THE PLEASURES OF WOOD SPLITTING


THE PLEASURES OF  WOOD SPLITTING

This is  dedicated to those happy few who split wood for pleasure . It will be a chronicle of my own pleasures, and few pains, mostly minor, of 30 years or so of wood splitting.

Now, splitting wood for centuries , the world over, has been  a task grudgingly undertaken by many, young and old, as a matter of survival, to feed the fire. It’s been done with axes, with sledges and wedges, mauls and, probably at one time, with  stone axes. It’s only in recent times when it was not necessary for survival and by those who didn’t need to do it, that it has been done for pleasure.

I have always maintained that is one of the few exercises that has a three characteristics of, first good cardiovascular exercise, one could work up a good sweat; and second, not boring, every log is different and one can see the progress from a pile of logs to a nice pile of firewood; and, third, useful. The only exercise I know comparable to that is shoveling snow in my driveway. Again, cardiovascular, not boring to see the gradual progress of change from snow-covered driveway to clean driveway and, finally, of course, useful.

I have always tried to work out various ways, generally in a gym, and that is only cardiovascular. For me at least, it is certainly boring and, of course, not useful to anybody except, myself, for  keeping in shape, and possibly the gym owner who gets a fee for the use of the gym. Splitting wood, by contrast, is not only free, but often  people try to give me something for it, such as a bottle of wine. I explain to them that the only thing that I want from them  is for them to keep their eye out  for more wood because wood splitting, like snow shoveling ,also has one major drawback. For the  one you have to have wood to split and when you split it you need more; for the other, you have to have snow to shovel which is, course, particularly seasonal. At least a gym is always there to use.

I have, through the years, developed a network of several score people, for whom I have split wood in Westchester and Connecticut ,who do call me occasionally to tell me that someone has had a tree down and would like some wood split. I also sometimes drive  by houses and see a tree down or a pile of logs left from a downed tree. I carry little typewritten notes in my car that I sometimes leave in the mailbox saying something to the effect that I like to split wood for exercise and will do it for free and getting my address and telephone number. Occasionally people bite, but most probably think is some kind of a crank or, come on. I would never go to the door and knock since they would probably set the dogs on me. Most people cannot fathom why somebody would do something for free and for pleasure that they would otherwise have to pay for.

I have met many, many nice people this way (and a  few grouches, but I don’t care so long as they have wood) and I tell them they are all part of my ” wood watchers group.” When they try to give me something I always tell him no, they’re not getting off that easy, they have to find more wood for me.

When I tell them is that, if they know someone who has to have a tree taken down on their property, get a quote from the tree people and then ask how much it will be if they leave the wood. They often will find out that it might be a little less because the gardeners, or wherever is taking down the tree, have to pay dumping fee to get rid of the logs, unless  they  are one of the few guys who make and sell firewood themselves. I then instruct the putative member of my wood watchers group to tell their friend or neighbor that I will come by split up the wood and pile it anywhere they want or, if they don’t want it, leave it on the curb for others to take. It will usually be gone in a day or two especially, I jokingly tell them, if they put a sign on it saying “do not take wood.” Then it will be taken furtively, at night.

If I have the time (and the wood) I will split a cord a weekend, half a cord on Saturday and half a cord on Sunday. A cord measures, as everyone knows, 4 x 4 by 8 feet closely stacked. It is a great feeling to walk up to a new pile of logs at a new splitting place size them up as a three weekend, five weekend or ten weekend job. Usually, by now I can come pretty close to guessing how long it will take. The variables are, in addition to my time availability, how tough the wood is and how the owner of the property wants the wood split, if they care at all.

My “default” splitting mode is ordinary fireplace size, that is, a piece of firewood about 4 to 7 inches in diameter and, of course, 18 inches to 2 feet long. That is a normal size of a piece of firewood that is convenient to be burned in most fireplaces and in an iron Franklin stove. I have found, however, that some people who heat  their house using a cast-iron stove, prefer larger chunks, since the smaller chunks burn too quickly. Obviously it take less time to split for those people.

