Small Wood Splitting With Axe: Reliable In Camp & On The Trail

by Paul Kirtley

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Split wood being used as a griddle in camp underneath frying pans - great campcraft

Split wood has a multitude of uses in camp and on the trail. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

Kindling, hearth and feathersticks in Northern Temperate woodland, all produced from split wood.

Kindling, hearth and feathersticks in Northern Temperate woodland, all produced from split wood. Photo: Paul Kirtley


Split wood fire in the boreal forest in winter.

Split wood fire in the boreal forest in winter. Photo: Paul Kirtley

The Basics – Working On A Stump

As emphasised in my axe safety in camp article, 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.

Splitting wood in hand with axe

Kneeling in front of the low block, hold the wood you want to split over the block. Taking the axe in your dominant hand, place the bit of the axe over the end of the round of wood that is furthest away from you, holding the wood and axe together. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Side view of body position and how the axe is placed on top of the wood

Side view of body position and how the axe is placed on top of the wood. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Detail of where the axe bit is placed on the wood, all above the low block

Detail of where the axe bit is placed on the wood, all above the low block. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Axe handle hand position for small wood splitting technique

Detail on hand positioning. Avoid smashing your knuckles between the axe handle and wood. This is easier if the wood is longer than the axe handle. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Small wood splitting technique with Gransfors Bruk Small Forest Axe

Now lift the axe and wood up, keeping them together, before returning them to the starting place on the block with more speed. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Small axe head embedded in a round of wood as part of splitting technique

The weight of the axe combined with the sharpness of the cutting edge will embed the axe into the wood. You often need to do little more than tap the wood and axe down together to achieve this. With easy-to-split pieces, this will be all you need to split the wood. But there are other things you need to know… Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

sawing some wood

Pines and other conifers often have concentrations of knots in one section of their trunk. Start by removing these from one end of the piece you want to split. These can always be burned once the fire is started. Photo: Paul Nicholls

More sawing - turn on images to see this photo

Being intelligent in how you section up the wood you are going to split will save time and effort later. Making the splitting easier also makes it less likely to result in an injury from the axe.


Small wood splitting on a stump

A knot free, small diameter piece of wood should be the easiest to split. Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

wood and axe

Here the axe bit is embedded in the stump. By twisting the wood horizontally relative to the axe, the split can be opened and the splitting of the wood completed without putting undue stress on the axe. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Small axe, small wood splitting

Moving the wood, not the axe to open the split. Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

Axe bit on wood

It’s easier to balance the axe bit on the flat side of the wood, than on the curved side. Photo: Paul Kirtley

axe on wood

Same technique as before – place the axe on the wood, then raise the two together, returning them to the block with sufficient force to split the wood. Photo: Paul Kirtley


Wood twist

Again, remember to turn the wood to open the split, leaving the axe static. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Axe technique for spliting splints

When we get down to quarters, it’s easier to place the axe on the curved surface than on the apex opposite it. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Splitting very small splints with axe

On smaller pieces still, it can be tricky to get the split to run the full length without running off to the side. At this stage, turn the piece on its side and split from there. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Small splint splitting with axe

You can split down to really quite small splints with well-selected material and good, efficient technique. Photo: Paul Nicholls

Various sizes of wooden splints having been split out with axe

Examples of the fuel sizes needed for establishing a camp fire. Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

Removing axe without cutting myself

When levering an axe from a round of wood, make sure your hands are nowhere near the bit of the axe. Also make sure the axe is not going to spring free towards you, particularly onto one of your arms legs. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Extending the split with axe

With the split started, you can attempt to continue the split by placing the axe further back and opening it up further using the same technique as before. Note, however, how the wood has been moved forwards so the axe bit remains over the block. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Splitting wood with axe

Once split, it’s back to the same basic technique. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Splitting gnarly wood

Gnarly bits of wood don’t always split cleanly. Don’t stress though as this wood is not going to make good feathersticks anyway! Photo: Paul Nicholls


Knotty wood

Knots cause the most problems for this technique. You might have split the log in half no problem but then a knot like this can cause one of the resulting halves to be difficult to split. Photo: Paul Nicholls


knot

Here you can see the knot going right through to the other side of the piece. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Attacking a knot with the axe

The answer to knots is usually to attack them directly with the axe and split them too if possible. Photo: Paul Nicholls


small diameter wood splitting with axe

Success. To finish the split, again the piece is turned while keeping the axe static. Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

Paul Kirtley splitting small diameter rounds of wood on low log

Applying the same technique as before but now onto a small diameter log. Photo: Paul Nicholls

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.

axe bit, wood and log base all in alignment

Make sure the axe bit, wood and log are all in alignment. Photo: Paul Nicholls

More splitting with axe

When the axe goes all the way through the round you are splitting, it hits the log underneath, not the ground. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Yet more splitting - if you do not have images turned on in your browser this article will not be very useful.

If you need to encourage the split along the piece of wood, make sure you re-position the wood so the axe bit remains above the log you are working down onto. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Splitting on low horizontal log

Even cutting across the grain of the supporting log, the axe can become embedded. Photo: Paul Nicholls


Moving wood relative to stationary axe

As always, keep the axe stationary, rotating only the piece of wood to leverage the split. Photo: Paul Nicholls


The tools and the results - axe, saw and split wood

With a small axe and a folding buck saw you can quickly and efficiently process small rounds of wood into all the sizes you need in camp. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Snowtrekker tent in use in Sweden with wood processing area in front

Winter camping in northern Sweden. Note the firewood processing area, including the horizontal logs for splitting onto using the technique in this article. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

split wood and stove in a heated tent for winter camping

Splints and other sizes of fuel stacked neatly alongside the stove during a winter camping trip in a heated tent. Photo: Paul Kirtley

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.

