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Chopping Wood: An Exercise in Efficiency

March 30, 2015
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©istockphoto/DeniceBreaux

©istockphoto/DeniceBreaux

I began chopping wood as a kid, with a hardware store hatchet, wondering why I couldn’t keep up with my dad’s ever-growing stack of perfectly quartered logs. I don’t remember him ever explaining the process from beginning to end but, rather, giving little pointers along the way. The tip that stuck with me more than any other was this: “There’s an art to chopping wood. It’s an exercise in efficiency.”

From selection of your tools and trees to building an ever-growing stack of perfectly quartered logs, it’s easy to waste energy along the way rather than producing it.

The Tools
All you need is an axe. You can cut and split with it fairly efficiently. I use an old double-bit axe with a thick, hickory handle. The cutting bit’s ground almost razor-sharp while the splitting bit’s left a little blunter. In most cases, this and a strong swing are all that’s really necessary.

There are, however, a few other tools that are nice to have around. A splitting maul with its broader head and steeper bit angle helps to force the wood’s grain apart, requiring less effort to both split the wood and extract the tool than does an axe. A couple steel wedges and a sledge hammer make quick work of knots and other patches of gnarled wood grain.

For efficiency’s sake and leaving behind the hand tools, a chainsaw’s always good to have, not only for felling trees but for cutting them to length and carving out Swedish fire logs before camping trips.

I also hear hydraulic splitters are nice, but I’ve long believed Henry Ford’s old adage: “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” While I’d rather cut with a chainsaw, I prefer to split the wood by hand.

The Swing
Once the chainsaw’s work is done and all your logs are cut to length, stand the first one up on a stump and grab your axe or maul.

With your dominant hand halfway up the handle and the other wrapped tightly around its butt, back straight and knees slightly bent, lift the axe high above your head. With a smooth motion, swing the axe down, aiming for a preexisting split in the wood. Try to hit closer to the outside than the center of the log as it’s much easier to transfer your force through the axe to the log this way. Each subsequent swing should follow the same pattern—straight back, smooth motion, and precise aim.

The Stack
It’s not easy work, especially when you’re chopping enough wood to heat a home rather than a few pieces for a campfire so you may need to rest partway through. Instead of sitting down, letting your arms and back tighten and your energy drain, switch back and forth between chopping and stacking.

There’s an art to this as well. Stack it tight; stack it straight; and stack it somewhere dry. Your wood needs time to cure—drying so it burns evenly and with less smoke. Stacking it under a shelter rather than a tarp will expedite this process but a tarp will do in a pinch and works just fine once the wood’s already cured for a month or two. Building a tight, straight stack will let you know exactly how much wood you have since it’s measured in cords and ricks which are based on the size of the stack.

These days, my woodpile’s built with perfectly quartered logs, stacked almost as quickly as my dad used to. I guess he kept at least one trick up his sleeve.

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