Some wood is easier to split than other wood. Counterintuitively, soft wood, such as pine or weeping willow, is harder to split, since the blade just sinks into it. Harder wood, such as oak, splits more easily. Green wood is easier than older seasoned wood.Also, the colder the weather, the easier the wood splits. It’s more brittle. There is some wood that is tough and fibrous and seems to just cling together, so each log takes a long time to split. Of course you would think that, since I am just doing it for the exercise, I wouldn’t care whether it takes 15 min. to split one or one minute. However, part of the fun is the immediate satisfaction and reward of seeing the log split into pieces.

Then there are the logs with branches in them. As one can imagine, when a huge tree has a huge branch growing off it, there must be some unusual situation that exists where branch joins the trunk. There is. There is a gnarly, twisted, dense configuration that nature has evolved and designed to keep that heavy branch from falling off the tree. That can really be a challenge. Say there is a tree three or 4 feet diameter and, about 40 feet up there are three or four branches all coming out from the same part of the tree trunk. When that tree is cut down, this section of the trunk where those branches are coming out, can take me an hour or so to work over and 10 or 15 wedges.

A wedge  may be pounded into part of the wood right up to the end, and with no effect. So it takes another wedge and then another, and one more and then another. I have 20 wedges of various sizes and shapes (all of them pretty much wedge-shaped) and sometimes, in a huge log with several branches, I will get almost all of them in there before it yields to my entreaties, and pounding. It is, of course, a great satisfaction to “conquer” a log like that. There is an art and a science to it. Knowing where to place the wedges, which kind of wedge  to use (there are some variations among wedges, thin ones and fatter ones, for example) and finding the fault lines and natural splitting directions of a complicated log.

Tools

The tools one uses are not particularly sophisticated. Mostly, sledges and wedges. I have a selection of sledgehammers; a 12 pound one; a 16 pound one; and 20 pound beauty. I looked long and hard for the latter and I think it’s the largest one that is made. I use it selectively for particularly recalcitrant logs. It works wonders.

I also have two mauls. One is a standard maul, about 12 pounds. (I should not have to explain what a maul is  to anyone at this point. Anyone who has read this far must be an experienced wood splitter and knows.) The other is a “monster maul.” That was the trade name under which it was sold, when I bought it. I can’t remember where or when.  It is a sizable wedge of steel, about 6 x 6″ that used to be  attached to an iron pipe, until I broke off the pipe. I took it to a machine shop and had them drill, tap and screw in (and weld it for good measure) a piece of 2 steel inch bar stock about a yard long. The whole thing weighs 22 pounds and is remarkably effective when needed .

ROTATOR CUFF PROBLEMS

I don’t use the monster maul or the 20 pound sledge regularly, but I used to several years ago and messed up my shoulder. For some reason, Lost in the dim mists of history. I had gotten into the habit of splitting for three or four hours at a time and using mostly the monster maul; whaling away at logs until it got too dark to see and I would go home. Then I started noticing an ache in my right shoulder which developed into a pain every time I lifted my shoulder up. It was, of course the dreaded  rotator cuff, a familiar affliction to certain type of athlete.The classic symptom is an inability to raise the arm more than 30° or 45° out from the body without a sharp stabbing pain in the shoulder.

The rotator cuff, as a quick Google look will tell you, is a little space in your shoulder between the clavicle and the top of the humerus  where the  supraspinatus tendon comes out and attaches to your arm to  lift it up. Although it can be torn by accident, for example lifting a heavy thing over your head and having it go backwards, it commonly is injured by repetitive overhead arm movements, such as a squash player, a swimmer, a pitcher, or wood splitter. Sure enough I had offended the supraspinatus tendon by overindulging in wood splitting and with too heavy an implement, the monster maul.

So I duly  visited a succession of orthopedic surgeons, each one of whom, as expected, willingly offered to make a hole in my shoulder for arthroscopic surgery. It took five different surgeons before I finally found one who said what I wanted to hear , that there might be an alternative, and that was a course of physical therapy. I went to a physical therapist; religiously followed the instructions and regularly performed a series of about a dozen exercises three or four times a week and refrained from wood splitting for a couple of months. The pain decreased and then vanished and I went back to wood splitting,  but no more three or  four hours with the monster maul.

THE FEW DANGERS

There are not many other dangers or injuries that result from wood splitting. When people see me doing it or ask me about it they think  that it sounds dangerous. I tell him that, unlike skiing or golf, I don’t think anyone ever got killed wood splitting. (I did actually read about somebody getting hit in the head with a golf ball and dying from it, or at least they died afterwards and maybe that was the cause of it.) Lumberjacking and chain sawing  is something else, but more about that later.

