How to Split Logs for Firewood by Hand
Using Wood Heat
Heating with a wood stove is one of the things I look forward to most about winter. It provides a comforting, dry heat and I have so many uses for the wood stove.
Getting fuel for the stove is another story. It takes a lot of work and preparation: finding the trees (we try to use trees that have already fallen), sawing, splitting, storing and eventually using the wood.
The focus of this article will be on actual wood splitting—by hand. I talk about different tools, technique and safety precautions when you’re splitting wood. Yes, it's an inherently dangerous undertaking and you do it at your own risk.
Why Split Wood By Hand?
My husband and I split all of our wood by hand. We have a few good reasons why we do this.
- First, it hearkens back to yesteryear when times were simpler. Heating without electricity is not only how our predecessors heated their homes, but it’s green, too. It doesn't require any electricity or gas.
- Second, it’s incredibly rigorous exercise. It sure beats going to the gym and lifting weights to buff out. Plus, you get some killer abs.
- Third, it’s cheaper and quieter than an electric or gas log splitter. Machine splitters can cost thousands, and you’re breathing in all the smelly exhaust. The noise scares off wildlife, too.
- Fourth, it makes you look cool. If you can’t respect someone who regularly wields an ax with frightening accuracy, I don’t know what to tell you.
4 Simple Tools You'll Need
Splitting logs by hand doesn’t require much. The best tools I have found are the splitting maul, ax, hammer and wedge.
- The splitting maul I use isn’t one of those "monster mauls" you may have heard about. Really, just a simple maul that is about 6-8 pounds will do the trick in most cases. The idea is that you want to use the weight to create momentum to allow the blade to make its way through the wood. The blade on a standard maul isn’t that sharp. The other side of the head on the splitting maul is flat, so that you can use it to help drive a wedge.
- The ax, I have found, works really well for smaller jobs and for drier pieces of wood. It’s sharper than the maul. It’s much lighter and therefore harder to get a lot of momentum going. This makes it a good candidate for use on lighter jobs.
- I like to use a hammer to help get the wedge started into a piece of wood. Sometimes the splitting maul is just too cumbersome and clunky when all I need to do is get the wedge to “stand” in a piece of wood so that I can hit it with the blunt end of the maul. The hammer is great for that.
- The wedge is a great tool for helping to split a piece of wood that would otherwise be extremely difficult to do. It’s really handy for large or thick pieces of wood, or for knotty ones, as well. Its triangular shape is great for helping to start a seam down a piece of wood. Then I can hit it with the blunt end of the maul to drive it through.
You Need 4 Tools
larger logs, knotty logs
driving the wedge
starting a split in a larger or knotty log
That's Me Chopping Wood
"I atone for all my sins when I split wood - it's that rigorous."— J. Calhoun
Technique for Splitting Wood
The best advice I can share is a warning: You won’t start out splitting wood like a pro. It takes practice to gain accuracy and skill, as with anything else.
My technique might differ from your own findings. After all, I’m not very tall and I’m a woman. Obvious, right? In all seriousness, the maximum muscle power and momentum that I’m going to be able to use is going to be different than my husband who is a full foot taller than me and much stronger.
How to Split Larger Pieces of Wood
If you’re going to split a piece of wood that is larger than about 7 or 8 inches, I recommend using the splitting maul. Momentum from the maul itself can split many logs easily. Larger than 9 or 10 inches, you’ll want to consider using the wedge.
How to Use the Maul
- When you swing the maul, start low and swing it so that it comes up over your head. As it does, you want to use the thrust of your body weight and bring it all down on the piece of wood.
- As you start to swing, keep your “core” strong. Tighten your abs and straighten your back, and stand with your legs wider than your shoulders and slightly bent. This will not only give you a lot of stability and stronger muscles, you have less of a chance in puling muscles that way.
- If the piece of wood is particularly large, start with the wedge. If you see a little hairline crack on the side of the wood, that’s a great place to hammer in the wedge. It will help increase the size of the crack, thereby increasing your chances of a successful split on the first try with the maul.
- Once you split a large piece of wood, it’ll most likely split into two pieces. You can then use the maul by itself to chop those two new logs into smaller pieces.
How to Split Smaller Pieces of Wood
It takes a little practice to be able to judge whether a piece of wood is a good candidate for an ax or not, but from experience, it’s extremely satisfying to be able to split a piece of wood with this lighter tool.
The reason it takes practice to get good at using the ax is because you can easily get it stuck. The edge is sharper than on the maul (therefore more dangerous) and it’ll drive into the wood more deeply – a great thing if it splits right of way. That’s not good if the wood doesn’t split.
