Everything You Need to Know to Split Wood Successfully

There’s nothing like a nice fire on a cool spring evening or early in the fall. It’s a way to bring family and friends together for a good time and great conversation – not to mention the soothing effect that the slow steady crackling and popping noises emitted from the fire tend to have on us.

If you’re in your backyard you may have easy access to pre-cut logs, but that’s probably not the case if you’re staying at a remote family cabin or camping in the backwoods. In these scenarios it’s more likely that you’ll have to hunt for your own wood, or you may even have to chop a tree down yourself.

There’s a lot to keep in mind when it comes to splitting wood and it’s a good idea to make sure you’re prepared if you want to enjoy a good fire no matter where you are.

In this article we’re going to explore the process of splitting wood and the tools you need for the job. Some tools are better than others, but if you’re creative enough you should be able to find a solution even when you’re not properly equipped.

Safety First

Before you think about splitting wood you need to make sure you have the necessary safety equipment so that you don’t injure yourself or those around you in the process.

A good pair of safety glasses is one of the first things you should obtain. I’ve been on many hiking trips where we’ve had to split wood and not one of us thought to bring safety glasses and then one day one of my hiking companions had a splinter fly up into his eye.

Fortunately he didn’t suffer any permanent vision loss, but it was our major concern when it happened. Now we make sure one of us remembers to pack a pair of safety glasses every time.

You should also try to make sure you’re wearing long sleeves and pants when you split wood – those little slivers of wood have an incredible knack for finding any bit of exposed skin.  A pair of gloves is a great idea as well.

Lastly, you should also make sure your feet are completely covered. Open toed shoes or sandals are not a good idea when there are splinters of wood flying around. This may all sound like a lot of bother, but it will only take you a minute to get ready and it’s well worth the extra effort.

Working with Manageable Pieces

Once you’re all decked out in your safety gear you will then want to make sure you have some manageable logs to work with. If you’ve just finished chopping down a large tree at your rustic cabin in the mountains you have a bit of work to do before you’re ready to split wood for the fire.

First you have to slice that tree up into smaller pieces and to do that you can use a chainsaw or a large axe if you’re feeling ambitious. The chainsaw will make the job a lot easier, but some people love a good challenge and if that describes you cutting a tree into smaller logs with an axe can be exhilarating.

The next question to consider is just how small should those logs be? That really depends on your own preference and the size of your fire, but typically you’ll want to cut your tree into logs between 16 and 20 inches in length. That’s the perfect size for most standard fires and it’s a good manageable size for splitting as well.

It Pays to Be Prepared

With your safety gear on and your logs ready to split you’re probably ready to get started, but there are a couple of more things to think about first.

First of all you’ll want to designate an area for doing the wood splitting. If you’re at home you probably have a regular area that you do this, but it’s just as important to have a designated area for performing your wood splitting duties when you’re on a campsite.

You may be all dressed up in your safety gear, but the other members of your party aren’t. If you don’t want them to get inured you need to make sure you split the wood well away from other people.

The other thing you need is a good chopping block. This will typically be a larger log, but any flat solid surface will do. The key thing to keep in mind is to make sure it’s large enough for your piece of wood to fit comfortable on.

If you’re wood’s hanging of the edge of your block you’re going to have a difficult time keeping it in place while you work. There’s also an increased chance of injury from flying off in unpredictable directions.

Does it Matter What Type of Wood I’m Splitting?

The best tool for the job does have a lot to do with the type of wood you’re splitting. Sure you can split wood with any type of axe, but if you try to split a thick piece of oak with a small hand axe it will take you a long time.

After a bit your arms will probably begin to ache and you’ll find yourself taking frequent breaks. At that rate it could take you hours just to split a few piece of wood for a fire. There’s a good chance your family will give up waiting and head for bed!

On the other hand you don’t need along handled splitting maul if you’re trying to split some old dry wood that just about crumbles in your hand. That’s what I call overkill! It’s best to have a couple of different options available depending on the type of wood you’re cutting.

Using the wrong type of axe is like trying to use a butter knife to turn a screw – it works, but it will take you a lot longer and you’ll get pretty frustrated in the process.

