How to split wood by hand

a heavier splitter

a heavier splitter

Splitting firewood is not just a matter of upper body strength. It is a matter of observation, accuracy, and patience as well as the ability to swing a splitting ax. My elderly father is the best wood splitter I know. He can hit the exact same spot every time, and thus can split with a fairly light ax, and he understands the wood.

If you don’t split wood, you have to just use the pieces of wood that will fit in your stove without splitting, and a huge log by itself is very hard to keep going. Women are sometimes intimidated by the idea, and men who haven’t learned from their fathers in boyhood may not know where to start, so they drop several thousand dollars on a gas or electric splitter. Not only is that expensive, noisy, and liable to break down, but in the event of a power failure or some disaster, it may not function. And really, splitting wood is fun. It’s a meditative and satisfying chore, and you can quit when you’re tired.

You need an axe, a maul, and some wedges.

a good axe for women

a good axe for women

I like the splitting axe I bought at Lowes. It is not super heavy, but it has a good shape for forcing open a log, and it has a sharp edge, unlike some blunter splitting axes that really work best for men with powerful upper bodies. The only thing that can be annoying is that the shape sometimes makes it pop up out of a log that isn’t quite split.

A maul is a giant metal hammer, although the link shows mainly heavy splitting axes. I use it a lot, because most logs I can’t split in one glorious smash. I can split cedar in one vicious whack, but otherwise I’m pounding on a wedge or the back of my splitting axe to open the logs. Even if your arms are not enormous and powerful, if you keep driving a wedge into a sound piece of wood, eventually it will split, no matter how big.

Wedges when I was growing up were long triangular wedges of metal, pounded flat on one end like a giant nail. After you made a crack in the log with your axe, you could pound in a wedge and it would split. Sometimes you needed more than one wedge, an sometimes you could pound the wedge into the natural checking (the cracks that appear as the log dries out). But today the new wedges are amazing. I have something called a wood grenade, which as one sharp point and four v shaped edges. You can set the point in your log, longest axis in line with how you want the log to split, tap it in , and all you have to do is whack it with your maul until it splits. Seriously, this wedge makes life a lot easier. I actually found one at the Goodwill for 5 bucks after I mislaid my other one.

When you are cutting up the dead tree into rounds that you will be splitting, look at the length of your woodstove or the breadth of your fireplace, but also look at the structure of the wood. If the piece of wood you are cutting has a straight clean look and no branches sticking out of it, likely the interior structure will be easy to split. If not, cut the piece a little shorter. It is going to be harder to split and shortness makes it easier. For example, cedar is very easy to split. With a determined whack I can cleave a cedar log in twain. But where a cedar tree has had side branches, it’s a tangled nightmare, just flexible enough to trap your wege. I just split of as much as I can and hope I can fit the rest in the stove.  Otherwise I’ll just throw it on the brushpile. I’d rather have it be so short it fits in the stove sideways.

When you have decided which log you are going to split, set it upright/lengthways on a stump or another log. If it is on the ground and you hit it, the ground will absorb some of the blow and the log won’t split as fast. If the ground is soft it’s even worse. Look at the radial cracks in the log and decide how you are going to split it. What pieces do you want to come apart? You can put your wood grenade right in the center, unless there is a soft spot, in which case go off center. Turn the wood grenade so the long axis aligns where you want a crack to open. Tap it in while holding it until you feel it is set, and then stand back a little and start pounding it in.

I try to split logs with my axe, especially with cedar and dry cherry, but often the axe is embedded in the log, and I have to pound on the back of it with my maul to split the log. Also, if the wedge is trapped or I want to guide a crack, I will use my splitting axe blade as a wedge.

As you get used to swinging a heavy metal object that could hurt your legs or ankles if you miss and whack yourself, you will develop confidence and accuracy in your swing. Over time your arms will get stronger too. Soon you will see the crack snake across the top of the log, and hear the slow progressive cracking and popping as the log splits. You will start enjoying it, and learning how to split the halves into quarters as well.

The thing is to go for it. Making sure you aren’t going to hit anything you shouldn’t, like your foot, plant your feet, raise your axe, eye the spot you want to hit, and just bring that axe down hard.  Fling caution to the winds for that instant. Hit the log as hard as you can. If you miss the spot, try it again. But just hitting something as hard as you can, with no hesitation, with all your power, can be very liberating. Try it with a short piece of cedar. You will feel great when the two pieces fly to either side.

Now, if you get tired, here’s another manual option; a manual hydraulic splitter- my DH bought me one for Christmas- better than a vaccuum cleaner or an exercise bicycle! Here’s the link to the post.

