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.

My Husband Gave Me A Manual Hydraulic Woodsplitter; Better than a Vaccuum Cleaner….

Since we heat with wood and have his and hers chainsaws, you would think we would have his and hers axes, mauls, and wedges. (Here is a link to that exciting article, entitled Women and Chainsaws.) However, my husband pleads his back. After a lifetime of seeing men I care about hurt their backs and walk around like giant commas, I am completely traumatized by the thought of masculine back pain, to the extent that I worry about any man who lifts anything at all. I’m somewhat aware that many men have healthy backs and can lift great burdens with ease, but the emotional wounds are there, and I have in fact developed a regime of hot pepper back rubs, etc. which we go into the moment my husband winces and freezes.

So I don’t mind splitting wood. After a day of it, however, my arms hurt. We have looked at various splitters. Power splitters look great, but for me, since I was doing all right without one, they are expensive, dangerous, require either fossil fuel or electricity, which makes us dependent, and they can break down. I thought about renting one for the weekend and going through a mountain of rounds (what an unsplit piece of wood is called) all at once. We never got around to it though. We bought a Smart Splitter that acts by dropping a wedge that slides down a pole (a slide hammer), but I don’t know what kind of wood that splits. Not our locust, for certain. The guy in the picture looks like he could split wood by spitting at it so maybe it’s me.

best hydraulic manual wood splitter

Work the levers like ski poles

What we like is the Wel-bilt Horizontal Manual Hydraulic Log Splitter – 10-ton (Sportsman’s Guide) that works by building hydraulic pressure with levers that you work like ski poles. One is attached to a larger cylinder, so it’s the smaller gear, so to speak. Once you can no longer move that, you use the one on the right, until the wood splits. There are some limitations; the log can’t be very short or  very long, but for most fireplaces and stoves it’s fine. Really gnarly complicated pieces of wood are sometimes easier to do with the ax. It splits wood 20 inches across, even wet, but some really huge logs I’d rather start with a wood grenade. And I can’t split ash logs with it. The splitter starts making popping noises and I worry I am hurting its back….

hydraulic manual wood splitter

The wedge

Lay the splitter on its back where you plan to use it (it is pretty  heavy) and insert the poles into their sleeves. Ready to use. Turn the knob by your feet to the right until it stops. Put a piece of wood on the splitter and slide it up against the wedge. Start working the poles. The ram will slowly rise and press against the close end of the wood. It will get hard to move the left lever. Switch to just the right lever, which adds pressure in smaller increments. Eventually you will hear a pop and the wood will crack. Keep going until it either falls into two pieces or is open enough for you to pull it apart with your hands. Sometimes I have to smack it with an axe. Release the pressure by turning the knob counterclockwise. The ram will slide back in. If it jams, as it occasionally does, jar the splitter by kicking the log or tossing it over on its side. It will release. If the log just isn’t splitting, split it in half by hand and continue. Smaller pieces are easier. Probably a power splitter would have fewer problems with ash, for example- some of them almost look like they could stack your wood for you, but using the manual hydraulic splitter is way easier than having to split a whole rack of firewood with a maul and wedges, and if you get bored you can pretend you are skiiing!

hydraulic manual wood splitter

There may be a few splinters holding it together at the end

Great gardening tools: Rogue hoes and others

Rogue Hand Cultivator

My fave hand cultivator is a Rogue.

Good sharp tools that are the right weight make a gardener’s life much easier.  I would put them under the categories of hoes, rakes, shovels and trowels, forks, and clippers and loppers. Tools should be cared for so the handles will stay tight and not rot, and metal should be occasionally cleaned and sharpened.

My hoes are probably the most often in my hand. My husband bought some very high quality hoes from Rogue, which continue to be my favorites.( I see they are listed as Prohoe.)

Heavy Rogue hoe

If you need to power through some ground, use a heavy hoe.

I have a heavy field hoe which is strongly built and easy to sharpen, with enough weight that you are basically lifting and dropping it, using the weight to power through tough root clumps.

Medium weight Rogue hoe

I have to grind that chip out. I just hilled the leeks with this.

I have a long handled hoe with a small shallow blade which is great for hilling up soil and fine work around plants. But my all time favorite is the hand hoe, pictured at the top. This is the tool I would be lost without. It is sharpened on three sides so you can work like a surgeon amongst the plants. It has the perfect weight and balance so you just get the chopping rhythm going and move along effortlessly. It almost works by itself. I just cultivated a badly weedy 10 foot rhubarb bed and 60 feet of okra in less than an hour. There are many exotic hand hoes and cultivators but this is the one that I know makes my life easier.

Another great tool is the weeder wedge. Mine is a Rogue as well. It is sharpened on all sides so you cut on the push and the pull, and you just sort of mop the garden with it. It is a bit dangerous. An intern at Colchester Farms told me she kept sliding through plants so she eats the evidence. It doesn’t get things like Canada Thistle which come straight up from Hell so you’re just giving it a haircut, but it cuts through shallow roots and Morning Glories and creates a sort of shallow “dust mulch” which prevents other weeds from germinating until the next rain. It’s great for keeping ahead of weeds, but only if you stay on it. It’s less good with established weeds. I also have a stirrup hoe that works the same way but I like the wedge better. It is a finer shape for cutting where I want to cut with minimal effort.