I wear steel toed boots in case I drop a log on my foot and, of course, safety glasses when hitting the wedges with the sledges, but that’s about it for safety concerns. Of course I wear gloves but still do have some calluses on my hands but I’m not exactly horny handed. I buy inexpensive gloves from one of my tool company catalogs that cost about a buck  and a half each when bought by the dozen. I wear them out in a couple of months, probably mostly by handling the split wood and stacking it. Safety glasses are a must when hitting the wedges because, after a while, the ends of the wedges that get hit by the sledges become deformed and pieces fly off them. If one of them hits you in the eye, that’s it for the eye. I have had tiny pieces hit me but they don’t do much damage, but  it is rather startling.

One-time I was whacking away at a wedge and felt the sting in the shin of my right leg; pulled up my pants leg and saw a tiny piece of steel sticking out of my skin. I pulled it out  and threw it away, marveling  at the fact that, out of a 360° circle, that little piece of steel could fly off  the wedge  and hit my leg.  It was not  much of a wound, like a big mosquito bite, so I kept on and hit the wedge another mighty blow and felt another sting in my left leg. Yes, you guessed it, same thing. What are the chances of that happening, but it did. Again, if that’s the worst thing that happens to you after 30 years or so of wood splitting, it’s not a very dangerous activity.

SLEDGELESS SPLITTING

Before talking about chain sawing and lumberjacking, let me say one more thing about the much safer exercise of wood splitting and that is, “sledgeless splitting.” Well, what is that, one might ask? It’s something that, while I probably didn’t invent it, nobody else seems to have ever seen it, but then, who makes a study of these things. This can be done with any log that can be lifted more than a couple of feet in the air. The weight of the log itself is used split it. Here is how it is done. I grab a log, say 75 pounds, maybe 18 inches in diameter and the usual 18 inches to 2 feet long. I throw a wedge into the center of it so it sticks. Then I turn it upside down so the wedge is on the bottom  and lift it into the air and throw it down on the wedge so that the weight of the log is forced down onto the wedge. A small log of the right kind of wood, say Cedar, will split the first or second time; very satisfying. A tough log may take 10 or 15 thumps.

I do it because it’s a little variation and it is very satisfying when the log finally splits. Also, it uses different muscles than swinging a sledgehammer or a maul. Interestingly,  and when you think about it, logically, the heavier logs split quicker. If I can muscle up a 125 pound log just a foot or so into the air, maybe two or three times, the great weight of the log, smashing down on the wedge will split it. So, that is sledgeless  splitting. Now let’s talk about really dangerous stuff, lumberjacking.

Lumberjacking and Chainsawing

Lumberjacks and miners are in the most dangerous occupations. Maybe those King crab fishing boats in the sea  off Alaska are pretty dangerous too, but I don’t really know the figures on the mortality rates. I, of course am just a city bred lawyer from New York and now a businessman, and I am probably considered by most of the people of the world rather effete. I certainly am not a lumberjack and would certainly not want to be one but I have cut down a lot of trees and done a lot of chainsawing.

This was a logical, or maybe illogical , as my wife would say, extension of my wood splitting activities. After going up to wooded areas, mostly in Connecticut at the invitation of an increasing circle of the “wood watchers” and doing a lot of wood splitting, I began to get some opportunities to take down some old dead trees. This was not so much because the owners needed tree work done, but because I was running out of wood to split; saw the dead trees on the property and asked if I could take them down. This also another little bit of a back story. At our family place in the Adirondacks, going back a number of years, my then brother-in-law Brian owned a few chainsaws and I used to use them to take down trees; split them up; stack them, and then the wood was burned to the heat the place.

I then got a hankering to buy my own and, you know how these kind of things go, I wound up with five of them; each one bigger than the last one. The biggest was a 28 inch Stihl. Which  ultimately was my undoing. One of the reasons I had so many is because I have such a hard time starting them; usually flooded them out. If I brought along two or three of them into the woods, I usually I could get one started. One old guy I knew, can’t remember who, said that a two cycle engine, the used in a chainsaw, is like some women. Very temperamental and hard to get started, but once it starts going, watch out. Funny, but not exactly accurate.

