Chopping wood into manageable chunks is important when you’re building or maintaining a fire. However, if you’re dealing with wet wood it’s generally even more vital that the wood is broken down so as to allow it to dry more effectively. It can be challenging to know the best method to use.
To choose the best method for chopping wet wood you must consider the size and amount of wood being split, the precision required for the cuts, and what tools you have access to. Smaller jobs just require an axe or maul while larger tasks may call for an automated tool such as a chainsaw or a log splitter.
Chopping wet (green) wood can be an arduous task due to the increased weight and resistance the retained water provides compared to dry wood. To assist you in choosing the right tool for the task in hand, here is a list of the five most effective ways to chop wet wood. They’re organized from the most basic to as technological as personal wood chopping can get.
Method #1: Using an Axe, Maul, or Hatchet
These tools have been chopping wood for millennia, relying on personal strength, stamina, and coordination to cut through wood. You probably already know this, but in case you don’t let’s get one misconception out of the way. You aren’t chopping wood, you’re splitting it.
First, to make the chopping process most effective, ensure the steel blade on your hand-held device is sharp. This is especially important when cutting through the grain, e.g., when cutting down a tree, as opposed to splitting the wood along the grain when making firewood.
If you are splitting logs, a good tip is to wrap the log with a chain (or a shackle). This will hold the pieces in place as you split the wood, forgoing having to reset the log each time.
Many of the principles of dealing with wet wood are the same when it comes to dealing with the dry variant. Typically you’ll want to be using an axe for smaller jobs and believe it or not the sharpness of the axe isn’t the most important aspect, it’s the technique.
- Prop the log up on a chopping block or similar platform to help stabilize it. Otherwise, you can just use the ground and surrounding dirt to stand it up.
- Position yourself so that with your arms fully extended the head of the axe drives into the center of the log. If possible, try and be slightly uphill of the log you’ll be splitting. An important tip is to position yourself so that the axe will hit the side closest to you. The reasoning is that if you miss, you’ll just hit the dirt. However, if you hit the far side you’ll risk hitting the handle of your axe which can not only cause damage, but it also hurts your arms. Make sure your legs are apart so that if you miss, the axe will go in between your legs as opposed to into them. Having your legs slightly apart also helps with balance.
- Pull the axe over your head and bring it down in a single swift motion. Remember that you are not using your back or arm muscles for force. Instead, your body is merely acting as a stabilizer for the axe head as it builds momentum on its way down. Let gravity do the work not brute force. Imagine your striking point to the bottom of the log, not the top, and guide the axe head through the log.
The Axe May Often Get Stuck in Green Wood
With the wet wood, expect your axe to be stuck more frequently and to split less evenly. You’ll be spending more time fiddling with your tools then you normally would be with a dry log.
If the axe head gets stuck in the log (and it likely will) you can either wrestle it out if the cut is shallow or if it’s deep you can use an object like another log and beat the top of the axe. Eventually, the log will split and you’ll be able to pry the two halves apart.
Do NOT use another metal tool or object to further drive your axe into the log as this can cause damage to the tool or send chips of metal flying which can cause injury to you.
A Maul Is Much Better
The same principles for using an axe can be applied for a splitting maul. The key difference is that a splitting maul is better suited to larger and/or damper logs of wood. With its heavier head, it can more easily demolish more stubborn pieces of timber but it comes at a price.
The wedge design of a maul also makes it less likely that the head will become stuck inside the log. Perfect for dealing with stubborn lumber.
Just keep in mind that mauls are significantly heavier than most axes and will, therefore, tire you out more quickly. So expect to go a bit slower and take more breaks. This is a trade-off I can live with for making the entire process easier overall.
Method #2: Using a Froe or Wedges
If you are only splitting wood (cutting through the grain and not across it), and have a mallet, then a froe or wedges are an excellent option for cutting through wet wood.
In both instances, sharp metal is coaxed into the wood and then driven through it by the mallet. This force causes the wood to split into smaller pieces. Froes are suitable for narrower logs and wedges can split wood of any size.
Make sure your pieces of wood are an appropriate length (12-16 inches) before splitting.
Method #3: Using a Saw
Saws come in many forms, including the hand saw to automated circular saws. Using a hard-toothed edge, these tools can, with applied force, cut through the wood grain.
A one-handed saw is appropriate for small diameter logs (up to two feet) and a two-person saw is best for thicker pieces of wood.
However, this is a slow and physically draining (and my least favorite) method to cut wet wood. Even so, saws are probably the best tool for woodworking and can be used for everything from cutting down a tree to making fine cuts on delicate wooden crafts.
Method #4: Using a Chainsaw
Chainsaws are the ultimate personal tool for your lumberjacking needs, though these too require a fuel source. If the wood I am chopping is dense and wet, this is my preferred choice for cutting it up.