Weeding Hoe

Weding Hoes actually are rakes

The weeding hoe is actually a small 4 tine rake. Now, this may be the wrong name, but this is what I was told it was called. It can be used to comb through hoed soil and remove weeds so they don’t reroot, it can be used to loosen weeds so they are easier to pull, it’s great for mellowing soil in preparation for seeding, and I love it for pulling out ground ivy. Mine belonged to my grandmother.

A spading fork is very useful for turning over new soil when amending by hand, and I like it for digging leeks, carrots, garlic and potatoes. Just step on the fork and lean back. Easy. Handles tend to rot because I leave them in the soil too often,and then when I lever back it cracks or the fork falls out. I need a better quality fork, or I need to take better care of my cheap forks.

Hand trowels have many purposes. I have one with a cutting edge for dandelion roots, but my favorite is my grandmother’s, which is large and has a heavy wooden handle. I use it mostly for transplanting. It is deep enough to get under the plant and get more of the root system. There are so many cheap ones for sale at big box hardware stores. If you use a cheap one enough to bend it, you’re ready to get a decent one.

garden clippers

Plain old Gilmour clippers from the hardware store

Clippers and loppers are indispensable to me. With the clippers, or secateurs as the British say, I can do quick trimming and minor surgery. I have some stem borers in the raspberries so I need to carry them with me tomorrow and cut below the wilt until I believe I got the critter. This is why smart people unlike myself have clipper holsters.



Loppers are great for anything too small to bother sawing and too big for the clippers. For me I feel it is important to get loppers with leveraging action. I am not a weakling but but I do a lot of lopping and I have less upper body strength than a man. Maintain your cutters with a lubricating oil- I have always liked 3 in 1 oil because I want to drip it in place rather than spray it. Notice that you can tighten them with the screws that hold them together. They do loosen, and then they don’t cut well. They can be sharpened, either professionally or by you but whatever you do only sharpen the OUTER edge of the blade or you will ruin the clippers by creating a permanent gap between the closed blades. I use my Dremel tool with a rotating sharpening stone. Makes life easier.

I should mention a hand cultivator with tines. I had one from my grandmother that finally came out of its handle. It did a great job going into tight spots and with the raking action you wouldn’t accidentally cut a plant. I loved it for getting ground ivy out of the flower beds because it both dug and raked, and it combed the ivy and grass out of the flowers without injuring their roots much. It had a nice springy action. Maybe I’ll fix it.

A shovel is such an important tool for everyday life. I used one a lot this spring digging big holes for new shrubs and fruit trees, and for digging up saplings that came up where I didn’t want them. Girls should understand that digging a hole is just a matter of shovelfuls. You can do much more than you have been told you can. I dug a hole 3 feet deep and five feet long when my dear old Labrador died. It was good to dig at that point.I understand that as a flower of the South I should have a man dig holes for me that so my little hands don’t get callused, but when the man is on the road or isn’t properly educated in these matters, I can drop that act and do it myself.

Take care of your tools. Don’t leave them lying in the garden. Hang them in in a dry place. In winter, give them a going over. Organize. Clean and sharpen blades. Make sure handles are in good condition; you can buy replacements at the hardware store for most decent tools. I have applied homemade beeswax/turpentine polish to my handles, but something ate it- you can see the grooves-, but perhaps maintenance with linseed/turpentine oil might work. I admit I don’t oil my handles; maybe I should. Tools that are taken care of last forever, and can be passed on. They develop a sort of well-loved feeling in the handle. I like to think  my grandmother and our friend Steve Moaney would be tickled to see me using their tools today.

Women and Chainsaws!

snowy woods It is winter, and the winds are howling outside, but our big living room is toasty warm despite big windows and french doors. The small woodstove kicks out good heat, and the kettle hisses comfortably on top of it, alongside of a pot of fragrant bean soup that is gently simmering. Outside the door is a stack of wood I cut, split where necessary, and stacked, from dead trees in the hedgerows on this farm.

I think keeping the house warm is a character forming skill for children. Fire-making is a simple competence that is central to human survival, male or female.  As the oldest of four girls I learned many skills from my father that he might not have taught me if there had been sons. As the daughter of a German woman I learned early to like work. So as a little girl I gathered kindling, and as I grew bigger, I helped carry and stack the firewood my father cut, along with my little sisters. Especially in the house we lived in in Virginia when he was teaching at Sweet Briar College, this was not just for the benefit of our characters. During the bogus oil embargo in the Seventies, a professor’s salary couldn’t heat a big, drafty house with oil. That house was freezing, and those mountain winters were snowy. It was cold, our feet and hands were numb, and the hills were steep and slippery, but we did what had to be done as a family to keep the fires going. I have to say I don’t think I was sufficiently understanding or fair when my son was 11 and we were hauling wood on the mild, flat Eastern Shore of Maryland. I was divorced and it’s hard for a mother to raise a son alone. Somehow he learned to be strong and protective, and he learned to split wood along the way.

chainsaw woman and chevy s10It took some big changes in my life to turn me into a chainsaw woman. My father kept us well away from his Stihl. It was a woodsman thing; no woman could possibly run it without cutting off an appendage. But when I moved back to the farm in ’99, I had no man to cut wood, and there was a cute little Poulan chainsaw at the Lowes for less $99. I had a breakthrough. What a man has that I don’t have is utterly useless when it comes to cutting wood. I had watched this all my life. English professors do this. I could do this. You can do this. Just be careful in everything that you do. Maintain the saw, keep the chain tight so it doesn’t fling itself off the bar and cut you, watch how the wood you are cutting is going to be affected by gravity as you cut so you don’t pinch the bar or drop a tree on somebody. Know what you are doing before you do it, and never hurry.

