Firewood: Cutting, Splitting and Stacking It Safely

There's an old saying, "Cut your own firewood and you're warmed twice." It's still true. And when you're done, you can see the day's labor stacked neatly in your shed. It's a nice antidote to sitting at a computer all day. Cutting your own wood also has a few pitfalls, so here's a guide to doing it safely and effectively.

Safety Gear Is Important
Safety goggles and hearing protection are essential, especially if you'll be handling a chain saw. Heavy-duty work gloves will protect your hands from splinters and abrasions. Don't wear them if you're more comfortable with a bare-handed grip on your chain saw, but do wear them (and the goggles) for ax and maul work and wood handling. Steel-toed boots are also smart. All this gear is cheap, and good insurance against injury. If at all possible, always work with someone or have someone within earshot.

For more about woodcutting equipment and safety gear, see our articles Woodcutting and Splitting Tools and An Eye for Safety.

Maul, wedge, sledge

Step by Step: Cutting, Splitting and Stacking
1. Separate the branches from the downed log's trunk. Tackle the small branches first those up to an inch thick or so. A sharp single-bit ax will handily slice through these sticks. The reach you get with a long-handled ax (36 inches or so) lets you to get the blade in close to the trunk, so you don't end up with stubs that make firewood hard to stack.

Make sure your footing is solid. You need enough room to stand with your feet apart and swing freely without losing your balance. Stand on the opposite side of the trunk from the branch you're cutting, and swing the ax head more or less parallel to the trunk. To cut branches that grow out of the trunk at an angle, chop from the underside of the branch first, then finish the cut from above.

When you've removed the smaller branches and pulled them away from the trunk, fire up the chain saw. Cut the larger branches off in sections that can be pulled clear and cut up later. Be wary of cutting branches under tension; they can close or bind on your saw's bar and chain, and they can also suddenly spring free when they're nearly cut through. As you work, notice what branches are supporting the weight of the trunk (or other branches) and you'll avoid unpleasant surprises.

2. Saw the trunk into chunks. Here the serious cutting begins. First you need to know how long a stick your fireplace or woodstove will accept, so you can saw lengths accordingly. Get yourself a thermos of ice water, replenish your fuel and chain oil, and try not to cut for more than 20 minutes without taking a break. Resist the temptation to force the bar down as you cut through thick trunk sections. Let the saw's weight do the work, while you apply just a slight downward pressure to direct the path of the cut.

If the trunk (or a large branch) is resting on the ground, don't try to cut all the way through it. Instead, cut until the bar is a couple of inches from the ground. Move along the trunk, making a series of partial cuts at firewood-length intervals. Then roll the trunk or branch over and complete each cut. A long pry bar makes a good log-flipping lever; use a small piece of wood as a fulcrum to brace it on. When you've got a load of logs cut, take a long break. Splitting and stacking are hard work; those come next.

3. Split logs into firewood. Dry, straight-grained pine and ash logs can fly apart at the drop of an ax, while elm and butternut might hold out against Paul Bunyan himself. Any slice of log that includes a crotch is going to be super tough to split. There is good news, however: You can handle just about any wood-splitting episode with an ax, a splitting maul and a couple of wedges the same tools your grandfather used.

An ax makes short work of dry, straight-grained logs if they aren't too big around or if you're splitting kindling. Find a level, clear piece of ground on which to do your splitting. While you can stand the log you're splitting right on the ground, it's easier to use a broad, flat piece of wood as a splitting platform. You'll be less likely to bury your ax in the dirt if the log splits on the first swing. Bring the ax to shoulder level and mostly let gravity bring it down except for a little extra umph with your shoulders at the end of the swing.

For heavier, longer and more gnarled wood, use a splitting maul. Again, stand comfortably, grip the maul's handle firmly but not rigidly, and try some slow-motion licks, aiming for the center of the log. With practice, your swing will become more comfortable and more effective. Once you get a feel for the tool and develop some accuracy with its head, give it a full-strength stroke. A maul is a heavy beast, so let the weight of its head and gravity do most of the work. Bring your shoulders and biceps into play toward the end of the swing. This gives the most striking power for the least sweat.

If an ax or maul gets stuck. Don't despair if a blade gets stuck in the wood. Instead, Use a hand sledge to tap a wedge into the crack where the maul or ax is stuck. As you drive the wedge in, the crack will widen enough to free the blade. Then use the flat face of the maul not the ax! to drive the wedge deeper, till the log splits. If need be, you can also start a second wedge. Note: Never drive a wedge with an ax head. It will break the ax and could send a splinter of steel flying at you.

A few refinements: When splitting a log 16 inches wide or wider, it's usually easier to split slabs off its edges rather than strike it right in the center. And when you're faced with a crotch piece, don't try to split it through the crotch: the fibers in this area will be too strong. Work the outer edges and you'll have an easier time. Ultimately, though, you may have to get the chain saw out to deal with such stubborn chunks.

4. Stack it. Firewood cut from a freshly fallen tree needs to be stacked so it can "season," or dry out. Getting the wood off the ground helps to prevent the bottom pieces from rotting. A pair of long pressure-treated 2-by-4s under your woodpile will allow air to circulate under the bottom layer.

Store it in a shed if you can. If that's not possible, cover your outdoor woodpile with plastic sheeting before the rains start. It shouldn't be perfectly watertight just enough to keep the worst of the weather off.

You might want to keep a weekend's worth of dry firewood handy, maybe in the garage, stored in a rack made from 2-by-4s. To build your own, check out Building a Firewood Rack.

It always feels good to finish cutting and stacking a big supply of firewood. The work has warmed you once; soon the wood will warm you again.


CornerHardware.com recommended tools & supplies:

  • Axe

  • Maul

  • Splitting Wedge

  • Hand Sledge