Another great idea from guest blogger John McNerney:

As Susan already mentioned, setting the logs you are splitting on something solid is important for effective wood splitting. Otherwise, the soft ground will absorb some of the impact of your blow. I sometimes just line a few logs up on an old 2″x12″ board laid on the ground. If the board rests flat on the ground, it works fairly well. I also often set the log to be split up on top of another log or stump, as Susan also mentioned. Depending on how you like to swing, this higher stand may work well for you.

One problem is that as you split the log (and sometimes even if you don’t split it), the log or piece falls over, requiring constant bending over to pick up and reposition the log. If you lay an old tire on your splitting board or stump, you can stuff it full of logs standing on end, then swing away to your heart’s content. The tire holds the logs in place as you split – no more resetting the pieces after each swing! (I’ve seen some folks screw the tire to their splitting platform/stump, but I’ve never bothered with that). This is a real time and back-saver, especially if you are splitting up kindling.

You can do something similar by standing a bunch of logs on end and wrapping long bungie cord around the whole group. (a rope with short bungie tied on the end will also work). The bungie keeps tension on the loop, holding up the logs, but allowing for some expansion as the pieces are split.

using a tire to split logs

Thank you John

This is John’s son, age 11, using the tire technique. While the young man is clearly sturdy, he hasn’t grown into his full strength yet, but he can do this. This is of particular interest to those of us lacking upper body strength or having a tendency towards a bad back.

7 thoughts on “How to split wood by hand

  1. Resurrecting an old topic here…

    Years ago, when growing up on my parents farm in Ohio, I used to split wood for the odd scenic fire with a maul, and possibly wedges. When I started heating primarily with my wood stove, the maul and wedges got old pretty darn quickly. I purchased a hydraulic log splitter, and did almost 100% of my splitting with that. The maul and wedges just gathered dust (and rust) for a few years.

    Last summer, I purchased a new splitting axe, a Fiskars X25. I’d heard a lot about how well they worked, and finally tried one owned by a friend. I’m generally a fan of wood-handled tools, and this one is fiberglass, so I was already biased against it. After giving it a shot, I was so impressed I bought myself one shortly thereafter. The number of times I’m able to split a log on the first swing has jumped substantially. I started off thinking I’d just do a half cord or so for the exercise. I ended up splitting over half of my typical annual three cords with it. I’m hooked. The maul, sledgehammer and wedges are still gathering dust — when I get a really gnarly piece, or if I’m splitting American Elm I still save it for the hydraulic splitter. With the easier or moderately easy to split wood, I can outpace the hydraulic splitter (though it’s not something I could keep up all day).

    The X25 has a 28″ handle, which suits me just fine. Some folks might prefer the larger X27 (36″ handle), but I felt that was just a bit unwieldy for me – even though it might allow me to split larger logs in fewer swings, once I got the hang of it.

    Just thought I’d mention this, in case someone was looking at getting in to splitting wood by hand.

    When I get a minute, I’ll post a few tips I had to re-learn about hand splitting as I started doing more of it.

    – John

  2. As Susan already mentioned, setting the logs you are splitting on something solid is important for effective wood splitting. Otherwise, the soft ground will absorb some of the impact of your blow. I sometimes just line a few logs up on an old 2″x12″ board laid on the ground. If the board rests flat on the ground, it works fairly well. I also often set the log to be split up on top of another log or stump, as Susan also mentioned. Depending on how you like to swing, this higher stand may work well for you.

    One problem is that as you split the log (and sometimes even if you don’t split it), the log or piece fall over, requiring constant bending over to pick up and reposition the log. If you lay an old tire on your splitting board or stump, you can stuff it full of logs standing on end, then swing away to your heart’s content. The tire holds the logs in place as you split – no more resetting the pieces after each swing! (I’ve seen some folks screw the tire to their splitting platform/stump, but I’ve never bothered with that). This is a real time and back-saver, especially if you are splitting up kindling.

    You can do something similar by standing a bunch of logs on end and wrapping long bungie cord around the whole group. (a rope with short bungie tied on the end will also work). The bungie keeps tension on the loop, holding up the logs, but allowing for some expansion as the pieces are split.

    • That’s very true, and if your splitting platform, i.e. log, is not very fat or not exactly flat, it can be a pain in the back. We have a lot of old trees that fall over, and not all of them are valuable for firewood, so I try to hang onto a big fat stump. I would love to see a picture of this tire setup. Sounds great.

  3. Spending the money for an electric log splitter, will it be worth? Because I own a home and we don’t have long winter here. But I prefer not to go into any type of hard labor. I find it pretty tough.

    • That totally depends on your budget. I saw one at Lowes for $1100. I understand you need to watch your fingers with those, so if you aren’t too interested in hard labor, maybe pay somebody to bring you a few cords of wood before the snow flies!

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