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Knot? Maybe Not

December 31, 2010

Our sole heat source is wood, and always has been, so we split a lot of wood.  And like many other skills of days past, you need the right tools, and you need practice.  It isn’t just brawn, although brawn comes in handy.  In fact, we are entertaining buying a wood splitter, but learning how to do something like split wood with hand tools is a skill worth knowing.  Not unlike many other homesteading skills, a milking machine is nice – but what if you have no power, or gas for your generator, and you don’t have a clue how to milk your cow by hand?  You’re sunk and right back on that learning curve.   I really liken skills like this to learning to drive, automatic transmissions are wonderful things, but I think it should be mandatory to know how to drive a stick shift first.  It gives you more understanding of how your vehicle works or doesn’t.

When my husband cuts trees into firewood, his objective is to just get the rounds into manageable sizes to haul back to the woodshed.  He most often uses a double-bitted splitting axe, or a splitting maul and wedge for the tough customers.  Any rounds smaller than 12 inches in diameter are left whole.  We want our wood seasoned before we use it, so splitting the rounds helps immensely in this regard.  Unseasoned wood does not put out much heat, and it is a fire hazard.  Simply put, it isn’t worth doing that way.  I don’t even like our seasoned wood drawing humidity in our woodshed, so I move it in at least two weeks before I plan on using it.

We switch roles once the wood makes it to the woodshed.  After that I take over, transferring the wood to the house and splitting it further if needed, either for the furnace or cookstove.  My tools are a single bitted splitting axe, hatchet, or if need be a splitting maul and wedge.  I took some photos of various pieces of wood to show how I assess them for splitting or not.  We burn predominately Douglas Fir, but other woods we come across like apple, cherry, alder, and maple, split about the same, so hopefully this post will be helpful if you have different types of wood than we do in the Pacific Northwest.

This piece is clear (no visible knots) so if I wanted to split it smaller this would be a good candidate.  I am doing all my splitting in the basement so I have to keep ceiling height in mind when swinging an axe.  I also split wood as I go each day, most of the time while I am building a fire in the furnace and waiting for it to get rip-roaring.  I don’t want to leave with the drafts open, but depending on air conditions outside, the fire may not draw fast, so it may take 5 minutes or it may take 10.  I listen to the fire, and I go outside and watch the smoke from the chimney to see when to begin to shutting  down the drafts.  So I can either stand around or I can split wood and make up kindling.

Besides splitting, I am also gleaning more from the wood.  When I turned this piece around I found a nice, light coating of  pitch.  This makes excellent kindling.  This tree was damaged in an ice storm before and the pitch is a sign of where it tried to heal.  So even though this piece is already small enough to fit in the furnace, I will split this pitch off and commit it to the higher use of kindling.

This solid piece of pitch is from my pitch stash and only to be used sparingly.  As in, shave off one or two tiny pieces sparingly, to use in conjunction with kindling to get the fire going.  A piece this size would keep me in starting pitch for months, it is that hot.  A good reason to set it aside and not throw it in the fire.  It would burn too hot, and it would be a waste.  You learn the heft of your wood, with fir if it is heavy it probably contains a lot of pitch, set those aside for future kindling pieces.

This piece has knot (former limb) and will split the easiest if you hit it with the axe at the arrow, staying away from the knot.  Make sure you are splitting from the top, meaning the top of tree or in the case of a fire wood piece the smallest end.  A tree splits in nature from the top, that is the weak point, so use that knowledge to your advantage.  Strike the wood with your axe on the outside edge at the arrow, it should split easily.  If it doesn’t you should examine your technique and sharpness of your axe.  Splitting wood with an axe is similar to hoeing the garden, or cutting grass with a scythe.  All require proper technique and sharp tools.  And practice.

This tree was a hooter, growing on the outside of the stand, so it was full of limbs, making it harder to split.  Some are so full of limbs, we leave them as dead standing snags for wildlife instead of trying to make them into firewood.

This one is a toughy, I might be able to pop off a sliver at the arrow.  Or maybe if I use the wedge and maul between the knots I could split this one.  Usually though, pieces like this get set aside and Hangdog will rip it with the chain saw.  With just a groove from the saw it would split much easier with the maul.  And pieces like these burn for hours, the knots are very dense wood.

