Maul vs. Axe

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.

  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

    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.

    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).

  14. Jared → in Hebgen Lake, Montana
    Oct 09, 2014

    Just happened upon this old wood splitters discussion. Im the novice of all of you woodsmen, Young and old spent the last 4 days at a friends families cabin just outside of West Yellowstone on Hegen Lake in Montana. Its an annual opportunity to drink vast sums of whiskey and beer, catch as many fish as we can and pile cord after cord for the next summer season. To blast through the cords we used a powerful little Briggs and Stratton splitting screw ... but the large fresh Ponderosa logs put too much torque on the support arm and tore through the steel.

  15. Cory → in Southern IL
    Nov 12, 2014

    I’m 27 and have been helping dad split wood for quite some time and he has always used a maul. Back in high school my friend would chop wood for his dad and he used an axe, which was quite difficult and always got stuck in the piece he was trying to split. In my opinion the maul is where it is at. I’ve never seen a massive knot-ridden piece of wood explode like it does when dad hits it with a maul.

    The maul is heavier and although it may seem counter intuitive, is easier to use. Just put it up there and basically guide it down as it drops. It will destroy what your splitting. If it’s a bigger or knotty piece a little more effort need be applied. We have a maul and an ax and if I’m doing any splitting at all, I pick up the maul every time.

  16. Katz → in Victoria b.c.
    Feb 19, 2015


    I am in need of some wisdom/expertise. I live on the west coast of canada, I primarily split fir but I am going to start going to the beaches and buck up washed up lumber and then split them. This is to sell and because I enjoy it. I am tired of using crap tools and I want to get either a gransfors large splitting axe or gransfors splitting maul. I can’t decide which one to get. The rounds I will be splitting will primarily be between 25-35 inches. Let me know what you suggest. Thank you.

  17. Robert Hack → in Chicago
    Jun 27, 2015

    That’s a nice explanation between an axe and maul. Many don’t even know the type of tool they’re using when they cut wood and just assume it’s an axe.

  18. Brian T → in United States
    Jul 06, 2015

    @Katz I have the Gransfors Bruks splitting maul.  I would get that along with two wedges.  I have been using them for a couple years and haven’t come across something that I can’t split.  It’s heavier than the splitting axe and may tire you out more but you will split more wood in less hits.  I actually just ordered the splitting hatchet from Gransfors last night as the one drawback with the maul is it’s so heavy that when you go to do smaller logs for kindling it’s a little unwieldy and over-gunned and while doing the one hand on log, one hand dropping the maul I’m afraid I’ll mis-strike and injure myself so I figured the splitting hatchet will be good for kindling cutting.

  19. Cecil Hayes → in WI
    Jul 28, 2015

    I am 52 years old I have lived in a house heated by only wood all but 5 years of my life. When I can’t split wood by hand anymore my time will be up. I believe whether I am swinging an axe or a maul the most important factor is reading the wood. The second most important factor on a tough piece is to be able to hit the same spot on the second swing! Master these two factors. And the average mechanical wood spliter does not stand a chance. My favorite days are spent splitting wood in the crisp Wisconsin fall air.

  20. Witalis → in Pennsylvania
    Sep 25, 2015

    Thank you for your words, I was confused by this article and others on using a maul instead of an ax.

    My entire life I have only ever seen axes used for splitting wood. My family and friends, in Europe, have used axes to split wood for centuries. The one time I used a maul I failed miserably at it, probably because I was used to using an ax.

    The technique behind splitting wood with any tool is what’s important. You start on a wood block, not on the ground, then you pull the ax down to create as much velocity as possible. If you hit the piece of wood close to the edge, or on a strategic split/crack, the wood will fly apart violently in opposite directions, no problems. If the ax gets stuck, you lift it with the block of wood and drop it on the ax butt against the block, it MUST split.

    Thanks all, I’ll stick to what works.

  21. Tim → in Ontario, Canada
    Nov 09, 2015

    Ax or Maul?? Well I use both. Ax for the smaller stuff, maul for the bigger stuff. We have a type of tree that grows here like weeds. I have been told that it is called Manitoba Maple. It is very tough to split. The grain twists and is very fibrous, stringy. I have to use the maul, and usually have to pound it through with a sledge hammer. You’ve had a work out after you have split a few of those. In closing I say what ever works for you. Work smarter not harder.

