I tried to pull a sneaky little brag on all of you a few weeks ago when I used a photo of my woodpile on a post. The post wasn’t even about woodpiles exactly and I was, like, you know, uh, well, oh-by-the-way, pretending that I just happened to have this photo lying around and so I might as well use it.
But I did not fool friends, Jan and Andy, who operate a garden farm market in central Ohio. Sure enough, they soon sent me a photo of Andy’s latest woodpile, which is bigger than mine, daggone it anyway. (That’s it, pictured above.) I may have started something among the brotherhood of woodchoppers that I will regret.
Andy splits a whole lot more wood than I do because he and Jan use it not only to keep their house warm, but for boiling down maple syrup to sell at the farmer’s market in Bellefontaine, Ohio. I think of Jan and Andy as Ohio’s successors to New England’s famed Scott and Helen Nearing. Their lifestyles are quite similar. According to what I’ve read, Scott continued to split wood until he was a hundred years old. Then he set the maul down, sat himself down, and announced that he had enough wood split to last him out. What amuses me most about him was how he considered himself something of a socialist, in a philosophical sense anyway, which got him in trouble with some people. But when he and Helen got into the sugar maple business, he turned out to be as consummate a capitalist as anyone you care to name.
I like to split wood almost as much as I like to split infinitives. Gazing at a rick of my own wood gives me more satisfaction that gazing at a shelf of my own books. I split by hand. Mechanical splitters disrupt my peace of mind. The splitter motor sputters away, demanding that I keep on working when I just want to sit on a stump and look for the shy but awesome pileated woodpecker who has taken up residence in our woods. The maul is perfectly willing to lean quietly against the woodpile and wait until I’m ready for it.
I am a good woodpile stacker because I am a poor one. If you rank the sticks up too neatly there isn’t enough space between them for air circulation so my sloppy way of stacking works for the better. I used to use two standing trees to hold up the ends of a rick so I didn’t have to crisscross the end pieces. But learned the hard way that tree trunks often sway just a bit in the wind even down low and eventually the ends of the rick dribble off onto the ground. Experts go on and on about correct stacking, but if you have wood drying two to three years ahead of using it (like you should), most of that expertise is a bit precious. You should stack the wood outdoors in a breezy, sunny place if you can, but you don’t really need a cover on your ricks (heresy, according to the experts). Just be sure you get the wood under cover in the fall before you intend to feed the stove in the coming winter. If you want a definition of slow, think about snow melting on wood brought into the house.
Splitting wood by hand with a maul is also art and learning how to do it with the least amount of effort is enjoyable to me. The grain of the wood and the location of knots tell you where it will split easily and where it won’t. You have to learn to read a log section like a diamond cutter reads a diamond in the rough. Written words of instruction aren’t always helpful. You just have to do it for awhile. Even then white elm will seldom split with a maul, not even a knotless piece. Andy says that green wood splits easier if it is frozen, something I didn’t know. I’ve learned that it is easier to split big log sections by chipping pieces off from around the outside rather than trying to cut through it like you would a pie.
I have just this winter found out something I don’t find in anybody’s instructions. When I strike a chunk of ash (I have a lot of dead ash now) to split it, sometimes the maul bounces off as if I were trying to split white elm. But actually, the blow has sent an almost invisible crack down through the wood. If you hit the crack exactly in the same place with the second blow, the pieces fly apart. If you don’t, you will have to whack away at it several more times before the original cleft splits open. When you hit that almost invisible crack perfectly with your second blow and the wood comes flying apart, it is as pleasant as swishing a three-pointer in a basketball game.