        Although I certainly am not an experienced woodsman I saw first hand some of the dangers of taking down trees. There is an old saying that, anyone can take down a tree, but the skill consists of making it fall where you want it to. This is why I never tried taking down any trees except if they were out in the forest away from any buildings or anything else expensive. Several tons of wood will go where it wants to go, once it gets started and is not much you can do to prevent it.

Felling a tree

I remember putting a quarter-inch steel cable around a  dead tree  that I was planning to take down and fastening it to another nearby tree to  keep the tree that I was cutting down from falling on a playset on the grounds of one of the estates where I was doing my stuff. The cable snapped like a string and the playset was history. The family didn’t care, they got a huge woodhouse instead.

A skilled  woodsman can tell, from which way the branches are growing, where the weight  is and, hence, which direction the tree will fall. It is very difficult to make it fall in any other direction unless, of course there is real tree work to be done and someone goes up with ropes or a cherry picker and lops off those branches. There is a little pamphlet  that comes with chainsaws  and has some directions on how to cut down trees.  It shows where to make the wedge shaped cut, pointing toward the direction you want the tree to fall, and then to cut, parallel to the ground or slightly on a downward angle, just a little bit above the bottom of the wedge shaped cut, on the other side of the tree. The best practice is to stop with just a little bit left to cut (which is called the “hinge”) and then insert a splitting wedge into that same cut  and pound it  with a sledgehammer so it will  spread the cut; lift  the tree; and tumble it over. It’s a little more exciting to keep cutting until you hear that kind of crack or groaning sound and  the tree starts to tip over. Then you should move.

A tree starts to fall over very slowly for about the first 30° from vertical. At about 45°, or about halfway down, it is falling very swiftly and  at about 60° and 70° it is really slicing through the air. That gives you plenty of time to get out of the way. I always found the best thing to do was to locate an escape route before starting which was close by and usually behind another fairly sturdy tree. This would be either perpendicular to the expected, and hoped for, line of fall or maybe about 45° in back of the expected line of fall. The reason one doesn’t get directly in back of the tree, which might initially seem the safest place is that, first of all the “barber chair” effect and also because sometimes, as I said before, a tree may not fall just where you want it to fall. It could fall backwards and you wouldn’t want to be there. Best to be behind a nearby thick tree.

I don’t know why it’s called the” barber chair”, effect. Maybe because a barber chair can be made to lean way back. The effect is as follows: the tree is cut and, instead of just falling over, the lower part of the trunk slides backwards on the stump in the opposite direction that the  rest of the trunk falls, so that the tree ends up with maybe 10 or 20 feet of the trunk on one side of the stump  and the rest of it on the other side of the stump. This is a big problem if you are on either side of the stump the tree trunk is on. Best to be off to one side.

It is very exciting, at least to an amateur like me, to cut down a big tree. Now, don’t get me wrong, while I wouldn’t call myself a “tree hugger”, I love trees and would certainly never cut down a tree just for the hell of it. The trees I cut down are dead trees or, for some reason or other, if the owner of the land wanted a tree cut down I used to do it for them. That was before the accident, but more about that later.

Bucking

Once a tree is cut down it has to be “bucked”. Bucking is, as I understand it, cutting any wood when it is on the ground. Generally, I start by cutting the smaller branches since they are still connected to the tree and sticking up and easy to cut. For a good sized tree a huge tangle quickly results and it becomes pretty dangerous to be stepping around among the branches cutting with a chainsaw. This is when one of the most important safety items comes in  handy and that is Kevlar chaps. These are, as the name implies, chaps that strap onto the front of your legs and are supposed to stop the saw from slicing into the leg. They generally do just that, except for the time it didn’t  for me.

After cutting off the branches and getting down to the trunk, the next step is to slice up the trunk into fireplace length logs, as mentioned above, about 18 inches to 2 feet long. One thing to watch out for here  is, as the saw cuts almost through the trunk and gets down to the ground one has to be careful not to let the chain hit dirt  or rock. One touch against a good sized rock or even a couple of seconds in the sand and the chain is dulled and has to be sharpened. It is great to cut with a freshly sharpened chain and feel the saw just slice through the wood and no fund to cut with a dull chain, and not good for the bar or the saw.. Of course the kind of wood determines that as well. Naturally harder wood goes a little more slowly. And  a long dead tree with seasoned wood will go very slowly and will dull the chain very quickly.