  22. Gary Remington → in Los Angeles
    Dec 16, 2015

    My Dad showed me how to split wood when in my early teens. We used an eight pound sledge hammer, we called it a “maul” and steel wedges.We had a couple of 30 foot Chinese Elm trees to work on, felled by high winds. Some of the larger pieces took three wedges.

    I thought I was a latter day Abe Lincoln, or Jethro Bodine!

  23. Suzanne McCann → in Washington State
    Feb 21, 2016

    I was using a splitting maul? axe? and missed, splitting my fingers. The head of the maul had grooves in it that I thought were meant to make splitting the wood into smaller pieces easier. The injury caused my fingernails to be sliced in the pattern of the grooves.  I need to know what the name of this tool is. Someone told me it was called a waffle head sledge but I think that isn’t correct. Does anyone know what tool I am referring to and what it is called. Thank you.

  24. Shawn
    Feb 27, 2016

    I’d like to just point out that you shouldn’t be splitting wood on the ground, anyway. It should be on a stump or another log so that when your axe or maul goes through the piece you’re splitting, it buries itself in the end-grain of the one underneath instead of in the dirt where rocks can bash up the bit.

    Even a blunt maul can take on a gnarly, deformed edge with too much misuse, and a messed up bit can lead to blade deflection and injury.

  25. Shawn
    Feb 27, 2016

    oh my god and please people, stop hitting your mauls/axes with sledge hammers to drive them through. THIS IS DANGEROUS!

    The steel of both axes/mauls and hammers is hard and brittle,  striking the two together can easily send shards flying that could injure you or people around you.

    If you need to strike the back of your axe or maul it should always be done using a softer material than the steel of the axe. Preferably wood. This is called “batoning” and is usually done with a heavy stick or wooden mallet. Safety first! Then teamwork!

  26. Kristian Barrowman → in Northern Vermont
    Aug 10, 2016

    As has been commented, using the correct tool for the job is most important. I’ve been splitting wood for close to 40 years here in the Northeast. I’m near 50 now. When I was a youngster just helpin’ my dad, we had a 90 year old friend of the the family that had spent some 70 years in Adirondack logging camps as a logger. He was most often a river driver whose responsibilities included freeing log jams with two or three tools he carried while being ready to maintain his balance and make it back to shore by rolling the logs under his feet to stay upright and not be killed. He gave my dad some tips which had to be seen to be believed as to how effective they were. Splittin’ was one of ‘em. My dad, no matter the axe or maul, couldn’t split some tough old beech no matter how hard he tried. Our friend’s tips were these: 1.  refinement of technique makes any sort of woodworking or wood processing easy and enjoyable. 2. When splitting, the maul or splitting axe should be treated like a whip and hence a shaped handle is far superior for safety if one can be found for a maul. Usually because the maul handle has to be thicker and stronger it ends up being straight, the shaped handles are left to the cutting axes. The lead hand stays fixed at the end, and the other hand slides to meet the lead hand increasing the arc of the swing, aiding in the physics involved, and combining with hip motion to snap the axe or maul downward and into the wood for splitting. I remember watching my 75 year old 80 pound grandmother who also had excellent technique swing a 6 pound maul and split an entire half cord of wood in just about 20 minutes!
    3. Accuracy is key. More work is saved by being accurate than any other.
    4. Aim only for cracks that already exist. You don’t open a door by pulling where there isn’t a handle do you?
    5. Like mentioned earlier in the forum, a slight twist just as the axe head impacts the wood pops the wood apart instead of sticking the head down in the separated pieces. This technique takes lots of practice to perfect. Be careful as too much twist can make the strike glance away. The twist is subtle and only about 10 degrees at most.

    These are the tips I remember and I’m still practicing myself. To witness a 90 plus year old man split with absolute ease (among other things) who had spent his life in the forest and also crafting the wood he harvested was an incredible experience. So much masterful craftsmanship and arts get lost as we rush ahead with technology. Practice and keep on splittin’!

