5

A recent power failure made firewood one of the four most important things in our lives for nearly three days. We had enough in our pile of cut up fallen branches and small logs to keep our cat warm and happy, and ourselves not too unhappy.

We've never split logs (and certainly never bought split logs at the supermarket), but I've often wondered just how difficult it would be to learn how to split logs.

Assume you, an expert log-splitter, have an utter neophyte in front of you, in reasonable, but far from spectacular, condition. What are the steps you would take to safely turn her into an adept log-splitter? And, very roughly, how long would it take -- i.e., one half hour session; ten half-hour sessions; more than ten? What would be the youngest student you would train?

4

This is how we teach our scouts:

When cutting, your primary tool will be an axe (held with two hands) or hatchet (held with one hand), but a bow saw and splitting wedge can also be used. This focuses mainly on the former two.

  1. Safety clothing - gloves, safety goggles/glasses, and close-toed shoes (preferably boots)

  2. Safety location - choose an area safe from children and pets, lest they distract you or they get hit with wood chips. Rope or tape off an area that no one goes inside while anyone already inside has cutting tools in hand.

  3. Safety of others - be sure no one is in front of you or behind you; check often

  4. Safety in equipment - be sure axe, hatchet, and mallet or hammer heads are secure; check often. Cutting tools should be fairly sharp.

  5. Safety in technique

    • When using an axe or hatchet, never swing at a piece of wood you are holding
    • When using an axe, cut direction is down your center line, never have your knee or foot on that line, keep feet shoulder-width apart
    • Never use your foot to secure a piece of wood you're cutting with axe or hatchet. A foot can secure a piece you're sawing.
    • When using a hatchet, using two hands can make for difficult aim
    • Never use damaged equipment
    • Never use equipment when you are fatigued, injured, sick, or distracted
    • Never use headphones while cutting - creates distraction, may not hear people about you
    • Rest often
  6. All cutting should be done on a steady wood base to protect against cutting into the ground and hitting rocks or roots which can damage and dull the cutting tools, and which can reduce bounce-back if you strike it the wrong way

  7. For large pieces of wood (5" or more, depending on your strength, stamina, wood quality, and wood type), you might have best luck starting out with a mallet and splitting wedge. If you don't have a splitting wedge, start cutting large pieces from the outside working your way inward.

  8. Lean wood against (or stand it atop) the steady wood base

  9. Avoid the temptation to use a hammer to the back of an axe or hatchet to cut. Heads can be brittle and shatter. A hammer (or rubber mallet) might be used to help dislodge a stuck head

Tips with using an axe:

  • These are heavy, and is easy to become fatigued with using one

  • Let the axe head do the work: you don't need to put muscle into the cut, you need to put speed into the cut

  • Minimize bending over as you cut down - that creates back aches later on (or sooner)

  • As you lift the axe, your dominant hand holds the bottom of the axe, your other hand raises the axe by holding the handle near the axe head

  • As the axe is lifted to its apex, slide your non-dominant hand down to above where your dominant hand is holding, and both hands should be relaxed - no death grips needed or wanted

  • As the axe is swung down, grip firmly with both hands, just enough to control the axe on its descent, but not with a death grip: that will tend to slow the swing as well as increase fatigue

  • Look at where you want to cut; don't take your eye off that spot as you raise the axe, or when you lower it

  • Breathe in when you lift the axe up, breathe out when you swing down

  • Stack cut wood periodically to avoid tripping and to make cleanup easy

Tips with using a hatchet:

  • Small pieces can pose a challenge. I've been known to bend the rules when no one's looking - we all do - but know the proper technique for securing small pieces:

  • Method one: stand wood upright; PLACE hatchet head at top where you want to split; use your palm or hammer and gently tap the axe to start a split; when hatchet is embedded securely, swing hatchet and wood down into wood base

  • Method two: hold wood and hatchet in one hand, and allow hatchet blade to sit on the end of the wood a few inches from the end; use the hatchet and wood like a hammer as you bang into the wood base. Holding onto the wood here is allowed, because the direction of the hatchet head isn't in the direction of your hands or fingers

Note: You asked about timing. That depends on your skill, stamina, quality of tools, type of wood, condition of wood, and thickness of wood. New pieces of oak will take forever to cut through; old pine can be a breeze to go through. If you don't have a splitting wedge, that can sap time and endurance as you slog through a large piece.

