My Tools #5: What was that about wedges?

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Blog entry by Gary Fixler posted 04-10-2010 11:51 PM 2378 reads 0 times favorited 28 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 4: A new handle for my 3' crosscut saw Part 5 of My Tools series Part 6: Jet 16-32 drum sander »

Okay. I picked up an 8lbs. sledge hammer and axe, both with long, fiberglass handles, and 2 mauls. Back home, I tried in vain to pound the maul into a light check in the end of one of my large Chinese elm logs. It goes in about 1/4”-1/2”, but that’s it. Four separate large hits with the sledgehammer had the wedge bounce back out and twirl toward me at speed each time, once landing on my foot. Countless other blows fell to no avail.

I also rolled the log on its side and tried to split through the side at various points from end to end. It goes through the soft bark easily, and then it’s like it hits a wall. I can’t begin to form a split on the side, even right at the edge where it meets the end grain. I also tried taking the axe and hitting over and over in the maul wound on the end grain, with all of my 300lbs of might behind it, connecting repeatedly with the maul’s narrow opening, and it just won’t open up any more than it has.

I had a feeling this would be the result for some reason.

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

28 comments so far

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Gary Fixler

1001 posts in 4723 days

#1 posted 04-11-2010 12:25 AM

Update: I cooled down and decided to go back and try again with a different wood. I selected a roughly 8”-10” diameter by about 1’ tall log of Modesto ash. It has pretty strong checking in the end, so I set it on top of the 2’ diameter log of Chinese elm, lined up the maul in the deepest check, and had at it. I can’t even start the wedge. It won’t spread the check enough to hold itself upright, even with some pretty serious hammering with the 8lbs. sledgehammer. I never got to the point where I could let go, back up, and take serious swings with the sledgehammer.

I had another go with the sledgehammer and that large block of Chinese elm. I managed to get the maul to stick, and even managed some full, overhead swings from behind my back, and once going, I got some really hard, full-body strikes to connect perfectly, but I never got it more than about 1.25” deep. There’s a check forming on both sides of it, but it’s too hard to get the second maul into those. They’re like the ash, and won’t accept the maul. They also curve in an S shape from the pith to the edge, so they’re not nice, straight lines.

Then I got my new 3’ axe and tried to do that thing where wood choppers stick the axe in the corner of the log, where side and end grain meet. I swung hard from over my head, and while it did make a slice, it also bounced right back up about 1’ out of the hole, like I’d struck a hard piece of rubber. I had the maul do that, too several times. I’d hit nice and centered, but the sledgehammer would bounce up high, and the maul would bounce up like a bouncing betty behind it. I almost caught it in the face on one swing. It went whirring past my head, sounding like a huge, angry bee as it twirled. I don’t know how much my safety goggles would have done had it connected.

My forearms are weak from the unusual exercise (typing is a shaky chore right now), my hands burn from the effort of holding onto the rubber grips through probably 40 hard, but useless strikes, and my lower back feels like someone hammered on it with a baseball bat. I guess that answers all of the people who asked here and on YouTube: “Why not just use a maul/wedge/sledgehammer?” Apparently, they don’t work. That’s why :)

-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator

View Sarit's profile


552 posts in 4481 days

#2 posted 04-11-2010 12:40 AM

To split rocks they often drill holes to get something called “feathers and wedges” to sit in. They would place a couple of these along the break line and start hammering away at each. If its hard like a rock, maybe its time to start treating it like one.

Feathers and Wedge

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 5469 days

#3 posted 04-11-2010 01:36 AM

Here’s a video of a Kentucky wood-splitter that lives down the road a ways.
Don Weber is actually a Welsh bodger transplanted to the Blue Grass State.

Don Weber video

-- 温故知新

View Pete_Jud's profile


424 posts in 5094 days

#4 posted 04-11-2010 01:57 AM

Gary, when I was a young man, we had a fireplace at the cabin that was 6 ft across the back of the firebox. Had to split lots of 5 ft. long logs for firewood. We would have an assortment of wedges, some very slim some thicker, all very sharp, and a 10 and 16 pound hammer. I spend a lot of hours during the summer filling the wood lot, and it worked like in the above video. Good luck, but look and the wedges that you bought, It might be that they are dull, chuby, and designed for softwood.

-- Life is to short to own an ugly boat.

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Jim Bertelson

4275 posts in 4506 days

#5 posted 04-11-2010 02:25 AM

Think this is a young man’s game. My brother five years older, but about 5 or more years ago, so then my current age, managed to detach a retina splitting wood. He had been heating with wood off and on for probably 40 years and was in excellent physical shape. No more splitting wood for him.

Gary, you are young and not brittle. At my age I wouldn’t even consider splitting a large log. Maybe some short pieces of softwood for a fire. I have done that many times.

I plan to use a plane on tenons, and a straighten a few small boards, but I wouldn’t consider spending an hour planing. I wouldn’t be able to perform surgery for a week. My wrists have becom a weak point, and my shoulders aren’t the best.

