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