You can waste a lot of energy trying to get the ax out of a piece of wood and/or slamming the wood onto your woodblock in an effort to drive the ax all the way through. In both cases, it’s not much fun.
To get the ax out of a piece of wood, I’ll often knock it loose on my woodblock or just keep pounding at it until I get it all the way through the piece. Either way, it’s annoying because it uses a lot of energy to do that.
The goal is to split the wood on the first time you take the ax to it.
How to Split Knotted Wood
Knotted wood is a lot harder to split. The wood fibers don’t lend themselves to splitting nicely along a seam when they’re going in all sorts of directions.
When I have to chop a piece of knotted wood, I usually just start with the wedge. I always try to chop the end that doesn’t have the knot first (hopefully both ends don’t have a knot). That way, I can get the split going and I can likely use my momentum to help work through the knotty parts.
I hammer in the wedge and then use the blunt end of the maul to drive it in. Sometimes it works great. However, if it’s a really knotty log, I might end up expending a lot of energy just to get one piece split, and knotty logs tend to split into a lot of irregular pieces.
Would You Split Wood By Hand?
Tips and Tricks That I Have Learned
Chopping wood requires practice and trying different things until you figure out what works and what doesn’t. The tips I list below are things that have worked for me, but might not necessarily work as well for you. Just keep trying until you find something that really works.
- Use a chopping block. You can raise the wood to be chopped up higher so that you don’t have to bend while chopping. Your back will thank you.
- Use different heights of chopping blocks. If you’re short like me, I use a higher chopping block (18-20 inches) to hammer the wedge and cut with the hatchet. I’ll put a log on a short chopping block (only 2-3 inches off the ground) when I’m using the splitting maul. If I try to split wood with the maul on the higher chopping block, I just can’t get enough momentum going – it’s too tall.
- Sandwich your logs between two chopping blocks on soft ground (or on a shorter chopping block) when splitting larger pieces of wood. That way, when the wood splits, you don’t have to bend over as much to retrieve the pieces. (See the video - I sandwich a larger log between chopping blocks on the ground when I'm using the maul.)
- Better yet, use a tire. Place as many logs as will fit into a tire and chop them all at once. You can raise the tire up onto a chopping block and nail the bottom end of it to the block and load in the wood that way, to get a better height. Either way, you’re saving yourself from having to bend over and pick up the split wood after every stroke.
- When splitting wood, make sure soft ground or a wood block is underneath the log you want to split. If you try to chop wood on cement, for example, the ax or maul will hit the cement upon splitting the wood. That’s a good way to wear out the blade really fast. Plus, you increase the risk that the blade will bounce off of the cement and possibly hit you.
- There are pieces that just won’t split. You’ll find that some wood is soft and other wood is hard because of all the different species of trees that exist. Some wood splits without much effort. Other woods are so hard that you think you want invest in an electric log splitter just to show that log you mean business.
- When you can’t split a log, do one of two things: give up and throw it in the pile or use a chainsaw.
Do You Play It Safe When Chopping Wood?
Safety Considerations When Chopping Wood
First and foremost, you need to understand that chopping wood is inherently dangerous. Anytime you’re wielding an ax or a splitting maul through the air, there is always the risk of injury.
You can take steps to minimize this risk, however.
- It’s important to wear heavy pants and shoes. Heavy pants will help shield you from flying debris and even the maul, should it come your way unexpectedly.
- Steel-toed shoes are the best to wear. They will help protect your feet if you drop a log on them. They're also helpful if you miss the log and the maul goes sailing toward your toes, or any other number of mishaps that you can think of when chopping wood.
- Leather gloves will help prevent your hands from getting calloused. You create a lot of friction as you swing the handles of all the tools and that can hurt your hands. Gloves also help protect your fingers from getting pinched as you handle the wood.
- Some people wear shin guards to help protect their legs more effectively. I personally haven’t tried this, but I can really see the value in it.
- Wear eye-protection. Things go flying when you’re chopping wood. It’s not just the wood, either. When you’re banging the maul or hammer against the wedge, little metal pieces can go flying. Shards of wood sail through the air as you split logs, and dust particles waft through the air. Your eyes will appreciate a protective layer of polycarbonate glasses.
- Clear the area. Even the most innocent-looking log has sailed through the yard, often right after someone or some animal has stood there moments before. You never know when a log will go sailing through the air.
You can be the most accurate wood-chopper, but there’s always that one time that you didn’t take precautions and then something happens. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
Splitting wood is hard work. With these suggestions and tips, hopefully you’ll be on your way to having a good experience with it.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun