a few months later and the stuff had started to split on its own as it dried. Wood that has spent a season outside after being cut into rounds is much easier to split than stuff fresh from the tree — even if it's been cut from deadfall.

Regarding safety, I've always heard that 15 feet is a good radius to have clear around your splitting area. Remember eye protection, since flying wood chips can be an issue, and wear steel-toed boots, if you have them. Or at least something with heavy leather toe-caps; they're better than tennis shoes at least. The only injuries I've ever obtained while splitting wood are all related to dropping logs on my toes. (Ow.) And you'll want good gloves to protect yourself from splinters, obviously, when handling the split wood.

Have fun! It's great exercise.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:16 AM on April 21, 2010

Wood pieces do not tend to fly very far, so you shouldn't have to worry about distance from structures too much. When splitting, try to figure your do not want to stand too close, because you do not want to be hitting your handle off of the wood. That can break off the head of your splitting maul (and I second the use of a splitting maul).
posted by C17H19NO3 at 8:17 AM on April 21, 2010

Be sure to wear gloves ,close toed shoes (sturdy hiking boots are best), and jeans. Sun glasses if you are worried about errant wood chips.

On the stance/swing. You will want to square off and face the piece of wood to be split, with feet shoulder length apart. [This stance and swing is important, because if you miss your log, the axe head will merely swing between your legs, or strike the ground in front of you].

Assuming you are right handed, you will take the splitting axe in hand, with your left hand at the base of axe and your right hand nestled at the head. As you bring the axe head directly over the top of your head and start on the swing downward, your right hand will slide down the axe handle and meet your left hand, which is still positioned at the bottom of the axe.

Many beginners will make the mistake of thinking they need to exert a large amount of effort to "swing" the axe. Don't worry about this, just let gravity accelerate the axe head towards your log.

Also, what you might experience, is the log getting "stuck" on the head of your axe. This is OK. Simply raise the axe, with the log still 'stuck' on the axe head, a foot or two in the air and drop it onto your stump. The axe head will slowly make progress through the log.
posted by yoyoceramic at 8:17 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Get some gloves (especially if you're using a sledge with a wooden handle) and safety glasses / goggles. Wear jeans and the toughest boots you've got.

Put the log you're chopping onto a stable, flat, raised surface considerably wider than the log (the stump of the tree works great for this). You'll want something high enough that the top of the section you're cutting is a little lower than waist high. This way, even if you miss the log you're much more likely to hit the stump than your foot or leg.

Also, you'll notice those mauls have an axe side and a hammer side. You'll want to get a splitting wedge like this to do the work of breaking the sections into rough wedges. Then use the axe side to finish chopping the wedges into the size you want.

Basically, use the weight of the axe to do most of the work for you. If you push through the downward stroke too hard you'll tire yourself out quickly and be more likely to lose control.

A longer shaft will let the weight of the axe do more work, but the trade off is that it's harder to be precise.

Choke down on the shaft for the downward stroke, then choke up to make it easier to bring the axe back up. When you bring the axe up, point it to the side so that the axe head stays away from your head. Working the axe straight up and down in front of you is a good way to accidentally bonk your head. You'll rapidly get into a good rhythm.

This video shows the basic technique.
posted by jedicus at 8:18 AM on April 21, 2010

jjjjjjjijjjjjjj: I use a maul, but also think that a wedge is important to have, because it's easy to get the maul stuck in a half-split round of tough wood.

If the wood is nicely seasoned and just "blows apart" using the maul alone, then of course it's not necessary. But on difficult to split wood, having a wedge in addition to the maul (and using the maul like a sledgehammer) can be a real help.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:19 AM on April 21, 2010

If it's already been sectioned, that is, cut to length, then you're splitting, not chopping.

If you're a newbie, a longer handle makes it safer. When I was running the woodsmen's team back in college, we'd always give the n00bs the longer-handled axes.

Don't worry about distance from structures; the wood will not fly too far at all.

There are many points to be made on both sides of the axe vs maul debate: axes are lighter and can split stuff up faster, but mauls are heavy and therefore more tiring to use, but don't tend to get stuck in wood like axes can. For a beginner, I might get axe since they're more versatile and lighter, but I'm sure many others will have their own opinions.

One more thing: technique. Don't swing over your shoulder like this guy. You want the axe head to move along a plane perpendicular to the line of your shoulders, that is, sticking straight out in front of you. Start your swing with the axe ( or maul) handle vertical; you're just wasting energy if you ever move the axehead behind your head. Bring the axe down hard onto the wood. You can get more power by doing a crunch with your abs when you come down and by dropping your butt as the axe hits the wood. When it comes to aiming, you can just kind of pop a squat with your arms extended, your shoulders forward, and the axe on the wood, basically in your finishing position, and that's where your hit will be.