- Larger chainsaws are heavy, cumbersome, and imprecise. However, they are needed to chop trees of extremely large diameters.
- Smaller chain saws are easier to yield, and more suited to removing branches from logs before splitting or cutting narrower logs into sections (known as rounds in the industry).
- There are also lightweight chainsaws designed specifically for splitting firewood. These tend to be battery-powered to reduce the weight by avoiding the need for a fuel tank.
Method #5: Using a Log Splitter
For those who don’t want to go through the manual labor of using an axe, are struggling with the wet wood, or simply have a ton of wood to split you may want to consider investing into a log splitter machine. Wet or dry these machines will effortlessly slice through any amount of logs you may have, cutting them into neat pieces that are ready to be dried or burned.
These devices come in various sizes, with differing levels of mechanical complexity. The principle for all is the same, a log is pushed from one end onto a sharp blade at the other until the entire log is split.
When choosing a log splitter, you are concerned with the tonnage your machine can apply.
- Wet wood needs a higher tonnage rating (16-30 ton) to exert enough pressure to split the dense wood.
- Dry wood can be split with a 4-10 ton rated splitter.
With that being said these machines are not cheap, with the lowest consumer-grade variants costing at least $500 and commercial-grade machines reaching over $5,000.
While a log splitting machine will make your life easier, consider the amount of wood you’ll be chopping when determining if this is a worthwhile investment. Also, keep in mind that log splitters need fuel in the form of electricity or gas to power the hydraulics.
No matter which method you opt for, safety gear is essential. You will need three key things to keep yourself safe – boots (preferably steel capped), gloves, and safety goggles. Additionally, ensure that your work area is clear and the people around you (if any) are also minimally wearing protective eyewear.
Do NOT attempt to split wood that could potentially cause damage to your axe or yourself. If your wood has nails or anything foreign objects embedded inside leave it be. The object or pieces of it could suddenly come flying out and cause serious harm. Also, be wary of wood that is shaped in peculiar ways or doesn’t have an obvious way to split as this is where slippage and misses happen, risking serious harm.
Log Size and Wood Wetness
The diameter of what you are chopping/cutting/splitting should guide you in choosing the right tool. The wetter and bigger the piece of wood is, the more power you need to break it into smaller pieces. Freshly harvested wood (green wood) owes half of its weight to the water it retains.
Additionally, the water increases the woods’ density and thus resistance, meaning it takes more energy to break it apart (dried hardwood is the exception).
Dried wood also develops cracks, or weakened areas of the wood making it easier to chop. Of course, the primary reason for chopping/splitting wood is to half the drying (seasoning) time, which can take up two years if a tree is left whole. Therefore, wet wood is often what you will be chopping.
Believe it or not, some types of wood are actually easier to split when they’re wet. One example is oak that can be easily split right away, even if it’s still wet and/or green. These are exceptions to the rule though and most trees will be like pine that split more easily when dry.
Consider Buying Pre-cut Wood
For those who can’t be bothered and don’t mind spending the money, purchasing pre-cut wood is a completely valid option. The wood will be properly seasoned, no need to fuss around with tools and equipment for splitting, and if chopping needs to be done it will be much less strenuous.
If you know far in advance that an area may be completely soaked, you want to be prepared, or you’re a beginner, you may want to consider bringing along some pre-cut wood to make your life easier or to assist in drying out damp wood that you scavenge.
Splitting wet wood is not much different than splitting dry wood. The added moisture in the log adds additional resistance that will slow cutting and splitting. You just need to persevere and consider what tools you’ll want to use when dealing with it.
If you need the wood right away, splitting it as soon as possible is important to allow for it to better dry and become useable. Otherwise, if you have better sources of timber you can leave damp logs by sources of heat to dry a bit first before you tackle them.
While you’re at it, you may want to read up on how to start a fire with wet wood too so you’ll know what to do with your finished product.
Which woods are easier to chop/split wet? If you are using a manual method, like an ax or maul, to split your wood, then surprisingly wet (green) wood can be easier to split. Deciduous trees, like oak and maple, can become incredibly hard once dried and can take considerable effort to split by hand. The softness produced by the water content provides “give” in the wood, absorbing the energy from the ax rather than it reverberating back through your muscles. However, trees like conifer and pine can be too soft when wet and are easier to split when drier.
Why dry wood before use? Firewood needs to be dry so it can burn effectively and not consume some of its energy in evaporating water. Wet wood will produce harmful smoke when burned for this reason. Woodworkers like to use dried wood as the dehydration process shrinks the wood and causes cracks, compromising the integrity of the material. Once dried, the material strength and size are established and can be used effectively.