It’s that time of year again. The leaves are turning, the nights are getting colder, and my wood burning stove begs to be used. There’s nothing quite like the heat that comes from a wood stove – it’s inviting, romantic, and you don’t have to pay any utility company to keep your house warm.
As an endurance athlete that cares a little about my fitness, I see the benefits of chopping your own wood for a wood stove or fireplace as immeasurable. When done in regular, reasonable chunks of time, chopping wood can be an enjoyable and strengthening experience for the mind as well as the soul. It’s a cardiovascular activity that also strengthens your triceps, hands, and abdominal muscles. All this and it keeps you warm at night for free!!
Locate a Source for Wood
You can always spend some serious bank at the grocery store this time of year for pre split firewood. If you want to do it on the cheap, you need to find a good source for wood. I’ve found that contractors and home builders are an excellent source for good hardwood. The first step to building a home is often is clearing the lot and they usually have to pay the landfill to take logs off their hands, so typically they’ll gladly drop them off at your house instead. Be sure and let them know that you don’t need too much – otherwise you might find yourself drinking from a firehose.
Chainsaw the Wood Into Sections
You’ll need to adjust the length of section depending on the type of wood and the diameter of the log. Very hard woods like hickory will need to sectioned into relatively short pieces, otherwise you’ll have a very difficult and frustrating time splitting it. If the wood is relatively easy to split (like a lot of red oak), you may want to cut some pieces into fairly long sections as they’ll burn longer in your stove.
Choose your Weapon
There are two distinct types of splitters. The first is a standard splitter and is quite common. It is on the left in the picture below. You can buy these in your everyday home improvement megachains for $25 or so. Although the standard splitter is much heavier than an ax, it is still fairly lightweight. The splitter on the right is much heavier than a standard splitter and more difficult to find.
You’ll notice in the picture below that the angle of the heavier wedge is much greater than the standard splitter.
Because the angle is so small on the standard splitter, you’ll spend a lot of time getting it unstuck from an obstinate piece of wood.
It is for this reason that I have begun to prefer the heavier splitter for my wood chopping. You can use a separate wedge to drive into a difficult piece, but I’ve found that when using the heavier splitter it’s rarely needed.
Swinging the Splitter
It’s important to develop a swinging style that is comfortable for you. As important as comfort is accuracy. You’ll be far more productive by working on being accurate with your swings, that is, aiming for and striking the same place multiple times.
It seems like most people’s natural tendency is to start with the splitter in front of them and in one motion take it around to one side of their body and then overhead, increasing in acceleration the entire way. I’ve found this to be less accurate than another technique that I developed. Instead of whipping the splitter around my body, I balance it behind my back and once I’ve focussed on the point I’d like to hit, then I accelerate the splitter and strike the wood. Because the splitter travels along a single imaginary plane, I’ve found this to be far more accurate than other techniques.
Selecting the Optimal Point to Strike
Before you start chopping away at a log, examine the end. Quite often there are small cracks beginning as the forces that a standing tree withstands are released as it is cut into sections. These are often clues telling you the easiest way that a log will split. Try them first. Also examine the bark of the wood for any knots. If you find knots, avoid trying to split the wood right through the center of a knot. It it is unavoidable, save that cut for last to minimize your effort. You’ll probably find that a lot of the wood you get will have quite a few knots. The knot-free logs are more desirable for fine woodworking and will probably be sold to lumber mills to be milled and turned into furniture (as well they should be!) Unfortunately, many times that leaves us lowly wood burners with knotty logs that will leave you scratching your head as to how the tree could possibly grow that way in the first place.
How Big Should the Pieces End Up?
The answer to this question is also the answer to this question: How wide is the opening in your wood stove? It’s very frustrating on a cold night when you’re loading your wood stove with wood only to find that you need to make another cut to have it fit!
Of course, the larger the piece of wood, the longer it will burn. However, you can only fit so much wood in your stove. For this reason I like to split the wood into a variety of sizes. That way, I can load a large piece of wood into the stove and “top it off” with smaller sized pieces.