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Splitting primitive boards

A while ago in UnReal World discussion forums there was a question about the method of splitting boards. Like, starting from a log, using only a hand-axe, how could one possibly end up having a load of boards in matter of hours? I promised to try that some day. And seems like it is today, so here we go;

About two weeks ago I was de-branching, trimming and piling storm-felled trees in a nearby forest owned by the family who run the milling company. They drove the logs to my place, using a tractor and a flatbed trailer. One of the trees was a biggish pine. And in Finnish forest a typical pine grows up having a tall trunk without branches, and then a fluffy upper end with a lot of curvy branches. I thought that the trunk would be good for splitting primitive boards - branches make it harder to split wood. Also, that particular pine looked like it won't be terribly crooked inside. I mean, as trees grow, they tend to make kind of a horizontal rotation, so that the inner structure of the timber isn't exactly straight lines upwards, but more like an interwoven spiralling lines.

Oh well. I set up all the equipment I thought I could need. One smallish hand-axe, one old axe-blade without a shaft, one modern splitting wedge made of metal. And two wooden wedges I quickly made. A tool we call vänkäri, which is designed to help turning and rotating heavy logs. And then a vesuri which looks like a mixture of a sickle, sabre and a hand-axe - a tool specially designed for de-branching and cutting small trees. I estimated that it would probably take me three or four hours to split the log, so I set up a tablet frame-lapse app to shoot a video 30* sped up. And started working at 10 am.

The process starts with splitting a log in two halves. First I examined the log head to see if there are any natural cracks. They indicate the position and direction how the log will be easiest to split. (This is the Tao of splitting timber. Always follow the natural structure of the material you are working with. Go with it, not against it.) I hit the log with the hand-axe, several times, until I heard it making a small crack. I went through the log, in an about straight line, just hitting a small cut. That is supposed to help to guide the direction the split will go. I turned the log around and hit the log to the opposite side, again until I heard it making a small crack. Then I took the blade without a shaft, carefully placed it on to the initial crack and started hammering it deeper into the log. The log started to crack more. And on I went, placing the next wedge further down the crack, and continuing onwards until the log was split. After I got it going it went into two halves surprisingly easily. There were some small dried-out branch knots inside the trunk, but otherwise the inner structure was nearly optimal - only a little bit of spiralling shape.

Next, about the same process to cut each half into two. Pretty soon I had the log in four pieces. The smallest of the pieces seemed like it won't make good boards - maybe I will be better for thinner pieces for weaving a basket or something. I used that smallest piece as a primitive workbench, and placed one of the quarters on top of it. First I wanted to get rid of the inner sector - that won't be good for boards anyway. After some work I got the inner part separated, finally giving me the raw materials for primitive boards. Now, theoretically speaking, there would be two ways to split this kind of raw quarter. Either crosswise the tree rings, or by the tree rings. I remember an old man telling me that the crosswise cut is better for making wooden bowls, barrels and such, but otherwise the by-ring split is preferred. So I went by the rings.

After some experimentation I found out that one good method of splitting is to first make the initial cut to make the quarter to crack, then hitting the next wedge to the left side of the crack, and then another wedge to the right side of the crack. That way the split goes onwards down the log, and you can kind of a walk the wedges on and on, until the crack spans the whole length of the log and so you have a primitive board separated from the quarter log. If there hadn't been those knots of dried out branches, it would've been possible to rip apart a board with bare hands, once the wedge-cut split was over half the length of the log. Well, but it was not a big problem to keep on using wedges for the whole length. Only one piece had a more crooked inner structure, producing boards resembling a helicopter blade. I'm not sure but I think if I store the boards in between sawn timber and secure them tightly, they will slowly dry to become straight. So I can probably straighten those spiral-shaped pieces too. I'm thinking to use these primitive boards to make a roof for a urw-style shelter. I want to build one next to the garden pond in the upper corner of my yard.

Hehe, I'd estimate that in UnReal World scale, my timbercraft and carpentry skills are around 30 - 40 %. I've once seen something like this being done, and I've once tried this with thinner splits, so basically for me, this is pretty much learning-by-doing. It was fifteen minutes past 11 am, and I had three quarters of the log split into boards, resulting in nine decent boards and one smaller one - and a lot of splinters good for firewood. The whole process went three times faster than I expected. So, maybe some other day I should try another log, using only a single hand-axe and wooden wedges. As, this time I was using a modern, heavy sledge-hammer which surely was a lot of help. But, without the modern hammer and a metal wedge, I think it would be wiser to go with a proper axe which has a longer shaft suitable for two-handed use. But that will be an another adventure!