Keep seeing those log splitters sitting outside of the BORG. Might be a thought…...........(-:

-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View lew's profile


13488 posts in 5097 days

#6 posted 04-11-2010 02:40 AM

As Skarp pointed out, some woods split easier than others. American Elm has “wild” grain- it doesn’t run straight and true- making it hard to split. Maybe Chinese Elm is similar. Also, the drier the wood, the easier it can be split with wedges and mauls. Sharp wedges and mauls are a must.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View patron's profile


13722 posts in 4682 days

#7 posted 04-11-2010 03:00 AM

gary ,

on a trip to thousand oaks area ,
my ex’s son had a big pile of eucaliptus ,
that had been sitting there for over a year .
the ex and i got bored and rented a hydraulic splitter ,
they brought it from the rental place and left it .
unfortunately , it was a 20 ton ( i’ve got a 27 ton at home ) ,
and it was leaking oil from the reservoir .
those logs were 3’ across , and about 2 1/2 ’ long .
it was a bear , i could only chip slabs off the edge !
so i rotated the log and just kept at it .
some logs had somewhat straight grain ,
and worked ok , but others had spiral grain , forget it !
in 24 hours we only split about half of that pile ,
and when the rental guy came to pick up the machine he said ,
” oh , yeah , you have to split eucalyptus when it is wet ,
when it is dry it won’t split ”
well especially with a splitter that was underpowered
and leaking !
my point is , that you can rent a machine ,
just be sure it is in working order .
it may help , to at least get those logs to a manageable size .

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Galirex's profile


37 posts in 4329 days

#8 posted 04-11-2010 04:23 AM

Sounds like you can now make butter by just holding the cream jug – the shaking will do the rest ! = )
Sounds to me like you have 2 problems (a) As mentioned, those wedges might be the problem, & (b) Green wood.
You clearly declared war on those Chinese elm logs, but they’re fighting back !

-- Don't complain about growing old, it's a priviledge denied many...

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


23348 posts in 5017 days

#9 posted 04-11-2010 04:25 AM

Try a wedge in those checks. They have a slimmer taper than most mauls. Some times you need 2 or 3 of them side by side, but it will give ;-)

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

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5011 posts in 4450 days

#10 posted 04-11-2010 04:35 AM

Chainsaw. Let those rotted dinosaurs do your work.

-- Steven.......Random Orbital Nailer

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7141 posts in 4313 days

#11 posted 04-11-2010 04:55 AM

I have no experience with chinese elm, but you may want to consider making and using some gluts. Gluts are essentially wooden wedges, but they are much longer (~15-24 inches) so you get the mechanical advantage of the longer ramp. Here is a link to what Roy has to say about them
(its a pdf so you’ll have to search for the word “glut’ once you get into it.

He suggests making a root maul to drive the glut, but if you don’t plan to use it over and over again, you could make a commander by taking a large piece of firewood (oak works well), (8-10” in diameter and ~ 12’ long. Bore a hole for a handle and mount it. use that to drive the gluts.

-- Galootish log blog,

View patron's profile


13722 posts in 4682 days

#12 posted 04-11-2010 05:17 AM

gary , plastic wedges are for ’ falling ’ trees ,
they are used after a cut is made acrros the tree ,
so it doesn’t fall backwards by the wind .

steel wedges , are used for splitting
these guys are the mercedes of logging and forrest stuff

-- david - only thru kindness can this world be whole . If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure. Dan Quayle

View Pete_Jud's profile


424 posts in 5094 days

#13 posted 04-11-2010 06:03 AM

Gary, I forgot to add that I grew up in the PNW and some of the wedges were hand forged in my great uncles forge circa 1910, and yes we ground the splinters off the heads on a regular when needed. I still have a box full, but would not part with them for any price, still use some of the for firewood, and as I just got some free black walnut will use some of them on it.

-- Life is to short to own an ugly boat.

View nmkidd's profile


758 posts in 4514 days

#14 posted 04-11-2010 08:11 AM

hand grenade…......dynamite…...C4…..all come to mind!!!

-- Doug, New Mexico.......the only stupid question is one that is never asked!........don't fix it, if it ain't broke!

View OutPutter's profile


1199 posts in 5332 days

#15 posted 04-11-2010 08:30 AM

Hi Gary. I’m thinking to get the best advice, we need to see a couple of pictures. The wedges, the axes, the hammers, the wood, the checks, etc.

I work on splitting found wood just like you do and I can tell you from my limited experience that it does matter how sharp the wedge is, what the angle on the face of the wedge is, how much of it fits inside the check without touching unchecked grain, how square the blow is to the face of the check, and a bunch of other stuff that escapes my feeble mind right now. That guy in the video was splitting premium stock so don’t let that get you down. I will leave you with this thought. An appropriate wedge applied properly with the right force will always prevail. The mechanical advantage will eventually overcome the wood.


-- Jim

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