Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mindful Warmth 3 - Splitting

This is one of a series of articles on my recent experiences burning wood to heat my home. You can read the earlier articles by clicking on the links below:


The wood arrives in my yard in large chunks that may be several feet in diameter. These won’t fit in the stove and even if they did would require a pretty hot fire to burn. So the wood must be split into smaller chunks, anywhere from 8 inches across down to 2 inches depending on:

  • How much work you want to do: Bigger chunks require less work to split.
  • How will be carrying it: I tend to split small so the girls can easily carry it.
  • How fast you want it to burn: larger chunks will burn more slowly releasing the heat evenly over time.

Some wood splits easily along straight even grain lines. Birch is a pleasure for this reason, as are most oak and maple logs. Sometimes you will get a particular log that had a limb coming out of it, or is the crotch of two trunks. In these cases the grain goes all wavy and weird and splitting it becomes a matter of a good eye, true aim, a bit of luck and a whole lot of grunting and whacking.

There are machines to assist in splitting wood. Gas powered small engines drive a piston with a wedge on the end that can make quick work of

the nastiest piece of curly grain crotch oak you and imagine. These machines are most efficient with two people operating, one controlling the piston, the other loading and unloading the logs. For many people, owning such a machine is not a good use of capital, but renting one or borrowing one is a great way to get your wood split in a hurry.

I split my wood by hand using a crude but effective tool called the monster maul. It is a steel handle about 2.5 feet long, with a large solid steel triangle welded to the end. It weighs close to 16 pounds. With it I find that I can split pretty much anything, even though it may take multiple whacks. It take a great deal more energy and strength than many people have, but I enjoy it and find that it works just fine for my purposes.

Eventually, I will add another lighter ax to my tool chest so that I can use it to split the smaller logs without having to lift the monster maul. When it comes to a log that is 26 inches across though, the M2 dependably gets the job done.

The process involves lifting the log up onto my splitting stump. The stump is a large section of tree trunk selected for its size, weight and relatively level top. Once placed on the stump, I’ll stand a pace or two back, raise the maul over my head and swing it down. If it is the first split on a large trunk, I will swing down purposefully and with all the strength and intent to go straight through down to the stump. If it is a particularly thick log, or has uneven grain, I will often penetrate but not split it on my first swing. Some logs are so tightly grained that the first few strikes will actually bounce off. But with repeated hammering, it will eventually give way, and with a satisfying crack and thud, I will have two pieces of wood on the ground where there was once a hefty log.

Subsequent splits are easy. Rather than splitting each log down the middle, I tend to strike off slabs from the outside and work my way in. It’s less work and as I have practiced my aim has improved where I am getting pretty good at striking the wood on the right spot.

This, however, is another place where one must be always mindful. If the attention wanders at the critical moment, of even if I don’t put enough strength into the blow, the maul can deflect, and small chunks of wood and my maul go flying in unexpected directions. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I imagine that at some point it is possible that my shin or ankle might catch a fast moving 16 pound chunk of steel. I would like to avoid this occurrence and so tend to focus on what I am doing whenever splitting my logs.

I enjoy the rhythm of this work. I enjoy the sounds and smells of the cracking wood. I like feeling the axe moving downward and burying itself in the log with a thunk. I like that feel of the perfrect hit that just separates the log cleanly and evenly, ready to stack. I enjoy the slight membrane of heat coming off my skin that staves off the crisp cold air I’m working in. Again, the novelty has not worn off. It’s work, but it is play too. Perhaps this is the best quality of all real work, and to find the play hiding in the work is an art in itself.


Assistant Village Idiot's wife said...

I'm not surprised you're enjoying it. Anyone who plays games with kettlebells or whatever they are called is made for splitting wood.

Anonymous said...


One of my favorites.

Dubbahdee said...

At the risk of sounding a lot like Robert Frost...

Since I don't move my body for pay,
I move it for play.
What most people would consider hard work,
I consider good clean fun.
It's good to end
With a job well done.

Except mowing the lawn.
That's just stupid.

Anonymous said...

I think we have had the mowing discussion before... I find a lot of satisfaction in mowing my lawn/field... BUT, given the option of mowing or chopping wood, I'd swing your mallet any day.