Learn the Skill of Rail-Splitting

Learn how to make a neat split rail fence from scratch using this short guide on technique and advice on design.

  • Rail Splitting
    Paul Leaf gives step by step instruction on how to learn the "old-time" skill of rail-splitting.

  • Rail Splitting

Nobody was more surprised than Paul Leaf (me) that spring day in Tell City, Indiana. More or less on a spur-of-the-moment lark, I had just entered a rail-splitting contest. And suddenly — after busting a 12-foot-long sassafras log into four rails in just 60 seconds flat — I found myself being awarded the competition's first prize! I guess it just goes to show that once you learn something, that knowledge and the feel of it become a part of you for as long as you live.

I learned to split rails for fence-posts and firewood when I was a farm boy in Iowa more years ago than I now like to remember. It was a good thing to know then and it's a good skill to have now in this age of "getting back" to the old-time basics of living.

Rail-Splitting Tools

The "tools of the log-splitting trade" are relatively simple and inexpensive: an axe, an eight-pound mall (sledgehammer), and three or four 2 1/2- to 4-pound wedges.

Rail-Splitting Tips

If you want to end up with fine, straight rails ... you've got to start with good, straight trees or logs that are as knot-free as possible. And — although almost any hardwood will make a good post — hickory, elm, and cottonwood rot out faster than the others and, for that reason, you should avoid using them for rails. Oak, walnut, butternut, and locust are your very best bets.

From Tree to Rail

To begin at the beginning with your rail splitting, you'll want to fell a tree that's about nine to twelve inches in diameter at its base. Then cut away the top and trim the branches off smooth and snug against the tree's trunk so that you're left with as straight and clean a log as possible.

Look your unsplit timber over for knots and, if you can, turn it so you won't have to drive your wedges directly through one of the tough and probably twisted spots. Knots will give you more trouble than anything else in this job (they tend to make a rail split out crooked) and, if you can't avoid them completely, be sure to plan your work so that you go straight through the center of any you encounter.

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