WOOD SPLITTING 101

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Given the prospect of waiting decades or generations to realize forest products from your family woodlot, one could be forgiven for assuming that instant gratification isn’t part of the forestry picture. However, one exception to this long-term

Here, a tire is mounted to the splitting block to contain the split firewood and keep the wood upright.  Photos by Brett McLeod.
Here, a tire is mounted to the splitting block to contain the split firewood and keep the wood upright.
Photos by Brett McLeod.

endeavor may be splitting and stacking your own firewood. Once you get in a rhythm, and especially if you have help, the process can be fast and enjoyable. Unfortunately, too many people assume wood splitting is a grunt activity, best achieved with brute force. The truth is that wood splitting is a mix of being able to “read a log” and developing safe, efficient movements throughout the process.

Preparing to split

The key to efficient firewood processing is minimizing the number of times you handle each piece of wood. If you’re able to skid full-length firewood logs to your processing site (hopefully right next to your woodshed), you can divide your friends and family into teams of buckers, splitters and stackers, creating an efficient assembly line. If you’re working alone, pace yourself while splitting and alternate to stacking when you get tired.

Ax or maul?

If you’re splitting by hand, you’ll need to decide if a splitting ax or a maul is a better choice. A splitting ax shouldn’t be confused with a chopping ax with a maul. The bit of a splitting ax is dull to the touch and relies on the wedge of the ax cheek to split the block.

The advantage of a splitting ax over a maul is that they’re significantly lighter, usually o

nly 3 to 5 pounds, whereas a splitting maul with its heavy head can weigh between 6 and 16 pounds. Of course, the advantage of a maul is that the additional weight means the head does much of the work.

Other considerations include handle material and length. While purists insist on hickory handles, novices should stick to more forgiving fiberglass or composite handles until they fully develop their hand-eye coordination. Handle length is largely a matter of personal preference, though a shorter handle offers more control.

The splitting block

The splitting block serves several purposes. First, it protects your ax or maul from damage by allowing it to pass through the firewood, safely landing in the splitting block below. Splitting on the ground not only increases the chances of ricocheting off a rock, but you also have to bend over further to set up and collect the wood.

One common complaint of using a splitting block is that the split wood falls off the block, leaving you with an ever-smaller splitting target. One solution is to mount an old tire on top of the splitting block and place the wood to be split inside. The tire will help to hold the wood in until you’re ready to move the whole tire load. Use screws or lag bolts to fasten the tire to the stump.

Another take on the traditional splitting block is to cut the top of the block at a slight angle. This allows you to match the angle of the firewood block (since they are rarely perfectly square) with the splitting block by matching the two angles.

Proper splitting form, with the ax brought directly over the head.
Proper splitting form, with the ax
brought directly over the head.
Photos by Brett McLeod.

The art of splitting

It’s common to see folks split wood by swinging the ax or maul over their shoulder. While it may feel natural, this method wastes energy and lacks precision (hitting the same spot twice). Instead, raise the ax or maul directly over your head, keeping it in perfect line with your body. As you raise the ax, be sure it doesn’t drop behind your head, since it will require additional energy to move the ax but doesn’t offer any additional mechanical advantage.

Don’t aim for the middle of the block; instead you’ll want “hanging steel,” allowing the bottom corner (heel) of the ax to overhang the edge of the block. Working the outside edge will encourage a split to form. If you have a particularly large block, it may be useful to use a “slabbing” technique, where you work your way around the outside of the block splitting off long slabs. As you do this, the block will form corners that you’ll split off in subsequent rounds.

If your block has a knot on one end but not the other, place the knot on the bottom so you can establish a splitting kerf. If a block has a whorl of knots that’s difficult to split, set the block aside, but don’t forget about it – knotty wood is exceptionally high in Btu due to knot density, making it perfect for extra-cold nights. Metal splitting wedges are useful for knotty pieces. In some cases, you may need to use a series of wedges in a line to get a stubborn block to split.

If your wedge or ax pops out as you attempt to split a knotty, stubborn block, you can use a chain saw to cut a shallow X in the top of the block, giving the wedge a place to start the split. Alternately, a block can be made easier to split by bucking it in half and splitting each shorter section.

