No doubt about it, one of the most sustainable forms of heat for your homestead is delivered through careful harvest and processing of trees growing around your place. If you have sufficient acreage devoted to woodlot, woods and hedgerow, you might even be able to cut a little extra and sell the resulting firewood. In any case, one of the keys to producing high-quality fuel wood is to split 4- to 6-inch-diameter billets in half and larger sizes into thirds, quarters or even more — to ensure that the wood will season properly and burn efficiently. But how do you go about splitting, and what is the ideal log splitter?
If you have images of Paul Bunyan employing his double-bitted ax for everything from felling trees to limbing them to bucking and splitting, it’s time to rethink. Under no circumstances should you consider the ax to be a splitting tool, it was designed as a cutting tool. However, if you wish to get the most heat from your firewood, you will definitely get an extra dose of warmth when you split the stuff using hand tools such as a splitting maul, wedges and sledge hammer, or a combination of the three. For those of you not interested in swinging mauls or sledge hammers, but with relatively small firewood needs, you might consider a dedicated hand splitter (such as the WoodEze Smart-Splitter) — essentially a splitting wedge attached to a slide hammer that you raise vertically above the log and slam into it. The wedge follows a guide so your chances of missing the log are minimal. Carry it one step further and you also can choose a hand- or foot-powered hydraulic splitter — you supply the pumping power and the hydraulic ram does the rest.
Some folks hand split a few cords of firewood each season, but when you find yourself short on time or energy, or routinely split several cords, you might find that a powered splitter is an ultra-efficient luxury worth the investment.
When your firewood needs expand to several cords each season, it might be time to graduate to a larger, higher capacity hydraulic splitter. Most hydraulic splitters use a power source such as an internal combustion engine or electric motor to pump hydraulic oil into a hydraulic cylinder (ram) at high pressures, causing the cylinder’s piston to move. The end of the piston is generally attached to a flat plate or anvil (on models with a stationary wedge) or a splitting wedge (on models with a stationary anvil) and is positioned on a track such that when it moves, a log placed on the track will get squeezed between the wedge and the plate until it splits. Some wedges feature a crossed design and cause the billet to split into fourths, but most just split the pieces of wood in half.
Hydraulic splitters are typically rated by their maximal hydraulic force, measured in tons. Some so-called dual-action hydraulic splitters use an anvil at either end of the track with a wedge that can split in either direction because it attaches to the upper surface of the piston (located beneath the track) instead of directly to the front of the piston. These models can increase your hourly output considerably because you don’t need to bring the wedge back to the start position before loading another log.
At the smaller end of the hydraulic splitter range, many lightweight horizontal bench-top or roll-around models exist in the 4- to 8-ton range. These machines are usually powered with electric motors, so they are quiet, and you can operate them indoors safely if desired. I’ve used 6-ton models that were quite capable of splitting 18-inch-long billets up to about 18 inches in diameter. Though ideal for splitting dry wood, these little powerhouses can be used effectively with wet wood up to around 12 inches in diameter, assuming it isn’t one of the more difficult-to-split species. If you have a few cords of relatively small stuff to split each year, and/or you like to work indoors, these comparatively inexpensive units make perfect sense. If you routinely have more wood to split and handle larger rounds, you will want to upgrade.
For folks who will regularly need to split green or dry rounds up to 24 inches long in the 12-inch-diameter or greater size, I would recommend you choose a splitter with at least 12 tons of power — 16 tons or more would be better. If you can, choose a machine that will operate in both vertical and horizontal configurations. The horizontal configuration makes it easy to load from the back of a pickup or off the top of a pile, and positioning the log for precision splitting is a snap. If your wood is located closer to the ground, it’s usually easier to work large and heavy pieces into position using the vertical mode (unless you opted for a high-end horizontal unit with a hydraulic log loader).
Whether powered with an electric motor or internal combustion engine, these machines will be heavy, and most are mounted on an undercarriage that makes moving them around pretty easy. One advantage to an internal combustion engine powered splitter is that you can take it to the woodlot or woodpile. The electric models in this range will likely require a 220-volt electrical source — certainly you can use them remotely if you have a portable generator of sufficient capacity. If you already have a tractor with a three-point hitch and hydraulic system (or a PTO and matched hydraulic pump), or a skid-steer loader, you can sometimes save money on the same capacity splitter by choosing the tractor or skid-steer mount option. The tractor will serve to power and position the splitter.
When the plan includes splitting plenty of stuff in the 24-inch-plus-diameter range, and/or particularly tough species like American elm, then by all means consider a model with 20 tons of capacity or more. I’ve had excellent luck with a 20-ton gasoline-powered unit and have successfully split dry and green red oak crotches, elm and Osage Orange up to 22 inches in diameter. In general, if your firewood plans call for a number of cords each season, the larger models will serve you well — and they can handle smaller billets, too.
Relatively new on the scene for homestead-relevant log splitters are the so-called high-speed units that rely only on mechanical advantage and inertia to split logs with a cycle time that’s significantly lower than that found on most hydraulic splitters. Currently available in rating equivalents up to about 35 tons, these machines use a movable anvil attached to the end of a rack (linear gear) bar that when forced to engage a spinning pinion gear (motivated by an engine or motor and a heavy flywheel) drives the log into the wedge, which splits it. These machines take a little getting used to if you have experience with hydraulic splitters, but once you get the hang of them, they will motor through a pile of firewood in a hurry. They include the DR Power RapidFire, SpeeCo Kinetic, and the Super Split. I’ve used a SpeeCo model to good result, although it was a pre-production version.
Archimedes would be proud
A couple of other powered log splitter options are out there. One looks very much like a hydraulic splitter, but the wedge is attached to a large diameter acme screw, which is turned by a motor through a transmission. While you might only find this style on the used market, if you are mechanically inclined, check it out and see if you can purchase it for short money. Some of the best, most robust examples of these include the Gilson Power-Bolt series, now long out of production. Turn the screw one direction to split the log and turn it the other direction to reset.
No discussion of homestead splitting tools would be complete without mention of another screw-type design — the Stickler. This large cone-shaped woodscrew can be powered by bolting it to a car, truck or tractor axle or coupling it to a tractor’s PTO, stationary engine, you name it. Harking to the 1970s, this conical screw design is still with us and works as follows. Set the screw to spinning, stab a log onto the screw (near the end of the log) and keep the log from spinning. As the ever-widening screw pulls its way into the log, it eventually splits. Good for logs up to 3 feet long and 40 inches in diameter, this may well be the least expensive and most versatile option, not including wedge and sledge. The Stickler is not complicated or burdened with all manner of safety equipment. Like all log splitters, it requires an attentive operator, but it is capable of serious production. As the first log splitter I ever operated, the Stickler made large-scale firewood making accessible on my non-existent student budget.
When it comes to splitting firewood, finding the right tools and learning how to make the best and safest use of them will have you well on your way to reducing your heating bills to almost nothing in no time. Keep track of your efforts, and I think you will discover that heating with wood warms you many more times than twice.
Read more: Learn how to save your back with DIY table grate instructions in this article from a GRIT blogger, Log Splitter Table Grate: A Little Ingenuity Saves Lots of Money.
Editor-in-Chief Hank Will routinely cuts firewood around his farm in Osage County, Kansas, and does his best to stay multiple years ahead of use to heat his farm house all through the chilly Plains winters.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.