This particular tree is clear, and very easy to split.

This size would fit in the furnace as is, but since it is clear and easy to split, it is a good candidate for the kitchen stove.  Popping this into 8 or 9 pieces of firewood would take a couple of minutes and I have an arm load of wood.

This one too can be split a little more than in half, yielding 3 pieces for starting the furnace fire or maybe kitchen wood.  If a piece splits easy I usually go ahead and split it for the kitchen.  It keeps.  And it’s nice to have split wood ahead.

Nothing beats wood heat if you have a steady supply of wood.  It does warm you more than once!

38 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2010 6:06 pm

    I love splitting wood! Great info! Didn’t understand the bit about keeping humidity out of the woodshed with seasoned wood though…?

    • December 31, 2010 7:08 pm

      Ben, I’m a fussy pants about dry wood, it does make a difference how it burns. Not saying you can’t burn wood that has a higher humidity and your on the drier side for sure, so maybe it wouldn’t be as noticeable. Unless we get weather like this, we are usually at 100% humidity outside.

      I like splitting wood too, it can be relaxing and you can really see your efforts when your done. 🙂

      • December 31, 2010 7:24 pm

        Oh, I see. You make sure that the wood is inside 2 weeks before burning to get rid of any moisture. I just wasn’t reading it correctly. I totally agree with you. I had a roommate once that thought would would dry enough in two months of fall, it was a frustrating wood burning winter for me. Are you as cold there as we are in here? It didn’t get above freezing today and its supposed to get in the teens tonight. For HR that is about as cold as it gets!!

        • December 31, 2010 8:26 pm

          Ben, people have been hauling wood off the mountain like crazy the last month as soon as Longview Fibre released some wood permits. I am pretty sure that wood will be burned this winter and won’t be even close to dry. Keeps the firemen busy, I guess with lots of chimney fires.

          We were down to 17F last night and it didn’t get above 30 even with the full sun. I had to go to Ptown today and as soon as I got 3 miles to west there was no snow just icy roads. Portland was like the banana belt. I’m ready for spring already 🙂

  2. December 31, 2010 6:21 pm

    It’s always fun to read something you can relate to:)
    We mostly use a splitting maul like shown on Wikepedia. The occasional time we need something more heavy duty, we swing the maul into the round, and then hit it with a sledge hammer. Most of our wood is alder, which is very easy to split if there are no big knots. We also have a little bit of birch and maple, and rarely pine or fir. I sometimes found it easier to split from the bottom side with a piece that I was trying to split between knots or close to a knot.

    • December 31, 2010 7:12 pm

      Karen, a wedge works great, the same as your maul and hammer, only with a maul and wedge. 🙂

      I like alder, especially the scent when it burns, but we don’t have too much. When my husband broke his neck I had to split all his wood for him (he wasn’t my husband then) and he had alder – it was great to split. I like to put a piece of alder on the fire when I am done for the day and relax and smell the scent. That last sentence may qualify for TMI.

      Happy New Year to you too!

  3. December 31, 2010 6:22 pm

    Ps, and a Happy New Year!

  4. December 31, 2010 7:21 pm

    We logged 9-10ish acres this summer, and they left all the tops and flunker trees. Needless to say I’ve invested in fixing up a wood splitter. I enjoy splitting with a maul, but trying to split a rick of oak & hickory day in and day out has gotten old quickly.

    Always interesting to see the wood you guys got over there. Geography makes quite a difference!

    • December 31, 2010 8:18 pm

      Spence, the joke around here when someone asks if we have a wood splitter I usually say, “Yeah, he’s on the couch…” I think we’re getting one this spring. Getting too old. 🙂

      Yes, geography does make a difference – look at the header picture, the trees here grow big, the limbs can be bigger than some trees. We definitely have plenty of firewood 🙂

  5. December 31, 2010 9:28 pm

    Nita, I loved this post. Skill, good tools and practise – yep, that trio would cover many home and homestead situations. You wood wall is a work of art. Thanks for writing this.

    • January 2, 2011 6:32 am

      Rhondajean, thanks 🙂

      What you say is so true, about the 3 things, otherwise many tasks are down right tedious and very hard to do.

