Handy Corner: How to Split Firewood

Any house that was built 30 or more years ago probably has some kind of wood-burning fireplace or wood stove or a fireplace insert or something that everybody thought would save money and add a little something to the home's atmosphere without ruining the world's atmosphere.

While most homeowners have come to their senses and either are burning chemical logs or have switched to gas, there is still a handful of purists who get their own firewood with a chain saw or a phone call and then are faced with the challenge of splitting the wood into a more manageable size.

Many men who do this picture themselves as Paul Bunyan or at least Clint Walker, standing in the backyard with their shirts off while they use an ax to split firewood on a stump. As I've said for years, it is very dangerous for almost any man over 40 to have his shirt off, even at rest. If he's actually doing something, the situation gets even worse. The centrifugal force of the ax swing sends pockets of fat into odd orbits around the navel, while the impact of hitting the log starts a ripple of jiggling that can last for most of a minute.

And the results are just as far from the dream. Instead of a clean, crisp crack, with the wood leaping into two almost identical halves, the ax lodges 3 in. in, and it's all you can do to pick it up with the weight of the log on the end. You slam it down weakly a couple of times on the stump, but that just jams it in harder.

Next, you try standing on the log while rocking the ax handle back and forth to free it. You try wedging it under the deck for extra leverage. You might even drive over it with your car. Now you stand the log on the stump with the ax jammed in the top and you start hitting the ax head with a sledgehammer, driving it deep into the wood, but the log still doesn't split. And now the head is so far in you can't make contact, which you discover on your next swing, when the sledgehammer comes down and shears off the ax handle.

At this point, a lot of men buy a hydraulic wood splitter. You lay the wood in it, start the gas engine, pull the lever and apply a ton of pressure on the log. That's a lot of energy, and most of the time it splits the log. But when it doesn't, it splits the log splitter or the guy operating it. I suggest instead that you just leave the log out in the sun for a few years and eventually it will crack apart. Then you can get your ax head back. Keep it as a combination paperweight and reminder as to why we created central heat and high-efficiency furnaces in the first place. At this point in your life, the best way to split firewood is to split from firewood.

This article is used by permission of the author, excerpted from his book How to Do Everything, From the Man Who Should Know, Anchor Canada, a Division of Random House Canada Limited, 2010.