Friday, 19 June 2009

Windfall, and how to split wood by hand



It's just the beginning of summer here, but we are busy preparing for winter. We heat and cook with wood during the fall, winter and spring. Two thirds of our property is heavily wooded, always supplying plenty of storm damaged wood that needs cleaning up. We stockpile wood whenever the opportunity arises, so we have a steady supply of well seasoned wood. Seasoned wood burns cleaner and puts out more heat. Burning green, or unseasoned wood is uneconomical, polluting and potentially dangerous as burning green or wet wood causes creosote to build up in your chimney, which can cause chimney fires.

Even though we have an ample supply of wood in our own forest, if someone offers us free firewood, we take it. This wood for the wood splitting tutorial is from a "wild" cherry that a friend had cut down to open up more space for an expanded garden. Unfortunately for them, they decided to only have the stump of this tree ground down to soil level, instead of removal. Many deciduous trees will coppice, which means this tree is still alive under the soil level and may send up shoots. Or, if the tree is dead, a tremendous amount of nitrogen is used to decompose that stump and the roots under ground. Not very conducive to growing a bountiful garden. Better to spend the money and have the stump(s) removed. In this area when the pioneers cleared the forest for crops, they burned the stumps and roots in situ. Not a good practice today, but it was the only way in those days.

I won't go into the nuances of using a wood splitter powered by gasoline or hydraulics, since I don't know any. The running joke around here when someone asks, "Where is your wood splitter?" I usually reply, "Oh, he's on the couch..." Not everyone owns a wood splitter and they are expensive to rent, so in this post I will share a few tips and tools that will make a hard job a little easier. Learning to do things by hand is not a bad thing. And who knows? Maybe in the future we will all be doing things by hand and using an alternative heating and cooking source like wood.

Tools that are helpful:

Splitting maul, which is basically a sledge hammer with a wedge shaped peen on one side. My husband uses a 10 pound maul, but that is too heavy for me. I split wood like a girl! My maul is a 6 pounder, and I use a wedge with that.

Wedge, either made out of steel of plastic. These come in very handy with a tough, or limby piece of wood.

Axe, single bit or double. My axe is a single bit, and was a present from my hubby... .

Safety glasses, if you're using a maul and metal wedge like I do, a blow that glances off the wedge may cause shards of metal to fly off the wedge. It's just a good idea to have these around.

Hearing protection, I am from the era that grew up using machinery without ear plugs. Now I can't go without them, just trying to save the hearing I do have. Again this is if you are using a metal wedge with a maul, if you are able to split the wood with just an axe, it is not noisy at all.


Cut your tree into firewood lengths to fit your stove. 16 inch is common and a full cord of 16 inch wood is a good (tight) stack that measures 4' x 4' x 8', which would really means three face cords 16" x 4' x 8'.

Trees split easier from the top down, so scrutinize your cut round to determine the top of the tree. Sometimes you can tell by the taper of the wood (smaller at top) or by the limb growth, which faces up. Place your wedge at the edge of the wood, and between the limbs, this will give you a good start. Cherry is notoriously hard to split because of the bark, and this tree was wind whipped and very limby. A tough nut to crack for sure, but very good wood for those cold winter nights.

You've heard the expression - "Tighter than bark to a tree." I think they must have been referring to a cherry tree. The bark on trees is like skin, but cherry bark is especially tight and can be used to make vessels and baskets.

As you can see the wedge is doing it's job.

The wood is very wet, and by splitting into stove size pieces you can expose more wood to the air and facilitate drying or seasoning.
When the wedge falls free, you can finish the split with an axe or your maul. In this case the axe is a sharper tool, and cuts through the the bark easier.
Just a little English on the axe and the pieces break free.

If you can get your teenager to split wood for you, all the better.
She likes to split wood, well, the easy pieces anyway.

Split and ready for stacking and drying. All woods have different properties, where heating and cooking are concerned. This cherry will be saved and probably used to hold a fire overnight when it gets unusually cold. Once stored it will keep indefinitely and only get better with age.