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.
 




14 comments:

  1. Whether or not the wood is green, seasoned, or somewhere in between surely makes a difference, as well as the wood being split (elm, of course, is going to be a different animal than straight grain pine). splitting several cords of sub 10" pine with a maul was no real chore, even for me at 5 foot 5, 120 pounds and no appreciable muscle mass (and for what its worth, no edge on my 6 pound maul). Hardwood is, of course, a different story. Catching the hardwoods at "the right time" has always worked for me- whether at just the right point in the seasoning process or after a real cold night in the winter. In dry wood, the maul tends to "bounce" or spit back out (this is where your preference would tend to shine I think) and green hardwoods tend to be adamant about staying in their rounds (splitting 16" rounds of sugar maple would take me 3-4 swings in a line across the round).

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  2. Believing that I grasp the essence of your response, here is a bit more to clarify my viewpoint:

    I readily agree that a 120 lb. man can split wood with a maul to his satisfaction. (Our girls, when still only two-thirds that weight, were given the opportunity to swing a 6 lb. maul and they did get wood split; I do not mean one or two easy pieces, but a pile of it. However, once they learned that "twisting" technique with an ax, the maul became practically obsolete.)

    As one analogy, the difference between splitting wood with a mid-size ax and a maul, especially a heavy maul, is somewhat like the difference of dropping a deer with a .22 or a 306 rifle. The person using the smaller caliber has to be a better hunter and place that shot in a more selected place -- but in a lifetime of procuring sustenance he will use up considerably less energy (in this case represented by lead and gunpowder). When the concept of SUSTAINABILITY (rather than 'productivity') is brought into the question 'how must we live' (so that future generations can also live), the primitive hunter with a bow and arrow has, of course, both of these beat by yet another mile…

    Regarding not only wood splitting tools, but tools in general, I have long asked myself: Which versions require less energy overall -- not merely in the form of kcal during application but also in the transportation of the raw materials to the place of production, and later delivering it to it's users. This, I believe, will be a serious concern of future generations and it ought to be a concern for all of us already…

    In our case -- right off the bat the maul calls for roughly twice the amount of iron ore to be dug out from the bowels of the Earth. Then (sometimes halfway around the globe) twice the weight is moved at each subsequent step necessary to have the tool finally poised above the block of wood. That's a 100% decrease in resource-related efficiency in comparison to the equivalent story of a 3-4 lb ax.

    (continued below)

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  3. (continued from previous comment)

    Once in your hands, the maul is "efficient" because its greater weight makes up for the skill required by the user of a lighter tool.

    All in all, the proliferation of mauls went hand-in-hand with the decrease in skill of judging each block's weakest line and placing the blade exactly there. Unlike the hunter wielding the 306 (a deer hit just about anywhere on his body will eventually die), the lighter weapon users will inevitably learn more about their prey.

    Every experienced wood-splitter will have acquired 'an eye' for where the block of wood must be hit to come apart easiest. ('Insisting' on parting a 16" block down the centre is, if you'll excuse me, a silly approach. Even if I were using a maul -- unless I anticipated that one swing will halve it -- I would first take firewood-sized slabs off the outside of a block that diameter, until the centre was small and "weakened" enough to split easier. That is precisely what we do with an ax. Especially if that "twist" is applied, a large block will often remain in place until it has been stripped of the sapwood -- without the need to stand it up in between. We also do not place pieces to be split upon a splitting block proper, which also saves weightlifting energy. The twisting technique allows for blocks to be split upon a concrete floor if need be; the edge of the ax is glanced off sideways before it it would reach the bottom.)

    For now, the wealthy nations appear to be able to afford (among other conveniences) trading steel for skill. I happen to think that, along with many other 'errors', this attitude will bring 'the ax upon our neck' that much sooner.


    As for your maul's dull, but still effective edge, yes, dull-edged splitting tools do work, somewhat and/or sometimes. My point is that -- given how little time it takes to keep the very edge in respectable condition -- it is foolish not to. Once that habit of edge maintenance is acquired with regard to one tool, it will more likely spread to the whole tool chest. Then, the splitting tools -- be they axes or mauls -- will be ready for any block of any species, be it green, frozen or seasoned.

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  4. so if you use a big tool, you have no skill? Seems a very broad and uninformed response.

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  5. I hope you do a blog post on carving with the axe as your posts so far are helpful.

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  6. Seems pretty clear that Vido is saying that more skill is required to use a lighter tool to do the work of a maul. Sounds reasonable to me. Didn't see any accusations of "no skill".

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  7. I just wanted to say thanks for the Blog. Sat down this evening and read through everything.

    I hope I land back here in the future when you've posted some more knowledge and insight.

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  8. What do you feel about having the axe wedged in the piece of wood to be split the turning the axe over and hitting the pole of the axe against the block?

    This works well on larger pieces.

    Thanks

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    Replies
    1. Your question is addressed in this subsequent post:

      http://axeconnected.blogspot.com/2012/04/wood-splitting-with-twist.html

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  9. AnonymousMay 21, 2012

    I have an 8lb maul as mentioned in the op. Unknown brand but very good steel. The edge is to thick for most wood. I use it primarily to drive steel wedges with the hardened side into extra large rounds of tough wood. Also to bludgeon apart the stringy wood.

    Just like axes there are a vast amount of splitting mauls and splitting axes which have better profiles
    than the one originally mentioned.

    I had some eucalyptus which was unphased by the maul. I purchased a Fiskars splitting axe and it split the eucalyptus rather well although it was still tough to go thru it.
    Peter I really enjoy reading and learning from your blog thanks for the informative articles.

