Welcome... and Warning:
Because I seem to have “an ax to grind” with many folks (some fellow ax nuts, some nuts in other ways), perhaps I ought to apologize beforehand for any ego-harm some of my comments (plus unintended prejudices and bias) in the discussions below may cause.
Rest assured, however, that my intent here is to elevate the potential usefulness of an ax – one of the tools which, as the future unfolds, I believe we will be glad that we know how to apply seriously and efficiently.
At the same time I wholeheartedly welcome constructive criticism, of course.

January 30, 2012

Splitting Mauls

Q:  I've been using a True Temper 8 lb maul.  I ground the bit for a better (I think) edge profile and it works okay, but still by no means easy on tough Eucalyptus.  The steel's not great, though, and often rolls under the stress.  What 8 lb maul (and/or ax) would you recommend for splitting?

A:  From among the versions of splitting mauls we've used, none would "curl its edge" if properly maintained and used.

Your experience, I think, may be the case of one of the following:

a) you have a maul of uncommonly soft steel.
b) you've driven it through the wood into the ground underneath, and it was the rocks/grit that caused the curling.
c) you filed/ground the edge to a shape that is too thin for splitting hard wood.
d) when grinding the edge, you overheated the steel.

Our primary splitting tools are 3-1/2 to 4 lb. axes, not mauls. We use a maul only occasionally, but one with a 6 lb. head, not 8 lb.

These choices are the results of gradual and continuous learning (we are still only students rather than an "authority"), though "our recipe" is by no means universally applicable. We have no experience with eucalyptus wood; it may well be that it requires a heavier tool. The toughest-to-split species we used to encounter in these parts was elm; 30 years ago, there were still some of the old ones left standing -- but dying rapidly by then. Many had very tight and twisted grain; most mauls (or wedges) would just bounce back before penetrating.

Perhaps it was then I came to appreciate a 'sharp edge' even on splitting tools, and have maintained them as such ever since.

Many people do not bother putting blocks [of firewood] to be maul-split upon a block and they regularly drive their edge against/into the ground, dulling it. As such it is still "okay" for some wood, although the tight-grained pieces will require a heftier swing.

It must be these strong (but less wise) folks that came up with some version of that now commonly perpetuated 'maxim': "You don't want a sharp ax for splitting wood"; or, "A splitting ax should not be sharp." Well, that, in my view, is a myth, or to perhaps put it more accurately, a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the concept of "sharpness".

By a 'sharp' splitting ax (or maul), I do not mean one that has a thin (meaning readily penetrating) profile. Instead, one with 'fat cheeks' seems preferable. But I want the very edge to be finished so it does not reflect light (when looked at straight on). Beyond that 1/16 - 1/8" zone it should, of course, have more of a convex profile than a general purpose ax, or certainly one meant for felling, hewing, carving.

We do have variety of splitting mauls (and wedges) and back in "the elm days" I was still fool enough to swing one of those steel-handled "Monster Mauls"… Yes, it "works" -- and we have friends who swear by it. I also know a commercial firewood producer -- a husky man -- who uses an 8 lb. maul and claims that he can split wood faster with it than a hydraulic wood splitter (which many people have gravitated towards these days).

However, the local old-timers' technique -- of twisting the splitting ax just as it enters the wood -- has far more appeal to me. It takes a bit of practice initially but makes a 3-4 lb. ax capable of equaling an 8 lb. maul in output -- and with considerably less energy expended -- which is the reason that our 8 lb. mauls have been collecting dust for years.