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.

April 14, 2012

Wood Splitting with the Twist

Anonymous has left a new comment 
on our post "Splitting Mauls":

What do you feel about having the axe wedged in the piece of wood to be split, then turning the axe over and hitting the poll of the axe against the block?
This works well on larger pieces.

Coincidentally, just before we got this question we had decided to make a short video on our preferred way of splitting wood.

The method asked about is a very common one in Slovakia (where I grew up); I'd almost say that it is THE technique applied in conjunction or as a follow-up to that straightforward style of "drive the ax into the middle of the billet, and hope it will split into two more or less equal halves". If it doesn't split -- which happens often enough -- the next move is to do just what you suggest. That is, you lift up the stuck ax along with the billet and then invert the whole thing so that the poll of the ax hits the splitting block. The trouble with this method is that at least some of the time the billet does not split and the ax gets driven still deeper. The subsequent aid involves sledgehammer and/or wedges. 

Yes, that is one way to get the job done, but one I presently consider a poor use of calories. But in all fairness, I should add that when, on occasion, my ax gets stuck beyond the point when a simple nudge on the handle frees it (but is nowhere near half driven in a block), that inversion technique is a quick way to 'undo the mistake'.

However, that is 'might near' the exact antithesis of our approach; one we learned about after moving to New Brunswick. The principle difference is demonstrated by Ashley in these two short videos.

That was, in this neck of the woods, the way to split wood, period.
Keep in mind that what she shows is 'the skill of an apprentice', rather than the mastery of this technique, as practiced by the old timers here.

Here is a brief commentary (with an expanded version to follow, perhaps):

Setting numerous billets up on their ends is not how we normally go about splitting a pile of wood; standing them up (often using the ax to tip them into an upright position) one at a time is more like it. Doing it this way was mostly to save on video time (and we assume that everyone already knows how to stand up a chunk of wood…).

The ax being used has about a 3 1/4 lb. head. I say 'about' because that ax was once a tree-chopping tool belonging to the father of an old friend, Lee, whom we obtained it from two years ago. Lee is now 98 yrs. old, still surprisingly spry in body and with a mind sharper than, hmm, let me think for a moment… many teenagers today! Please don't feel bad; this man is extraordinary. Once an airforce pilot, then a dentist, he still learned to make fine violins when he 'retired'. An avid reader and amateur naturalist throughout his life, he also, at 70 (after his first wife passed away) married a woman 20 years younger than himself… 

But back to the ax: With "3 1/2" stamped on it's face, but probably an inch of wear from the length of each side, I loosely estimate its present weight to be somewhere between 3 and 3 1/4 lbs.  Now, while this weight of ax head may be a good general purpose one for splitting, I should point out that to tackle that beech -- because its tight and twisted grain is more resistant to penetration -- an ax a pound or so heavier would have been advantageous. (Notice, in the 'Splitting with the Twist' clip, how, upon contact, the wood 'bounces' the tool back some of the time. The edge of that ax, by the way, is sharp.) On the other hand, the poplar (in the 'Splitting with Ease' video) could have easily been split with an ax a pound lighter, albeit using the same 'sideways-flick/twist' technique.

However, attempting to drive the ax straight down through those beech chunks, the girl might have spent half her time prying out the stuck tool. Yes, a hefty swing of a 6 lb. plus maul would split some of them in less time, but with more energy expended in total. Also, some of the pieces would simply resist the penetration of the sort of edge many folks keep on their splitting mauls…

As a side note: After making these two clips, we took a look, for the first time, at some of the wood-splitting videos posted on YouTube -- and conclude that most of them are a show of muscle power and force. From the ones we got around to watching, the man in "Splittin' Maple" we consider the best, in so far as the competence in handling his tool, although the old men around here made wood splitting seem far more effortless in comparison…

For one thing, the old-timers rarely touched the un-split blocks with their hands. Starting at the edge of a pile to be split, they nudged (using the ax) the nearest piece into an approximate standing position. If the surface was uneven, they steadied it with the toe of their boot and then swung their ax in what essentially was the direction of their foot, more or less.

Today's safety inspectors would faint if they saw that… but once they regained consciousness they'd see the old man's foot still intact, with a large pile of split firewood gathering to his sides as he continues to work his way forward through the pile. (The old fellows weren't barefoot, but neither did their boots have steel toes in those days.)

Anyway, what the maple-splitting-guy shows (and I'm glad he does) -- splitting a piece lying sideways on the ground -- was, and still is, common in this region. If that good man would add 'the twist' to what he already is so capable of, he'd save himself some sweat and his splitting tools' edge some nicks. Also, his handles would last much longer.

Over the years I had watched numerous old timers at work, and the most obvious 'secret' of their efficiency was accuracy. There never was a wasted swing. On large blocks they'd "draw a line" -- either through the middle, or the aimed-for "slab" off to the side, but without the ax getting stuck in the least interim. That line -- consisting of three to five ax widths -- seemed like one drawn with a straight edge… Then the splitting blow -- one with a bit more force -- would part the block as if by magic. The other factor was their ability to 'instantly' perceive each block's weakest point and place that first line just there.

At this point in her experience, Ashley has the basic technique figured out. Splitting wood is not a chore for her, but one of her favourite 'jobs'. She still sometimes (especially while being watched) fails to place the blade exactly where she wants to, and/or misjudges the weakest place of the odd billet. Not to worry; by the time she's 70 or so she might be on par with the old fellas. Maybe even split straight towards her bare toes…

Oh yeah, the bare feet. Please, folks, do not be alarmed; during the frost-free portion of the year we do much, if not most of our farm work barefoot. Gardening and scything nearly always so; ax-work sometimes. Ashley rarely wears shoes while working with bees, etc.

Some people feel differently, of course. I recall how once a man gave me 'hell' very loudly and in public for being barefoot while demonstrating the use of the scythe during the Common Ground Country Fair in Maine. I asked him where he was from and how he had gotten to the fair. Actually from another state, he drove, of course. Some of these many miles were spent on the highway… Like other more civilized people, strapped to the car seat, moving 60-70 miles an hour, shoes and all, he evidently felt safe -- and righteous enough to admonish me.

Well, that's his trip through life. As for our 'semi-primitive' ways -- we use all manner of sharp tools with hands and feet 'protected' by awareness rather than auxiliary gear…

In any case, it will not be of much use if, by way of comments, you try to enlighten us on safety issues. Though we do it ourselves on occasion, we do not specifically advocate bare feet while swinging a sharp ax.

To sum-up the advantages of 'splitting firewood with the twist':
1. The ax does not ever get stuck in a serious way.
2. The handle is not abraded (a common side effect of the 'normal' method) and can last for years without any protection (steel collar, wire wrap, etc.).
3. There is no need to lift the chunks upon a splitting block proper and a wide range of surfaces (from soft earth to a concrete floor) provides a suitable base.

The principle difference between this style of splitting and the more common method is that the blade does not travel through the block all the way to the bottom. As the wood flies apart, the blade ends up in a position nearly perpendicular to the line of the initial swing.

There were no doubt other regions where people have figured this technique out, although it appears surprisingly uncommon. Whether I talk about wood splitting with Slavs, Brits, Austrians or most North Americans, the concept of the sideways twist raises blank stares; splitting wood upon a concrete floor without the protection of a splitting block?? Are you crazy??

Well, not really; if anything is crazy, it may be the fact that this method isn't more widespread…