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The axe head (left) is skinny, sharp, and light for chopping. The maul head (right) is fat, blunt, and heavy for splitting.

If you want to identify yourself as someone who knows nothing about the subject, announce that you’re headed out to the woodshed to chop some firewood.

Chopping firewood went out of style with the crosscut saw and was sent into permanent exile by the chainsaw. As a method for obtaining firewood, chopping wood is terribly inefficient – nearly half the wood is turned into chips and left in the woods to rot.

Splitting wood, however – now there’s the thing. Splitting is a marvelous technique for turning bolts of tree trunk into chunks of firewood with almost no waste at all. If the wood happens to be straight, knot-free white ash, there’s almost no effort, either.

This distinction between chopping and splitting is more than just, well, chopping hairs. The two are different techniques requiring different tools. Use the wrong tool for the job, and you will wind up either in the emergency room or in a rage of frustration.

First the tools. Though it’s tempting to call any chunk of axe-like metal attached to a handle an “axe,” the true axe has two defining characteristics: it’s sharp and it’s thin.

The axe is designed to cut its way across wood fibers. In a single swing of the axe, the sharp bit slices into the wood, followed by the thin blade slipping in to cut deeply across the fibers, followed by the eye of the axe head – the fat part surrounding the handle – separating the wood and popping out the resulting wood chip.

This is what chopping wood means: cutting, not splitting. You approach your trunk or tree branch and whack away across the grain, knocking out chips as you go, digging an ever-deeper “V” into the wood until you reach the far side.

Now to the splitting maul, sometimes just called a maul, and occasionally called a “splitting axe” by old-timers. The maul has the opposite characteristics of the axe: it’s blunt and fat. The maul is designed to divide a piece of wood in two by forcing the wood fibers apart parallel to the grain. The dull edge exploits a crack between fibers, and the V-shaped head forces the crack apart with continuous pressure.

What if you attempt to split a piece of firewood with an axe? If you’re lucky, the thin blade will sink deeply into the wood and stick there so tightly that you’ll ponder throwing the whole works – axe and all – into the woodstove to burn it out. If you’re unlucky, the force of the axe will split the wood all the way through, burying your sharp axe in the dirt and curling deep gouges out of the blade that will take hours to repair with a file and stone. Suddenly the maul’s bluntness starts to make sense.

Worse yet is trying to chop wood with a maul. The maul’s blunt blade will glance off the limb or trunk, typically careening in the direction of your leg.

Besides these learning-by-doing methods, which aren’t recommended, there are two more ways to tell an axe from a maul, even if the tool in question is a rusty item of unknown origin leaning in the deep shadows of the tool shed. Mauls are heavy – usually six to eight pounds – while axes are light, typically three to four pounds. The entire swing of the maul occurs in the center plane of the swinger’s body, where the strong muscles guide and contain the heavy weight. An axe, on the other hand, can be used anywhere from eye level for limbing a tree to ankle level if the tree is already down. Even a beefy lumberjack would have trouble swinging an 8-pound axe all day, given the wide array of arm angles and muscles involved.

Finally, there’s handle length. A maul handle is relatively long so as to guide the maul into the ground after it finishes splitting the wood, not back in the direction of your feet. An axe handle is short so that when you lean over to limb a tree lying on the ground, the axe swings above the ground, not into it. Use your arm length as an approximate guide: if the handle is longer, it’s a maul, if it’s the same or shorter, it’s an axe.

There’s no better time, with the soaring cost of home heating oil, to take matters into your own hands and learn to split your own firewood. Just don’t announce that you’re going to chop it. Besides being wasteful and potentially dangerous, “chopping firewood” lands hard on the ears, much like the sound of a nice, sharp axe slicing through a piece of firewood and into a rock buried underneath.

 
Discussion
  1. Mark Ayotte → in Maine
    Sep 20, 2009

    More years ago than I like to admit, I grew up on a farm in central Maine. We heated exclusively with hardwood that we cut from our woodlot. Being that it was an old, uninsulated farmhouse it took around 14 cords to make it through the winter. I’ve got to tell you, I never laid an eye on a splitting maul until after I left to go out on my own. My father preferred,what he called,a pole axe. The trick was to always split the wood when it was frozen and not to strike the wood straight on(that results in the axe being stuck in the wood). A slight twist of the wrists resulted in the blade hitting at a slight angle and popped the wood apart. After many, many years of using a splitting machine, I helped a friend hand split a pile of wood a couple of years ago. He was using a maul and I used an axe as my father taught me. He was amazed that I was twice as fast as he was with the maul. To be fair,we were both fifty something and that axe was a lot easier to swing!

  2. Mark → in Ireland
    Sep 15, 2011

    Great story Mark, I was just debating whether to purchase a gransfors axe or splitting maul, and thanks to you am going for the axe!

  3. Ken → in Vashon Island, Washington
    Nov 10, 2011

    Hi:
    Kind of like Mark in Maine, I grew up with a crosscut saw and an axe, and with a lot of firewood to cut.  We had a good double-bitted “splitting” axe, wedges and a sledge hammer.  Now that I’m much older, I finally learned to put a polished cutting edge on the axe that you can see your reflection in.  In smaller rounds up to 15” or so, the axe explodes the wood.  Probably a lost art, but with a neighbor or two setting the wood up on “chopping” blocks, I can beat most hydraulic splitting rams, and that’s fun for an old man.