I think my Finnish ancestors didn't use saws, as they were skilled with axes. So I've been bit kind of a cheating, using a chainsaw to trim the log, and having a neighbour transport the logs with a tractor. I mean, working with an axe only, it takes some time and a lot of skill to cut this thick trunk to a log, and the resulting log is so heavy that it isn't easy to move around. But, yeah, it is year 2017 and I'm combining modern technology with traditional skills =)

EDIT: Today I split an another log, and shot an another video. I started working with a two-handed axe, a wooden cudgel, and some wooden wedges. Alas, the cudgel didn't take the stress, but broke to pieces. Also, I had not secured the axe blade well enough, and it turned loose. Oh well - I wasn't careful enough with my preparations, so I had to revert back to the modern tools. But once I got the log split into smaller pieces - this time it was not quarters, but fifths - it became significantly easier. Splitting the actual boards went well, using only a small hand axe, a small wooden club and a pair of wooden wedges.

Hammering a wooden wedge
Hammering a wooden wedge
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Very interesting project to watch Erkka, and I laughed when you pulled the beer from your pocket at the end of the video. I have often done this process before, using only a chainsaw, and yet, it is mostly the same. We would make quick benches, tables and such for our wilderness camps. Even with the power of the chainsaw, it is still important to observe the proper grain of the wood, to make the best pieces and avoid accidents. You must also use wedges, to prevent the chain from binding in the middle of the cut. We would quickly make wedges using an axe, or use the plastic orange professional ones. For an inexperienced worker, it could be somewhat frightening to constantly move the wedges up the cut as the sawyer works the spinning chain towards your hands. But using this method, a log that size could be split in about 5 minutes. Of course, the old methods are often more satisfying. Anyway, great project! Can't wait to see what you work on next :)

Chainsaw is such an efficient tool! Although I like the traditional methods and want to learn the old skills, for some tasks I just grab the chainsaw as it makes things go that much faster =)

Outdoor table and benches made of split logs is something I've been thinking about, but I don't know if I have time to make those for the coming summer. Maybe another year, as for this season my main projects are the firewood shed and renovating the main room floor. Both of these projects will be blogged about =)

Sent this to my dad the woodworker -- he says he won't complain about the quality of boards from Home Depot anymore :)

Hehe, yes!

I think the quality of sawn timber would make an entire blog post if examined in detail =)

What meets the eye first is the size and shape of sawn timber - are the measures exactly what they are supposed to be? Is the timber straight or does it make that helicopter-blade shape? For example, I've heard that for making weight-supporting structures they sell basic stuff like two-by-four and two-by-five, with three sides planed, so that the measurements are exactly sharp.

Well, but then there is also the inner structure of the timber. Does it have branch knots? Sap chambers? Is the timber grain structure tight and solid, or foamy and fragile? And in arctic climate it makes a difference if the tree was felled in summer or in winter. Winter-felled trees have less sugars and liquids inside, as the tree was in 'hibernation' -mode, which means that the resulting timber will dry better and is less prone to damage from rot and fungi.

Also, one needs different qualities if one is making a musical instrument, a piece of furniture, or a house. In the old times people could start from a forest, hand-picking the exact trees which would produce the quality of timber they'd need for this or that project. And before industrialized forestry, trees often grew slower, which means that the inner structure was tight and solid. Nowadays as they aim to fast-grow trees, it means that we get a lot of sawn timber with less tight inner structure; the outer dimensions might be exactly what needed, but the inner quality is lower...

Hehe, well, but yes - it would take a powerful circle saw to make sharply cut modern-shaped boards. I think in the old times, if they needed more exact shapes, they worked the split boards planing them to desired shape. But if I'm going to build a roof for a shelter, I don't care if the boards have a somewhat irregular outer appearance, as long as their inner structure is tight enough to make them endure the weather =)

Ah indeed, I didn't mean to insult the quality of your work -- just say that it's much easier to go to the store and buy it ;)

Absolutely no problem! I didn't find your comment derogatory in any way.

This just happens to be one of the themes I've been thinking over the years. Especially here in Finland, 'the land of the green gold'. In post war years, a single generation saw the country rising from poverty to well-being, ultimately to the golden era of Nokia, being in top five countries when measuring education, equality, stability, happiness etc. And we are often told that the success was based on metal and paper industries. But, paper industry wants pulp, so the whole chain of forestry has been geared towards producing quantity. Personally, I feel that while valuing forests as our national treasure, we have sacrificed quality over quantity. And that is somewhat sad.

Oh well. But maybe I'll write a series of blog posts about these themes, some time in the summer if I get to wander around taking pictures of different kinds of woodlands, picturing the impact of different methods of forestry.


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