You asked about youngest age to cut. That depends on each child; physical capability is important, as is maturity, and each person is different. We don't teach Paul Bunyan requirements to anyone younger than 14 and all must demonstrate some degree of physical conditioning. Those who are 11 and up, and mature enough, can use a hatchet and saw under supervision. Keep a first aid kit handy, though.

5

You will get it within half an hour, if you're a little handy.

Preparation:

  • Take a splitting maul
  • Taking safety shoes might be wise
  • Select the biggest log to use it as 'table'.

Safety tips for when you are splitting:

  • Spread your legs, so if you might miss, you won't hit your legs/feet
  • Make sure no one is in front or behind you. Especially for older, worn splitting mauls, the head might accidently detach. You don't want to hit anybody.

The actual process of splitting:

  • Place the log you want to split on the 'table'
  • Hit it with the sharp edge of the splitting maul, preferably in the middle. The log should split now.
  • If it did not split, you might hit it again at the same spot (and again), or find a smaller or drier log. Some logs just don't easily split, especially the ones with big branches.

As for the youngest student, that's tricky. I think I was about 14 years old when I learned. That's about right, because you have to be strong enough to hold and swing the splitting maul, which is quite a bit heavier than a common axe.

  • Images need to be sourced – Reinstate Monica Mar 9 '18 at 5:32
  • How exactly? This URL is the original one, I didn't upload it myself. – Br2 Mar 11 '18 at 14:07
  • Basically, if you are going to use someone elses images, you need to put a link below the image to the original just like you would if you were quoting text – Reinstate Monica Mar 13 '18 at 14:36
  • I'd have called the thing in the picture an axe rather than a splitting maul. – cbeleites supports Monica Mar 15 '18 at 21:29
  • @cbeleites In Dutch it would be called a splitting axe. It has a broader and heavier head than a common axe. Please correct me if I am wrong. – Br2 Mar 15 '18 at 22:44
2

I've taught boy and girl scouts how to chop for some years, so I'm going to treat you as one of those. I'm also going to assume you've never worked with any kind of axe (or ax, I'm going to use the Brittish spelling because I wrote most of this before I found out there's a difference) before so I can get a nice general answer out of it (all the other wood was chopped by Rambo, using a lightsaber).

Setting up/safety

Put on sturdy closed shoes. Safety shoes are best, but boy scouts don't have those either. Gloves and safety glasses can be useful as well if you have any.

Select a chopping block. This is a large log, around 30cm/a foot in height or a bit taller. You only need this for splitting, but since that's what we're mostly interested in, go ahead and take it.

Place the chopping block in such a way that all the dangerous zones are free up to several meters from you. The dangerous zones are: Anywhere in front of you. Straight to the side of the chopping block (wood will be flying here) Straight behind you (axe heads under extreme circumstances can break loose from the handle, they will either be flying straight forward or straight back)

This leaves diagonally behind you as the only safe space for attentive (!) audience members and instructors.

Now, take a one handed hatchet. No, seriously.

Chopping and splitting

Since you're using a hatchet, sit down on one knee. Hold the hatchet in your preferred hand. For chopping longer branches in pieces, put it down on the ground in front of you and start chopping away. After a few swings just to test it out, start trying to cut a V-shape. This means letting your chops come in a little bit from the right and the left, which will remove wood from the branch much (much) better than chopping straight down will.