I split most of my firewood a year in advance, meaning that as my woodstove is burning I’m often at the woodshed splitting next year’s wood. One advantage to splitting wood in winter (besides avoiding blackflies) is that the sap in the wood freezes, allowing the wood to cleanly “pop” apart.

Hydraulic splitters

Photo by PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.com.
Photo by PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.com.

While I appreciate the simplicity of splitting with an ax or maul, there are some circumstances when a hydraulic splitter represents a more practical solution. If you’re faced with splitting an exceptionally large volume of wood, or if the wood is of a particularly obstinate species (elm, for example), renting or purchasing a hydraulic splitter may be in your best interest. If you own a tractor with a three-point hitch, you can avoid the hassle of needing to maintain an additional engine by running the splitter off the tractor’s hydraulic system.

While some hydraulic splitters operate horizontally, others operate vertically, and a few can be run in either position. Vertical splitters are particularly handy when you’re dealing with large rounds of wood, since you can usually slide them into splitting position without lifting. Horizontal splitters offer a comfortable work height for rotating logs or loading them into a truck or trailer.

Regardless of your chosen splitting tool, make sure you practice safety, always wearing foot and eye protection. Finally, a note about stacking: Make sure your wood is stacked in a dry, well-ventilated area. Pallets make a great stacking surface because they keep the firewood off the ground and promote circulation. If you don’t have a woodshed to stack your wood in, consider using corrugated roofing with ample weight stacked on top. Also, the longer you’re able to dry your wood – one to two years is ideal – the more efficiently it will burn.

FOREST PRODUCTS EQUIPMENT: INSECTS AND DISEASES IN THE WOODLOT

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Waiting it out is often the only option, but management can help. 

Managing insects and diseases in the forest is not the same as managing them in agriculture. With row crops, it’s much easier to scout for problems and much more practical to apply treatments when necessary.

 To slow the spread of beech bark disease, you can remove scale-infested trees. The disease occurs when fungus infects wounds left by scale insects.  Photo by Linda Haugen, USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org.
To slow the spread of beech bark disease, you can remove scale-infested trees. The disease occurs when fungus infects wounds left by scale insects.
Photo by Linda Haugen, USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org.

When managing Christmas trees or ornamental trees in a landscape setting, for example, chemical applications are often used to control insect and disease outbreaks. “That’s really not the case in a woodlot. The approach is very different,” explains Barbara Schultz, forest health program manager with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “There is nothing in this part of the country where people take out sprayers and start treating.”

Woodlot owners are often at the mercy of nature, and sometimes the only thing you can do when a tree insect or disease shows up is to wait for it to run its course and hope for the best. That said, there are certain steps that can be taken to manage – as much as possible – some insects and diseases in your woods.

“With the cankers on hardwoods, for instance, that’s really just a case of getting rid of the worst ones – the theory is that helps prevent the spread, and it certainly improves the quality of the stand,” says Schultz. “If you cut them out, you will have a greater percentage of trees without cankers and without stem decay.”

The “sanitation” that comes along with crop tree release, or single tree selection – always making the stand a little better – can help prevent some insect and disease problems from becoming too bad, says Schultz. In other words, a woodlot with a greater percentage of healthy trees, which can handle additional stress, may stand up better against some insect and disease outbreaks than a woodlot with unhealthy trees. “For example, shoestring root rot (Armillaria) is more virulent on unhealthy trees,” she explains.

Every insect and disease “has its own little quirk,” says Schultz. “Some we can maybe do a little something about, and some we just watch them take their course.” Native pests and diseases are typically not as dangerous to woodlots as invasive and exotic threats. “They may take out a tree here or a tree there, or make a tree here or there lose its value, but the native ones tend not to be devastating,” Schultz explains.

 Insects like the gypsy moth come in cycles. When populations are rising, it's often prudent to avoid thinning and harvesting.  Photo by Hannes Lemme/Bugwood.org.
Insects like the gypsy moth come in cycles. When populations are rising, it’s often prudent to avoid thinning and harvesting.
Photo by Hannes Lemme/Bugwood.org.

Bill Ostrofsky, forest pathologist with the Maine Forest Service, says there are many preventive steps that can be taken to manage diseases in trees. “If you’re doing work on your woodlot – taking out trees, or doing a firewood harvest, etc. – probably the single most important thing you can control is damage to the residual stand,” he says. Reducing damage to the trees left behind improves their health (and timber value), allowing them to stand up better to disease pressures. “Maintaining tree vigor is important, because when trees respond to injury, there’s a cost in terms of their energy,” he says. Injury and the resulting loss of vigor can very easily make trees more susceptible to disease.

