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Our View: Wood splitting season

Part Zen, part philosophy, part physics and all good exercise

It is wood splitting season, and the time of year I love best. There is a Zen aspect to splitting wood, and indeed, a Zen proverb says: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The rhythmic act of swinging the axe, the fall temperature, crisp air, well-earned perspiration, and recognition of a job well done, are all satisfying.

Great minds have commented on chopping wood. Einstein, Ford and Emerson have all been quoted on the act of splitting wood for fireplace or woodstove. “People love chopping wood. In this activity, one immediately sees results,” said Albert Einstein. Wielding an axe is not the first image that pops into my head when I think of Al. But who knows? He certainly understood the physics of handling an axe as well as the important application and beneficial use of gravity in the equation: f=ma (force equals mass times acceleration). So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

We wood splitters are all familiar with Henry Ford’s quote: “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” We have often expanded that to: It will warm you three, four and five times if you count cutting the tree, splitting, carrying, stacking and then making and enjoying the warmth of the fire. I would add the warmth of cursing when you get the wedge stuck deep into a piece of wood that you are trying to split.

Wood splitters use a maul more often than an axe. A maul is a heavy sledgehammer with an axe blade on one side. Its weight (mass) makes it more effective in splitting than a lighter axe. Both need to be sharp. A wedge and a sledgehammer are also used to help with splitting a tough piece. Elm is particularly difficult to split (and the root of my recent cursing), as opposed to aspen, which can often be done with a hand axe.

Identify and aim at cracks in the wood grain to aid in the placement of your axe blow. If there are none, strike off center. On large rounds try a first blow on the far side of the log followed by a near side blow in the same line, or use a technique called slabbing where you split a piece off the outer edge of the round and continue this technique until the log is small enough to split. Be careful as this may cause glancing blows which can be dangerous.

Avoid knots. Again, avoid knots. There are certainly times when the splitting turns into a competition between me and the wood. I usually win, but I am not ashamed to admit that I have occasionally conceded to a particularly knotty piece. That piece then usually has earned the honor and the right to be my new chopping block.

Stacking is also important as wood that has not been cured is usually 50% water. Stack so that air can flow through to dry the wood. A good piece of advice is that wood should be stacked so that a mouse, but not a cat, can run through the spaces in the pile. Drying is accomplished easier here in the Southwest, probably closer to six months than a year in time.

Young people don’t seem to split wood. There is something sad about that. They are missing out. Though Jennifer Lawrence gives me hope.

“I went through a wood chopping phase when I was 9 or 10,” she said.

Abe Lincoln once said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Now I consider myself to be a good planner but that seems a bit much to me. Anybody sharpening an axe for four hours is going to end up with just an axe handle.

So, there we have it. Wood splitting: part Zen, part philosophy, part physics and all good exercise.

Get outside and split some wood. And if you don’t have any, fear not. I have some you can practice on. Do you remember “Make love, not war”? Let’s start a new saying for the present: “Split wood, not hairs.”