Gene Logsdon and Friends

My Woodpile Is Bigger Than Your Woodpile

In Gene Logsdon Blog on January 16, 2013 at 7:06 am


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From GENE LOGSDON

I tried to pull a sneaky little brag on all of you a few weeks ago when I used a photo of my woodpile on a post. The post wasn’t even about woodpiles exactly and I was, like, you know, uh, well, oh-by-the-way, pretending that I just happened to have this photo lying around and so I might as well use it.

But I did not fool friends, Jan and Andy, who operate a garden farm market in central Ohio. Sure enough, they soon sent me a photo of Andy’s latest woodpile, which is bigger than mine, daggone it anyway. (That’s it, pictured above.) I may have started something among the brotherhood of woodchoppers that I will regret.

Andy splits a whole lot more wood than I do because he and Jan use it not only to keep their house warm, but for boiling down maple syrup to sell at the farmer’s market in Bellefontaine, Ohio. I think of Jan and Andy as Ohio’s successors to New England’s famed Scott and Helen Nearing. Their lifestyles are quite similar. According to what I’ve read, Scott continued to split wood until he was a hundred years old. Then he set the maul down, sat himself down, and announced that he had enough wood split to last him out. What amuses me most about him was how he considered himself something of a socialist, in a philosophical sense anyway, which got him in trouble with some people. But when he and Helen got into the sugar maple business, he turned out to be as consummate a capitalist as anyone you care to name.

I like to split wood almost as much as I like to split infinitives. Gazing at a rick of my own wood gives me more satisfaction that gazing at a shelf of my own books. I split by hand. Mechanical splitters disrupt my peace of mind. The splitter motor sputters away, demanding that I keep on working when I just want to sit on a stump and look for the shy but awesome pileated woodpecker who has taken up residence in our woods. The maul is perfectly willing to lean quietly against the woodpile and wait until I’m ready for it.

I am a good woodpile stacker because I am a poor one. If you rank the sticks up too neatly there isn’t enough space between them for air circulation so my sloppy way of stacking works for the better. I used to use two standing trees to hold up the ends of a rick so I didn’t have to crisscross the end pieces. But learned the hard way that tree trunks often sway just a bit in the wind even down low and eventually the ends of the rick dribble off onto the ground. Experts go on and on about correct stacking, but if you have wood drying two to three years ahead of using it (like you should), most of that expertise is a bit precious. You should stack the wood outdoors in a breezy, sunny place if you can, but you don’t really need a cover on your ricks (heresy, according to the experts). Just be sure you get the wood under cover in the fall before  you intend to feed the stove in the coming winter. If you want a definition of slow, think about snow melting on wood brought into the house.

Splitting wood by hand with a maul is also art and learning how to do it with the least amount of effort is enjoyable to me. The grain of the wood and the location of knots tell you where it will split easily and where it won’t. You have to learn to read a log section like a diamond cutter reads a diamond in the rough. Written words of instruction aren’t always helpful. You just have to do it for awhile. Even then white elm will seldom split with a maul, not even a knotless piece. Andy says that green wood splits easier if it is frozen, something I didn’t know. I’ve learned that it is easier to split big log sections by chipping pieces off from around the outside rather than trying to cut through it like you would a pie.

I have just this winter found out something I don’t find in anybody’s instructions. When I strike a chunk of ash (I have a lot of dead ash now) to split it, sometimes the maul bounces off as if I were trying to split white elm. But actually, the blow has sent an almost invisible crack down through the wood.  If you hit the crack exactly in the same place with the second blow, the pieces fly apart. If you don’t, you will have to whack away at it several more times before the original cleft splits open. When you hit that almost invisible crack perfectly with your second blow and the wood comes flying apart, it is as pleasant as swishing a three-pointer in a basketball game.
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  1. There’s Zen in woodsplitting. Even though the axe hit the TOP of the chunk of wood, I felt I was hitting the BOTTOM of it. Made sense to me at the time and usually worked. Sometimes.