Dealing with a pinch

Another thing to watch out for while bucking or cutting any time, is getting the chain saw stuck in the wood. If the trunk of a tree or, even a large branch, is under stress, specifically if it is supported at both ends and sagging in the middle and you are cutting from the top then, as you reach the bottom, the wood will pinch. There are two ways of dealing with this. If the trunk or branch is large enough, then, after the bar of the chainsaw has passed through the wood deep enough to leave a couple of inches of the cut free on the top, you hammer a splitting wedge into  the cut to keep it apart. Actually, if one is cutting a horizontal cut in a large tree (after already having opened up the wedge shaped cut on the other side) it’s usually a good idea to put a splitting wedge into the horizontal cut in back of the chainsaw blade because sometimes, even though you want the tree to fall in the direction of the wedge shaped cut, it will lean back the other way. Once that happens  or, or for that matter, once the bar of the chainsaw is pinched in a tree, it  is very difficult to do anything about it. If you have a second chainsaw you can try cutting from the other side, of course being careful not to cut all the way through to the first chainsaw and have the chains cut into each other.

In a situation where one is cutting a log, as mentioned, supported at both ends or a leaner (more about that later) instead of using  a splitting wedge to keep the top of the cut open, one takes at  out the bar of the chainsaw  and starts cutting from the bottom. Two problems with this are, because, of course, it’s a lot easier to cut from the top with gravity on your side, it’s tempting to keep cutting from the top too long until the blade is pinched. The second problem, of course, is  that when cutting from the bottom, one does not have gravity on your side and you have to hold the chainsaw and pull it up against the log. When cutting a log in this position, particularly a leaner, great care must be used, because the log will give way very suddenly.

Leaners

A “leaner” occurs when you are cutting a tree down and, as often happens in the forest where the area around the tree is not clear, instead of just nicely falling flat on the ground it falls over and leans on a nearby tree. This is a challenge and where lumberjacking can really get dangerous. One way to deal with this is to throw a line over the tree as far up the tree as one can reach, and then pull it with a couple of guys or  a powerful ratchet off the supporting tree, taking care not to be under the tree when it falls, of course, which is always preferable. That’s often not an option and so the other way to handle it is to do as follows. Say the tree has fallen over and is leaning, at a 45° angle, supported by a nearby tree. You find a place six or eight feet up the trunk to cut it, as far as you can comfortably reach. Since, you will ultimately be cutting the trunk into fireplace lengths, it should be some multiple of two foot lengths, ideally. Okay, now you start cutting, from the top and, as mentioned above you try to stop before the bar is pinched in the log, say about two thirds of the way through for good sized two  foot thick trunk. Now the fun begins. You start cutting from the bottom of the log, of course lining  up as close as possible with the cut that is coming from the top. Here is the “exciting” part, if danger happens to be your excitement. When you cut far enough up from the bottom towards the cut coming down from the top, the log will break. Now, here’s the problem. That log, being under stress, will snap suddenly. Unlike taking a standing tree down which, as I mentioned, starts very, very slowly and doesn’t fall swiftly until it’s well on its way down, the log under stress will not only snap quickly but can go in a number of different directions none of which you want to be in.

If you are standing beside a 40 foot long trunk of a tree, 2 feet in diameter, and you have cut two thirds of the way from the top, and now you are cutting up from the bottom towards that first, top, you have to be on your toes and ready to jump. You don’t hear a long cracking and groaning sound like you do from a tree when it’s starting to fall over, it’s just a sudden pop and the log is in  motion. It’s not so much the bottom part about 8 feet long and maybe 1000 pounds, it is the top part of the log, about 30 feet long, and a couple of tons, which might decide to swing out towards you and give you a little kiss. As I said I don’t do this stuff anymore.

But, just one more illustration of an interesting phenomenon that I experienced. As I said, when a tree falls it starts very slowly and there is plenty of time to get out of the way etc.   However, when cutting the log under stress, such as a leaner, as discussed above, it snaps quickly. There is another interesting situation where cutting can result in an almost instantaneous motion.  This occurs when a tree falls over naturally, i.e., not cut down by a chainsaw, and the roots remain partly in the ground. This often happens after a rainy spell followed by high wind when the ground is soft and the roots are loosened in the ground. Also, trees that grow in damp or wet ground usually don’t put down deep roots and are prone to fall over once they reach a certain size. This is also true for trees, such as those around my house that only have two or three feet of soil.