2 chainsawsBuying your first Chainsaw:

OK, let’s get started.  You need a saw. Cheap saws are a good start. Not electric- that’s too cheap. Imagine running around the woods followed by extension cords. Gas. You can get a new Poulanat the hardware store for less than a hundred dollars. Go and heft them. Not everybody has the upper body strength and endurance to cut with a 22 inch Stihl, and if you make a mistake you’ll hurt yourself badly. Start with a 14 inch Poulan. I have two 14 inchers and one 16 inch, because they can generally last a year with someone who doesn’t know how to take small engines apart and fix them. And actually, one of them still runs, if put to it. You probably don’t have too many trees that are too big for 14 inches anyway. You might get a used saw cheaper, but if it is your first saw, make sure it is in really good condition and starts on the first pull. Get the instruction manual off the internet and read it through if you don’t get one that comes in a box. Check out all the youtubes. OK, you think you are too good for a Poulan? If money is not that tight, a Husqvarnais the next step up. Stihl is when you are ready to cut with the big dogs. They are pricey but last forever if well-maintained. My husband got me a very old used #41 Farm Boss, 22 inches, for $300 last year, and I take it in once a year for a tune up, which costs me $80 (for 2 saws.) I only use ethanol free gas in it, mixed with a good quality 2 cycle oil, I clean and sharpen it obsessively, and only certain people are allowed to touch it. It is all metal and says “made in West Germany” on it. It is very heavy and if the chain is sharp it goes through a downed  locust tree like a hot knife through butter. It would do the same to my foot, if I slipped, so I keep well away from the blade. My back hurts a lot when we have a big blow and I have to cut a lot. Try to alternate between the big and little saw; work until one tank is empty, then switch to the other saw and do a different task. So think about this. Start with a small, light saw.

protective gear

My niece showing us how it’s done

While you are at it, get protective gear; safety glasses and ear protectors. And steel toe boots. A friend of mine got a huge chunk of wood right in the eyeball while bush hogging and had to go to a specialist at John Hopkins to save his eyeball. When I have forgotten to wear safety glasses the flying sawdust reminded me in a hurry. For your ears there are those little foam rubber plugs, considerately neon colored so when they fall out of your ears you can find them in the leaves. My father used spitwads. They aren’t much good. You can hear just fine with them in. Honestly, you can get excellent quality cheap ear protectors  that are made for shooting. I paid about $10 for some Winchester ear protectors at- I admit it- I went- sorry- Wallyworld. The Husqvarna ones ($17) are tougher though. People are always borrowing mine. If you don’t wear them, your ears will feel funny and you won’t hear very well. Seriously. Damage can become permanent, plus ear protectors are nice and warm.  As to boots, I live in barn boots- Wellingtons or whatever. It’s just me. They get sweaty, but they are light and I can slip them off and on while shaking sawdust out of them, and wade through mud and muck without a worry. You might prefer some lace up work boots with steel toes.

screnchScrench/Chainsaw tool

This is a t-shaped tool that has a screwdriver on one end and two hex drivers on the other. You can’t live without it. It loosens and tightens your chain, the nuts that hold your bar on, and even opens the gas and bar chain oil tanks. You will always be losing it, so spray paint it neon pink or something. Saves cussing.


The new ethanol mix gas tears up small engines, especially if you leave it in the saw for more than a few days. You really should leave the saw either totally empty and dry or full while you aren’t running it. If you aren’t using it for a month or so, fill it with gas mixed with Stabil. Leaving it totally empty for too long can cause the seals to dry and crack. I go to a gas station that has ethanol free gas and fill up my 2 gallon can 95% full. If I’m using a 1 gallon, same thing. Chainsaws used mixed gas. You buy the good quality 2 cycle oil,measure it very precisely, and mix it into the gas by shaking. It’s easy though. The oil I mix it with is either pre-measured or squeezes into a measuring container that is designed for 1 gallon. I want to make sure I err just a tad on the side of less than a gallon, and I can tell how much I bought by looking at the pump. A few pennies of gas is not worth having to overhaul your saw.

add bar chain oil to oil chamber

pouring bar chain oil into the oil chamber. Don’t get them mixed up….

When you fill your gas tank with the mixed gas, fill the oil reservoir on the other side of the saw as well. They run out at about the same rate, and if you don’t have oil constantly lubricating the bar the chain will overheat and lose the temper of the metal, among other awful things which have never happened to me because I am religious about bar chain oil. Then it won’t hold an edge. Clean off the sawdust so you don’t get dirt in either reservoir. When you are cutting if you are afraid the chain isn’t lubricating hold the chain above some bark and rev the saw. You should see a fine mist of oil darkening the surface. If not, cut off the saw and check the oil.

