Chopping stovewood to size by hand may, at first glance, appear to be a ponderous, imprecise activity that requires little more than pure brute force. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. There is, instead, a distinct art to splitting wood. The skilled woodsman or -woman who works with — rather than against — the rounds he or she is handling can split up a lot more fuel in a given time than can some muscle-bound ox who tries to club the wood pile to smithereens. In fact, a great many experienced splitters (both chore-laden homesteaders and briefcase-laden urbanites) have honed their skills to such a point that they look upon billet-busting as one of life’s more enjoyable tasks.
The instruments most often used for working up wood by hand are the single-blade splitting axe, a pair of three- to five-pound steel wedges, a middle-sized sledgehammer, and an eight-pound splitting maul. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Several manufacturers have devised variations on the standard hand tools — we’ve sized up a number of woodcracking aids in The Great Wood-Splitting Contest II]
However, it isn’t necessary to have all of these tools to begin work. I recommend starting out with a pair of wedges and that workhorse of the log-busting trade, the splitting maul (or “go-devil”). The blade of the latter implement can crack open many a billet, while the tool’s back end can be used for driving wedges. (By the way, never use the butt of an axe for pounding — its thin head may crack!)
Probably the single most important wood-splitting rule is this: Always place your to-be-broken rounds on a short chopping block. Such a base will provide solid resistance to the blows, increasing your stroke’s penetration and guaranteeing that when your maul breaks through the billet, the tool’s blade will land in wood instead of slamming into dulling earth or stones.
Once you’ve set your piece of tree up on its chopping block, stand back with your arms extended and feet planted squarely apart. (And, for safety’s sake, be sure to wear boots and sturdy long pants!) Then line up the go-devil over its intended target, wind ‘er up and swing!
Now some folks go for pinpoint accuracy by lifting their mauls straight up overhead, while others feel they gain more power by swinging the implements back around their shoulders. And one person will let his or her top gripping hand slide up toward the splitter’s head on the upswing, but another will keep both hands clenched together in a grip similar to that used by a golfer. You’ll have to experiment until you decide just which technique is best for you.