How to Split Gnarly Firewood

Gnarly, knotty, crooked-grained hardwood can be difficult to split for firewood, but there are occasions when it either must be split, or left to waste and rot. If you have a strong back and the right tools, most wood can be split.


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    Get out your tools. For normal wood splitting, an axe might be all you need, but for gnarly wood, if you don't have access to a hydraulic log splitter, you will need the following:
    • Axe
    • Maul (AKA: splitting maul, busting maul, etc)
    • Sledgehammer
    • Steel wedge (preferably more than one)
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    Cut your wood to the shortest usable length. Because the crooked, irregular grain, (and likely knots) will make the splitting job more difficult, start out with the shortest cut you can use.
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    Cut a large, flat section of log for a splitting block, to place the segments you are splitting on. This will save a lot of bending over, and make the use of the Sledgehammer and maul much easier.
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    Look for checks (splits which occur as wood dries) in either end of the block you are splitting. These indicate weak grains, which may be easier to begin a split in.
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    Try the maul one or two times. Even if the wood looks gnarly, it may not be as bad as it appears. If you see a large check crack on one end, this is what you will want to aim for.
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    Measure the point of your expected impact by getting into your swing stance (feet spread, knees possibly bent slightly), and while you hold the handle of your maul as you would swinging it, set it on the location you want to hit the block you are attempting to split.
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    Bring the maul back up over your shoulder on the side of your dominant hand, then bring down in a chopping motion with a hard, solid blow.
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    Look for a widening of any cracks, if the wood does not split completely when the blow is struck.
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    Use a steel wedge, if the maul will not split the block of wood. Set the wedge in any crack that you can see, then tap it into the wood like you would begin driving a nail.
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    Strike the wedge with your Sledgehammer. Use a good, solid blow, taking care to place it accurately. The wedge should begin to split the block by forcing the grain to separate where the wedge penetrates the wood.
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    Continue driving the wedge into the wood. If your wedge is thick and wide enough, eventually, the wood will split. If you end up burying the wedge completely and the wood still hasn't split, you may have to drive a second wedge in further along the crack.
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    Continue wedging the block of wood apart until it is split. You may find you have to chop apart some splintered wood grain around large knots to completely split the block.
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    Split large blocks of wood in half, if possible, then split these in half again. As the blocks become narrower, they should split much more easily.
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    Stack your split wood to dry when you are finished, clean and sharpen any tools that have become dulled with use.


  • A 'star' wedge is a good type of wedge that actually twists into the wood as you strike it, causing the wood to split more easily.
  • Leave the branches on it for as long as you can before you cut up the tree. Even after the tree is cut down it will still continue to live and the leaves will suck almost all of the water out of the trunk.
  • If the wood cannot be split, allow it to dry for a few weeks. This will allow check cracks to form, and may build internal pressure as the wood begins to shrink at the cut ends, which will make splitting easier. Do not allow the wood to season completely, however.
  • A good splitting maul head has a blade ground to a much wider angle than an axe blade - maybe 90 degrees - so it starts cracks without getting stuck in the wood.
  • If the piece you're splitting is heavy (but not too heavy), and the axe gets stuck in it, you can swing the whole thing bottom up, so that your axe head will come down on the base block, and the weight of the piece will split it. This is a very powerful way to split, however, be extra careful nobody's behind or around you, as the piece could fly off wildly.
  • Split wood while it still has moisture. Green wood splits more easily than seasoned wood does.
  • Some people split logs from the bottom up, in other words, by inverting the log segments.
  • If the maul or Sledgehammer has a heavy head and long handle, hold it with one hand, swing it behind you like a pendulum; then pull it forward quickly and let its momentum pull your arm straight up over your head. Now bring it down with all its gravitational energy plus what you add on the way down - and you never had to work against gravity by lifting the hammer.


  • Wood will occasionally split violently, sending splinters or chunks of wood flying in unexpected directions.
  • Wear gloves, boots, and safety glasses while splitting wood.
  • Also consider wearing catchers shin guards to protect against the axe head accidentally missing your target and splitting open your leg instead of the log.
  • Watch for poisonous insects and other natural hazards while cutting wood.

Things You'll Need

  • Splitting maul
  • Axe
  • Sledgehammer
  • Steel wedges
  • safety equipment

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