  6. January 1, 2011 7:19 am

    We currently live were little heat is needed and the house doesn’t have any way to heat with wood anyways. But… I love posts like this, where I get to learn about something new and useful. Perhaps, when Hubby finishes the PhD we will end up farther north where wood heating is a real option, and we will both enjoy (at least at first) splitting wood!

  7. January 1, 2011 8:10 am

    We don’t have enough trees to really make use of heating with wood. It’s more for emergencies. We try and keep a shed full and some pails of good coal on hand. Most of the wood we do use is old cedar fence posts. They’re dry but too soft to give off much heat.

    • January 2, 2011 6:36 am

      Linda, I wondered with your lack of trees. Old posts are my kindling of choice, splits as tiny as a pencil with knife almost. 🙂

  8. January 1, 2011 8:11 am

    ….and HAPPY NEW YEAR to you!

  9. queen of string permalink
    January 1, 2011 8:59 am

    Thanks for a helpful post. We split like Karen does, maul and sledgehammer. We dont have land of our own, but fortunately lots of people put up free wood signs and post on Craigslist. Only moved in this year, so not time to find enough seasoned wood for free. We bought some in the end. For next year, we aim to collect free stuff, esp in the early part of the year and hope most of it is seasoned enough to make that characteristic clunk and keep us warmby the end of the year! Think we will buy half a cord in spring and then by yr 3 be self sufficient. I do worry about logs being dry enough, there’s enough evidence of house fires around here, not a group I want to join.

    • January 2, 2011 6:39 am

      Queen of String, I agree that is definitely not a group you want to join. Green wood, airtight stoves, bad combination 😦 Your plan sounds like a good one.

      We always have lots of storm damage, so we are working on the wood pile most of the year it seems. We had a freak wind storm about 3 weeks ago, and lost a 130 year old apple tree, and a very large fir. What a mess, but we also look at it as wood.

  10. Steve Carlson permalink
    January 1, 2011 12:00 pm

    They say firewood keeps you warm at least two times…

  11. akaangrywhiteman permalink
    January 1, 2011 3:16 pm

    I’m a big fan of fir simply because it burns so clean, I don’t have to dump the ashes every five days. While I have a good amount of tan oak, myrtle, maple, and alder, with a few Madrone scattered about, fir is my go-to wood. Most of the alder here is what’s left of natures cover crop to let new seedlings take hold, the canopy is out growing them and they are close to the end of their life stage. I like them for the early fall quick warm ups, and the late spring chill chasing fires. Myrtle burns hot and clean, much like madrone but is too scarce for steady burning, as is madrone . Tan oak is OK, nice heat, but tons of ashes, and dirty to work with.
    I use a two step chopping block, the low step for regular wood, the high step for kindling work, it saves all that bending over.

    • January 2, 2011 6:42 am

      AWM, that is for sure, hardly any ash at all. The only alder we have is young, only 20 years old, but it will be nice and clean, the stand is thick. We got some oak from friend once who was helping a friend clean up her place – I was under the impression it would hold a fire better than fir. Not true at all. More ash and the same amount of heat, at least it was free, I would never pay for it.

  12. January 1, 2011 4:27 pm

    Hooter? Another new one on me.

    Round these parts I do hear the word “hooter” from time to time, but it’s about someone smoking some, not about burning it. I think the material involved is probably different.

    • January 2, 2011 6:49 am

      Hayden, maybe hooter in your cosmic pipe 😉

      Just kidding, I grew up in a logging world, with all the jargon flying freely. A hooter is a very limby tree, where birds like to roost.

      Who, who…

  13. January 1, 2011 6:22 pm

    Your seemingly endless wealth of knowledge never fails to amaze, intrigue and entertain me. Thank you for sharing with all of us. (p.s. I would about kill for a taste of that pie with the stars on top!)

    • January 2, 2011 6:51 am

      Wayne, I’d kill for a taste of that pie today – it went pretty fast!

      Thank you for the compliment – maybe I can just tell a good story 😉

      PS: Send me some sun, would ya!