So,  you have a situation where there is a tree, in an instance that I will describe, about 100 feet high and 5 feet in diameter  which happened to be growing by stream and which it fallen over in high wind storm. Well, I started cutting from the top and got down to some pretty large, two or three foot diameter branches, and had almost reached the trunk when I noticed an interesting phenomenon. The trunk of the tree rose slightly off the ground. Then I cut off another several feet and a trunk rose up further, until it was three or 4 feet off the ground suspended in the air. You see, the stump and the roots were still embedded in the ground on the side of the tree where it had fallen over. On the other side, on the top of the trunk, roots had been ripped out of the ground. What was happening was that, as the top branches of the tree, several tons of wood, were cut away,the trunk was being pulled up by the elastic, resilient strain of the huge remaining roots in the ground.

I jumped up on the massive log of the trunk and strolled around, taking in the situation. With my “fly like” weight it did not even stir. I saw that, if I kept on cutting the trunk then,  when there was about 20 or so feet left on it, it would rise up to about a 45° angle in the air and I would not be able to reach the end of the trunk to cut off any more. So, what I decided to do was just cut off the trunk as far down near the stump as I could, thinking that if I did that, the 30 foot length of the trunk would just drop  down on the ground and I would just finish slicing it up. What I didn’t realize was that when the stump, with its remaining roots embedded in the ground, was relieved of the several tons of weight of the 30 foot long 5 feet in diameter trunk, it would instantly spring back almost flat on the ground at the same time that the huge trunk thundered to the ground. It took an instant and did not fling me or the chainsaw into the air. The first time it happened, with a slightly smaller tree only about 3 feet in diameter, I foolishly didn’t realize it would happen and was amazed when it did. The next (and last) time that it happened , with the huge tree, I was careful and prepared and ready to jump away as the saw approached the bottom of the cut. I didn’t have time to move; it happened in an instant.

Widowmakers

Here is another way that lumberjacks get killed,  by “widow makers.” Here’s how it happens. After a day of lumberjacking  and taking down several dozen trees, in the natural course of things, as some of these trees topple over, some of their upper branches snap off  as a tree falls over, on the way down, and get caught in the upper branches of other standing trees. Then, later, say the next day, as a lumberjack is walking along through the woods underneath a tree containing one of these 200 or 300 pound branches, 30 or 40 feet in the air, it slips out and falls down on him and, if he is married, makes his wife a widow. Hence the name “widow maker.”

One more observation about the ancient and honorable occupation of lumberjacking. While there will always be a need for trees to be cut down, for lumber, wood pulp etc. (although the Kindle and its ilk are saving a lot of trees)  the way trees are cut down and the job of a lumberjack has changed considerably over the years. For example there is a gigantic machine mostly used for taking down smaller trees , maybe 2 feet or so in diameter,which are probably used for lumber or pulp. The machine drives up to three and grasps it with enormous grabbers. Then  a circular saw comes out from machine and slices off the tree right at ground level. The machine carries off the tree and drops it down somewhere and there well might be another machine to strip off the branches, but maybe that’s still done by a human wielding a chainsaw.

There is a series on television called “Axemen”, which, as we all know, has nothing to do with axes, but in order to capture the attention of the public who think that all lumberjacks use axes, that’s the way it had to be named.  It could not be called “chainsaw men” , too long. I have watched it, of course, but really felt sorry for those guys working with that equipment. Most of the must have been missing various parts of their anatomy and I’m sure a goodly portion of them get killed.

But enough of the dismal and dangerous possibilities of being a lumberjack and dancing with chainsaws. Those days are over for me. But, before we return to the pleasures of wood splitting and making  the wood pile, a few words about chainsaws.

CHAINSAWS

While there are electric chainsaws that have to be plugged in (although there are some small battery-powered ones, mostly for nibbling away at upper limbs of trees that can be easily carried) gasoline powered  chainsaws  are by far the most prevalent, the most powerful and, by the way, the most noisy. They are old-fashioned two cycle gasoline engines, with carburetors like the old cars used to have before fuel injection.. They are very fickle and temperamental and hard to start. That’s one of the reasons I had so many and used to carry two or three of them with me into the woods, since I could usually only start one. Some, to me,seemed easier to start. The Husqvarnas that I owned always seemed to behave well, as did the Stihls. I always had trouble with the Poulans. Of course, not being a really experienced and skilled woodsman or, for that matter someone very familiar with two cycle engines, I am probably not the best judge of this.