For splitting, sit down on one knee in front of your block, put a small log/piece of branch on top of it with one of the flat cut off ends up. (This doesn't really work with branches you chopped through, sawed wood only.) Do a slow practice swing to judge your distance, and then do the real swing. For splitting, every swing has to be powerful. It's better do do ten proper swings in a minute and split 5-10 logs than to just keep hammering on the same one.

Most of the time if you have a swing that was hard enough to get the head stuck in the wood but not hard enough to split it right away you want to take the head out and swing again. Chops like this do weaken the wood, you have a better chance of succeeding on the net swing. Sometimes though, if the head is in deep and not in any way at the edges of the log it can be preferable to lift the axe with the block still on it and hammer the whole thing down on the block. Most people figure this technique out by themselves and use it too often, but it can be the right thing to do. Try to learn when (not) to do this by trying it.

Moving on to bigger things

This is the point at which I'd judge if someone looks like they have enough control over the hatchet. Are their swings landing where they should? Does the head strike the wood straight down, or does it turn away a bit during the swing? If it looks good you can move on to a larger axe almost immediately, but especially some of the younger kids I've trained (11, 12 years old) just didn't have the strength or coordination. This doesn't mean they can't use a two handed axe until they've grown a bit more, they can learn to compensate through getting more of a feel for it. That will often take a few hours of practice.

When in doubt, or when the student disagrees with my assessment, there is a nice little test you can do as a rule of thumb. Hold the axe with the amount of hands you are going to use (one for a hatchet, but we don't need to test that, two for anything larger). Put those hands near the bottom of the handle, then stretch out your arms and the axe horizontally away from yourself. The handle cannot in any way rest on the underside of your arms, you must be able to hold the axe horizontally on wrist strength alone. If you can hold the axe and your arms stretched out and horizontal like this for at least around 20 seconds you're good to move on. If not you're in the "need some practice" group. The main limit of the test is that it doesn't work for seeing if someone has practiced enough. No amount of technique and coordination is going to let you hold that axe any longer. But for beginners it's a neat little trick.

Two handed axes

If and when you figure you qualify, take the smallest two handed axe you have. Splitting can be done with any of them, even if the largest heaviest broad headed splitting mauls are ideal. You can start taking larger logs now than you had with the hatchet. For two handed axes you stand up rather than sitting on one knee. You put your legs apart far enough that a theoretical run away axe could pass between them. Branches to chop into pieces still go on the ground, logs to split still on a block. You still take a slow test swing to judge your distance. You still swing straight down for splitting and in a slight V for chopping.

The main difference between a hatchet and a two hander is the swing itself, and the position of your hands during it. You take your non-preferred hand and you place it at the bottom of the handle. Then you take your preferred hand and place it near the top, close to the head. This way you have a lot of control over the axe, but you can't get a lot of force out of it. So what you do is sliding your preferred hand down during the swing. This is important, do not try to just hold a two handed axe by the end of the handle because it sounded too complicated. Look up videos of someone splitting if my text is unclear. Ones you can do this you can try to switch your hands around as well, if you want to.

And that's it. You know how to chop now, and you have a rough idea of how to see/feel if you're ready for a larger chopper. Don't move on up too quickly. If you're big and strong and you always hit straight that's nice, but there's no shame in not chopping your own toes off because you really wanted to use the biggest axe.

Batoning

Finally, there is a way to split small logs using a knife. You want a sturdy, larger survival knife for this. You put the small log on top of your block, You hold the knife across it, with the handle just off the wood and the sharp edge down. And then you hammer on it with a piece of wood (do not use a steel hammer, or a wooden mallet you'd like to keep in one piece) until it goes into and (hammer on the exposed tip for this part) all the way through the log. This can sometimes be easier than using a hatchet.

.

Good Luck!

2

(Started as comment but then I realized it's getting too long).

Short version: quite in contrast to Monster's advise, I recommend to start with a splitting maul if possible, because the splitting maul features fewer possibilities to hurt yourself than axes and hatchets. If your wood is too soft for the maul, go for a large splitting axe instead.