  2. Gene, I always look forward to Wednesday for your new post. Alas, my woodpile is smaller than yours.

  3. I love reading your posts becasuse they are sanity in an insane world. Thank you.
    T

  4. Yes, Andy’s quite the wood splitter. I do believe it’s an art; he has a way of putting that one last little twist to the ax (he doesn’t use a maul) at the last second that can send a piece flying. My Mom was in her early 80′s and one day she asked to give it a try again. I’ll be darned that she took that ax and off flew the piece of wood; I think she knew that twist trick herself. She split the wood for the cookstove that her Aunt Maude (who raised her) used. I’ve tried to split … I’m strong of leg, but my arms will NOT make a crack in that wood!

    • Jan, there is a secret you should know–it’s not so much strength as it is knowing where to strike, confidence, and hand-eye coordination. All the strength that is necessary is to lift the maul up to striking height. The hand-eye coordination is the part that takes practice. But! Don’t tell the guys this cuz it’s very nice that they will do it for us.

      • You are so very correct. the key is to time the sliding of your right hand (assuming you are right handed) coming down the handle and making contact with your left hand at the same instant that the face of the maul makes contact with the wood. your right hand guides or aims the maul and your left brings it down with power. if you can time it correctly the snap of your wrists when they make contact and the maul hits the mark causes the wood to split apart almost by itself.

  5. Very timely post, Gene. I am still catching up with winter this year, having got to the farm late and gotten busy with other things before the cold came. My wonderful little wood stove doesn’t keep the place warm without wood, though. So I’m harvesting leaning dead trees, which are already well-seasoned but, having been kept off the ground, not wet or rotted.

    I split by hand as well, and I love doing it. Getting the swing just right, with top head speed, and hitting the log exactly where the eye has judged it needs to be hit in order to split well, is a joy. But the American elm I scavenged, now that’s some gnarly stuff, just like the books say. Your friend Andy is right: it splits much better on a cold frosty morning, at least 20 degrees or colder. Not at all otherwise. So I leave it for the cold mornings. It burns well, though not as good as hickory. Now there’s a good-burning wood.

    Once I finally have enough pre-seasoned wood cut, I’ll start cutting next years, and might even get two winter’s worth cut. Aiming at three, just like you say.

  6. I helped to pay my way through college chopping and stacking wood. My piles were the biggest in the neighborhood at the time. A chord then was about the same as it is now and that was 40 years ago so profits were very good. Now I have enough wood to chop to last about ten years with all of our ash trees dying. Great way to stay in shape and drop afew pounds!

    On another note; thanks much for your autograph Gene! Dave Owens dropped it off last week to me in my office in Ithaca, Michigan from when he was down to visit last May. I put it in one of your books I bought awhile back about small scale grain raising. I can only hope to be half as successful as you as an author someday. 255 days in the NRCS office to go!

  7. Isn’t letting the snow get into your woodpile a mistake? Unless they’re not planning to use it until next winter.

    • This will be next year’s wood. Next fall we’ll move what we’ll be using for the winter into a more protected woodshed … hopefully before it rains too much. But a little snow on a woodpile doesn’t hurt. Wood can actually get too dry. Before we had a woodshed, we put pieces of old metal siding on top and moved a small amount at a time onto our porch to dry before using. There’s probably some optimum moisture content for the best and cleanist wood-burn.

      • Please explain: “Wood can get too dry.” I put old barn tin over my woodpiles. I find that toward the end of the season, which is very rainy here, even seasoned wood is harder to burn unless I split it down further than was necessary at the drier beginning of the season. Any insight into this?

      • Persimmon: An article I read many years ago. Some refute it. Apparently “too dry” means it will burn too hot and too fast. Not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe not as efficient for home heating. Last year we just finished burning wood from an ice storm here 5 years ago! It all makes heat!

      • Jan, that makes perfect sense!

  8. I tried with an axe and failed miserably. I am slightly ambidextrous, write with my right hand and dig as if I’m left handed or right handed whichever suits me on the day. An axe on the other hand seems to require me to be one or the other. Such a shame, but means hubby gets to do the lot :). He uses a technique he got from the internet of putting logs in a tyre, that way they don’t fly off, but stay in one place until it is time to stack them.

