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.