Long version:

Here's how I learned splitting wood: with a splitting maul and mostly oak. Initially, we kids weren't allowed to handle the hatchet as being too dangerous. The splitting maul practically implies a minimum age, having a 3 kg head and ≈ 90 cm handle. I don't remember exactly when I started, I guess it came slowly as I grew up and became able to lift the splitting maul more and more easily... I remember birthday party games "how many hits to hammer the nail completely into the log/to split this log" were I wasn't participating as having an unfair advantage. Not sure about the age, but probably around 12 or 13. As you asked about teaching her, I'm a woman, btw.

  • Choice of tool: hatchet vs. axe vs. splitting maul, in general and for learning.

hatchet axe splitting maul

  • A hatchet has about 800 g head weiht and some 30 cm handle. It is typically used one-handed, although I was taught (and highly recommend this) that the safest place for the second hand is: also at the handle. The handle is so short that you can easily cut off fingers or chop into your leg.
  • A general-purpose axe has typically about (1 - ) 1.5 kg head, and (40 -) 70 cm handle. It is used in two-handed fashion. Much less dangerous for your fingers, but will easily chop your lower legs. Felling axes are not meant for splitting wood, but for felling trees and cutting off branches.
  • A splitting axe is heavier (2.5 kg head) with e.g. 80 cm handle and a broader wedge shaped head. This is the serious splitting tool in softwood regions.
  • A splitting maul has about 3 kg head. In contrast to the axe, the head has a more hammer/mallet shaped back side and the wedge is still broader. The handle is about 90 cm long, recommendation is that it should end at your belly button.
  • Now the cool thing in terms of working safety is: the maul's head will hit the ground in front of you. It is basically impossible to chop yourself with a maul. Similar but a bit tighter for a splitting axe with 80 cm handle.
  • Hatchet and general-purpose and felling axes work by cutting whereas the maul works by splitting (wedging). This also means: the axe and hatchet need to be kept sharp.
  • The heavier the head and the longer the handle, the bigger logs you can split. Both in length and diameter. Smaller tools can be split with the heavier tools quite easily.
  • A maul is very efficient with hard woods: oak, beech etc. Softer woods like spruce may be like trying to split rubber, a splitting axe is better for them. Or wait till the wood is frozen, the maul then works nicely.
  • OTOH, if you try to split oak with an axe you'll spend the major part of your time trying to get the stuck axe out again.
    Hatchet and hatchet-type axe work better on shorter logs. We mostly split 40 or 50 cm logs (or 1 m), hatchet and axe are OK with shorter pieces for the small stove (say, 20 or 25 cm). Heavy splitting axes are used also for large pieces of softwood.
  • Short pieces need a chopping block below (see axe image). 40 or 50 cm pieces (up to 80 cm - but that's an unusual size) are best split standing on the ground with the maul, 1 m logs lying. 1m logs typiclly need a wedge + hammer/mallet/maul (steel wedges are forbidden over here for safety reasons, aluminum ones are preferred, steel + wood wedges work as well) - see e.g. this tutorial video by the Bavarian State Forestry featuring splitting axe in the first part and splitting maul towards the end.
  • If the maul gets stuck in hard wood, you can usually wedge some smaller piece of wood in below the maul to prevent the crack from completely closing when you take out the maul. If it gets stuck in one of those "rubber" types of wood, rethink the strategy (this depends also on what other tools are available: chain saw? motorized splitter?).
  • I find 50 cm logs most efficient for the oak: right size for the maul, most are just done with one or a few hits. Smaller pieces are almost same effort for much less wood, 1 m logs are inefficient: wedging is slow, at least oak in the thickness that needs to be split as 1 m log needs a wedge. Chainsaw is a faster alternative to the wedge, or a motorized splitter (which is still slower than splitting 2 50 cm pieces by maul).