Overnight camp on wilderness canoe trip in Canada, with axe and saw in use

A small camping spot on a wet and windy day. Note on the right hand side, firewood being sawn into suitable lengths for splitting. Photo: Paul Kirtley


Campfire cooking on a canoe trip in Canada

Cooking up a delicious campfire meal during a two-week trip down the Bloodvein River in Canada. Note the various sizes of split wood on the right, prepared using the techniques in this article. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Related Material On Paul Kirtley’s Blog

Axe Safety In Camp: Care, Attention And Good Habits

Winter Camping: How To Live In A Heated Tent

Six Men, Three Boats and The Bloodvein: Canoeing A Wilderness River

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt

Hi Paul

A great article, some really good and practical advice. Brings back memories of last years axe/camp craft course.

Cheers

Matt

Reply

Ignacio

Hei Paul and everyone! Really nice article! I knew about this technique from your video but here it is bit more expalined and with more details. I was just looking to the last to pictures and thinking about how bad I feel always when I´m camping and I wanted to ask/share with you guys. The point is that for example here in Norway, you can chop wood (well, you “can” but of course there are rules) but the thing is that I feel kind of bad specially in the winter when one needs tons of wood to keep warm and I wonder how me, just a guy, is choppong wood just because I have the will (not even the need) of being outside. Of course these could lead to an almos philosophical topic about being outside nowadays, but I guess you know what I mean. This ends up for me in not enough wood or a bad feeling after cutting 1-2 small trees more than what I wanted. How bad it REALLy is for a forest? How long new trees take to grow? Of course it depends on the area, the state´s plan for forests and so on. I mean, look at all that wood we chop. And we probably use few. Larger groups ot longer trips take much more. May be it´s stupid, but I just can´t stop thinking about it.

Reply

Shawn Halloran

Hi Paul!
Great article and pictures! I have 8 weeks til my camp opens up, and I have been sorting wood and cutting it into different sizes; kindling, stove, and smaller pieces for my biolite stove/grill. I have two saw horses and a tree stump about waist high. At camp I don’t have those things, so your tip is very useful. I had been using the techniques you showed in another article. Breaking branches around a tree and the planting your feet wide apart and using gravity method. Now I will give this one a try. Thanls!

Reply

Paul

Paul

Thank you for a very clear and informative article and I am sure the blog will hone up my skills when the time comes again for my next adventure.

Keep up the good work as always.

Much appreciated

Paul

Reply

Phil

Hi Paul

Thanks for taking the time to explain this very useful technique.

All the best

Phil

Reply

Mike

Hi Paul

Yet another excellent and informative article from your good self with great emphasis on safety. My nine year old grandson, who is in his second year of being a cub, is showing increasing interest in bushcraft with much encouragement being gleaned from your videos and articles. Although he is far too young to be using an axe, as in this article and some others, his sponge like brain is no doubt storing the information for future use. As an ageing grandparent who is no longer able to participate in many outdoor activities I find your articles to be truly inspirational and an encouragement to the younger generation to get off their backsides and leave their x-boxes behind and explore nature and the world around them. Thank you. Mike

Reply

David Morris

Hello Paul, i thought the ” Small wood splitting with an axe” pictures was very interesting and very informative and very useful, especially at this time of the year.Thanks for sharing, keep up all your hard work and effort. Kind regards David.

Reply

Tim

Excellent piece this Paul, one can’t emphasize enough, the importance of axe safety in the field.
The information you provide, along with very helpful visual content, is absolutely brilliant.
Thanks for taking the time and effort so we may all benefit and hopefully remain safe and sound while practicing this wonderful craft.
Kind regards.
Tim.

Reply

Marc

Hi Paul,
It’s been a while since I’ve had a proper chance to sit and read one of your articles but this one has reminded me just why I should be making time for just that!
Great in-depth information and really clear formatting. Fantastic work.

Reply

James

Hi Paul,
Thanks once again for a Smashing video. I recently purchased a Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Axe. I looked around for a long time for an all round good axe that I would benefit form, and after just about pulling my hair out i decided to settle for GB axe. I will be out this Friday – Sunday trying my new axe and your technique for small wood splitting. I am right in saying you’re using the same axe as me in your video..? It looks so alike.
Kind Regards
James

Reply

Al Coutts

Paul, this was one of your best articles yet, on same level as Island Bow Drill challenge. Very useful, and pertinent. As always, thanks for an excellent blog. AC

Reply

Gary

Wow! Thanks for this Paul… Successful Lesson as Always… Now I have just raised my skills in using the ax thanks to this video… We love learning from you here in the Far-East… Taruu-Pam-Taem! Okeey-Nam & All The Best…

Gary

Reply

Mark Stutt

Thanks for this Paul. Very useful photos I can use to demonstrate to students.

Reply

Pierluigi Tucci

Hi Paul, very good article.
Very useful technique as I often face with lack of kindling when start a fire.
Another plus is you always focus at safety. It is very important!
Also with really good pictures I can’t go wrong!

Many thanks and have a great week end

Pierluigi

Reply

Carol

Hi Paul,
Once again an excellent demonstration, I have always split wood with what I thought was the safest and only way I knew how with a few near misses, so it has been a great help having such clear and guided instructions.
Very much appreciated
Carol

Reply

angela

Very nice article. The photos are very well organized by an infomercial article

Reply

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