Finally, if a piece of wood is knotty or otherwise hard to split, start off splitting off chunks from the sides rather than going for a clean split in half on the first go.
posted by Aizkolari at 8:19 AM on April 21, 2010

The idea is that if you miss and the ax head swings down towards your feet, it will land harmlessly on the ground between your feet, and not cleaning slice either of them off.

This is RULE F***ING ONE!!! And as it was taught to me (age 11 or 12), I was made to practice at length with a useless stick of wood so that the proper arc (aiming at the ground, not a rounded swing) would be come an ingrained habit.

Otherwise, a couple of things I've picked up over the dozen or so cords I've split in the past decade or so.

1. the bigger (heavier) the axe (or maul) that you can handle the easier the splitting (ie: let the weight of the tool do all the work)

2. the trick to cutting a particularly dense piece of wood is to start at the outside (the bark ring); once you cut into this, the piece of wood actually becomes less compacted, easier to split.

Oh, and take care of your back.
posted by philip-random at 8:22 AM on April 21, 2010

So many great answers already! In response to the q about wood age, it is fresh fresh fresh, just taken down yesterday.
posted by acanthous at 8:38 AM on April 21, 2010

My dad loves his Wood Grenade for splitting up big bits of wood. Found a video too - seems to be the thing for your situation.
posted by Coobeastie at 8:39 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

What diameter was the tree? INstead of pie-shaped wedges, you might want to peel off the outer 5 inches a couple times before you hit the core.

THat Fiskars splitting axe, linked above, is a joy. Don't split over any sort of rocks, though - you'll kill the edge.

I'd recommend also getting an eight-pound sledge (or more, if you're feeling brawny) to blast a stuck maul through tough grain.
posted by notsnot at 8:46 AM on April 21, 2010

a smart-splitter is a few bucks more than a maul, but infinitely safer:
posted by paradroid at 8:53 AM on April 21, 2010

I have used this bad boy and it is fun. just run a long, heavy gauge electric extension out of your house.

but you will still have stuff you have to split by hand - stuff that's too big to fit on the rail, mostly.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2010

it is fresh fresh fresh, just taken down yesterday.

Can you wait? Wet oak is not going to be easy to split, so it really isn't a good choice for your first splitting experience. It's a good idea to let oak dry for two years anyways, so you could stack it up now in rounds, split it in the fall (and stack it again) and then burn in starting a year later.

I like to have a selection of tools on hand: a splitting axe like the one you linked (~3-4 lbs, with curved sides jutting out), a heavy maul, and a wedge and sledge. Practise your swing so that the head of the axe/maul will always land in front of you (i.e. its path is straight down from just above the wood to the ground or whatever you are splitting on rather than curved towards you).
posted by ssg at 9:00 AM on April 21, 2010

Particularly if this is your first time, a pair of steel-toed boots might not be a bad idea. Think of it as a $35 dollar bet that you might save a trip to Emergency.

And do wait if you can. Splitting this in the fall will be much easier. Just stack the wood for now.

The only tools I've used are a chain or swede saw to trim for length and a maul to split.

You also want a decent chopping block. The top of the piece to be split (standing vertically on the block) should be about waist high or a wee bit lower. Too low (knee high) and you'll have a tendency to over swing and hit a foot, too high and your swings won't be powerful enough.

Practice your aim first. You should be able to put the blade within an inch or two of where you want it.
posted by bonehead at 9:18 AM on April 21, 2010

First two rules I learned as a kid:

1) Do not "swing" the axe. Swinging results in lost toes and chopped shins. Pull the axe through the wood by bending your knees. Instead of aiming just for the wood, aim to go through the wood your chopping, through the base of wood it's standing on, and right into the centre of the earth. (Plus you get a better chop.)

2) Make sure there is no one behind you. This applies a bit more for older axes where the head might slip off, but it's always important. You don't want your axe head flying into the teeth of the neighbour's kid as he runs around behind you.
posted by Kippersoft at 9:30 AM on April 21, 2010

Kadin2048 i writes "Remember eye protection, since flying wood chips can be an issue, and wear steel-toed boots, if you have them. Or at least something with heavy leather toe-caps; they're better than tennis shoes at least."

I strongly recommend the steel toe footwear as well. Even though proper technique will prevent the axe from hitting your feet dropping an unsplit round on your toes hurts a lot. And the protection afforded may save your feet from the axe if you ever make a mistake.
posted by Mitheral at 9:51 AM on April 21, 2010

It is insufficiently dry for you to try this as your first foray into splitting.

Your options, realistically, are to rent a pneumatic log splitter ($45/half day rental where I am... you'll need a trailer-hitched vehicle to get it home), or to wait until it is more seasoned.

Wood splitting is fun and rewarding. You are very right to be excited about splitting your own wood. However, splitting wet wood with hand tools (in any kind of volume) ranges from "difficult" to "near impossible". You will need to find other wood to split.
posted by jjjjjjjijjjjjjj at 10:16 AM on April 21, 2010

yoyoceramic wrote "Many beginners will make the mistake of thinking they need to exert a large amount of effort to 'swing' the axe. Don't worry about this, just let gravity accelerate the axe head towards your log."

Repeated for emphasis.

Also, how far the wood flies when split is a matter of how hard you hit it and how easily the log split on impact. Wet stuff or tough wood isn't going to go far, but I've seen some chunks of really dry stuff fly a long way on impact. The scar on my shin (from an unlucky ricochet after the split log chunk bounced off a nearby tree) makes me want to tell you this, and also to remind you that wearing long pants are a good thing. I was wearing shorts. Which is why the scrape from the log was enough to leave a scar.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:19 AM on April 21, 2010

As in most things, it is easier to find someone to teach you hands on, especially the safety aspects of this. It is not that dangerous if it is done right-and the advice above is all good. Try calling up someone around who is selling firewood (try craigslist) and see if they will come and teach you how to split. Really it only takes an hour to get the basics down, then the rest of your life to heat your house. My Dad would joke that would gets you warm three times-felling it, splitting it, and burning it. It is also a really effective exercise regimen. I have never meant a fat firewood chopper in my life (the only fat guys on axmen are the ones running the equipment).

BTW if you are running a chainsaw or any other power equipment the advice to get someone for hands on training is doublely important. How expensive is an hours worth of teaching cost opposed to a trip to the emergency room or even worse a lifetime of being called lefty?
posted by bartonlong at 10:21 AM on April 21, 2010

I just want to point out something obvious which is to make sure you're standing on firm, stable ground when you swing.

I was splitting wood with a bunch of other people this winter, and we were standing on ground that was snowy and icy. There was quite a bit of slipping going on as people we swinging. Dumb, right? Miraculously no one was hurt, but still...

Snow and ice probably won't be an issue this time of the year, but if the ground is muddy or something, think about changing locations or wearing shoes with a really good grip. Safety first!
posted by elder18 at 10:23 AM on April 21, 2010

Good advice in this thread.

All I have to add is that my uncle had me splitting already cut rounds into smaller logs when I was only 8, and I did just fine. I used a small axe, don't recall any wedges or mallets. I had to wear closed toe shoes (we were running around barefoot the rest of the time.)

First swing got the axe to bite into the top of the round (the flat bit, of course). Then the next few were not too hard swings to widen the crack -- sometimes just lifting the axe with the wood on the end and bumping it down onto the platform (a log abt 1-2 feet high). The axe worked like a wedge and when you were abt half way it would crack for the rest.
posted by jb at 10:29 AM on April 21, 2010

Find a nice even round and set your target round on top of it. This will raise it up so you can get more muscle on it, and also provide a backstop to prevent you from dulling your maul by whanging it on the driveway.

Strongly agree on letting this wood season for a year, and wearing heavy boots and eye protection.

Also, if you're as sensitive to poison oak as I am, you should either know for sure that this wood isn't contaminated, or treat it like it definitely is (wear gloves, don't touch yourself, carefully wash gloves/boots/clothing, etc.)
posted by ottereroticist at 1:33 PM on April 21, 2010

You may want to try a slide hammer splitter. I got mine from Harbor Freight for something in the neighborhood of $20 I think, but I can't find it in their online catalog. Place the wedge on the wood, slide the handle along the shaft, and bring it down hard to drive the wedge.
posted by Killick at 1:40 PM on April 21, 2010

One tip that I wish had been taught to me from the beginning is how to line up your strikes. I saw the oldtimers and they hardly ever seemed to need much aiming time (not to mention splitting most of their pieces in one or two strikes).

Get into your swing stance first (the feet wide apart, knees slightly bent) then measure the point of expected impact by holding the axe/maul as you would when striking, and bringing it down slowly to where you'd like to hit. It's the 'getting in stance before measuring' thing that I didn't do at first (since the pros didn't seem to), and caused a lot of misses and extra effort on my part.

Oh, and for gnarly wood, the shorter the sections the easier it will be to split, so resize accordingly if the sections are too long.

BTW, read the title of the post in Niles Crane's voice.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:30 PM on April 21, 2010

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