4 Great Ways To Split Firewood

Heating your home or cottage with wood takes a steady supply of split logs. Our expert offers advice for DIYers on how to split firewood.

Few methods of home heating are as iconic and rewarding as burning wood — especially if you cut and split it yourself. The hard physical work of splitting firewood is missing from most other heating methods, along with the sense of accomplishment when your house is nice and toasty during a blizzard.

Growing up on a rural homestead, I have many fond memories of splitting wood with my father, dating back to age six or seven. Although I’ve lived in my own home for many years now, I still heat with wood, and enjoy splitting and stacking it just as much as ever.

If you think you’d like to try wood heat this winter but aren’t sure where to start, read on.

Ways To Split Firewood

Like all practical hands-on skills, the ability to split firewood comes down to two things: the right knowledge and the right tools.

Knowledge comes with experience, and the best way to get both is to start your firewood journey with a person who has mastered cutting and splitting wood. As for tools, what will work best for you depends on how much wood you’re planning to split each season, and how long you want to spend doing it. Here are four options:

Splitting ax

A splitting ax, also called a splitting maul, is one of the simplest ways to start splitting firewood. This tool features a large, heavy, wedge-shaped blade of steel attached to a long, sturdy handle.

The idea is to swing the ax downward, striking the thin edge of its head into the top surface of the log you’re splitting, with enough power to split the log in two. Next, set up the two halves on their ends, and split each again. Repeat the process until the pieces of split firewood are as fine as you need.

A splitting ax usually has a three-foot-long handle and a head that weighs eight pounds. Shorter and smaller models are available for folks who lack the upper body strength to swing a big one. Splitting firewood with an ax is tiring, and slow compared to a gas-powered splitter, but it sure is satisfying.

However, if you plan to split more than a cord or two of wood each year (a cord is a pile of stacked firewood 8-ft. x 4-ft. x 4-ft.), you’re probably better off with a gas-powered splitter — that is, unless you’re exceptionally strong, fit and enjoy testing yourself physically.

Gas-powered inertia splitter

Also called a kinetic splitter, this machine harnesses the power of combustion to make quick work of your firewood pile. Featuring a lever connected to a moving steel wedge, via an internal flywheel and belt system, this type of splitter is the fastest way for homeowners to split firewood.

Although their tonnage rating (how much force they apply to the end of a log) is often high, a kinetic splitter can’t maintain that force for long. Knot-filled or twisted logs often cause them to struggle, and require several flicks of the lever to finally split. Still, if it’s speed and quantity of firewood production you’re after, it’s hard to beat a good inertia splitter.

Gas-powered hydraulic splitter

Similar in appearance and operation to the kinetic splitter, a hydraulic machine is usually slower to split a log, but much stronger.

Using hydraulics instead of belts and flywheels, this machine can split through any log like it’s nothing. I’ve been using my hydraulic splitter for more than a decade and haven’t seen it fail yet, even with the toughest, most gnarly pieces of oak and maple I can find.

Manual splitter

Some folks want to split firewood without bothering with big, loud gas-powered machines. They also might lack the confidence or physical strength to swing an ax effectively. That’s where manual splitters come in.

Design details vary, but most feature a steel wedge attached to a shaft that’s mounted in or next to each log. A sliding weight on the shaft is meant to be slammed into the thick edge of the wedge, driving it into the wood’s end grain, and eventually splitting the log.

A manual splitter was the first method I used to split wood as a kid. It was perfect for me at the time, because it was safer than other tools and didn’t require much skill or strength. The downside? A manual splitter is one of the slowest ways to produce firewood.

Simple steel wedges and sledge hammers are another method of manual firewood splitting. Hold the wedge against the log, tap it in slightly with the hammer, remove your hand, then pound the hammer against the wedge until the log splits.

How To Split Firewood

Fresh cut firewoodJan Hakan Dahlstrom/Getty Images

For most people interested in splitting serious amounts of wood, I recommend a good gas-powered inertia splitter. They’re fast, easy to use, and the occasional binding up on a stubborn log doesn’t justify the typically higher price tag of a hydraulic splitter.

I split around 10 cords of wood every year. I’ve tried nearly every wood splitting tool out there, and find myself firing up my inertia splitter more often than anything else. If you’re not sure how much wood you need, most homes need between three and six cords of firewood each winter, depending on climate, square footage and insulation quality.

Here are the basic steps and safety precautions involved in splitting firewood with an inertia splitter:

  • Wear a pair of safety glasses, earmuffs and thick work gloves. Never do any wood splitting without these items (minus the earmuffs if using an ax).
  • Wear a short sleeve shirt, tough work pants and steel-toe boots to protect yourself from log-induced bruises.
  • Use a chainsaw to cut your firewood logs to splitting length (the length of your stove or fireplace’s burn box, minus two to three inches).
  • Always wear protective chaps over your pants when using a chainsaw.
  • Check gas and oil, then fire up your inertia splitter, usually with a pull cord.
  • Lift one of the cut logs onto the bed of the splitter, positioning it so the end rests against the steel baseplate.
  • With your hands well away from the wedge and log, pull the lever, holding it in position until it fully splits the log.
  • Retract the lever, wait until the wedge returns to its starting position, then position one of the split log halves against the baseplate and repeat the process.

Robert Maxwell
Robert Maxwell is a writer, videographer, photographer and online strength coach based in Northern Ontarion, Canada. He grew up on a rural self-sufficient homestead property where he learned the skills to build his own home from the ground up, do all his own vehicle repairs, and work with wood, stone and metal to find practical DIY solutions to many everyday problems.