  4. Greg → in Sutton, MA
    Jan 31, 2012

    Growing up in Eastern Canada I was much like Mark.  We had a very old house (somewhere in the range of 300 years old) and it wasn’t insulated except by old newspapers.  We went through about 9 cords of wood a winter, never heating the bedrooms only the kitchen and living room.  Oh how I long for those cold hardwood floors.  Anyway,s back on topic.  We never had a maul, just an axe.  We kept the axe sharp and had a large oak block underneath to protect it from the ground. 

    My friends had mauls and I always tried to convince my dad to buy one, thinking it would be easier, but he never bought one…if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.  It wasn’t until last week that I actually tried a maul, and let me tell you, after about two hours of frustration it is going back to the store and my axe is back.

  5. brian hagey → in Lansdale, Pa
    Mar 12, 2012

    I am trying to find out what a maul ring is.  I am doing research on a farmer from the 1820’s in Pa and he mentioned buying a ring for his maul.

  6. dave → in corinth
    Mar 13, 2012

    Don’t know for sure what a maul ring is, but i’d guess it’s some sort of handle guard that sits right beneath the maul head. Today they’re made of rubber—don’t know what they would have been made out of in 1820.

  7. Glen Berry → in United States
    Jun 20, 2012

    We had an ax but I never used it. Always the splitting maul and wedges.  I tried the ax a few times but had the problem described, handle was too short.  Plus it would just bounce off rounds of Douglas Fir. Might not have been sharp enough, or I didn’t have the right technique.  The ax might be faster but speed never seemed like an issue. My brother and I had all summer to fill up the woodshed so if it took all day, it took all day. The hatchet was for chopping (yes, chopping) kindling, although we were really just splitting cedar shakes.

  8. Daniel Morse → in Michigan
    Apr 09, 2013

    I have used “ax’s” and “mauls” and I find the maul an easy wood splitter for the larger chunks. The ax does great for most everything.

    I am living in the old wood farm house I grew up in. Its about 150 years old. Solid. It uses massive amount of wood to keep warm. I burned at least 5-6 cords this short winter. I have used much more in other winters. Especially if they are windy.

    Different wood needs different tools. The beautiful Walnut (damn does it burn hot) I burned cleaved nicely with the ax. Maple, I needed to use the maul. Some wood like the locust was hard either way and the pine too was exhausting.

    I will burn anything that I can get. I only cut down the dead or dying myself.

    My neighbor asked why I did not use a hatchet when I split up small pieces? I always used an ax. Why buy a hatchet?

    I would like to point out I see a lot of fat and skinny ax’s, but most mauls are fat. I say use what works for you.

  9. Seth Harris → in NY
    May 01, 2013

    I have only begun, at the age of 40, to start splitting wood.  Before this article, I would have said “chopping”.  Anyway, I get the wood delivered, but some of the logs are quite large.  I actually had a maul in my hand at 2 different stores, but my thrifty (ok, cheap) side kicked in and I couldn’t do it.  I only have a 15 year old axe, so I had to split with that.  Let me tell you, that it worked just fine.  There were about 4-5 log pieces that I couldn’t splt, but they were not as dry and were pretty knotty. If I get into more splitting, I may even get an electric log splitter.

  10. Betty Waidlich → in Pioneer Valley, MA
    Oct 10, 2013

    From my grandfather I inherited what was said to be a maul. It has a four inch wooden handle,  and is attached to a heavy piece of wood that is about six inches in width and is circular - about six inches across the base.  I’ve been wondering what it was used for - and you can see that it was used in a fairly brutal fashion. It is well worn, and looks as tho’ it had been used to hit something or to pound with. Any answers?

  11. Andy Scaife → in Yorkshire, UK
    Nov 25, 2013

    @Betty - Here in the UK what you’re describing would be referred to as a Pavoirs maul (assuming it’s a four foot handle).  Used when laying stone flagstones, essentially a giant mallet.

  12. Stephen → in Boston
    Nov 26, 2013

    Chain saw and an eight pound maul.
    I frequently split green hard woods
    and burn it for heat. The white oak I split
    would laugh at an axe. I often wonder
    if kiln dried or even long seasoned wood is
    worth the price or storage. I understand I
    am not getting max BTU because the wood is
    ‘wet’ but if it burns and I get it for free
    who cares? I sweep the chimney on my insert
    annually and never had a problem with creosote.

    BEST TIP EVER!
    Use an old car tire and fill it with logs.
    Split the logs while they stand in the tire.
    The tire gives a slight recoil, the wood stays
    in a tight bunch and you never bend over to
    to stand up or chase the logs,
    and I estimate it to be 85% quicker!
    It is an old Yankee magic trick, try it!
    I can go to the wood pile in my shirt sleeves,
    split an armload of wood for the night and be
    back inside before the snow even sticks to
    my bare feet.


  13. Steve Petty → in Salt Spring Island, BC Canada
    Dec 30, 2013

    Sold firewood for a living on the west coast.
    Maul length: about 30” - 36”. I’m 5’9” and use 32”-34”. Longer is better than shorter.
    Handle material: hardwood preferred
    Handle design: NOT straight. Straight is very hard on the wrist. Nicely curved, especially at the end, is critical if you chop much and value your body.
    Handle grain pattern: You want a tight grain pattern that is running fairly straight and parallel with the motion of swing. Parallel helps in longevity of handle if you “overstrike”.
    Maul head: should be dull, not sharp. It’s not for chopping, it’s for splitting. You don’t want to be struggling to get it out if it doesn’t split in one strike.
    Maul head weight: 4.5-6 lbs.  8 lbs. is for the young,(soon to be old).

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