Tightening the Chain

Your chain should be seated in the groove on the bar with the cutting edges forward. There should be a picture of a chain link with the correct orientation on the blade or the saw somewhere. how to put the chain on  a chainsaw correctlyYou may laugh, but I have put the chain on backwards more than once. It doesn’t cut- just makes a sad little groove on the log. Like I said, be careful and watch what you are doing and not only will you avoid removing your legs but you will also avoid the humiliation of revealing yourself as a dork. Of course with the chain on backwards you’d probably just go through the pants and some meat. Researching this post I actually saw that they sell chainsaw safety pants. What’ll these Yankees think up next? (Actually those clever safety conscious Germans, but it’s just something my grandfather used to say.)

check tightness of chain1Correct  Tightness

You should be able to slide the chain back and forth on the bar easily with a gloved hand, but it should pull away and snap back when you pull it up off the bar. If you are cutting and it is making a rattling or even jingling sound, cut it off and check that the chain is not hanging loosely on the bar. It can flip off and hurt you. If you are lucky, it can flip off and make all kinds of little bumps and dents on the chain that will prevent it from sliding smoothly in the groove. Then you have to file or grind the links smooth again, which takes a long time, and it will never cut as well again. So be aware of how much the chain can loosen ass it heats up, as it wears, and if you didn’t tighten the nuts really well. Check your saw frequently. If you have been cutting for 15 minutes, you probably can cut off the saw and spend a few minutes pulling brush into a pile, putting logs in a cart or the back of a truck or something, while your saw cools enough for you to check it. This is also good for your body. If you do the same thing for too long without varying, you will get sore and not be able to do as much. Do stretch. If you are loosening and tightening the bolts, check to see if there is a lot of debris under the panel and clean that out. Sometimes I get the bit in my teeth and overheat the little saw.

opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench

opening side panel of chainsaw with scrench. Dont lose bolts!

To tighten the chain, using the hex head on your scrench, loosen the two nuts holding on the side panel until it is loose enough to wiggle a tiny bit. Locate the tightener screw next to the bar that tightens the chain. Now, using the screwdriver tip of the scrench (see how useful it is?) turn the screw clockwise until the chain is tight enough to snap when you pull it off the bar, but loose enough to slide back and forth on the bar. If you have to take the chain off to clean the saw,  take the side panel right off, carefully putting the 2 nuts in the upside down panel and in a safe place. It is amazing how losing those can waste your time. Tip the bar to give yourself enough slack to remove the chain. Don’t sling the chain around as it will turn into a Chinese puzzle. Just lay it carefully on a relatively clean surface in a circle.

bar off closeupClean dirt, sawdust, and oil off the saw. Some saws can get so dirty the bar chain oil won’t flow, which is bad for the blade. I clean mine before or after each use, and if I am doing something else to it I clean it to make it easier to work.

putting it back together3Putting the chain back on is a little trickier but just do it and you’ll get the hang. First, locate the chain tightening screw on the detached panel and turn it counter clockwise, noticing how the little nub that fits into the hole on the bar moves back. You’ll need to do that so the hole on the bar fits over it. Clean the bar, remembering the groove, and lay it back on the bolts. It doesn’t matter which way.  Turn the chain tightening screw until it sits over the hole when you put the panel on the bolts. You can fuss with this later but I just think it’s easier to do it when you are putting the bar in place. Looking carefully at the forward direction of the teeth on top, put the chain over the tip of the bar and around the sprocket, and pull it into place along the groove so that the whole thing aligns. Put the side panel in place and semi-tighten the screws.  Make sure the chain tightener is in the hole in the bar and tighten the chain. You might have to slide the chain back and forth a little as sometimes the chain is on the top or bottom of the sprocket and it has to ride over so it slides straight in the groove on the bar. When it is tight enough to snap and slides smoothly, tighten the bolts as tight as you can with the scrench. If you don’t the saw’s vibration will loosen them and the chain will become slack, which is inefficient and dangerous.

open chainsaw3Bar Maintenance

Clean the groove out whenever you have the chain off. Put a rag over the screwdriver end of your chainsaw tool and run it down the groove. There is a grease gun you can buy to put lubricant into the tiny holes in the bar. I got some and lost it. I never heard of anybody doing that anyway. If the groove gets too worn the chain will wobble and not cut as well. Sand in soil will accelerate this- another reason to keep your chain out of the dirt. You can buy a replacement chainsaw bar but they cost $25- $50.

Starting the Saw

pulling the start ropeIf you have mixed gas and oil in the chambers, your protective gear is on and you are ready to go, here’s how to start it. choke outPut the choke on. Because I don’t have the upper body strength to hold it with one hand and pull it with the other, I put my boot in the handle, hold it down with my left hand, and pull with my right. Generally one good fast pull will start a happy saw. Then give it some gas and the choke will come off automatically. But saws aren’t always happy. According to which saw you have- those directions are good to read- pull 5 slow pulls, half-choke it, and one good pull. If it almost starts, take the choke off. The next pull should do it.


If you aren’t giving it a really fast pull and you end up flooding the carburetor, you will smell a lot of gas. Let it sit for 10 minutes or so and try again. Some saws have a little plastic bladder pump that you push to prime the motor. Those work well but eventually the plastic cracks. You can fix them but by then you might be ready for a new saw anyway. If it just won’t start it could be that you used old gas. (Gas that sits for even a week in a half-full gas can isn’t fit to use, especially in warm weather, unless it has stabilizer in it. It’s the new ethanol mix that makes it so bad. You really should buy gas in small quantities and use it, or try to get ethanol free.) I throw old gas in my ancient Chevy pickup. It doesn’t care. Chainsaws need fresh gas. If you have been trying to start it using bad gas you may be in trouble- the cylinder may be scored; all kinds of horrible stuff. I have gotten away with just emptying it out, letting it sit a little, refilling it with fresh mixed gas, and starting it. It smoked for a moment but then all was well. I have never had the problem be the spark plug. I do sometimes open the Husqvarna and cleaned the airfilter, but it isn’t that dirty. Honestly, the annual trip to A & L Small Engine Repair in Church Hill is all I need (If you are local to me and want his number I’ll give it to you. Excellent, efficient, and honest. Shoot me a comment.) After you get used to your saw you won’t have any problems. I do like to keep my saws in the greenhouse in winter so they won’t be too cold, but it isn’t really an issue in this climate.