One management technique that can be used to promote tree health is to grow trees on appropriate sites. “Each species has their own ideal situation, and most tree species are fairly adaptable to a lot of sites, but you can push species onto sites that they’re not well-suited to,” says Ostrofsky. “If trees are introduced into sites that are less than ideal, then they become more susceptible to insects and diseases.”

Given the number of different diseases that can impact trees in our region, it’s impossible to give blanket advice, and a forester should be consulted when strategizing how to handle specific outbreaks. However, Ostrofsky offers some advice on a few of the more common diseases. “White pine blister rust is a complex disease. The fungus has a complex life cycle that requires infection of ribes plants – currants and gooseberries – and then the spores that are produced on the currants and gooseberry plants can infect the white pines,” he explains. “So if you have white pine and you’re concerned about white pine blister rust, the recommendation is to make sure you remove the ribes plants in the very near proximity to your white pine stand.”

Another example Ostrofsky provides relates to beech bark disease. “The disease is initiated by a scale insect, and then the bark becomes predisposed to infection by a fungus. One of the best things you can do is examine the trees: If you can capture and remove those trees as they become scale-infested, you can reduce the population and slow down the spread of the beech bark disease in the stand.” That doesn’t mean removing all beech, but focusing on salvaging the infested trees, he stresses.

 Removing ribes plants from the vicinity of white pines can help prevent the spread of white pine blister rust.  Photo by Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org.
Removing ribes plants from the vicinity of white pines can help prevent the spread of white pine blister rust.
Photo by Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service/Bugwood.org.

Careful scouting of the trees is important. “There is a low percentage, probably between 1 and 2 percent, of the beech tree population that is actually resistant or immune to infestation by the scale insect and development of the beech bark disease, so if those trees are in the stand, those are good ones to keep,” Ostrofsky explains. “They will be disease-free, so you can tailor forest management to make sure those disease-resistant trees stay in the stand as part of the population.” The resistant trees usually stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of an infestation because they have nice, smooth, clean, disease-free bark, he adds.

Sometimes it’s weather that helps to bring about, or magnify, tree diseases. “In the last decade, we’ve seen an enormous explosion in not just conifer needle diseases, but also in hardwood leaf diseases. We’re pretty confident that the main driving factor in this is the extremely wet weather that we’ve had; we’ve had six or eight years now of way-above-normal precipitation during the summer months,” notes Ostrofsky. “With most of the needle and foliage diseases we have, the leaves and needles need to be wet for the spores of the pathogens to germinate and cause infection.” During long periods of wet weather, there’s a big buildup of these, he says.

Just one example is white pine needle cast disease, which has been common in recent years. “We get a big browning and needle drop in the month of June of 1-year-old needles that were infected the prior year. This should not be occurring. If the tree were healthy, there should be no needle drop in June,” says Ostrofsky.

One action that may help with these types of diseases is to ensure good airflow through the woodlot. “We’ve been recommending that, at least on a small scale, if you have trees in stands that are overly dense and need to be thinned, that it may be a good idea to open them up a little bit. I think giving the advantage to microclimate conditions that will be a little bit more dry will help reduce infection levels,” he explains.

One other recommendation Ostrofsky offers when this particular disease is present is to discourage regeneration cuts: harvesting trees with the main objective of getting regeneration growth under existing trees. “The inoculum that’s in the bigger trees is just going to rain down on the smaller trees and cause problems, so you may want to hold off on your timing of doing regeneration cuts so that you’re not putting the regeneration that you’re trying to grow in jeopardy,” he explains. A couple of dry years should help to clear the situation up, he notes.

Charlene Donahue, entomologist with the Maine Forest Service, says a similar management approach can be helpful when dealing with some insect outbreaks. “There are some insects that come in cycles. So if you know that something is on the rise, it’s usually best to not do any thinning or harvesting during the time period that the population is building,” she says.

