The art of splitting wood
By Jim Poling
Published June 23, 2016
It was a long ago scene, from a time before invention of smart phones that take video. That’s unfortunate because what I saw then would have made a cool video on the art of splitting wood.
I was at a friend’s newly-acquired bush property, helping him clean up after a wild wind storm. We had cut a downed birch tree into rounds and were exhausting ourselves splitting it for firewood.
A neighbour from up the road stopped by to introduce himself. He was a local, born and raised in the area, and you knew it from his Ottawa Valley twang. A country lad who knew more about living with the land than we would learn in a lifetime.
We stood there and talked, just getting to know each other. As the conversation moved along, he casually pulled my axe from a stump and swung it one handed, with little apparent force, into a birch round held firm under one foot. An imperceptible twist of the wrist and the round split into two.
He split another round the same way and continued with others as we talked. He would pause in what he was saying, glance down briefly, position a log beneath his foot and swing the axe, with little more effort than someone swinging a riding crop against their leg as they talked.
By the time conversation stopped and he had left, there was a sizeable pile of split birch at our feet. He hadn’t said anything about splitting wood, but he had left us a lesson: Splitting wood is not an act of brute force. It is more of a mental exercise.
First of all, you don’t cut or chop firewood. You split it, pushing the fibres apart until the piece becomes two pieces. It is not important to have a sharp axe. A sharp blade sticks in the wood, doing little to push the fibres apart.
Some avid wood splitters say that firewood rounds wish to be split and give you helpful hints that you should listen to. For instance, most firewood rounds have small cracks, or checks, that indicate lines for best splitting.
One expert says he always stands a round on its head to split it in the direction that it grew. Trees obviously are thicker on the bottom than at the top, so you stand a round “on its head” by putting the smaller end of the round facing down.
I don’t know if I believe that, but I do believe some other advice from expert wood splitters. Stand straight with your feet apart. Swing with straight arms. Let the axe do the work. Aim a bit closer to the edge nearest you. That way if you miss you hit the ground. Going too far to the other side and you hit the handle.
Most avid splitters prefer a maul, which is heavier, has a fatter blade and is blunter than an axe. All the better for pushing the wood apart. Also, the thick rounded backside of the maul is ideal for hammering wedges into those tough, knotty pieces sent to frustrate and exhaust us.
Splitting firewood is an effective physical workout, reportedly burning up to 400 or 500 calories a hour. It is especially healthy for the mind. Riding the rhythm of a wood splitting session allows the mind to take a vacation.
And, few accomplishments provide more satisfaction than a well-stacked woodpile.
Bruce Hutchison, the West Coast newspaperman wrote in his 1988 book A Life in the Country that a well-stacked woodpile is as good as money in the bank. It is there waiting to help you when the weather gets frigid.
Interestingly, the word splitting is a psychological term. It is a common ego defence mechanism by which people reinforce their sense of good by demonizing others who do not share their opinions or values.
Politicians tend to suffer from splitting and it often is a sign of a personality disorder. If you have ever watched Donald Trump on television or the Internet, you get the idea.