Split wood has many uses in camp and on the trail.
From dry kindling and feathersticks to improvised grills, small-diameter rounds of dead, dry wood split down into smaller sizes are an important resource for fire lighting and fire management in particular.
In circumstances when you stop for the night in the woods but cannot find dry wood in a suitable condition for starting a fire, splitting out dry wood is a reliable means of obtaining the small-sized fuel you need.
Even in cabins when there is plenty of firewood in the woodshed, you still may need to produce small splints for kindling from heavier rounds.
Plus we’ve all experienced popular camping sites, where small sticks are at a premium.
Being able to take dead standing wood, cut it to length then split it down, provides all the sizes of fuel you need without any fuss or stress.
I’m putting an emphasis on splitting wood for fire lighting and fire management but the techniques below are by no means limited to just this purpose. It is, however, the purpose for which you are most likely going to be using them.
Unless you are using modern camping stoves with liquid fuel or gas, fires for cooking and warmth are an everyday requirement, especially in the colder months of the year. So, these techniques become an every day practice. I’ve used these axe techniques most when winter camping but, as illustrated here, they are useful year-round, in fixed camps and on the trail.
The Basics – Working On A Stump
As emphasised in my axe safety article in Issue 9 of The Bushcraft Journal, kneeling is the best way to mitigate risk of injury when using a short-handled axe on a low block or stump.
Most splitting techniques are very dynamic, requiring fast movement of the axe. They also require good aim – hitting the wood in the right place to split it. If you are standing a round of wood on its end, aiming to hit it with an axe, this becomes increasingly difficult the smaller the diameter of the wood. It also becomes harder to balance the wood on the block in the first place.
The technique I’d like to share with you now involves much less dynamic movement of the axe combined with easier aiming. In fact you do the aiming first, before you swing the axe.
What you are going to do is place the bit of the axe onto the the round of wood at one end. The handle of the axe runs pretty much parallel to the wood you want to split, along the line you want to split it.
Make Life As Easy As Possible – Be Efficient
Knotty wood is harder to split than wood without significant knots. From the perspective of splitting, knots effectively create a peg through the wood, holding it together. This makes a knotty log, even a small, relatively thin one, harder to split. So try to select the least knotty pieces of wood to split. This starts with how you cut the wood down to the lengths you want to split.
Once the piece of wood is split down most of its length, the split can be completed by prising the axe and wood apart. With easy-to-split pieces of knot-free wood, even using a light touch, it is likely that sometimes the axe will enter the block. With tougher, knotty pieces where some force is required, it is very likely the axe will end up in the block.
So, right from the start you should get into the habit of generating the prising action by moving the wood, not the axe. Trying to move the axe handle horizontally after it is embedded in a block will result in you trying to rotate the whole block, putting considerable stress on the part of the axe where the head is attached to the handle. Over time, this can work to loosen the mating of head and handle.
Once the round has been cleaved into two, exposing the grain inside, splitting tends to become easier from this point onwards. Even so, we should work to be as efficient as possible. In particular we should think about the ease of maintaining the axe placement on the wood.
Dealing With Difficulties
Every piece of wood is unique. Some pieces harbour unseen knots. Some species of tree split more easily than others. Employing this splitting technique won’t always be like putting a hot knife through butter.
First off, you should know how to remove the axe from the round of wood, should the wood not split. The critical point is to keep your fingers well out of the way. Levering an axe versus a piece of wood creates an excellent guillotine for your fingers. Make sure they are no-where near the axe head.
A second concern, but also important, is what the axe will do when it is free of the wood. The more force you are applying, the more it can accelerate as soon as there is nothing to oppose the force. Make sure the axe is not going to come out towards your arm or drop onto your leg once it is free.
What If There Is No Block?
Unless you are camping at a spot where you or someone else has previously left or created a chopping block, you will not have one to work on. Unlike other splitting techniques, which depend on a log being balanced on a flat surface, the technique we are examining in this article does not require a flat surface. You can work onto another log, even a relatively small one.
A note of caution here, though, you should make sure that once the piece of wood has been split, your axe does not continue onwards towards the ground. On rock, the damaging results should be obvious. But even soft earth will contain small stones and sandy particles, which will dull or even damage the cutting edge of the ace.
There may also be more substantial pieces of rock hidden beneath the surface. So, where you place the axe over the piece you are splitting and the log you are working on is an important consideration. Keeping the axe bit, wood you are splitting and log you are working on all in alignment also provides the most effective transmission of force in generating the split.
Everyday Axe Skills For Camp & Trail
The above splitting technique is one of the most useful I know. It’s certainly the most frequently used around camp, whether close to home or on wilderness journeys. I’ve used it from canoe trips in Canada in the summer to winter camping trips in the far north of Scandinavia. For producing suitable fuel sizes for campfires or stoves, this technique is particularly valuable.
Moreover, due to it being less dynamic and more controlled than many free-hand splitting techniques, this splitting technique is relatively safe to use in confined spaces and near to other people. I hope you find it as useful to have in your repertoire of axe techniques as I do.
A version of this article first appeared in The Bushcraft Journal
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