Renaissance Man #1: Splitting firewood

I aspire to be a renaissance man.  When I was young my Mom encouraged me to try out as many different things as I could.  At that time, it was mainly focused on sports.  She was trying to ensure I would have a basic understanding of many different subjects when I was older.  She wanted to make sure I didn’t look like an idiot if years later someone asked me to join their soccer team.  Since I hated soccer, it didn’t really work out they way she had planned.  However, I know her secondary goal was to allow me to discover the things I liked, and that which I did not.  That goal succeeded.

Hopefully this post doesn’t come off sounding like I’m an immodest prick.  The key word in the first sentence was ASPIRE 🙂

I’ve learned some interesting things in my journey through life so far.  I thought it would be interesting to chronicle some of them.  This post explains some of the tricks I have learned about splitting firewood.  It may seem rather trivial, but most people don’t know the first thing about it.  Nowadays most people don’t NEED to know the first thing about it.  I’m going to share what I know nevertheless.  As a side note, the majority of what I learned was from my grandfather.  He grew up during the depression and spent a large part of his teens splitting and selling firewood to help the family pay for food.

Rule #1: Look for weakness.  Like everything else in this world, wood has a fatal weakness.  No, it’s not kryptonite.  Wood is very strong across its grain, but much weaker when going with the grain.  This is the reason you always stand a log on end when you split it with an axe.  If you have ever tried to cut accross a log with an axe, you know what I mean.  There’s a reason it’s an event in lumberjack tournaments.  The real trick I want to share, is that 95% of the time, a piece of wood will tell you exactly where the axe needs to strike it.  If you hit a piece of wood where it tells you to, you can’t loose.

BeforeTo the right is a picture of a piece of wood I split last Sunday.  I cut 2 piles of wood at my cabin, each pile about 3m in diameter and 1m high.  It was a lot of chopping!  What is this piece of wood telling you?  It says “I’m cracking in half already”.  Notice the cracks that have naturally developed in the wood.  This piece has a Y shaped crack.  Splitting a piece of wood on an already existing crack is one of the most important parts of chopping wood.  The crack is telling you exactly where this log is weakest.  Strike at the weakest point, it will make your life significantly easier.

AfterYou can see from this picture that I managed to strike the log with the axe right on the main part of the crack.  It split cleanly, right through, with minimal effort.  I didn’t have to use all my muscle or weight.  I didn’t have to throw out my back.  I didn’t have to swing the axe in a wild, dangerous way.

Rule #2: Keep the axe inline with your body.  It’s great to figure out that you need to strike a log right on a crack line, but that’s easier said than done.  My trick, which I learned from pitching a baseball, is to keep your entire body in line with your target.  If you are right handed, don’t lift the axe over your right shoulder.  Lift it directly over your head.  Baseball pitchers that throw sidearm often have very powerful, fast pitches, but they often also have very inaccurate, wild pitches.  Keeping your shoulders square to the target give you much more accuracy.  Obviously being able to hit a crack in a log square on with an axe requires a bit of practice, but it’s far easier when you keep your body lined up.

Rule #3: Go for dry, soft wood.  Cedar is a very soft wood with a large, stringy grain.  That makes it very easy to split.  Alder is a very hard wood with a tightly packed grain.  That makes it a lot more difficult to split.  There’s a lot more “glue” holding it all together.  Dry wood splits far easier than wet wood.  I tried splitting some Willow on the weekend that had been sitting outside in the rain.  Willow loves water and sucks it up like a sponge.  It was very difficult to split.  Much of it took multiple swings.

Rule #4: Knots suck.  If you are splitting wood with a lot of knots, it is very important to follow Rule #1.  If your log is shaped like a Y with the main trunk at the bottom, and two branches coming out the top, try to spit each branch as if it was separate.  Never try to split the log down the center of the Y as that is where the grain runs in multiple directions.

Rule #5: It’s not a competition.  The winner is not the one that splits the log with one blow.  The winner is the one who splits the log in as many blows as it takes and comes out with all his fingers and toes.  Ironically this is the most important rule, and also the most ignored rule.

Happy Father’s Day!

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