How It Works: Splitting Wood

Thoreau observed that “firewood warms you twice” – once when you split it and once when you burn it. Of course he conveniently left out the parts about the felling, the stacking, and the lugging into the house, but for now, let’s talk about the splitting part.

Once you’ve cut your logs into the appropriate lengths for your fireplace or stove, you need to split them – essential in order for the firewood to season, which dries out some of the moisture so it’ll be easier to burn. Short of hiring someone else to do the job, you have two options: Use a mechanical splitter or go the Abe Lincoln route and split them by hand.

Having done both, I put my vote in the machine column. You can rent a splitter on the Island, or if you think you’re going to be using it a lot, you might want to think about buying your own.

John McCarter, owner of McCarter Tree Service in Chilmark, recommends that if you’re shopping for a splitter, look for one with as high a working height as possible. “They make a lot of them with the working height down around your knees and it’s murder on your back to constantly work at that level,” explains John. “It’s better to try to get one that splits up closer to waist height.”

It’s also good to have a splitter with a beam that can be raised up to work vertically. That way, when you have a big stump, you don’t have to heft it up onto the beam, you can just roll it over and position it under the raised splitting maul and save yourself a trip to the chiropractor.

Having said all that, there are those who still prefer to split by hand; they like the exercise and claim they can actually do the job faster. John says that if you want to split by hand, you’ll need a good splitting maul – a sledge hammer that has one side of the head shaped like a wedge – as well as a regular sledge hammer and a couple of steel wedges.

“You need the hammer and the wedges when you get to the knotty pieces,” John explains, “places where there were branches. The maul likely won’t be able to split those pieces.”

You’ll also want to set up a chopping block – a large stump with a flat top works fine. By elevating the round to be split, it’s easier on your back. If you split a log that’s sitting on the ground, the earth actually cushions the blow and makes the job harder.

The key is to hit the log with as much impact as possible, so get a good wide stance with your feet about shoulder-width apart, facing the log. Measure off the distance to the log and swing with authority. With a little practice, you should be able to hit your mark pretty consistently. Generally you try to split from the middle. However, in the case of a particularly large log, you might want to start on the outside and split pieces off from the edges.

Another good trick is to put an old tire on top of the chopping block and position the log inside the tire so that when it splits, the pieces won’t go flying off and you don’t have to chase them.

For the most part, I’ve found that the greener the wood, the harder it is to split by hand, so this may be another reason to go with the splitter. And remember, once the wood is split it’s going to need at least six months to season.

Something else to think about: The longer wood sits outside on the ground unsplit, the more likely it is to grow mold. And when you bring that wood into the house, the mold can escape into the air. So the sooner you get your wood split, the sooner it starts seasoning, the healthier the wood will be, and the sooner you’ll be able to enjoy that other warmth that Thoreau writes about.

Not to put any pressure on you.

John McCarter of McCarter Tree Service is a licensed arborist. He would be glad to chop down or prune your trees, but he doesn’t actually split or sell firewood as part of his business.