How big is a cord of wood? What's the difference between a maul and a felling axe? Which wood burns best? These are important questions for those of us who frequently enjoy the idea deploying our camping axes to experience the pleasures of a crackling fire.
Splitting and stacking wood is proper work—the type of work that requires muscle, skill, and more than a little sweat. If you're in the right mindset, it even feels good, too. But if you’re going to do it right, the details matter.
Here's a quick primer that will up your Paul Bunyan game in no time:
"Splitting and stacking wood is proper work—the type of work that requires muscle, skill, and more than a little sweat."
Chopping vs. Splitting
Chopping is cutting. When chopping, you cut or whack away against the grain. Chips fly.
Splitting, on the other hand, is what you do when you make firewood—you split the wood along the grain. We might be chopping hairs here, but if you want really sound like a woodsman, you should know the difference.
What is a Felling Axe?
If you want to yell “timber” and makes stumps, you’re going to need a felling axe. Felling axes have sharp and elongated blade heads that are designed to cut across the wood grain. A true felling axe tends to have a mid-weight head (about 3 pounds) and a long handle (about 28-36 inches). This is the type of axe lumberjacks are holding in those old-timey pictures taken before the chainsaw was invented. Basically, if you want to chop down a tree, reach for a felling axe.
What is a Maul?
If you’re Splitting wood, you’ll need a splitting maul, which is sometimes called a sledge axe. A maul has a blunt and fat head that is designed to divide wood along the along the grain—the more knotty and stubborn the wood, the heavier the maul. Interesting side note: Many woodsmen give their mauls affections nicknames like Monster, Fat Bastard, and Chunky.
What the Buck?
The process of cutting a tree into usable lengths is called bucking. The short usable lengths, called rounds, are then chopped into firewood. If you’re bucking rounds, make sure that you cut your rounds the right length. 16 inches is the ideal length for most wood burning stoves. Consistent lengths also make stacking wood easier and the wood pile itself more aesthetically pleasing. Beautifully stacked wood—as any woodsman will tell you—is one of life's great pleasures.
"Beautifully stacked wood—as any woodsman will tell you—is one of life's great pleasures."
How Big is a Cord of Wood?
A cord is a stack of wood that measures 4 x 8 x 4. The average pickup truck can haul about half a cord of firewood.
What's the Best Way to Split Wood?
- BUY GOOD AXES. For most people, a nice starting quiver includes three types: A hatchet, a splitting maul, and a felling axe. Usually, you get what you pay for with axes (A cheap axe at a box store is cheap for good reason).
- BE ACCURATE. Precision, not power, is the most important skill when splitting wood.
- DON’T AIM FOR THE CENTER of the round. An accurate strike near the edge of a round hits the growth rings where they are most vulnerable.
- BE EFFICIENT. Use a chopping block, and place your rounds on hard, level ground. Soft ground absorbs too much of the energy delivered by your swing, and striking a round that is sitting too high doesn’t allow you to deliver the full force of your axe swing.
- START WITH WELL-SEASONED WOOD. Wet or knotty wood may not be worth your trouble. Splitting wood should be a pleasure, not a chore.
CHOOSE A TECHNIQE THAT MATCHES YOUR SKILL AND WOOD TYPE:
- STRAIGHT SWING METHOD: Most fans of this method use a chopping block and a splitting maul. Mauls are heavy (typically around 6 pounds) and dull, so be prepared to sweat. The mechanics are fairly straightforward: Drive the maul straight through the round. The blunt head of the maul is designed to split wood along the grains.
- TWIST METHOD: In some regions, a light axe (around 3-4 pounds) with a sharp blade is preferred to a blunt maul. A sharper blade demands more technique and accuracy. Many old-timers use a “twist” method in which they twist their wrist slightly just as they strike the round. Without the twist, the sharper axe head may stick in the round.
- STUDY YOUR WOOD. Look for existing cracks in the round that you are about to hit, and use the most prominent crack as your target. With practice, you should develop a Jedi-like sense of a round’s strengths and weakness.
- NEVER STRIKE LONG. Overstriking is an embarrassing rookie move that will damage or break your axe handle. If you are a beginner, practice swinging a cheap fiberglass axe before swinging your friend’s $200 Gransfors Bruks.
- WEAR GOOD BOOTS, look around before you swing, and bend slightly at the knees. An axe is a dangerous tool. Although this is painfully obvious, I'd be remiss not to remind you that Vikings once used axes to dice up enemies.
Which Wood Burns Best?
All wood is chemically similar, regardless of species. What matters with wood is density and moisture content. Hardwoods like oak and maple are denser so they will burn slower. Because of the slow burn-rate, harder woods are typically preferred.
Softer woods like birch, pine, and spruce are less dense, so they will burn faster. A softer wood still creates a wonderful fire, but you'll burn through wood faster if you're using soft wood.
Seasoning the wood, that is, drying it properly, is the real secret. In most cases, this means cutting, splitting, and stacking your wood in the spring or early summer so it is properly seasoned by winter. Two good rules of thumb when seasoning wood: Stack your wood by Easter and stack it loosely enough so that a mouse can run around between the wood.
"Stack your wood by Easter and stack it loosely enough so that a mouse can run around between the wood."
Axe vs. Ax
Ax and axe are different spellings of the same word. Axe has been standard for a long time but the newer spelling, ax, is now more popular in American. Personally, I think the old spelling looks better, but it's your call.
Is it Called a Stack or a Woodpile?
Even though you usually “stack” rather than “pile” the wood, most people still call it a woodpile. In Scandinavia, where more wood is stacked than just about anywhere, they say that you can tell a lot about a person by the quality of his woodpile. I tend to agree. A little trivia: The largest woodpiles ever were stacked in Helsinki during WWII. It’s said that a woodpile in Hakaniemi Square was a mile long and fifteen feet high.