  27. Brant → in Arkansas
    Nov 13, 2016

    All species of wood splits different. And being green or dry matters. Twisted or knotty wood is difficult. Nice strait Oak, Hickory and other hardwoods split well. Seeing twisting or knots on the logs usually determines problems, it means the grain is not strait, stopping the slice through force. Elm is nearly impossible to split by hand.

    Striking the wood with an axe with little force will usually determine the difficulty. Little force meaning not enough for the axe to stick tight in the end grain. You can be amazed how easily some 18” to 24” logs will split with 3-5 light wacks.

  28. Sean O'Keefe → in Saratoga Springs, NY
    Nov 18, 2016

    A splitting axe and maul are two different things. They are not interchangeable like you suggest. An axe used for splitting wood prevents the wood from flying 6ft away. I never comment on anything but your article suggest someone using an axe doesn’t know what they are doing if they use it to split, it’s just an odd thing to say if you’ve actually used a real splitting axe like fiskars…also, you never strike the center of the wood, it splits by striking all around the center.

  29. Ethan → in Western Pennsylvania
    Apr 24, 2017

    I’ve got to say, good reading.  I just bought a Truper brand 6lb. maul because I got a new saw for Christmas and probably dropped a few more Ash trees than I feel like processing.  We had the Asian Ash Borer Beatle blight here. 

    Anyway, out of necessity, I’ve found that the straight grains, Ash, and especially wild cherry, will make you look like an Old Testament god with nothing but a light single/double sided ax. The maul is invaluable, but if things are frozen, or the wood is right, with a little practice you can almost plank the pieces as you go. 

    It’s been ages since we had chestnut here in any number, but I’ve uncovered one rotting into the ground and a few inches in is beautiful wood.  That and walnut, I’d love to have more.  But if you hunt these along with barn wood for craftsmanship, the log rotting on the ground may just be what you are looking for.  Find somebody with a mill and a planer and you’ve got it.

  30. Angela
    Jun 29, 2017

    I believe some people cannot tell the difference between a splitting maul and a splitting axe. I too was confused when I first saw this tool. A splitting maul is essentially a type of an axe that cuts logs along the grain (the inside of the tree). An axe such as felling axe or camp axe cuts logs against the grain (cutting into the bark).

  31. Drew → in Lehigh Valley
    Sep 05, 2017

    From mild experience, about a decade, landscaping or logging firewood in winter. Chopping/chipping across grain, lowering stump, removing roots… I always used a sharp low weight axe. Splitting firewood using a maul. This being said, there’re many different variables that will make ummm… 1 man = 2 cords/day or I should have stayed in bed today. Questions: 1 what species of wood? 2 time of year?(temp and season) 3 how fat are the trunks? 4 how far transport? 5 is the wood seasoned? and my favorite… knots/bench cuts? Sometimes you may get angry at said pieces/round of wood. Fear not… that round of wood, that may contribute to a whopping 4 pieces of firewood, may not know it yet but it’s going to split. Sure I could chainsaw it a little more but where is the release of anger that I enjoy? Like driving golfballs, have you ever found yourself talking to the ball you’re about to hit? I’m just kindy reminding the jagged/slowly becoming toothpicks round what’s going to happen. The talking part is a joke until 80 or so cords. Other plusses: after splitting for a month you will definitely be stronger. Also, like in boxing, don’t punch your object right in their face… punch then to the back of their head. Continue through the firewood. Who cares if you hit your maul tip off some rocks? (Wear safety goggles)

  32. Ty → in Spokane
    Oct 15, 2017

    It all depends on the wood. If I saw someone trying to split with an axe I’d gladly pick up a beer and sit back and laugh. Our spongy black pine will bounce an axe like a thick piece of rubber. Maul is the only way to go here in the PNW.

  33. John → in Scotland
    Mar 26, 2018

    My dad always used an axe to split wood, he could get stuff to really fly.

    I tried a maul in Canada and hated the thing, was quite tempted to sharpen it,  though that was vetoed. Went back to using an axe…just more intuitive for me and got along a lot better with it.

  34. Larry → in Indiana
    Sep 06, 2018

    Dad welded an 8lb maul head to a thick metal pole. Sharpened it too, not too thin. That thing is the best wood splitter you’d ever see. Just got done with 2 cords of knotty oak.  Didn’t stand a chance.  Tired as hell though.

    My 2cents.

    Have fun split’n!

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