When frost will not suffer to dyke and to hedge, then get thee a heat with thy beetle and wedge: A short saw, and long saw, to cut a-two logs, an axe, and an adze, to make trough for thy hogs; A grindstone, a whetstone, a hatchet and bill, with hamer, and english naile, sorted with skil; A frower of iron, for cleaving of lath, with rollforasawpit, good husbandrie hath.
Oak billets for the shingle maker.
Clearing land, splitting fence rails, shaving shovel handles, bending oxbows — there are few aspects of woodworking unfamiliar to the countryman. He fells the hickory, splits it and shaves it to make a chair, strips its bark to weave the chair bottom, and sits in it by a fire fueled by the limbs. The faller may never hold a plane; the cabinetmaker may not know where wood comes from—the countryman sees it all.
It begins in the grain of the wood. We learn to exploit the weakness of the grain when we work wood, and to exploit the strength of the wood when we use it. Wagon spokes, chair rungs, hayforks — anything where strength is essential—all are riven from the log. Sawing would take more energy and investment. Worse, it ignores the path of the grain, too often cutting across it. Sawn stock—weaker and costlier. Riven stock — cheaper and stronger.
Splitting wood makes the tree a partner with you. I found the best expression of this partnership in a cant hook I bought at a farm auction. The shaft of the cant hook was shaved from a riven billet of white oak, exploiting the weakness of the wood. The split followed the grain, ensuring that all the strength of the wood was captured within the shaft.
The riving also revealed a knot near one end of the stave. A knot (a branch overgrown by the tree) is usually considered a weak point in a piece of wood—but that is true only for sawn timber. As the tree grows outward, it swallows the branch with the grain flowing around it like a river around a rock. The straight path of a saw knows nothing of this and cuts through the flow of the grain. Splitting, however, followed the grain and left a bulbous section around the knot. The maker of the cant hook followed the grain as well, putting the hole for the iron hook right in the middle of the flow.
In riving, you usually split a piece in half, then split that piece in half, and so forth. Halving each piece helps the split run straight—as long as the grain is straight. Often it's not, but because wood and bark are made in the same layer in the tree, you can usually tell the book by the cover. If the bark spirals, so too will the wood within.
Oaks, tulip poplar, hickories, ash, chestnut, pine, cypress, walnut, cedar, and basswood are among the most cooperative splitters. All of them split more easily when the wood is fresh. Of course, if it's an elm or a gum log you're looking at, forget it.
Splitting is not without hazards to health and hardware. Considering all the times I've hit steel wedges with a steel sledge, I'm going to hell for sure. The steel sledge on the steel wedge gradually work-hardens the head of the wedge so that one fatal strike can send shrapnel flying. A worse sin is using the head of an axe to drive a serious wedge. This quickly bows out the thin eye of the axe and destroys it. Using the axe head as a wedge and driving it with a heavy sledge has the same effect. If your axe is the only wedge you have with you, a good roundhouse swing at the end grain of a short log might split it or might start a split that you can advance with another well-placed strike with the axe or more proper splitting tools.
Oak billets for the shingle maker.
left: The beveled striking head keeps the glut from splintering.
right: A hickory root maul drives dogwood wedges to split a red oak log.
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There are a lot of things that either needs to be repaired, or put together when youre a homeowner. If youre a new homeowner, and have just gotten out of apartment style living, you might want to take this list with you to the hardware store. From remolding jobs to putting together furniture you can use these 5 power tools to get your stuff together. Dont forget too that youll need a few extra tools for other jobs around the house.