Preparations for Splitting Firewood

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Illustration by Steve Sanford
Attaching a tire on top of your chosen splitting stump ensures wood won’t fall down or roll away while you’re working.

The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2015) by Brett McLeod is for the woodland homeowner, whether that’s for a large or small property. McLeod provides insight to help you get the most out of your land through sustainable practices. As the months get colder, stocking up on firewood becomes even more important. Learn how to make your own splitting block and choose the best axe for the job.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Woodland Homestead.

Splitting blocks serve several important purposes. First, by splitting on a wooden block, you’re preserving your axe by avoiding rocks. Second, splitting on a block is safer since it gives the axe a known landing spot well away from your feet. Third, a splitting block can save you from having to bend over as far. Your back will thank you!

Begin by selecting a block that is a minimum of 15 inches in diameter and 12 to 16 inches high. The knottier, the better; the knots will prevent it from splitting prematurely. Any species will work, but I prefer elm or sugar maple.

Find an old tire that’s just slightly larger than the diameter of your block. Drill four 1-inch holes in one sidewall, evenly spaced (this will allow water to drain). Use four 3-inch lag bolts with fender washers to screw the sidewall of the tire to the top of the block.

You now have the perfect splitting block that will hold your wood securely as you split it. No more standing up fallen pieces or chasing runaway firewood!

If you’re splitting small-diameter wood, you can pack the pieces inside the tire; they will support one another while you are splitting.

Beside your tire-topped splitting block, you may want to have a second block without a tire for large or odd-shaped pieces. I also recommend putting a slight angle (about 10 degrees) on this second block so that you’re able to match an uneven piece of firewood with the angle of the block.

Splitting Firewood

Because processing your own firewood is such a labor-intensive activity, it makes sense to plan out all the steps in advance to minimize the number of times you have to handle the wood. In constructing your plan, think about where the wood is harvested, what tools you have at your disposal, and options for getting the wood to the woodshed. (The instructions in this section refer to splitting wood by hand; don’t disgrace the wood by using a power splitter.) No doubt, the victorious feeling of splitting a stubborn log with only an axe makes it a fair fight and will always trump the monotony of pulling the hydraulic lever of a power splitter.

In some cases, it may make more sense to split near the felling site, since pieces of firewood are easier to load and move than large rounds are. Processing wood at the felling site reduces the damage to residual trees that often results from skidding tree-length logs. Finally, the detritus from the process (nutrient-rich sawdust, bark, and branches) is left in the woods and returns to the soil.

Choosing an Axe for Splitting

Splitting is different from chopping: with splitting, you’re bisecting the wood along the grain, instead of diagonally cutting it. Therefore, to effectively split wood, you’ll need an axe that works less like a knife and more like a wedge. Your first option is to convert an old felling axe into a splitting axe. Since you’re looking for a fat wedge to pop the wood apart, seek out a well-worn felling axe with a short face from being ground and abused. Use a flat file at a 40-degree angle on each side to create a blunt wedge. If the axe has been out of service for a while, make sure the handle isn’t cracked or loose.

Splitting with a Maul

Another option for wood splitting is a maul. The advantage of the maul is its mass, which allows you to power through the log with each blow. Mauls can range in weight from 6 to 16 pounds. But remember: what you gain in mass isn’t free. You’ll still need to lift the maul, which can be tiring. I prefer lighter mauls that allow me to work longer without getting tired. There are also several new hybrid mauls that incorporate the thin cheek of an axe with the thick poll of a traditional maul.

More from The Woodland Homestead:

How to Make Charcoal From Wood

Building with Trees and Tree Stumps

Excerpted from The Woodland Homestead, © by Brett R. McLeod, illustrations by © Steve Sanford, used with permission from Storey Publishing.