Woodlot owners with noninfested forests should consider cutting hemlock back away from any public roadways to prevent vehicles from inadvertently spreading hemlock woolly adelgid.  Photo by Fungus Guy, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Woodlot owners with noninfested forests should consider cutting hemlock back away from any public roadways to prevent vehicles from inadvertently spreading hemlock woolly adelgid.
Photo by Fungus Guy, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Examples when this strategy is advisable include outbreaks of hemlock looper, saddled prominent and gypsy moth. Conducting thinnings or timber harvests when populations are high can further stress good-quality trees that will be left, says Donahue. “Those trees will also start to grow really fast and put on some lush foliage, which is exactly what defoliators would like to see. And there’s also fewer trees [after the cutting], so you’re concentrating the outbreak on your fewer, better trees,” she explains. Once the outbreak is over and the trees have recovered, there is usually a window of several years to conduct harvests before the cycle will resume, she notes.

While emphasizing that invasives are “a whole different ball game,” Donahue says there are some steps woodlot owners can take to help slow their spread. The first, obviously, is routine scouting and reporting of any suspicious signs. “And leave your firewood at home,” she stresses. Cutting firewood and bringing it to a different area can inadvertently bring invasive pests along for the ride. “You never know what’s inside the wood; a lot of what we’re dealing with are wood borers that you can’t see,” she notes.

Somewhat related advice is given as far as hemlock woolly adelgid. “In Maine, we still don’t have it everywhere. One of the strategies is just to reduce human movement of it,” says Donahue. “Hemlock woolly adelgid can be moved on vehicles and equipment and people’s clothing.” If you (or your logging contractor) are going to be visiting both infested and noninfested stands in a given day, a good approach is to visit the noninfested stand first, she says. Also, woodlot owners with noninfested forests should consider cutting hemlock back away from any public roadways to prevent inadvertent spread from vehicles traveling through, adds Donahue.

Balsam woolly adelgid requires a different approach. “If you’re in a stand and it looks like balsam woolly adelgid is just moving in, sometimes taking [the infested trees] out can make a difference. It depends on the scale of things, but that’s the recommendation given to a small woodlot owner who is regularly in his stand and is managing fairly intensively,” says Donahue.

Again, because there are so many different diseases and insects that can attack trees, Donahue says there is no one single approach to help manage them all. Consulting with the experts about specific outbreaks is important, she says.

“Probably the best thing you can do is stay vigilant. Very often, especially with diseases such as decays, there’s not much you can do once the tree has decayed. It has to be a preventive mentality to try to reduce the effects of these insects and diseases,” adds Ostrofsky. Some diseases take a while to build up, so there may be a window of opportunity to proactively take measures – perhaps removing diseased trees – to reduce the impact, he notes. “Get out in your woods. Know what they look like, and if you see signs of trees that are declining or dying for some reason, then you can do a further investigation.”

Schultz says it can be easy for woodlot owners to become overwhelmed by the number of diseases and insects that can attack their trees. “There’s a pest for every tree; in fact, there’s a bunch of pests for every tree,” she says. “But the good thing is, if you look out the window, we have a bunch of green trees around us. For the most part, the woods can handle that.”

FOREST PRODUCTS EQUIPMENT: STAYING SAFE IN THE WOODLOT

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For me, the choice between working in the woods and working in a cubicle is no choice at all. The freedom that comes from being outside, even in less than ideal weather, always trumps the stuffy confines of the office. Given the enjoyment that working in the woods brings, it’s easy to forget all the hazards that exist, both as part of the natural environment and as a result of the forestry equipment you depend on, specifically, the irreplaceable and venerable chain saw.

Environmental hazards and woodlot safety

Proper "crotch starting" position, with the saw firmly braced. Photos by Brett McLeod.
Proper “crotch starting” position, with the saw firmly braced. Photos by Brett McLeod

Widow-makers, which are sometimes called “fool killers,” are partially broken limbs that hang freely, posing a serious danger to those working in close proximity. In a study published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, it was estimated that approximately 11 percent of all chain saw-related fatalities involved widow-makers.

Never attempt to fell a tree that contains a widow-maker; ideally you should avoid the tree and surrounding trees. For those with professional climbing skills, it’s often possible to set a rope or cable in the widow-maker and remove it by pulling/winching from a safe distance. However, even this method should be used with caution, since broken tops and limbs are usually a good indication of an unhealthy tree that could pose other threats to the climber/sawyer.

