Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Toolkit

I mentioned in my last post that you don't have to be interested in making a ladderback chair to take notice of the tools we used at Country Workshops, or to make use of green wood. For the woodworker on a budget, wood from retail sources can be expensive. So, in many cases, you might want to consider splitting logs into useable wood and drying it yourself.

Just as often as students ask me about tools, they ask me about sources of wood. When you have very little money, or you're interested in using the most local possible material, it makes sense to process your own wood from trees that are getting cut down in your neighborhood.
A small black ash (10" diameter) that was leaning over the road on my property.
Very often, the trunks of trees will be cut up into short lengths where they fall, and if you ask nicely, you can get a chunk or two for little or nothing. Don't ask hard-working guys to deliver it, or even load it into your car for you, and expect to not pay them! But in many cases, a municipality or tree service finds that it costs money to get rid of the wood from trees they cut down, so if you show up willing to save them a little expense, we have a classic case of mutual benefit without money changing hands. 

Take wood from the main stem only. Wood from branches is mostly reaction wood, and isn't suitable for most woodworking. Wood in the main stem, or trunk, tends to be straight grained and relatively easy to split (avoid crotches and areas with lots of branches coming out, for the same reason). Also, note that logs are HEAVY and wet ones are EVEN HEAVIER. Stick to small stuff when you begin. Either long and slender as in the example shown, or big diameter but short. I implore you to be safe out there, and the weight of green wood is no joke!

The standard way to process tree trunks into useable lumber for the past couple hundred years has been to send them to a sawmill. Before powered sawmills existed, manual sawing of logs into boards coexisted with splitting and hewing as ways to turn logs into workpieces. What changed was technology and economics, not the physical properties of wood. Hewing and splitting are still available to us. And splitting is simple.

It's simple, that is, with a couple of provisos: some species split better than others, and you want nice straight grain with the fewest possible knots. Everyone seems to agree that oak is the most reliable wood for good splitting. I have had excellent luck with oak, ash, walnut, and butternut. I have had no luck with apple, mixed luck with hard and soft maple . . . you'll have to experiment. Drew Langsner told me he has had very mixed luck with walnut, and that the ash around his place doesn't split well radially. Some species of hickory split beautifully, but pecan, which is in the same botanical family as hickory, has been impossible for me to split. In my experience, you can forget about American elm and hophornbeam. If you get the wood for free, and you don't know, what's the loss? Give it a try, and learn.
This black ash split so cleanly that the split face looks planed. Later that day, I ran it over an 8" jointer and it only took a single pass to get a flat face!

All you need to split wood is a wedge and some way to drive it through the wood. The minimum practical toolkit, though, is what you see in these photos: two iron splitting wedges, a plastic felling wedge, a 3-lb or so hammer, and a hatchet. With careful shopping, you can get all these for about $50 - - you don't need fancy ones. A hand-forged Swedish hatchet is really nice, but you wouldn't want to waste it on rough work like this. ESPECIALLY since all the experts agree it's axe abuse to strike the poll (back) of an axe with a steel hammer.

Here's the step-by-step:

Look at the piece you're splitting. First split the piece in half. If any small cracks are already starting, especially if they're radiating out from the center of the log, you must split along them, or they'll start opening up independently and throw your split off. Use one of the splitting wedges, which are fairly blunt, to score a line where you'd like the log to split. Don't try to actually split the log, just make a line all the way across the face of the log. This is a way to try to guide the split. Then place the hatchet carefully along your scored line, centered on the log, and use the hammer to gently tap it in. You must wear safety glasses whenever you're striking metal with metal. And remember, the experts agree that striking an axe with a steel hammer is abusive. That's why we're using the cheapest hatchet we can find! If you have a big wooden mallet or deadblow hammer, this is when to use it.

Notice how straight that split is! It followed the initial scoring perfectly.

Once you have the hatchet started in, you can enjoy mindlessly driving it for a few swings of the hammer. You've done all you can to steer the split, so now just swing that hammer and enjoy the feeling of the wood as it splits. Hopefully, you'll see a crack develop along the line you've scored. If it strays, there may be a knot you didn't notice before.

Before the hatchet head gets buried in the end of the log, you should see the split open up along the sides of the log. Pick a side, and put one of the splitting wedges in it.
Here I'm using a plastic felling wedge as an experiment. It worked great! But you still need the iron wedges to do the scoring and really open that log up.
A gentle tap to get it started, then a couple more taps to release the hatchet from the end (set it carefully aside) - - - drive that splitting wedge now! At this point, the log's split shape has been determined. All you can do is leapfrog the wedges along the length of the log,
perhaps using the hatchet to cut any fibers that manage to hang on and stretch across the split.

Half logs should be split into quarters, then into eighths if the log is large enough. Usually you can only split a chunk of wood into halves, though experts supposedly can do thirds. Get the wood into roughly the shape you want to use it in: square bolts for legs and frames, wide narrow planks for panels.
Coat the ends with latex paint or diluted glue, put them somewhere out of direct sun with good air circulation to let them start drying. After a few months, when it's time to use them, bring them indoors to finish drying. If you can help it, don't store whole logs - - - they're easier to split when they're fresh, and there's less checking during drying it they're already split into at least quarters. The wood you end up with is cheap or free (except, of course, for your time and work), and you only need very basic tools to get it. Split (a.k.a. “riven”) wood has added advantages: it's stronger, it's easier to get quartersawn pieces, and it's as local as you can get!

It would fill a book to convey all the ways the wedges and hammer and wood feel as you split, and all the nuances of technique that go into doing this all safely, neatly, and with the least effort. And if I did, it probably wouldn't be as good as the books in which Drew Langsner covers this. In the end it's impossible to write them all down: you just have to go do it. You'll learn it quickly; I believe that people have been working wood since before they were people, and basic processes like splitting it are hard-wired into us. Once you've done one or two splits successfully, you go into intense dialog with the wood, zoned out from all else. For my mind, anyway, this is one of life's great pleasures. At least it is when the wood is cooperating!

1 comment:

  1. Inspiring! Can't wait until I come across a freshly felled tree.