To Swing Like a Woodsman

`USE a splitting hammer as heavy as you can stand. Make sure your wedges are sharp and flatheaded. Look for cracks in the wood and use them. And never split into the burly knot.'' That's what they tell me - the woodsmen who heat their homes with wood they cut and split themselves; the woodsmen who, in youth and hard times, made their livings in the woods.

I try to follow their advice. My splitting hammers weigh 10 pounds - as heavy as I can stand. My wedge is sharp enough to cut my finger were I to run it across. Though my aim is poor, I aim for cracks. I try to split with the cracks, to widen them and insert the first wedge in one. I avoid burly knots.

Sometimes the hammer bounces off as though the wood were petrified rubber. And when I do make a dent, the wedge often penetrates at an acute angle and I have to swing low to hit it, so the wedge pops out and lands on my toe. That hurts.

``Wear heavy boots,'' the woodsmen say. ``And know what kind of wood you're splitting.''

``That's a chunk of rock maple. They call it rock maple because it's like a rock. You hit it as hard as you can - three times. Won't seem to be making even a dent. But on the fourth swing she'll split. Usually. About like splitting a rock.''

I ask if rock maple is hardest to split.

``Oh no,'' they say. ``Look how the bark grows and that's how the wood will split. Look how the bark spirals around an elm. Not that anybody would want to split elm, but if they did it would split hard. All curly around.''

I ask if elm's the worst.

``Well, that's a matter of opinion, isn't it,'' they say. ``Red oak splits good. Straight. It's a pleasure to split red oak.''

I try a piece. It wobbles on the stump. I strike. The hammer penetrates. The wedge stands. A tap to set the wedge. One hard swing. The wedge is in deep. Another hard swing and the two halves fly apart. A pleasure.

``Apple splits hard,'' one woodsman says. ``It was the butt of an apple tree I was working on. Put four wedges into it - all different angles. Couldn't do a thing with it. Finally managed to get all the wedges out when Mac drives in the yard and I see my chance. Threw the butt in the back of his pickup, said, `Take the thing home and burn it in your fireplace.'

``He was back the next day though - with the butt, all charred. `Couldn't even burn it,' Mac said. `But it smelled nice when I was trying.'''

``Apple and cherry,'' they tell me, ``smell best. Pine's not bad either for smell, but it splits moderately hard and is, of course, real poor for burning.''

``Unless it's dried good,'' they say. ``You can burn pine if it's dried real good.''

``White birch,'' they say, ``will split. But yellow birch - the kind you see leaning over in the woods - that's good for setting fisher traps on, but to split ... all you can really do is slab off the bark on four sides. You can't split yellow birch.''

``And be careful of that business of overstriking,'' they advise as I miss again. The wood, given half a chance, gets the better of me. I lose my concentration. Sweat drips in my eyes. My hand slips. I mis-swing and the maul grazes my leg. ``Yeah,'' they say, ``that can happen too if you don't pay attention.''

``But an overstrike,'' one says, ``is apt to break your handle - especially one of those cheap hardware store handles like what you have there. Those, of course, are practically worthless. If your handle breaks? Well, what you need is an ash handle. I've seen a man in the woods years ago cut down an ash, carve out a new handle with a broken Coca Cola bottle - the old-fashioned kind with the heavy glass. Dig out the old handle. Tap in the new one. Man's back in business.''

I am impressed. That is ingenuity. Splitting wood is good work which sometimes requires ingenuity and always requires strength and concentration. I imagine my biceps growing with each swing. I feel the twinge in my back - a sign that I've worked hard. I like to work hard. I look at the mountain of wood to be split. It's possible. If I take my time. If I refuse to let the wood rush me. I shake my shoulders to release tension, focus on the wood before me, feel the weight of the maul, imagine it an extension of my increasingly powerful arms. I swing big and straight, hear the crack.

``What do you think of those hydraulic woodsplitters?'' I ask the woodsmen after awhile. ``The ones where you just lay the wood on one piece at a time and the machine snaps it in two like nothing.''

They nod. ``Best thing ever invented,'' they say. ``Wouldn't be without one.''

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