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  10. AnonymousJune 24, 2012

    Hi
    There are some other ways to do it.
    Check this!

    http://www.farmshow.com/a_article.php?submit_search=1&searchby_key=leveraxe&searchby_volume=&searchby_issue=&searchby_page=&searchby_category=&searchby_subcategory=&searchby_manuf=&searchby_name=&searchby_city=&searchby_state=&searchby_zip=&searchby_country=&page=&aid=24056

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  11. Peter,
    As always, thank you for your willingness to stir the pot. I am always pleasently pissed off by your commentary.
    You raise a particularly interesting and generally ignored point about the broad facets of manufacturing. All valid of course. I am reminded of the more and more fervent use of tractors and excavators by permaculturists (generally justified via “these fossil fuels are going to be burned anyway”). The difference being the multitude of mauls, sledge hammers, and a literal plethora of other hand tools that have been manufactured, transported, etc. The difference of course being that one is speculative (albeit with an extremely high level of likelihood) and the other already having happened. I am not lambasting your idealism in the least-- that aforementioned argument made by certain practitioners of permaculture was very unsettling to me, if not unconvincing. When it comes to the future impacts of all this, I will yield unquestionably to you for you've given it far far more thought than I.
    I also generally agree that mauls are the more popular splitting tool because of the broad lack of skill prevalent today. The following is what I will address:
    “ Once in your hands, the maul is "efficient" because its greater weight makes up for the skill required by the user of a lighter tool.”
    As stated, this logic seems sound to me. I feel that it goes both ways though. If a 3 or 3.5 pound axe, appropriately shaped for the job, can equal a typical splitting maul, lets say 7 pounds, in output with less energy expenditure overall, would you agree that a 7 pound maul “in the right hands” could be properly utilized to maximize output and put the extra weight to use while minimizing wasted motion? I am young and naive, but I am curious to know whether you feel that a mid weight axe is inherently going to chop more wood with less work, regardless of skill or variables. To recycle your analogy, equivalent to putting a 306 in the hands of a skilled hunter, and discarding the parts of that analogy that do not cross over.
    I look forward to your response. Thanks.

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    Replies
    1. Ricson -

      Your well articulated comment is appreciated.
      The specific question regarding the benefits of a 3 1/2 pound ax versus a 7 pound maul (as two mid-road examples) can, be responded to on two levels:

      1. If a task can be accomplished by lesser weight of steel (which translates into less exploitation of the Earth, that is, Life in general) but comes with a price of more human involvement (time, skill and possibly more energy expended by the user's body) then I'd vote for it to be done with the lighter tool, period.

      2. Now, if we disregard the "ecological moral" side of the equation (addressed above) and stick to pure short-term pragmatic considerations, the question is without a straightforward answer. Namely, countless variables will determine the 'winner' between the (lighter) ax and the (heavier) maul.

      For instance, there are many firewood billets that will readily come apart after one swing with a 3 1/2 lb ax, in which situations it is outright silly to lift into the air, at each swing, twice the weight, because here we are clearly squandering also our own energy reserves (never mind those of the Earth's).

      Then, there are billets that will yield to one strong swing of a 7 lb maul but will require several hits with the ax of half the weight. In that case, the maul wins as far as the time element alone goes. Should the overall EROEI be of additional concern, each specific case would have to be calculated/evaluated separately -- a task of plain cold theoretical physics.

      However, in real life a plethora of nuances enter the equation, of which I consider the skill of the chopper as the foremost. Can he/she hit exactly the spot aimed for, a spot that was specifically selected because it is perceived as one offering the least resistance to parting of the billet. Huge differences in final results depend on this very thing -- often considerably more than on the exact weight of the splitting tool -- and throw any 'solid' theory of weight dependency out the door...
      It is likely that seasoned users of lighter class of any tools will have learned to pay more attention to details which the weight/strength factor can otherwise make up for. With other words, the brute force (of weight) makes us 'lazy' with regard to the nuances of the craft.

      And is there not more satisfaction in taking one's skill to the highest level we each manage to attain? This fringe benefit of applying one's mind and body, experienced by all sorts of hand tool users cannot be measured accurately by scientific methods, nor can, in many ways, be a true price put on it.

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    2. CONTINUED FROM ABOVE


      Nevertheless, we do use mauls occasionally (particularly one old 6 lb. specimen) on perhaps 10 - 20 percent of total wood split in a year. Certain billets call for it (energy efficency-wise) and still a smaller portion of them "require" it. There are, of course, some pieces -- the butts or crotches of knurly old trees -- that neither ax nor maul can split. These we either let 'over-season' until they loose their toughness, or burn in an open fire (which is the source of most of our summertime cooking heat).

      However, if I were to part with one splitting tool or the other, it would definitely be the maul. I should also note that had we not learned that "sideways flick", the 3-4 lb. ax would function far less efficiently. The virtue of the 'flick' is that both lighter and less than ideally-shaped axes can do the job.

      Having now said the above, it just struck me that I may have responded to your query in a completely alternative (and shorter) manner:
      Take a look at these two videos profiling a real wood-splitting nut -- the late Tom Clark -- who clearly manifests both the art and the epitome of wood splitting accomplishment.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95Z2UXEFUIw
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BxCmG5sG6A

      Given his evident passion for the craft, and practically the whole range of wood splitting tools presumably at his disposal, why did he settle on a 4 1/4 lb. ax instead of a maul??

      I rest my case.

      With best regards,
      Peter

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