One last caveat for fellow dorks. Are you sure you flipped the ON switch? I won’t say a word….

Watch your arm. Sometimes when you pull the pull start string it pulls roughly and you get your arm jerked. It hurts for a day or two. I don’t really know what the reason for that is, but if you pull it slowly out a few times it will pull smoothly again.

sharpening a chainsaw with a dremel attachment

the lines on the metal attachment on my dremel tool show me how to angle my grindstone.

Sharpening the Chain

When the chain is dull, you will know it. You won’t be cutting as fast, and eventually you will see scorch marks on the wood. You don’t want to wait that long, as you may ruin the temper of your chain and then it won’t keep an edge. When you look at the chain, you will see tiny chips and wear marks on the forward edge of the teeth, like a layer is wearing off. The trick to good chain saw wear is even sharpening, and sharpening at the correct angle (30 degrees). You can get a set of little round chainsaw files that go to your saw. The Poulans, Husqvarnas, and Stihls each take a different diameter file. Make sure you find out the diameter you need. My father just set the file at the correct angle and did 10 one-way  strokes on each tooth. You can get a device to hold your file the right way as you stroke. My life improved when my DH gave me a cordless dremel chainsaw with bits to sharpen my saws and an attachable guide to show you where 30 degrees is.  Just look and be sure you are right up on the edge, and count aloud to make sure you sharpen each tooth the same amount as the Dremel takes off metal quickly. There is also a little curved rise behind each tooth that you should grind down a tiny bit each ten regular sharpenings. If you don’t, as your teeth get shorter you will take off smaller and smaller shavings of wood. sharpening saw4There is a chainsaw gauge you can buy very cheaply that you rest on the chain while you file which makes it easy. It is hard metal though. But by this time you will be hooked and won’t mind a bit. A sharp chain is a joyful thing. Once your teeth are nothing but little squares or you have burnt or dinged up the chain you may go buy a new one. They range for 7 to 24 dollars depending on how you buy them, and after all, you are cutting wood to economize.

Now it is time to talk about wood. Click on this link to read about which woods make the best firewood for what.

Deerskin: How to flesh a hide

fleshing closeupThis is the first year I have done anything myself with hides. Usually I just give them to my friend. She is amazing with Native American skills, and she is involved in an African drumming group as well, so some of my hides have gone onto djembes. The drum master apparently has decided he prefers goat, though. I have 2 hides in the freezer, because it is so cold and damp that they wouldn’t dry well outdoors, and my husband wouldn’t be too thrilled to have them indoors even if I did have a rack to stretch them on. So I planned to wait for spring to nail them to the side of the milk-house.  My friend showed me how to flesh the first hide over at her house. The next day I stretched it out with nails on the side of the aforementioned milk-house, sawed open the head with a handsaw, put the brain in the blender with a little water, mixed it into more water, and painted the strawberry milkshake colored result on the hide with a paintbrush. Kinda gnarly, but it could have been worse. Still, it wasn’t really drying and absorbing like it needed to, so I folded it fur inwards, bagged it, and threw it in the freezer. The next one I didn’t even flesh.

even with the holes I made this is big enoughThe reason I am writing this now is that one of our congas that we use at work has a split head. Rather than spend the 30 bucks to buy a new one, we decided to do the sustainable thing and use what we have. So let’s see what happens!

First I took out the skin and thawed it by the woodstove. Then I put in on the kitchen floor and put the head ring on it to cut around. I didn’t feel like fleshing the whole hide because I knew I really wasn’t set up to do it, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out. My friend uses a length of large-diameter PVC pipe; about 9″ I think, to drape the hide over. She braces the bottom of the pipe against a wall and the top end against her hips, with the hide caught between the top edge of the pipe and her stomach. To scrape the hide she has a piece of stainless steel about 14 inches long that has a sharp beveled edge to it. The ends are covered with pieces of garden hose for grips. The edge is sharp enough to remove membranes but doesn’t cut the hide. I think she bought it from a website. Here is an Amazon link for fleshing knives so you can see what they look like.:fleshing knife What I used was a length of 2 x 6 lumber and a machete. This worked ok but the machete was a little sharp (cut my fingers a bit) and the 2 x 6 had corners, so I did end up going through the hide three times. Luckily the holes are around the outsides of the circle, so it isn’t a disaster.

