Hew and Cry

The art of axemanship

All worries fall away as the blade bites and the grain magically breaks its bonds. The log cleaves in two and the pieces drop to the ground with two satisfying thuds. This is the art of wood splitting. Part ritual and part chore, the beauty is in the repetition, the labour, and the smell of freshly split pine.

And yet despite how it may appear, splitting logs does not require large amounts of brawn or stamina. If you have seasoned, straight-grained timber and work on your technique, you'll be hewing your way through mountains of logs in no time.

It does take a little practice though, so here's a few basic tips to set you on your way.

Choose your axe

Log splitters or 'mauls' are the best. They have a fat head which helps the grain separate. Having said that, an ordinary axe works fine for small jobs. And the blade doesn't have to be sharp, in fact bluntness seems to help sometimes. I have a rusty axe that I bought at a thrift shop for $5. I sharpened it once and haven't bothered since. It works a treat.

Don't cut your foot off

An axe is a dangerous instrument, so please be careful. Start with a small axe on small logs and work your way up to the big stuff. Make sure you have a good footing and never swing the axe towards your legs or feet. Imagine the arc of the axe as you swing it and adjust as necessary. I favour bending my knees as I strike down so the axe is pretty much moving in a straight line towards the ground rather than arcing toward my feet. And of course if there is someone watching make sure they stand well away.

Choose your log

The key to a good split is picking a log with a nice straight grain. If it has knots in it, put it to the side for now. You can bash away at that piece later when you've got the basic technique down.

Place it right

Make sure it stands straight on your chopping block so you get a solid, direct contact through the grain. You don't want it wobbling around or sitting on an angle. This will increase the chance of the axe glancing off to the side which will result in at best, an unsplit log and at worst an axe in your foot. Do not be tempted to hold the log while you bring the axe down, choose another piece if it doesn't stand on it's own.

Time to swing

Raise the axe above your head keeping two hands on the handle. You don't need to hold it high or come down with force. It's much more important to pick your spot on the log and bring the axe down in a smooth controlled motion. Imagine the axe going through the log and embedding in your chopping block. With any luck that's exactly what will happen. It helps to visualise the full motion as you swing.

And when you feel ready to move on to the big stuff, here's some detailed video instructions from the Art of Manliness. Plus some great expectation-setting outtakes at the end.

And that's about it. You will now have two evenly split pieces at your feet. Get your rhythm going and with the minimum of fuss you will demolish the wood pile. All that's left is to light that fire and set yourself down with a good, victorious whisky.