How to Split Wood with a Felling Axe

A felling axe isn’t designed to be used for splitting wood. The name is a bit of a giveaway. The intended use for one of these axes is to take the try down in the first place.

They were much more common a few decades ago before the invention of the chainsaw, but some traditionalist still prefer to use them for chopping down trees.

They have a very sharp thin blade that cuts deeply into the tree with every swing – that’s a good thing if you want to get the job done as quickly as possible.

They are not ideal for splitting wood as they’re too sharp to be practical. It’s hard to gage and control your swing when you’re using a felling axe as they’re designed for a brute force swing that chops through a tree.

Splitting wood is a finer job and you need the swing to be measured. A duller blade is actually advantageous in this type of situation.

How to Split Wood with a Splitting Wedge and Sledge

An unusual, but workable weigh to split wood is to use a splitting wedge and a sledge hammer. This method might have you scratching your head a little, but I have seen this done. I was at a friend’s barbecue a couple of years ago and we decided to have a fire.

The problem was he couldn’t find his axe so we were mulling over ideas as to how we could split the wood into more manageable pieces.

One friend noticed that he did have a sledge hammer and a splitting wedge and so we knew what we had to do. We weren’t going to let a lack of proper tools get in the way of a good time!

We hadn’t invented anything new, but it was our solution in a pinch. To cut wood with a wedge and sledge you simply place the wedge along the grain and give it a tap to get started. Once the wedge is firmly in place you can apply a firm blow with the sledge and the wood should split quite nicely.

The disadvantage of this method is that it takes a bit of coordination – it’s hard to get that wedge placed just right. I wouldn’t recommend using this method unless you don’t have a splitting axe or maul available.

However, if you happen to have a particularly knotty piece of wood a wedge and sledge may be your best option. One you’ve wedged it in place you can apply a lot of force which may just get you past that annoying knot.

You do have to be careful when using this method. Since you are not holding onto the wedge at all times it can fly off in unpredictable directions.

How to Split Wood with a Splitting Maul

A splitting maul is your best option for cutting larger pieces of wood that aren’t full of knots. A maul has a longer handle than a splitting axe and its blade head is heavier – normally between 6 and 8 pounds.

The blade is duller than what you’d find on a felling axe and that’s a good thing because it allows you to split the wood in a controlled manner resulting in a nice clean cut.

When you split wood with a maul you need to make sore the wood is centered on your chopping block and firmly in place.

If the wood is off center you can easily mistime your swing and send the wood and your maul in wild and unpredictable trajectories. This can result in injury for you and anyone around you.

Look for cracks in the wood that you can target as that will make it easier to split and reduce the wear and tear on your body.

The problem with using a splitting maul is there extra weight. Swinging a heavy maul can take a real toll on the shoulders.

There’s no doubt it is the best tool for splitting larger pieces of wood, but if you have any type of shoulder injuries or you just don’t do well swinging heavy things over your head you may be better off with a splitting axe.

How to Split Wood with a Splitting Axe

If I have a choice I prefer to split wood with a splitting axe because it’s lighter and more versatile. The head on a splitting axe is about half the weight of a maul – usually somewhere between 3 and 6 lbs depending on the axe model. For small and medium sized logs they are ideal.

The handle is normally shorter than you’ll find on a maul as well which makes them easier to handle. Their lighter weight and shorter handle means they’re a lot easier on the body. You can typically last a lot longer splitting wood with an axe than a maul.

The method you use to cut the wood is similar to what you would do with a maul. It’s still best to place the log in the center of the chopping black and you will want to focus on any cracks or weaknesses in the piece of wood.

While you can use a maul on smaller piece of wood a splitting axe is much more efficient and you can typically split a lot more wood in shorter period of time.

Improvising When the Right Tool Isn’t Available

There are times when the right tools simply aren’t available. That’s when you have to put on your thinking cap and come up with a work around. For example, we were at a friend’s cottage one year with tons of firewood nearby, but one big problem – we didn’t have an axe, a maul, or even a sledge hammer. What we did have was a hammer and screwdriver.

You’re probably thinking we used the hammer as a sledge and the screwdriver as a wedge and that’s exactly what we did. A saw of some kind can be used as a substitute as well if an axe isn’t available. These methods aren’t ideal, but some times you have to use the tools available to you.