fleshing a hide (16)What you need to do here is remove all the scraps of meat, fat, and membranes from the flesh side of the hide. First make sure you have the hide braced so you can scrape it while pressing down pretty hard.  Hold your scraper at about a 60 degree angle. You have to get under the stuff you are scraping off, but your scraper can’t be too sharp, so you just scrape until you get through it and it starts to form a bar of membranes that you can make short, hard scrapes against. Keep working it down towards the edge of the hide. If your blade gets too much hair and fat stuck around it just wipe it off and keep going. Hair around the blade does slow down the scraping a little. Be patient. Talk to a friend or think about something. Have your dog near to pick up the scrapings and talk to him or her. Once it gets going it is very satisfying, especially when you get to the edge of the hide and the pieces of membrane disappear into the waiting jaws of your canine buddy.pushing towards the the edge, dog helping It is starting to look like a usable hide now. You will see that some of the hide looks red or discolored. This is soaked-in blood and I don’t think there is too much we can do about that now. If I keep doing this I will take more pains to keep blood off the hide, which is very absorbent. Maybe when I soak it in wood ashes it will improve.

even with the holes I made this is big enoughNow that the hide is scraped I need to remove the hair. My husband asked why not soak it first- maybe the fleshing would be easier after a few days in wood ashes. I don’t know about this, and I will ask my friend, but it sounds nasty. We have a wood stove which fills up with ashes every week, so I half-filled my big enameled canning pot with those, added water enough to make a slurry, and submerged my piece of hide. The next day the hair was loose, but not very. I want it to come off very easily. I decided this after I had dumped it out, so I piled handfuls of wet ashes back unto the hide and set it to work some more. When I pulled out some of the hair, my fingers suddenly pruned up like they had been in water for hours, and I was reminded that wood ashes and water was where country women used to get their lye for making soft soap, and I went for some rubber gloves! I should be able to get the hair off in the next few days so I’ll continue then as a new post.

Link to next post: dehairing the hide.



Bread Machines yes or no

Bread machines are these large clunking devices that sit on the counter taking up space and hollering out that they could be filling your house with the fragrance of heavenly baking bread. People drop them off at the Goodwill all the time. I get mine there for $5-$15. They retail for Christmas present prices. So why don’t people like them in the long run?

They take up space, they have to be cleaned, and the loaves they turn out have a stupid looking shape with a hole in the bottom from the paddle, since they bake in the mixing bowl. The slices don’t look like what we were hoping for. And if you use mixes and follow the recipes in the book, the yeast won’t really develop a nice tangy, yeasty flavor and it will taste sort of bought. Now comes the thinking part.

Use the dough setting! The great part about Bread machines is that they do all the mixing, kneading, and rising for you- I mean that it warms a bit and the dough stays warm and covered until a little beep tells you it is done rising. I really love this with rye bread because rye is super sticky and I don’t enjoy kneading it so much. The only caution is that you need to look in on it as it is mixing in the early stages because if you are adding various things, as I do, and using sourdough started, as I do, moisture content can vary, and you want to see a nice little ball being whammed around the workbowl by the paddle. You might have to add a tiny bit of water or a bit of flour.That being said, if you don’t see that, as long as it is mixing well you will be ok. If it is too full, which won’t happen with a standard 3 cups recipe, you may need to reach in and flip the dough around so that everything gets moved and mixed. But by the time you are that adventurous you will understand what I am talking about.

Every bread machine I have ever had has a dough setting, but make sure it doesn’t default to basic loaf the next time you bake- suddenly you smell it baking and you haven’t formed it the way you wanted to.

So now you have the dough. Just grease your loaf pan- I recommend stoneware, which is another Christmas present type item (pricey), dump your dough out on a floured board, shape it, and put it in the pan to rise again. I like to try to create a little more surface tension by folding the dough and putting the seam on the bottom. But I also don’t always totally crush the bubbles in the bread- called degassing. When you cover it don’t put anything tightly on it and mind it doesn’t stick. I do reuse clean plastic bags a lot. You don’t want the surface to dry out since it’s expanding.

making pita bread (3)But here’s more fun! Bread machines are ideal for making plain doughs that are easy to form into rolls, braids (try following a challah recipe), and flatbreads like pitas. I don’t like really plain white flour dough but spelt (which is less inflammatory than modern wheat) and whole wheat can give flavor without being super heavy, and you can use half and half white, smidge of this and smidge of that, to make up your 3 cups, for a very light result. The next post is about pitas, and if you want I can also make some rolls and photograph the process.

Bottom line, I love bread machines (links to Amazon search in case you feel a need to boost the economy with your surplus cash…) for certain things, enough that mine does live on the counter. We just don’t ever buy bread because it is easy and better to make it. And economical, even at today’s flour prices. Now, my friend Lisa, who has 8 kids, grinds her flour fresh and bakes bread every day. She uses extra virgin coconut oil and the bread, though completely whole wheat, is light and mild flavored. None of the oils in the grain had a chance to go rancid. It also rises faster I think. Her batches are too big for a bread machine but I think- and I have to ask her- she uses a mixer with a dough hook. Anyway, for sure she is buying in bulk so she is saving a lot.

Also- and this is so very important, don’t forget that today’s baked goods contain bromated flour. Always make sure your flour is not bromated. It is very bad for your thyroid, and I am convinced it is a factor in the thyroid epidemic we are seeing today, especially among women. You will have more energy if you substitute home baked bread for store bought, so don’t be concerned that baking will make you fat.

So do it. It is about sustainability and bliss.