I would usually be spending a fair amount of time adjusting and fixing the chainsaws out in the woods. I suppose this is par for the course. One thing that often happened to me is that the chain would fly off the bar. This is because it loosens up as it heats up and expands. One cannot tighten it too much to start out since it will  not go easily or, perhaps even won’t start. On the other hand, starting too loose, and then after cutting for a while, will result in a chain flying off. By the way, this doesn’t result in injuries usually, especially if one has the elemental safety equipment: heavy gloves, the above-mentioned chaps, and a hard hat with a face protector.

No, that’s not the way one usually is injured with a chainsaw. Usually one runs it into a leg, as happened to me. Except when cutting down a tree, when the chainsaw is horizontal to the ground and cutting into the trunk of the tree, one is usually cutting downward,” bucking” a tree, in other words, cutting up the tree and cutting off the branches. As one is cutting downward, say, cutting branches off a felled tree, the chainsaw is cutting in a downward direction and if it slips and continues going downward,  it is going to encounter some part of the lower body. That is what the chaps are for and, also steel toed boots.

In my case, I’m still not 100% sure what happened, but as I was cutting at an awkward angle, underneath a fallen tree, trying to sever one of the branches the chainsaw slipped and cut into my leg, just on the inside of my right knee. Without going into the gory details and, as you can imagine it was somewhat gory, my wife demanded that I get rid of all my chainsaws which I did, selling them on eBay. By the way, I had on a pair of Kevlar chaps that the 28 Inch Stihl chainsaw simply disregarded on its way into my leg. Fortunately there was no serious or lasting damage done although the hole  in my leg was big enough to put your fist into. It healed up and I am  walking around but not using a chainsaw. Before we leave chainsaws, one more interesting phenomena, and that is the gyroscope effect.

The gyroscope effect, is a rather complex phenomenon having to do with vector forces but you can feel it anytime you have a heavy spinning object and try to rotate it at right angles to it’s spin. You can feel the spinning object forcing its way back against the way you’re trying to rotate it. That’s what keeps the gyroscope upright. The heavier the object and the faster the spin, then the more pronounced  the effect. You can feel it most strongly in a large chainsaw, let’s say a 28 inch one, when you rev up  the engine and then turn the whole chainsaw sharply to one side or the other, rotating it around an axis that extends along the line of the bar. The more sharply you turn the   chainsaw, the more strongly you feel the chainsaw resisting your turn. That’s the gyroscope effect in chainsaws. Now back to more peaceful projects.

WOOD PILES AND LOG HOUSES

As I mentioned, one of the pleasures of wood splitting is seeing a nice woodpile after you finish. It’s evidence of the work done and exercise you have had. A well-built woodpile is a thing of beauty to certain people, such as the readers of this. Usually, unless the wood can be stacked between two trees, there has to be a “block” at the end of the pile or the wood will be just be   heaped in an ungraceful mound. The real woodsman starts with a “block” which is: pieces of firewood, usually three or four, stacked alternately crossways; for example parallel to the direction of the wood pile on the bottom layer, the second layer perpendicular to that, the third layer perpendicular to the second layer and parallel to the first layer, and so on. This can create a square stacked about 2 feet on a side that can go four or five feet high, which is about as high as woodpile ought to go. Of course the rest of the firewood will simply be stacked between the blocks. A normal woodpile can be as long as one wants and if there’s not enough length available, then several wood piles can be  put side by side. Now, I said a “normal” woodpile. Then, however, there are wood “houses”.

If I have at least three or four cords of wood  and there are children from, say  six years old to the low teens, then I offer to build a wood house, instead of simply a normal woodpile.

A wood house  starts with a block, and then the firewood is stacked, about 4 feet high in a single row, ending in a second block may be 10 feet away. Here is where it gets different.The firewood is then stacked perpendicular to the first row for, say, another 10 feet to a third block for an L-shaped structure. Then the third wall is built perpendicular to the second one for a U-shaped structure, completed by a fourth block. Closing the square, the fourth wall is built but, leaving a doorway. That is, instead of completely closing the square, a fifth block is built about 2 feet from the first block at the end of the fourth wall . At that point, the walls are up for the wood house and you could leave it that way and the kids would have a wood “Fort.”

