Monday, March 4, 2013

Avoiding that splitting headache: making firewood.

Firewood. part 2:  Splitting, stacking and air drying

I have now begun the splitting phase of my firewood project. A big job in itself, but if I take it a bit at a time and spin it out over a couple of weeks it will get done. I do not get myself into a lather and out of breath however, no blistered hands and aching back, but when I am splitting I am very productive, because I have done this job all my life and have developed a style that gets the best out of the splitting maul and the special characteristics of trees.
Firstly, when handling the maul, which is not an axe but is designed for splitting, I do not grip it tightly and use all my force but rather swing it smoothly and guide it accurately. A careful blow, aimed precisely in the right place will cause the wood to spring apart, while one swung hard but a half inch to one side will either bounce off or jamb in the wood . A steady rhythm, a calm and focused mind will see the wood pile grow as if by magic. If this sounds like the Zen of.... , or the Tao of..., you would be right!

 Secondly one must have a familiarity with the tree, its way of growth, its species, the special characteristics of the particular piece you are approaching. At first this will seem like a science study, but later it will become instinctual so that the wood you split is really part of yourself. ( see Zen of... etc.): like so many other relationships we have with things around us be it a piano, a motorcycle, or even with people we are close to.

It makes a big difference whether the species will split cleanly ( like maple) or will cling and resist the maul's attempt to force pieces apart, (like fir). How the tree has grown at this particular section of its trunk makes a big difference; wood that has grown under tension, or which has twisted fibres, can be very difficult. Knots are impossible to spit through and must be worked around. A knot is a branch that began when the tree was small and so extends from the centre core right out to the bark; you cannot split across it (well, never say never). So, if making firewood is this difficult why start at all? Because there is a way.

The most important part of the tree for splitting purposes is the middle of the growth rings, the bulls eye. Notice that this is not necessarily the centre of the tree because a tree does not usually grow symmetrically, even the rings will be wider on one side and more tightly packed on the other, and that will affect how it will split. That centre eye is critical to smooth splitting. One might say that centring oneself takes place in unity with each separate piece and its own true centre. When both are in alignment the blow falls and the wood comes smoothly apart. ( see Tao of...). I'm making a joke out of this, but it is true never-the-less.

A smaller piece, chopped through the eye
A small diameter piece needs a different approach from a larger one, so a simple blow directly across the end and through the eye will break it into two halves and these pieces will also split once more through the central eye. Miss that centre however and even a small diameter piece will resist splitting and you will find yourself with the piece of wood jammed securely on your maul. The temptation will be to lift the whole mass and bang it down again to force the split. This might work of course but is bad form and should only be performed in secret! Then you pick up the pieces and chuck them away from your work site because stumbling over wood underfoot is dangerous and upsets the even tenor of the work. For small pieces its a good idea to place them on a larger round as a chopping block because your blow will be more effective if much of the energy is not absorbed by the soft ground. Closer to hand too!

Splitting the pie

Removing the outside of each pie shape

The completed pile of wood

The big grand fir was beginning to rot in the centre
A large round of wood, like the kind I usually work with, (I am thinning my forest of larger, over-mature trees so the smaller can grown more rapidly) requires a more considered approach. Depending on my mood and the size of the round of wood, which might be up to three feet across, I will look for a fine hair-line crack running through the eye, the line of least resistance, and start my first split there, and continue to split pie shaped pieces until it is divided up reasonably evenly. A knot will have to be incorporated within a pie shaped piece however, so split close to either side of it because it will not split any smaller and you may not be able to use a super large piece in your stove! I try to keep the pieces together and standing upright because I hate constantly bending over and dealing with separate pieces too often. I will then circle the round of wood, splitting off the outside third of each piece (except for those with knots in them which will not spit any more) . With luck, (and usually we make our own luck) I will have a nicely splayed set of firewood where once there was one solid piece. And to accomplish that might have taken, in one smooth sequence, about as long as you have taken to read this. I then finally bend over and throw them to one side, preferably just where I will later build a wall with them so they may begin to air dry.

Progressively removing pieces off the outside
An alternate approach for a large round is to begin, not with a split across the centre eye, but with a series of smaller pieces peeled off the outer edge, following the direction of the growth lines. One must avoid knots of course, but things usually go smoothly, and then the final smaller centre section can be split across into pie shaped pieces. This technique is particularly useful when there is some resistance to beginning with a split directly across the round as in the previous example.

Completion of that round!
When I have finished splitting there will be some particularly awkward pieces that have complicated knots or cross grains. I will use steel wedges to beat them into submission or cut them up with the chain saw, whichever works the fastest. ( No Zen here!)

That little knot needed extra force
Although I haven’t begun yet, I will describe the reasons for building the woodpile and drying the firewood in the forest. Of course I could just throw the wood into rough piles and then immediately haul them up to my woodshed and stack them just once. I don't do that for several reasons: wood fresh from the tree is heavy and my VW van which has to double as a truck would not carry much in each individual load; loading and unloading would be heavy work too, especially for my back, and tightly packed wood in a shed would not dry well, even through the dry summer months. Dry wood is essential for proper burning!

Wood that is stacked in a sunny place ( like the clearing you have made just by cutting down the trees), just two rows wide, four feet high and as long as you like, with some plastic tarp or old metal roofing to keep the rain off will loose a lot of its weight with the sun beating down and wind free to blow through it. Then in the Fall, before the winter rains make the forest road soft and slippery I pack the the Winter's firewood up the hill and stack the now dry wood into the wood shed which is within a short walk of the house. Mind you do not stack you firewood against the house ( think of those wood eating bugs) or have your wood pile or shed too close to the house ( think forest fire and all those combustibles so close to home.) And, happy wooding!

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