Skinning a deer: sharpening your knife

Skinning: A sharp knife

First, this is a good time for you to have a good edge on your skinning knife. And later when you are cutting the meat into usable pieces it will make the job so much easier. I use a French pocketknife called an Opinel. The metal is relatively soft and takes a great edge. See my review of Opinel knives here. You can’t do that with a kitchen knife. You need a comfortable knife with a short, sharp, curved blade. Mine is about 3 1/2″ from the haft to the tip. Learning to put an edge on a knife is not too difficult, but my father is obsessive about it so I had to practice secretly. He’s the sort of person who watches for two seconds before he explodes with “Let me do it!!!” For a small blade like this you want a sharpening stone. Often one side of the stone is a little rougher than the other. Do that side first. Spit on the blade, or ok, you can use some edible quality oil. Lay the blade at about a 30 degree angle on the stone, with edge flush against the stone. Lifting it away from this flush position would make a blunter edge. Rub the blade against the stone in a circular pattern. It’s as if you are trying to shave the stone. Do this for several minutes. It takes a while. You can check an see if you can see a bright shiny area right by the edge which shows you have removed some metal. Try the edge by cutting a hair off your forearm. I have tried it slicing of a few hairs on the end of my braid as well.  Just the split ends…. If you maintain your edge it doesn’t take as long the next time.

People do horrible things to knives. When I taught high school in New York City I took a drop knife away from a kid.  I think I only got it away from him because it never occurred to him that I would try to take it. I was amazed to see the horrible deep gouges along the blade. It had been sharpened on a street curb. I gave it to my father for a conversation piece and he put a nice edge on it. Sort of a rescue dog knife, if you know what I mean.

Opinel Knives: Convenient and sharpen well


sharpening a knifeI was raised on Opinel knives. They come in different sizes; I think the biggest one we have is #10 but before the whole country went mad with paranoia I kept my #6 in my purse, mainly to cut fruit, but also to whittle if I was bored, cut twine, and in case I had to walk through a dark parking lot or something. (Yes, they are French. I’m not going to apologize. After all, I taught French for 12 years. I like to be able to cut up delicious baguettes, camembert, and saucisson.) They make a nice simple folding knife which is very affordable, has a nicely shaped simple wooden handle, and the blade takes a very nice edge. My father said the steel was a little softer which is why it takes such a nice edge. (A stainless steel one might not be as easy to sharpen.) Low-tech but perfect.

To open, tap the back end, which has a little flat point just for that purpose, and the tip will pop out of the end, so you can open the knife. When it is opened all the way out, turn the circular piece of metal (hasp, tang, whatever you would call it) to lock the blade in place. When you finish using the knife, wash it if necessary and fold it back up when dry.  Like any pocketknife/folding knife, if you fold it up encrusted with blood and guts, it will be nasty and maybe hard to open next time you want to use it. Obviously with a handle like that you don’t want to leave it soaking in water for days. Respect your tools and they will perform for you. Oil it occasionally with olive oil.

To sharpen, see Sharpening Your Knife.

They come in different sizes and also with different handles. My husband got one with an olive wood handle in Andorra. It has always stayed very nice. I like how the handle fits my hand.

This is the knife I use for butchering and meat processing, along with my big old Chinese cleaver.

Field dressing and hanging a deer


If you get to the deer before the heart stops beating it is a good idea to cut the throat, both out of mercy and to allow the heart to expel blood from the body. I think most hunters feel gratitude at this moment, and I think it is appropriate to thank the deer as well. If you are in an area where it will not pose a nuisance to field dress the animal there, go ahead and grasp the furry lumps at the inside of the bend in the back legs, and cut them away. They are scent glands and will make your meat smelly.

butchering deer (8)

Note 12/26/2012: Really, even a doe. A young man gave me a doe which had been hanging for a day and a half without the scent glands removed. I have never butchered a gamier deer. It was actually nasty, and I am not the squeamish type.

Put the point of your knife through the skin of the belly at the edge of the breast bone (really just cartilage) and run it shallowly up to the anus. Do NOT pierce deeply. Go back to your breastbone and grab the edge of the ribcage with one hand while sawing down through the sternum. Be careful not to cut into any guts or you will contaminate the meat with smelly stuff. Actually you can make that cut later if you want, but if you do it now you can sort of let everything slide out at once, and blood will drain out and not coagulate in the throat area when hanging.

Go up around the genitalia and look for a tube running to the anus. Grab it and cut  the skin around it. You should be able to pull out the entrails easily.  Heart, lungs, and liver is great dog food as long as the deer is healthy. I remember seeing what looked like parasitic lesions on a liver my mother cooked once. Cooked it was fine for the dogs, but I didn’t want it.

Once your deer carcass is empty it is a lot easier to move. But it is also easy to gut a deer hanging up. I am a woman so I have less upper body strength and I always ask the guys to get the deer hanging for me. What you want is an overhanging limb or a cross-member in a shed.butchering deer (40) Tie a decent rope over it and get a piece of wood about as thick as a sturdy broomstick to put through the deer’s back legs. Tie the rope to the middle of the stick and make slits big enough through the thin area between the back legs and the Achilles tendon, where you removed the scent glands. This would be like if you feel above your heel, only the deer’s heel is above his back elbow; bottom of the hock, if that makes sense. You can do this on the ground and have someone tie off the rope when they heave the deer up, or tie the rope where you want it and hold the deer up while you push the ends of the stick through the holes in the legs. Needless to say don’t cut through the tendon.

butchering deer (7)

Usually we let the deer hang overnight to cool and stiffen, It is helpful to put a stick or something inside the body cavity to hold it open a little. Note somebody stuck a hammer in there. Whatever.

