Like paddling a canoe or pedaling a bike, splitting wood is a rhythmic outdoor activity that can feel downright meditative when done correctly. Swinging an ax, however, is a little more difficult (and dangerous) than biking or boating, so it takes time and practice to become a master of this useful art form.
To get started, you’ll need a few things: a splitting ax, with a 36-inch-long handle and a heavy metal head; a solid wood surface, such as a steady stump or a round of wood; a pile of well-seasoned logs (a round section of trunk, cut to the dimensions of your fireplace or wood stove and seasoned for at least six months) to split; and protective clothing, including for your eyes and feet.
“Good, sturdy footwear is key,” says Alex DeLucia, the manager of AMC’s volunteer trails program and a certified instructor in ax training. “I also recommend wearing long pants. Gloves are a personal preference. I never wear gloves with an ax because I wouldn’t feel like I had total control.” Not everyone wears shin guards or steel-toed boots, DeLucia says, but those also can help ensure your safety while you’re swinging and splitting.
Once you’re properly attired and have a log set squarely on the chopping block, you’re ready to start.
1. SCOUT YOUR SPOT
Splitting wood can be dangerous, so it’s important to choose your location wisely. Even ground is essential; you want your chopping block flush with the ground so it won’t wiggle or wobble. Also make sure there are no overhanging branches to get in the way of your swinging ax. Each swing should be one clean motion. You don’t want to be making micro-adjustments when the ax is in the air.
2. FIND YOUR FOOTING
“It’s important to stand square to where you’re cutting,” DeLucia says. “You don’t want to have one foot forward.” With both hands on the handle, place the blade of your ax on the chopping block to determine how far you should stand from the block. Keep your arms and back straight; you shouldn’t have elbows bent or your bottom sticking out. Bend your knees slightly and, DeLucia says, “Plant your feet and don’t ever move them.”
3. GET A GRIP
Hold the ax with your dominant hand higher on the handle and your other hand close to the bottom. As you swing, your hands will come together at the bottom of the ax handle, but when you begin, they should be between 6 to 12 inches apart. This will make it easier to lift the ax and give you more control over your swing.
4. TAKE AIM
Examine your log for knots, which make it harder to chop, and for cracks. If there is a prominent crack, aim for it. Otherwise, aim for the center of the round.
5. SWING AWAY
This motion should be a full circle, starting at your knees and ending at the chopping block. With your eyes focused on the log, bring the ax down and behind your back, up and over your head, and then down onto the center of the log. “It’s not a jerky motion,” DeLucia says. “You don’t hold [the ax] over your head to figure out where to aim.”
At the height of the arc, your dominant hand should begin to slide down the handle to meet your lower hand at the bottom of the ax. Let the weight of the ax do most of the work; you’re not trying to force it through the wood but rather to direct the downward force.
“It’s all finesse,” DeLucia says. “It’s about utilizing the tool and doing it with accuracy and consistency. Once you get the accuracy and consistency of your swing down then you can put a little juice behind it.
“Most of the time you’ll rocket right through, first swing,” he says. But sometimes axes get stuck. If this happens, you can either wiggle it out, or flip the ax upside down and bang the butt-end of the ax head on the chopping block. Once your ax is free, turn the log over and try again from the other side.
6. STAY SHARP
When you’re done chopping, hone and store your ax. It’s a good idea to sharpen your ax with either a whetstone or a file after each use because dull axes, like dull knives, can lead to injury. To keep the handle healthy and crack-free, rub it regularly with linseed oil. Choose a consistent storage spot for your ax, either inside or outside. Changes in temperature cause wood to contract and expand, which can weaken the connection between the handle and the head over time.