  9. For ash, before I got my handy dandy gas powered splitter, an old timer showed me the zen of a series of metal and wood wedges. Kept me from warming the air with my curses when I hit a piece of wood that resembled those Nabisco shredded wheat cereal biscuits, but with malice aforethought. Save your shoulder joint, used the wedges is my motto. Was it really a Chinese saying “He who cuts his own firewood, warms himself twice?” I only keep the woodpile one year ahead … and do have an open cover… punky wood won’t give much btu warmth. But, if it’s up and airy, you can get away with no cover. Best to all. Homegrown, 58

  10. It was so warm last winter we are burning last years wood. I love a good maul as long as it has a wood handle, it can double as a sledge turned upside down and does not require much strength to operate, an eight pounder usually does the trick for me. I have started not really splitting wood until I need it. I used to split it all ahead of time in summer and stack it nicely, but too much work. Instead I cut up the wood into easy to manage pieces and stack them sort of sloppy as Gene does in different places all over the farm. Since I like going out with the dogs in cold weather I simply spit the wood as needed. If a lot of snow is coming I will split enough for a few days and keep it close to the back door. I probably would invest in a three point splitter but my little Ford 8n does not have hydraulics and I do not really see a reason to get another tractor.
    t

  11. I would love to see you split my black walnut by hand and I have been hand splitting wood since I was wee lad. Black walnut cannot be done. Ash is the softest of hard woods so…

  12. Nice post. Thanks Gene. I too used to split all my wood by hand – even for the Maple syrup evaporator. You do learn to follow the grain and know how to avoid the knots. Each blow takes energy, your energy, so learning how to maximize this is like lowering your EROI!

    I do agree that gas powered splitters disrupt peace of mind for all within ear shot. Like the rare times we have to break down and use our electric cloths dryer, instead of hanging our laundry, I have guilt using the power splitter – but they do save time. Time needed for the thousand other tasks at hand on a small holding. You know, the same knowledge of following the grain and avoiding the knots still applies.

    In keeping with the ode to the wood pile:

    http://www.knobcreekfarms.com/blog/2013/01/10/how-much-wood-could-a-wood-stacker-stack-if-a-wood-stacker-could-stack-wood/

    BTW, I’ve got a pile of Gum I’ll give away free to anyone who thinks they can split it :)

  13. On splitting black walnut, I have learned to just let is season before splitting. We have tons of walnuts here in eastern Ks. and I burn a lot of it. Like the folks say, look for the best spot to hit with the maul, work your way around before going at the heart. Greener walnut will split but it will wipe you out. Also walnut needs a minimum of two years or it will leave a lot of soot in the pipe.
    t

  14. Living in Colorado I am limited in what wood is available I can only burn pine, spruce, or aspen. I have a unending supply of dead aspen and that is what I mostly heat with .I find I split a lot of my wood at night by the light of a halogen lamp on a stand.I try to get my wood split , stacked, and covered a year ahead .I believe aspen burns much better as dry as it can possibly be.Aspen really splits easy when it is really cold out with a maul or axe ! I truly enjoy splitting wood even at -10 . I find my belgian horse that I use to skid out the firewood often stands near the fence and watches me split and stack the wood. I know of no better stress reliever

    • Like your Belgian, Buck the Yellow Lab finds great entertainment in my kindling-splitting attempts on the porch. He peers through the window as I miss and send the stick flying or hit a knothole piece and send the stick flying, or tap too lightly and send the stick flying. I am impressed that you use a horse. My Morgans generally spend the winter eating hay, as I have never found good work equipment for the light breeds.

  15. It’s been maybe five years ago that a farmer tore out a half mile fence row of old trees; he let people cut stuff up after he knocked it down with a trackhoe. In six weeks I cut enough wood that I’m just burning the tail end this winter. Walnut, ash, yellow locust (with those thorns!), and the largest hedgeapples I’ve seen. Carpe firewood! Anything that needed splitting I stacked, smaller stuff I cut into lengths I could put on the trailer and stood them vertical when I got them home.