Always a great idea to hose it out well if you have access to water where it is hanging. I have been given carcasses that were messily shot or inexpertly field dressed that were nasty.butchering deer (5)

Note 12/26/2012: My neighbor has a pulley system hanging from the crossmember in his barn so a little kid can raise or lower a carcass. A mental leap too great for this Neanderthal.

More notes on gutting: Now you have your deer hanging and ready to skin. If you haven’t gutted it in the field out of consideration that someones dogs will find it and have a heyday rolling in it, now’s the time. Put a big sack under it to catch the guts. An old dog food bag, etc. If you haven’t removed the scent glands, do it right away. Gutting in this position I always start near the top but I don’t cut around the anus until I have the genitalia removed and the cavity open so that I can grab the sphincter and lower the guts into a bag. Just easier to control the fall.  Be careful not to damage the bladder which is pretty obvious; that’s the transparent bag full of yellow fluid that you don’t want on the meat. Also be careful when removing the liver, which is also obvious; the big lobed dark brownish red organ with a smaller greenish yellow organ attached to it. Be very careful of this little sucker- if you cut the gall bladder you will have horrible green bile all over the place that stains and ruins the taste of whatever it touches. Remove this by cutting into the liver around the bile duct, pinching the bile duct closed if you can. As I said previously, heart, liver, and lungs are good dog food, as far as I’m concerned. Liver is wonderfully nutritious, and there is nothing wrong with eating heart and lungs, so you could use them in sausage or something, but I never have. Unless you are really hard core and are going to try to use the intestines for sausage casings or something, leave them alone. They come out together if you can catch them in a bag. I have had a deer given to me that had a messy wound in the belly. The only thing to do then is empty the body cavity and hose it out until it smells ok.

Now that we have the carcass hanging empty and clean, if the weather is cool it is fine to let it hang overnight for the meat to stiffen. This makes it a little easier to handle. Some people even let them hang for a few days because that tenderizes the meat. I haven’t done this.

Harvesting a deer before the Barn Meeting

butchering deer (40)First you have to know what the Barn Meeting is. Every year our friends Roy and Gloria have a gathering in a 100-year-old barn on the property they rent in Bedford County, Virginia.  People come from all over the world to play music and praise the Lord. Usually about 50-65 people show up. It’s a wonderful time, but it’s a lot for Gloria, and folks eat. People contribute if they can or feel moved to, but during the past few years we have been thinking that the numerous deer chewing on Gloria’s vegetable garden should also be asked to contribute; see photo.

Our friend Andy has been really interested in coming early to help out with this, and I said I would show everybody how to turn Bambi into tasty chili, so a plan took shape. In faraway Miami, Andy purchased a top quality crossbow, a camo suit, and a can of scent controller. Every day after work he practiced his archery skills long into the night. At last came the big day, and he, his lovely wife, and his crossbow in its special case made the trip to Bedford County, Virginia. At 5 am he was on the move, stealing through the woods in full camo with his crossbow cocked, odorless and full of confidence. You know it. Not a deer came near. The second day, same deal. Except he got lost. He was getting really tired, and was starting to worry. But finally he heard a still small voice in his head say “Listen!” so he sat down and listened, -and heard cars on a road. So he headed out and someone lent him a cellphone to call Roy and get a ride home.

And here’s something else. Our good friend Andy, a devout Christian, family man, respectable guy who works in an office and wears a suit, is a Colombian of partial Lebanese descent. He looks like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Especially when he hasn’t shaved in a few hours. Sorry, Andy. We love you, but you know this. So the guy who saw this Arab looking man come staggering out of the woods, in  full camo, carrying a crossbow, had some serious guts to stop and lend his phone.

After the third day of no luck despite much prayer and hunting, we decided to go buy some ground beef at Sam’s Club. The chili had to be ready the next evening, and we needed a lot, so, no choice. We all felt so bad for Andy. Somehow we kept on not getting in the car, and the day kept getting older. Roy and Gloria were in prayer,  so Andy and his wife decided to take a walk, and our friend Kelly and I tagged along. Not fifty yards from the front door Andy spotted a deer about 100 feet off the road. “Go get your crossbow!” I hissed.

“It won’t be there when I get back…”

“Who knows, – get it!” we all whispered. He went tearing off. For maybe five minutes we stood and stared at the deer, a small doe, talking to each other- nice weather, nice deer, yes, yes, while she stood still hoping we wouldn’t see her. So when Andy got back, he took aim and let fly. Thwack! She took off- I knew that was the sound of the arrow hitting, but she moved off pretty fast. We went to look, and found the arrow had gone through and kept going about 20-30 feet! It was bloody so we knew she had to be wounded. I was worried we’d have to search but luckily she had only gone a few yards. He had hit her right behind the shoulder, through the lungs, and she had died quickly. She was young and tender, and just the right size for what we needed. It was perfect. We felt that God had used the hunt to teach Andy to listen, and to show us that He provides exactly what we need when we need it.

So now we all joyfully hurried to get her skinned out and disjointed so we could have the meat chilled to work on in the morning. Here is how you do it:

These links are giving me trouble, but they will at least get you to the Search page where you can click on the post.

Field dressing and hanging a deer

Skinning: Sharpening your knife

Skinning: Getting the hide off

Disjointing the Carcass:

Processing the meat into usable pieces: