How to Safely Chop Firewood With the Correct Ax

If you have never chopped firewood out of need, or if it seems you are never finished out of need, here are some helpful hints as to how to do it right. Chopping firewood is one intense activity, no matter how easy the movies make it look. One where safety is paramount and the right tools and technique are important. Not only for you and your health, but for anyone near you and/or dependent upon you.

What NOT to do:

It’s not just about “using big ax to make smaller logs” but, like most things, it has a lot of nuances to consider, like which type of ax do you need to use for different woods, how many cuts you need to make to have a good mix of sizes, and how they equate to your planned needs. Less kindling than fire logs as we just need a few to start the fire but more logs to keep the fire functional for our needs, some bigger logs to keep it going while we catch some sleep, smaller ones for a more rapid burn, higher heat for cooking, etc. These suggestions apply whether you are making smore’s in the backyard pit or at a campsite as well as to processing firewood if you are off the grid.

Like most tools, there are different types of axes for different purposes and knowing the right axes to use makes a BIG difference.

The two basic axes are the Splitting ax and Splitting Maul ax. The major difference between them is the maul is heavier than the splitting ax.  Mauls usually weight between 6 to 8 pounds, and are designed to cut “heavy” logs. Now what constitutes “heavy”? Well the first reason is obvious, they are, well, heavy, usually large in diameter, and longer than say 16″. But some woods, like pine, are also considered “heavy” when freshly cut as they contain a lot of moisture. Fruit trees also fall into this category. And the more moisture present the more difficult they are to split. Anyone who has purchased firewood in bulk knows the first question to ask the vendor is how long have the logs cured? Most fire woods need to cure (dry out) for up to a year to be “ready”. Anyone who has been around a campfire knows the familiar “pop” of sap boiling in uncured pine logs.

Obviously the heavier maul ax will tire you more quickly and make you find new muscles you never knew could hurt before. But it is the right ax for larger, heavier woods.

The splitting ax, weighing between 3 to 6 pounds, is less weight to carry, effective at breaking down smaller logs and usable at producing kindling, and the right choice if you won’t be felling any Redwoods or Lodge Pole Pines. They are usually sharper as the smaller head lends itself to a finer blade. And you would be surprised at how much longer you can swing a splitting ax. But the goal here is efficiency.

Today, the definitions of an ax have become as complicated as that of anything else. The two categories above are further broken down to “minis”, “hatchets”, “large splitters”, “small splitters”, and of course the “composites”. Know what you might be chopping and do your homework to avoid the confusion. And, of course, there are actually different chopping techniques based on the type of trees you may encounter because there are some wood trees that are quite difficult to chop into pieces, such as the round wood and heartwood trees.  A discussion of these  “technique” is another article perhaps.

Of course the best solution to cover all bases is starting with a Maul, refining to smaller cuts with a splitter and then, using a good hatchet to produce some kindling. Everyone has three axes, right? If you only carry one try and project what you will be using it on when you need it. While a hatchet is the easiest to carry, it will be the least useful if you are dealing with anything other than small green trees and thin branches. Of course there are also log splittings wedges that can be attached to an ax handle or pounded into logs with the blunt back of an ax. Another piece of useful equipment to investigate….and to carry. My experience is these are very useful with an experienced wood cutter and downright dangerous with a novice.

No matter what you use you still need to protect yourself when chopping your firewood.

Here are some methods on how to safely chop firewood with an ax:

Choose firewood that is suitable

If you are using a maul, splitting ax, or a hatchet you must know what type of woods you are dealing with and if you will be using it indoors in a fire place or wood burning stove or outdoor. This is a big part of one’s safety measures. Hardwood is generally what most furniture is made of other than pine. Examples are oak, cherry, maple, pecan, walnut and cottonwood. These have a lower “flame spread” than pine, and simply put, the denser the wood (hardwood) the slower the burn rate. A slower burn rate is a good thing, BUT beware, I do not recommend ever using “furniture” for firewood, inside or out, because of the known and “unknown” finishes that have been applied, all of which will produce a foul and traceable odor as the least of their byproducts, and toxic smoke on the other end of the spectrum.

Wear eyes protection

Before you start chopping for any purpose, you must wear some eye protection, safety glasses or googles. Splinters and chips fly in all direction at speeds that will injure you, and those around you. And our friend the wind will lend them a helping hand.

Wear protective clothes and boots

While this is obvious it bear mentioning nevertheless. Wear the right clothing. Shorts and a tank-top may be cooler, make you look better, blah, blah, blah, but long sleeves, long pants, GLOVES and real boots will protect you from the same things safety glasses will and the gloves will help prevent blisters.

Use a chopping block

When chopping or cutting firewood’s you must consider using a wide chopping block to work from or suitable stump; make it sure it is stable and level and at least a foot high. Two foot might be even better, this is a personal choice. This important thing here is you must remember to level the block as this will promote more balance for your body and take better advantage of the weight of your ax. Having the swing even an inch longer from one side of a piece of wood you are chopping to the other will produce a noticeably different stress on your muscles.

Correct shoulder and leg position

In addition to the chopping blocks positioning make sure that your feet are shoulder-width apart (like a golfer, baseball batter, linebacker, goalie, and on and on…). Focusing on a good balanced position of your body will go a long way to prevent unnecessary strains on your structure, muscle and bone.  Most accident when chopping fire woods starts when you are out of a balanced position. Even though the splitting ax and the hatchet are not heavy, the repetitive use of either will begin to wear on you most when you leave it to your arms to compensate for poor positioning of your body.

Swing your axe down correctly

Place the ax on the top of the end of the log you are planning to split and hold the end of the handle with your non-dominant hand. With your dominant hand grasp the handle of the splitting ax right below the head and raise it up high. Then swing it down smoothly and quickly to the log, allowing your dominant hand to slide along the handle down towards your other hand until you hit your log. You must keep your eye on the wood at all times and always keep the wood and your position correct. Focus.

Be aware of Ax Handle Shock

This is a real thing, it can come for two actions, too much repetitive chopping without a break/rest or from missing aim point and having the handle strike the wood as opposed to the ax head. The first will be felt as a growing loss of strength, and the second as a sudden shock to hands and arms. Again, focus.

These suggestion all matter, all will help making this chore, which some people consider exercise, and it is, produce better results.

Of course there are other ways to chop fire wood, with splitters, powered and manual. If you do use one of these ALL of the same points about protective gear and clothing apply as well as having others, and yourself stay back from the splitter when in use.

And of course Maintenance. Your ax needs to be sharpened every three to six months, depending on use. Obviously maintaining its sharpness will make it easy to use and more efficient. I have heard that too much sharpening will make it wear quicker. While there may be some truth in that it is a stretch as you are removing milometers of blade at most.

The more you know the better prepared you are to efficiently produce a useful service at home, or camping or living off the grid. The right tools and technique will make this less of a chore, a never-ending chore. I have a friend who lives along the northwest shore of Lake Michigan, north of Green Bay, whose home is heated by a constantly hungry wood burning boiler, his summers are wood chopping season and only his attention to detail get him through a winter without having to go wood hunting in deep snow.


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