Splitting Firewood

Why bother splitting firewood? It is a slow and labour intensive chore, requiring good physical fitness. Well, if you don't split the your firewood will dry much less quickly and you have trouble getting it seasoned ready to burn.

Firewood needs to dry to below 20% moisture content (a process called seasoning) before it is ready to burn. Large diameter wood dries slowly and may not fit in your stove. The bark of some trees is nearly water resistant so substantially slows down evaporation.

Not up to splitting wood by hand? You can buy firewood ready processed or invest in a mechanical log splitter

As a rough rule of thumb, wood seasons by on average one inch per year from each cut surface. Splitting along in half can make evaporation much more effective. Smaller, drier pieces of firewood are easier to handle, burn more cleanly and produce more even and intense heat in your wood stove. Unfortunately splitting logs in large quantities can be both time consuming and physically demanding.

How to split firewood by hand

Splitting firewood by hand is great exercise and a rewarding experience. When you are finished you get to admire, and show off, your split and stacked firewood - when you've spend a few seasons preparing your own winter fuel supply you'll understand what I mean.

Fortunately there are a few simple tips that can reduce the physical demand splitting firewood places on the body and streamline the process.

Use good quality tools of the correct weight. At the minimum you will need:

  • A log splitter - this is a broad heavy wedge on a long handle, not a narrow bladed axe. The broad shoulder drives the two sides of the log apart, splitting the wood down the length of the grain. A narrow axe will 'bite' the wood but won't force a split down the length - it will also be nearly impossible to extract! Your log splitter should be "too light" rather than "too heavy" for you - you need to be able to swing it fast and accurately, for a long time, so it is important to to pick a lighter log splitter than you might otherwise assume.

  • Splitting block - your splitting block supports the round logs at a comfortable height for you to swing at. The best thing to use for this is a broad, heavy and well knotted piece of tree trunk. Make sure it is resting on firm, level ground so the impact of the log splitter isn't absorbed by the block moving or settling. A block also protects the edge of your splitter from stones or hard ground - keeping your tools sharp is safer and easier

  • splitting wedge and sledge hammer - for those tough, knotted and otherwise misshaped hunks of wood. A well placed splitting wedge and a few sharp blows with the sledgehammer can speed things along. Some people swear by a maul - a much heavier type of splitting axe - but I find the combo of a sharp and lightweight splitter, and the wedge and sledge covers most scenarios

  • A trailer or large barrow - much of the work of burning firewood comes from handling the logs. If you keep your trailer or barrow next to your work area you can save a handling stage. Split logs get thrown straight into the barrow to be delivered to the firewood stack. Each stage of handling cut down saves time and effort, especially when working with large amounts of wood. With a large amount that could save you anywhere from 20 minutes to and hour of labour. Since building our shed we now drop our logs outside the shed, split and stack directly.

Some people have come up with homemade contraptions for speeding up their firewood splitting. One of my favourites is mounting an old car tire around your splitting block. The tire holds the pieces of wood securely so they don't fall over, and the split pieces are held without flying off. It also protects the head of the axe from hitting the floor. The net result is far less bending and stooping to ground level to pick up and steady wood, and a far more pleasant wood splitting experience. This trick with the car tire is particularly useful if you are trying to split uneven sized or misshapen logs.

Splitting Technique

Safety First

Don't split your way to an injury:

  • Wear steel toed boots
  • Don't work when tired
  • Don't attempt too much at once

With a bit of practice you can quickly build up a successful rhythm for splitting logs. A few pointers for effectively splitting firewood:

  • Stand with a wide, firm stance
  • Swing with confidence - pecking at the log does nothing
  • Check the log for natural faults before swinging and try to work with them
  • Look for obvious knots and avoid trying to split through them
  • You are looking to swing the splitter at speed, rather than with force - use the length of the handle to swing it like a pendulum
  • With each swing try to aim for a specific place on the wood - with pratice you should be hitting within half an inch each time
  • Keep your eyes on the wood - don't let them wander during the swing
  • Splitting firewood can be tiring, particularly if you are not used to the work - don't attempt to do too much initially, perhaps limiting your self to half an hour each day, until your body is used to it.

There are many mechanical aids which can speed up, or totally mechanise, firewood splitting. These are generally known as firewood processors and will be covered in another article.