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How to split logs

When the cold weather sets in, you need to prepare with a healthy supply of firewood. Sawing your own wood is always much more fun than buying it pre-cut. Henry Ford once said “chop your own wood and it will warm you twice”, so it’s time to break out the tools and unleash your inner lumberjack.

While it may look very easy in the movies, there is an art to chopping wood, so make sure you do your research or you could end up with nothing to show for a day’s hard work beyond a sore back. Here are a few practical hints and tips that can help you make light work of splitting logs.

Protective clothing

To cut firewood, you will be using a lot of dangerous equipment, which is why it is very important that you are fully kitted out in the right safety gear. When using a chainsaw specifically, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) should be worn including jackets, trousers, eye protection, helmets, gloves and boots.

When cutting wood with a chainsaw, you run the risk of kickback which is mostly uncontrollable when it occurs, so you want to minimise the risk as best as possible. You are also at risk of debris from the wood flying in your direction, which could cause some problems. PPE is therefore very important to ensure optimum safety when cutting logs

Pick your weapons

Having the right tools for splitting logs is key - it makes the whole operation that much more efficient.

  • Chainsaws
  • Not every chainsaw was born equal and it is so important that you have the right chainsaw for the job. To choose the right chainsaw, you need to first understand the needs of the job you are about to undertake. You don’t, for example, need the most powerful chainsaw if you aren’t going to be chopping large tree trunks - likewise if the wood is particularly soft. Chainsaws can also be heavy machines so if you are going to be holding it for a long time while you work, you may want to think about how much it weighs.

  • Maul
  • The best tool for hand splitting logs is the maul. If you are not familiar with this type of tool, it essentially looks like a combination between an axe and a sledgehammer. The shape of the maul is much more efficient than a traditional axe as it is less likely to stick in the wood. A maul also splits wood faster because of the increased outward pressure on the wood.

    Mauls do vary in weight, so for smaller jobs, opt for a lighter model. The lighter mauls can be swung through the air faster and the velocity is much more important than the mass of the maul.

  • Wedge and sledgehammer
  • For those hard to split logs, you will need a wedge and a sledgehammer. Some hardwoods are tough to split first time so you will need to add a little bit of extra oomph to finish the job.

Cut down to size

Firstly, you will need to chop the logs so they are the right size before you split them - this is where the chainsaw really comes into its own. Next, trim the log from all of its branches, as these will just get in the way of your work later on. It isn’t recommended to split the logs using the chainsaw due to safety concerns, however, cutting the wood down to the appropriate size is ideal for the chainsaw.

Once you have cut the branches off, you will need to trim the log so it is the right length for your fireplace or woodstove, and be very careful with what you are using to hold the wood. If you are using a sawhorse you will be able to cut right the way through. Try to avoid cutting on the floor, as you may end up cutting through dirt or rocks, which will quickly dull the chain. If you don’t have any other option, you should cut up to three quarters of the wood on one side and then roll the log over 180 degrees and cut the remainder.

Solid foundations

When splitting the logs with the maul, you need to make sure you have a chopping block that sits underneath the log you want to split. By placing the log on a block, it creates a hard surface to create a clean cut. If you place the log on soft ground, it will reduce the energy delivered to the wood by the head of the maul, making it harder to cut efficiently.

Depending on the diameter of the logs you are cutting, you can use a sawhorse. This can be a very efficient way of cutting logs, however, you won’t be able to cut the logs down the middle with this type of tool, which may be all you need depending on your fireplace or woodstove.

Find your target

To make splitting the logs as easy as possible, you need to keep an eye out for any weak spots in the wood and target them, looking for cracks that already exist. You will find it much easier to split the logs on a pre-existing crack than creating one from scratch. Also, you should avoid trying to split logs where there are existing obstacles such as knots, as it will be extremely difficult to cut through.

There is a common misconception that the most effective blow will be at the centre of the log; however, it is in fact towards the edge where it is at its weakest. You should therefore aim for a specific spot on the log where you think it will be at its most vulnerable. This will make the log fall apart much easier.

Time to split

Getting the technique right is just as important as the equipment - the right motion transfers the energy perfectly from your arms and legs through to the maul head, which cuts the logs seamlessly.

Before you begin, stand shoulder width apart with both hands on the maul. You should hold it horizontally with one hand at the bottom of the handle and the other at the top, just under the maul head. Keep your elbows comfortably bent as this will come in handy when you swing.

As you swing, raise the maul high, extending your arms above your head before bringing it down on the desired spot. For maximum potential energy, rise up on your toes while keeping your back and legs straight. Take the arm that was at the top of the handle and slide it down as you are on the upswing. This means you have both hands at the bottom of the handle on the downswing for maximum force and control.

If the wood is really tough, you may not be able to split it completely first time. You will then have two options - on a second go, aim for the split you created in the first instance and continue until the log does split fully, or use your chisel and sledgehammer to finish the job in the hole you just cut.

When swinging, you should also be sure not to make the common mistake of swinging in a pendulum-shaped arc, as the transfer of energy will not be as strong. The maul should be swinging through the log in a near-straight, vertical line.