    It’s nice to have some wedges to split large diameter pieces to more manageable size. I use an old wide tire to stand the wood up inside, then I just walk around it swinging the maul. Impresses the hell out of the dog! Faster cycle time than a hydraulic splitter, and you get your cardio. The tire keeps the maul out of the gravel, too. My dog tells me I’m eye candy for the neighbor lady, and that makes me smile. Good dog.

    • Well put. The old timer that showed me how to split with a bigger, then smaller metal wedge then the wood wedge showed me how, with patience to outsmart wood. When you get up in years, you can still pop it. Saves the rotator cuff. Smart and effective. LOVED the saying “Carpe Firewood”… there was an earlier comment about the sound of a gas splitter; I live not close to anyone, but the sound of dogs barking 24/7 is all I get. :) Slow. And sure. That’s how you get to age 75 and still splitting. Mauls? They will maul you. It’s all about knowing the wood.

  16. I have seen that a company is selling a re-creation of the old “monster maul” that you could get twenty or thirty years ago. I had one of those and split many a cord of red oak with it. It was a sheer joy to use, versus lighter tools, and I was only a teen boy back then. There is a certain flick of the wrist at the last moment that made the toughest pieces yield. (I haven’t split much in the decades since I moved to the southwest though…)

    I can confirm that cold weather makes for easier splitting. At ten below zero the wood practically splits itself.

  17. I split my wood by hand also, as Thoreau said “I did not wish to make haste of my work, but rather to make the most of it.” I burn a fair amount of honey locust which splits well and will burn and make heat dead green. I’ve always found black walnut to be one of the easier woods to split, don’t know what kind of stuff you all are working with. White elm of course will not split until it rots a bit, and Sycamore is pretty tough. I split big knotty stuff with the chainsaw. Lay it down and cut into the side of the log and it cuts fast. Don’t try to cut into the end grain. Dry hedge is the high dollar stuff when you want a lot of heat on a way cold night. When I can’t split my own wood, just roll me into the ground and cover me up.

  18. No need of a gym workout when splitting wood. I think the value of splitting wood for promoting harmonious human relations is highly underrated. It seems the things that frustrate you with other humans aren’t as big a deal after a while of splitting wood, or it could be you’re just too tired to care anymore. Making firewood could give expensive mental health specialists a run for their money in regards to therapy. Also, trying to hit the same crack after a bounce-back is wonderful for hand-eye coordination and when properly executed simply feels good.

    Locally the air quality authorities frown on wood-burning on overcast days or may even levy fines on traditional wood warmth seekers. I find this ironic inasmuch as the fossil fuels or water run through hydroelectric dams to generate the electricity for home heat is probably orders of magnitude higher in greenhouse gas emissions or other environmental negatives as opposed to burning wood. Also our local forests are way overstocked because logging has come to a near standstill becasue of concerns over spotted owls and other reasons such as cheap imported lumber etc. , hence it becomes only a matter of time until tremendous wildfires burn the forest wood that could have gone to warm homes in winter. It’s hard to believe the amount of smoke that hangs around during these extensive forest fires. Wood burners need to stand united in this age of political correctness in my opinion. Now I need to toast my buns in front of the wood stove; because it’s cold outside.

  19. *grin* I’m glad to give you the bragging rights. Your wood pile is bigger than many years of our wood pile. We heat entirely with wood here in the mountains of northern Vermont but burn less than 0.75 cord of wood a year – just dead wood and such. Of course, our house might be smaller (252 sq-ft) and it is masonry inside an insulating envelope so it has a really good thermal mass (100,000 lbs) which helps. I do agree, there is a great pleasure in the process of getting the wood in and having the wood ready for the winter season. Knowing where our warmth is and the satisfaction of having created it.

    See our cottage at: http://SugarMtnFarm.com/cottage

    We just finished building the structure of our on-farm butcher ship which is built along the same structural lines but about six times larger on the floor print and 20′ tall.

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