  14. January 1, 2011 7:42 pm

    I can’t believe you just wrote about this, as I just got in from splitting a bunch of wood, and learned the hard way many of the things you pointed out regarding knots. One was a particular challenge as it looked as if someone had taken a 1″ dowel and stabbed it through the pieces that otherwise split just fine! I received a beautiful hand-forged Swedish axe as a gift, and wow does a good tool make for an enjoyable job.

    • January 2, 2011 6:54 am

      Kevin, the right axe definitely makes a huge difference. Knots are interesting things, and here if you get a wind-whipped tree, the grain is so tight you almost can’t split it.

      Nice Christmas present, that. Mine was a Christmas present too, from my DH. 🙂

  15. January 1, 2011 10:36 pm

    I’m still relatively new at woodburning off the land. When my husband and I lived in the city we would get our wood from old pallets or from scraps that the mill sets outside in their bins. My husband has done most of the splitting that we are now out in the city, as I don’t feel strong enough to split wood that well, but I hadn’t ever thought about where the knots where! As you know, I’m not far from you so I’ve got the same tree setup. Mostly those giant fir trees. The power company yanked a few down on the ground for us and we had to clear out two big trees for the vegetable garden, so we’ve got plenty of work ahead of us.

    • January 2, 2011 6:59 am

      Amy, you don’t have to be particularly strong to split wood, my teenager splits wood too. I wouldn’t consider myself particularly strong. Most of it is technique and the right tool.

      On a side note, the trees you removed from your garden (I’m guessing for light and more space) will still be affecting your plot, as most trees have as much below ground as above, it takes years for the soil to break down all that wood under the soil, the process of that will rob your garden of nutrients. It’s best to remove stumps and all the roots you can if possible.

  16. January 2, 2011 3:08 am

    I’ve used wood (hard and soft) for at least partial heat for years, but I’ve never been too concerned about using a sharp splitting ax. My understanding is that a duller ax/wedge makes for easier splitting while a sharp ax is better for cutting.

    • January 2, 2011 7:02 am

      ET, that’s right to a degree, I sharpen my axe about once a year, and have no need to sharpen my wedge or maul.

      Mostly if you flick your wrist a little as the axe strikes the wood (a little english) the wood pops right open. It’s one of those things you just feel, when it’s right, it’s very good, when it isn’t you’re committed to more axe swinging.

  17. Teri Pittman permalink
    January 4, 2011 11:38 am

    We used to live on an old timer’s place. He called that pitchy wood “trading wood”. They would split up a bunch and take it to a local widow, who would “trade” sex for the wood. That’s the story, anyway. I love the stuff from old cedar stumps. It looks like bacon when you split it.

    I think I’ve burned about everything. If you can get hold of it, holly is the best stuff to use for baking in a wood stove. It’s got almost no grain and very hard. It burns almost like it has gasoline on it, but leaves the most incredible, long lasting coals. Wonderful stuff. We once worked on a holly orchard and that’s where we found out about it.

  18. January 6, 2011 8:12 am

    Would love to see photos of your axe(s) and maul. I wonder if I have the correct tools for the job.

  19. Judy permalink
    January 11, 2012 11:06 am

    We heat our house with wood heat, using mostly a fireplace (insert) and sometimes our wood stove. I split about 90% of our firewood; I use a maul and wedges. I agree that you don’t need to be particularly strong or skilled to split wood using this method. It isn’t as fast as using a mechanical splitter, but it’s fairly good exercise and also very satisfying.

    We’ve gotten some of our wood by taking down trees on our property; several years ago we found a guy on craigslist who brought a logging truck full of logs to us. I think he buys culls from lumber mills; it was fairly good stuff. I think it came about to be about $100/cord, although of course we had to cut it up – my dh cut the pieces to the correct length with our chainsaw, and I hauled it to our woodshed. A good work out for both of us! Since we use so much wood every year, it is more economical to buy this way.

    • January 11, 2012 12:31 pm

      Judy, I agree it’s a nice workout. We have a wood splitter but usually use that for the gnarly stuff, the rest is almost easier to split by hand and we need the exercise anyway. Can’t beat the radiant heat either 🙂

  20. February 7, 2018 9:23 am

    Great share! Great info!

    Although the post is very old, it still very useful to me.

    Burning wood is always difficult me because of drying issue.

    Thanks to the author.


  1. Splitting firewood | My Suburban Homestead

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