Here are some secrets of the trade:

  • You'll need to hit thick logs with the maul with about the same precision as thin and short logs with the hatchet.
  • You want to hit the very core of the log. That's where it splits easily. Chopping at a secant line typically needs far more force, and comes at the danger of deflecting your tool sideways.
    There are more considerations, like using existing cracks, whether you try to avoid a branch or rather split it exactly in the middle, etc. Experience is needed to just see or know what to do.
  • Learning the required precision in hitting will take time. You can know a good part of the "theory" after the half hour mentioned in another answer, but unless you're quite professional handling sledgehammers, you'll need quite a while to get to the necessary force, speed and precision.
  • Handles are a prolongation of your arm: use all those tools with elongated arms, one hand is at the very end of the handle, the other a bit above. With the maul it is easier to lift it with the 2nd hand further up the handle, but slide it down when hitting (can be seen in the tutorial video). Everything else is super fatiguing.

Other people already gave some good safety advice. Let me add:

  • Make sure there is no clothes line in the vicinity. It's an ugly experience to have axe or maul being sprung back unexpectedly.
  • Boots (I typcially wear the chain-saw safety boots I anyways have) are much better than shoes. Even though the maul won't hit your legs or feet, you will hit pieces of wood against your shins.
  • Largest danger zone is behind and in front of you (because of the tool), but pieces of wood will fly sideways. And I sometimes find it faster to turn around the piece of wood to align myself with the direction of easiest splitting than to turn a log that doesn't want to stand in another direction, so front and sideways may change...

Last, but not least:

  • The maul handles break mostly because too long hits mean the wooden handle instead of the head meats the wood. All this happens a lot to beginners, and it tends to slowly chip away the handle on the front side just below the head. If you look closely, you can see a bit of this at the axe image.
    This chipping can be prevented by a protective sleeve. Some manufacturers sell their mauls with such a protection, we use a 10 cm piece of HDPE pipe (the thick pressure rated stuff used for water supply), slit open at the back and bent into the needed form (by heating).
2

For teaching someone, I would probably demonstrate it once and then let them go at it while watching to make sure they don't hurt themselves.

It's not all that hard and smaller logs are easier.

The precautions are,

  • Wear safety glasses to protect against the chips or other flying debris.
  • Wear gloves to protect your hands,
  • Steel toed boots are not really necessary, but aren't a bad idea either.

There are different things you can use depending on the type and size of wood.

  • An axe or hatchet for smaller wood.
  • A sledge hammer and wedge for larger logs
  • A splitting maul (you have to be careful to not break the handle)

The basic process is for splitting logs with a sledgehammer and wedge is,

  • Place the log upright on a flat surface.
  • Examine the log for signs of weakness such as preexisting cracks.
  • Line the wedge up to split it in half the first time.
  • Hold the wedge in one hand and gently pound it in, taking care not to hit your fingers.
  • Once the wedge is in firm enough to hold itself you start taking the big swings.
  • When its ready to split, the ding of the mallet/sledgehammer against the wedge changes. That's when you pull the log apart to avoid driving the wedge into the ground.
  • If the wedge gets stuck and won't split the log, you need to put another wedge in.
  • If the wedge gets stuck due to the springiness of the log, you jam in a piece of wood into the crack to help the wedge hold.

  • After the first split it gets easier to split into more pieces and harder to keep upright.

The process for using a axe/hatchet is pretty similiar, except that you are trying to swing the axe into the middle of it hard enough to split it.

Beyond that it just takes practice and some brute strength to pound through. Once you can identify the weak points and hit the wedge everytime you are probably good to go.

As for how hold, I would say once someone is mature enough to be careful and big enough to swing the hammer then they could do it.

  • What do you mean with this > "A splitting maul (I have never quite liked this one because the opposite side of what you hit with is sharp.)"? Do you split with the blunt side of the splitting maul, using it rather as a slegdehammer, instead of like an axe? – Br2 Mar 11 '18 at 14:10

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