Splitting Wood by Hand

Even if you own a mechanical wood splitter, knowing how to use a splitting maul and wedges comes in handy when the wood is large or the log splitter can't be used.

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by Unsplash/Tim Foster

Several years ago, my neighbor spent the better part of a summer splitting and stacking a large sugar maple tree he had cut down in his yard. For an hour or two every day, the “thunk” of the godevil striking the wood and the occasional high pitched “twang” of a maul hitting a splitting wedge rang through the air. What made this act so memorable was my neighbor’s age: Mr. Herman was 92 years old when he split and stacked the entire tree by himself.

I suspect Mr. Herman’s success was owed in part to his understanding of the wood. He knew how to stage the pieces and where to strike them. He made each blow count and avoided unnecessary work. He understood and put into practice the art of splitting wood by hand.

This year, despite the fact that we own a wood splitter, we spent a couple of days using wedges and a godevil to split some of our firewood. We were into some very large diameter chunks of a silver maple tree and they were too heavy to lift onto the horizontal splitter. We opted to split them in half by hand first to make them easier to handle. I confess: It’s been a few years since I split wood by hand and I needed a little refresher. But once I brushed up on it, I was delivering the well-placed whacks that split an unwieldy round into two pieces with relative ease.

I’ve found that staging the wood is the first step to successful splitting. It seems to me that wood splits easier from the top down, so I arrange the chunks upright in the same direction as they grew on the tree to prepare them for splitting. A solid base against which to split is also important – it keeps the impact of the strike in the wood rather than transferring it to the ground beneath. In our case, however, the chunks were too heavy to pick up so we opted to split them on a firm piece of ground near our cutting pile. If the rounds had been smaller, they could have been lifted onto a solid splitting block.

The best place to start a split is along a crack. Most pieces of wood will reveal at least one natural crack and taking advantage of the natural split not only speeds splitting process, it also saves your back. If your chunk of wood is small enough to split with a maul or godevil, aim to strike it along an existing crack. If you’re using a wedge, start the split by tapping the wedge into the wood a little off the center of the round in line with a crack.

It’s also important to know where notto split. I avoid splitting through knots, burls and crotches; they contain the stringiest wood on a tree and we toss them aside for a summer campfire.

It’s also important to pay attention and use equipment that’s in good working order. Avoid using tools with loose handles; they can make a projectile out of the axe or godevil head. Practice your aim – a poorly delivered strike can damage or splinter a handle. And be careful when striking a steel wedge with a maul – the strike can cause pieces of metal to break off and fly.

Using the hand splitting techniques described above, it took just a few minutes to reduce each of our over sized rounds into two manageable pieces. I helped with the hand splitting this year; knowing how to split wood can be a valuable skill on the homestead. Our woodshed is now filled and we’re discussing how we’ll manage the next section of the woodpile in the spring. It contains even bigger diameter pieces of the tree…

Originally published January 2013.