If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Splitting Maul

Let me introduce you to my new friend - the splitting maul:

I bought this last year when I built the log store, on the advice of someone in the village. Up to that point, I had split any logs that I used with either a hand-axe for the small stuff, or a felling axe for the biggies. Of course, splitting wood with either of those is like trying to cut cloth with a bread knife: they will do the job, but there are much better ways. Not that I realised.

The maul differs from the axe in several ways. The shaft is rounder and more robust, as often the handle needs to be levered about to free the head from the wood. The head is also heavier than the usual axe head, as the maul uses the sheer weight of the head to do the work. And, paradoxically, the heavier the head, the easier it is to use. It's something I have noticed with a lot of tools: the more weight something has, the easier it is to control. Heavy chisels cut better than light ones, heavy knives are more precise than flimsy ones; and of course any cook will tell you that heavy cutting implements in the kitchen are worth their weight in gold. Anna has a cleaver which is as heavy as the chopping board she uses it on, and nothing chops parsley more finely or easily. The key difference between the maul and a felling axe, though, is the shape of the head. The cutting edge is shorter and less sharp, and the head itself is much wider, being shaped like a wedge with convex sides. This means that, for any given impact with the wood, the maul will separate the fibres further apart and be less likely to get stuck in the split.

I shouldn't be surprised. A crosscut saw gets bogged down when ripping along the grain, and a ripsaw is useless at cross-cutting. One has teeth sharpened like knives; the other like chisels. The job of the axe is to cut sideways through as many fibres as possible, so it is slim and sharp. The job of the maul is to part the fibres from each other lengthways, so it is blunt and wide. Each to his own, as it were. I can't understand why it has taken me so long to realise this.

What it means in practice is that it works like a dream. I had got used to standing over my logs, cleaving them again and again with the axe, working up a sweat wiggling the head out of the cleft, and finally delivering a death blow with the axe swinging from waist height behind me, over my head and down into the wood with all my strength. I got pretty accurate with this, and could send both halves of a dry log anything up to 10 metres in opposite directions if I got the blow just right. We had to keep the dog indoors and ban children from the entire area when I was in full flow. With the maul, I place it on the end of the log, lift it to about shoulder height and drop it down with a little force behind it. The log usually splits obediently into two without drama.

I love my maul because it just works.

I also love it because it is clearly one of those tools that have been around for a long time. Axes are possibly the oldest woodworking tools in the world, and date from the time, probably in the Mesolithic period about 8000 years ago, when some bright spark had the idea of fastening a hand-axe to a handle to make things a little quicker and easier. Certainly the ancient Egyptians were using metal-headed axes in the construction of the pyramids in 2000BC. Whether the splitting maul developed as a specialised form of axe, or from the addition of a cutting edge to a long hammer (the word is from Old French mail, and is related to 'mallet'), I don't know, but I am sure that the maul must have been around in something close to its present form for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It works, and there is nothing that could be done to make it work better. (The safety pin has a similarly noble lineage: the basic design was perfected in the Bronze Age, and no significant improvements have been made since then.)

Compared to splitting wood with a felling axe, I reckon it reduces the overall effort by half, and for an old git that makes a big difference.

It cost me around £30 from the village hardware store, and I don't regret a penny of it. If you have any logs to split, it's highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. There is so much I can say about splitting mauls. I have been using the Gransfors Bruks for a while now, but its hickory handle broke after I accidentally run over it with my truck. I am planning to buy a new one and your guide is the best source of information I have found so far. The following post offers some of the best products: http://survival-mastery.com/diy/useful-tools/best-wood-splitting-maul.html


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