Another common woodlot hazard results from walking into the felling zone immediately after your tree has hit the ground. Chances are good that as your freshly felled tree swept through neighboring crowns on its downward descent, it knocked surrounding branches and deadwood loose. The problem is that there’s often a delay before these surrounding branches fall, and they can land on the unsuspecting sawyer who walks into the felling zone before the surrounding crowns have ceased to shake. In addition to waiting for the surrounding crowns to calm, look up and inspect neighboring crowns for newly created hazards, such as fresh widow-makers.

On the topic of felling zones: Before you make your back cut or strap cut, it’s important to always look down the felling lane one last time. Scan for people, pets, forgotten tools or anything else that may be in harm’s way.

From an ecological perspective, logging in winter avoids environmental impacts such as compaction and reduces the potential for soil erosion. From a safety perspective, working your woodlot in winter poses new challenges. Uneven footing, ice, and snow-covered obstacles such as rocks all present elements of danger that must be managed. Carrying a small shovel to dig out the base of trees as well as your escape route is important. Additionally, wearing calked boots will give you extra traction.

Since sound forestry often involves removing unacceptable growing stock, or UGS, you should be prepared to encounter defects that may make the harvesting process more dangerous. One common defect is ring shake, which can cause the tree to split or barber chair during the felling process. Barber chairs (vertical splitting of the tree during felling) are also more common in straight-grained species. Specifically, the risk is that as the tree splits, it can kick back toward the sawyer without warning. Trees with internal defects such as heart rot, as well as winter-cut trees with heavy, snow-filled crowns, are particularly susceptible to barber chairing.

Sawing safely

Over the last decade, I’ve taught several hundred students to use chain saws. My favorite students are those who have never touched a chain saw before; in other words, those students who haven’t developed unsafe habits. The errors described below are incredibly common – and incredibly dangerous.

Here the saw is being drop started. The bar is in danger of kicking upward, toward the sawyer.
Here the saw is being drop started. The bar is in danger of kicking upward, toward the sawyer. by Brett McLeod

Drop starting – Drop starting saws was once standard practice, but it’s very dangerous because the bar of the chain saw is unsupported. The risk is that as the saw fires to life, the bar can flip up and cut the sawyer on the arm, chest or face. A safer method is the “crotch start,” where the saw is safely braced between your legs. An alternate method is ground starting, where your right foot is placed in the rear handle guard of the saw.

Your left hand should always be on the top handle, and your right hand should be on the rear handle. by Brett McLeod.
Your left hand should always be on the top handle, and your right hand should be on the rear handle. by Brett McLeod.

Backward hands – All chain saws are designed to be operated with your right hand on the rear handle (operating the throttle) and your left hand on the top handle. Reversing this is extremely dangerous, putting the bar of the saw right next to your leg.

Never lift the saw above shoulder height. Photo by Brett McLeod
Never lift the saw above shoulder height. Photo by Brett McLeod

Sawing above shoulder height – Another common mistake is the temptation to reach up and “prune” with the chain saw. This position is outside of your control zone and can result in the saw kicking back, with the bar moving toward your face/shoulder.

You should always have two hands on the saw. Photo by Brett McLeod.
You should always have two hands on the saw. Photo by Brett McLeod.

One-handed sawing – This careless operating error is often practiced with smaller chain saws, where the operator removes his/her hand “for just a second.” The consequence is that the saw doesn’t have any downward control, which greatly increases the chance of kickback.

Never remove your hand to set the chain brake. Photo by Brett McLeod.
Never remove your hand to set the chain brake. Photo by Brett McLeod.

Setting the chain brake – All modern chain saws are equipped with an inertia chain brake that can be operated manually. As a rule of thumb, you should set the brake if you’re taking three or more steps. The brake and handle are designed so that you don’t need to remove your hand to set the brake. Instead, simply rotate your left wrist forward to activate the brake.

Close contact – Many new chain saw operators assume that the farther they hold the saw from their body, the safer they are. Unfortunately, holding the saw far away from the body only increases fatigue and makes it more likely that you’ll lose your balance.

Personal protective equipment – Commonly referred to as PPE, this should be viewed as the minimum safety equipment while working in the woodlot: chain saw chaps, forestry helmet with face and ear protection, safety-toe boots and properly fitting work gloves. Collectively, this equipment will help to protect you from the most common chain saw injuries, making your time in the woodlot both more productive and enjoyable.