However, to complete a basic wood house structure one must put on a roof. One builds a triangle of firewood pieces on top of  the two walls opposite each other, preferably one of the walls not being one with the door, that makes it harder. Then at the peak of the two triangles you lay down a 2 x 4 or some kind of a long pole and drape a tarp over the whole thing. (I like to use a camo tarp or at least a dark brown tarp since it blends in with the landscape . I hate those bright blue tarps. They are offensive to the eye, especially on top of a woodhouse.) That is your basic woodhouse. However there are variations. If you have more wood, you can make a bigger house. Then you have walls inside with one or more blocks and, perhaps a triangle peak parallel to the two outside triangle peaks to help hold up the ridgepole and the tarp. The reason, of course, that one needs the peaked roof is so the rain and snow will run off it. Without the peaks, if you simply drape a tarp over the flat woodpile walls then, after the first heavy rain, a pool of water will form  in the middle and, when when it gets big enough, split the tarp. I think my biggest woodhouse took about 10 cords and had six rooms and a porch.

Again, I’m doing all this for exercise but also for fun. While it’s fun to build a woodpile and satisfying to see it after I’m finished. It’s a lot more fun to build a woodhouse and somewhat of a challenge, not just the architectural aspects, but also estimating how big to make it, based on how many logs I have and how much firewood will result from those logs. I don’t stick around to see what happens when, and if, the people start burning the wood and have to take down parts of the woodhouse. I imagine there may be protests from the children.

12 thoughts on “THE PLEASURES OF WOOD SPLITTING

  1. Very nice! You have a lot of good laughs in here along with all the good information. After the ice storm up here a few years ago my woodsman neighbor did some of the initial cutting up of fallen trees for me. One was a huge pine which had uprooted. Just as you describe, the huge uprooted end suddenly snapped back into place. My neighbor was still a bit shaken despite his extensive experience in tree cutting.

    I don’t let myself daydream too much about chain saws – I know I’ll take my leg off.

    Do you plan to continue this blog? I suspect you have some good tales to tell.

  2. I had not thought to continue, having emptied my head of all the thoughts I had on wood splitting but, then again, maybe my head will fill up again

  3. Looking good! Nice to see that you’ve already got some comments from people interested in woodsplitting. Looking forward to seeing how the blog develops.

  4. Excellent blog post — My neighbor recently had a tree taken down and the group of guys taking it down knocked on my door asking if I wanted some fire wood… I said sure. However, due to the language barrior, when he asked how much, I thought I was only asking for a small amount, perhaps enough to produce 1/2 cord. I ended up getting the whole tree (some of the largest pieces 3-4 ft in diameter) placed in my backyard… I guess they didn’t want to haul it off and dispose of them. Anyways, I’m now a fan of splitting wood and your blog has been most entertaining… thank you for sharing!

    1. Bill,
      glad to have provided some entertainment and possibly some instruction. If the largest piece of the tree, presumably starting at the bottom, was about 4 feet in diameter, then my very approximate rule of thumb is that the whole tree probably contained up to two or three cords, if all of the large branches were included as well.
      I think you will have a lot of exercise and fun you might even have enough to build a small “wood house” if you have the room, small children to enjoy it and the inclination to build. I am curious as to what tools you use sledges and wedges? A maul?

      1. I think your estimate is about correct of 2-3 cords. I am just stacking them without making a “house” as I do not yet have children of my own and not sure I want my dog “running the trenches” around the wood pile.

        The exercise is great, I’m using it as a springboard to get back into shape — love the feeling after spending an hour out back after work. I’m using a 12 lb axe (maybe it’s technically a maul? I’m uncertain), a sledge, and several wedges. I use the wedges to split the big rounds in half and then I let them sit for a few days and dry out. Then I find them easy to split.

        Thank you again for sharing your experiences, excellent blog topic and site! Your pictures are most impressive.

  5. I live in salem ct and have about 4 chords that need to be split. Intetested? It is mostly whire oak and maple… 1 tree was hickory. I had 9 trees cut into rounds. If interested email me and put trees down as the subject.

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