How to Split Wood Like a Lumberjack (With or Without an Axe)

how to split wood
Photo by Dan Edwards

Splitting wood is one of the manliest things a person can do. It’s also a great way to let out aggression, get some exercise, keep warm on a frosty winter day, and, of course, produce some wood with which you can make a fire.

While men have been chopping logs into firewood for untold thousands of years, the fact is, proper wood-splitting can be something of a challenge. This is all the more true when a gentleman is faced with a stack of logs lacks the proper tools for the job. Learning how to split wood — with or without an axe — will help you build roaring fires for years to come.

Tools

fire

If you want to chop wood properly, you should have, at the very least, a good, heavy axe. To be more accurate, you should have a maul, the type of axe with one sharp edge set into a thick, heavy head. The maul’s shape concentrates maximum force into the blade and helps split logs apart as it is driven down into the wood.

Better still, you will have a maul, a wedge, and a sledgehammer. Many logs will fly apart with one single, satisfying strike of the maul, but larger and/or harder (and damper) logs might require use of a wedge and sledge combination. You should also have a decent chopping block, which is usually just a large, squat log, but is ideally a tree stump.

Also consider gloves, boots, safety glasses (or any glasses, really), and a damn fine pair of jeans. There you have it, men: the tools of the trade.

Technique

chopping fire wood

Contrary to popular misconception, the best stance for splitting wood sees your shoulders squared off relative to the doomed log, not with one foot forward and one a step back. This position concentrates maximum force down through your swing.

Put your dominant hand right under the head of axe; it will slide down as you swing, directing the blade (or the sledgehammer) and increasing force as you move. Your other hand should grip the axe handle right near its bottom. Swing for the center of smaller logs (hit with the grain when possible) and cut nearer the outside of larger logs, with the blade striking parallel to an imagined diameter (not perpendicular to the arc of the log, if you follow).

If your maul gets stuck, you can either pull it out and try again; you can drive in a wedge and knock that through with the sledgehammer; or you can leave the maul in the log, turn the whole thing over, and pound away at it with a hammer (or with another log, if you are sans sledge).

With a maul, a wedge, a sledgehammer, and some persistence, you should be able to split most logs that are less than two feet in length and two feet in diameter. Above that size, consider using an electric log splitter or hiring a Norwegian man with an impossibly gorgeous beard to help.

How to Split Wood Without an Axe

firewood
Photo by Radek Grzybowski Photo by Radek Grzybowski

Now … what to do if there’s wood to be split, but you don’t have those tools on hand? To split wood without an axe, one labor-intensive but effective approach is to saw through logs lengthwise. But we’re going to go ahead and assume you don’t have a saw. Got a knife, at least? Good.

For slimmer logs, you can often split wood using a knife with a fixed blade. Saw or score a notch in the top of the wood (ideally using a saw — even a small one as found in a Swiss Army Knife will help make a decent starting crevice), then tap the blade into the wood using a hammer. Make sure you use a section of the knife blade that’s near the handle, as it will be thicker and stronger at this point. Once you have the knife tapped firmly into the wood, you can commence with heavier blows (use a standard hammer or another chunk of wood), alternating on the back of the exposed blade and the handle, slowly working the blade down through the wood.

To split larger pieces of log without an axe or a proper wedge, you will need to carve a series of wedges out of slender staves. You will essentially be making a series of small, simple spears. Use a knife or a very sharp rock to create a crevice in the wood to be split, then commence tapping your wooden wedge points into the log. Plan to place the first wooden wedge near the edge of the log and to tap it in a bit, then place another next to it, and so forth. Eventually, you should have multiple wedges embedded in the log that you can work on in an alternating fashion. The process is painstaking, but it works.

There are a few other tricks you might try to make your log-splitting go a lot quicker. For example, you could place an old tire on your splitting block, set the wood round inside the tire or wrap a bungee cord around the base of the log; then get to swinging as you normally would. This will keep your wood in one place while you’re splitting it so you don’t have to worry about setting pieces upright before every hack.

Article originally published December 17, 2015, by TJ Carter. Updated November 10, 2016, by Bryan Holt., and again on November 27, 2017, by Steven John.

Feature image by Dan Edwards.

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