What a difference a kilo makes

Last August I had to have a massive red oak tree behind my house taken out because it was

  • starting to lean over the house,
  • showing signs of some kind of illness or root problem, and
  • likely to keel over and die.

Six hours, a swarm of laborers with chainsaws, and two thousand dollars later, I had a massive pile of red oak chunks (most between 12 and 18 inches in length) next to my driveway.

I remember when I was six, Grampa and Gramma Vang (don’t quibble with me about my spelling, the were my grandparents) came to take care of Kevin and me (or torment us, as it felt at the time) while Mom was in the hospital having her gallbladder out. One fine day when I supposed to be napping, I watched Grampa split what seemed like most of the cord of firewood we had out back. It was wintertime and cold enough out that Gramma wouldn’t let us go outdoors without our “overshoes” (as she called them, in only one instance of the language barrier we encountered that week–I’d always thought of them as boots), but before long, Grampa was down to his longjohns and dripping with sweat. It was pretty impressive how he usually needed only two or three strokes of the axe to split a log. If I recall accurately, and who knows if I do, these were probably some kind of pine logs about 16 inches long and four to six inches in diameter. Somehow I remember his longjohns being red, too, but that might be a flight of memory’s fancy.

Another fine day when I was supposed to be napping, I sneaked out to watch Gramma make lefse, and a vague memory of her kneading the dough turned into a burst of lefse-recipe-interpreting insight three decades later, but that’s another story. Ask me at Smørgåsbord V (ack! Sweden!).

Anyway, I figured I was my Grampa’s daughter and could split wood if he could, so when Tree Guy and his crew finished up, I googled “wood splitting” and learned that

  • red oak is easiest split when green, unlike most species, and
  • women are best off with a three-pound axe, a six-pound maul, a wedge or two, and a six-pound sledge-hammer.

I bought some tools, wired myself up to my iPod, and tried to emulate Grampa. I went at it for all I was worth for several weeks, and my housemate David also gave it a try, but neither of us were much good at it. As you saw earlier in the “Two Months In” kitchen photo-spread, my confessional photo of a pathetically-small pile of split wood a year later showed that I was nothing for him to be proud of. Splitting wood is ridiculously hard work.

Almost a year later, I’ve resumed my splitting efforts and learned that most of the advice I googled up was wrong. Red oak is easier to split when drier. It’s got a swirly grain that knots fibers together against all axe-logic, but drying and the action of rot and termites do help. Today I broke my first sledge-hammer (a six-pounder) (I have to admit, I’m feeling a little macho about breaking a sledge-hammer) and went to buy an eight-pound replacement, along with an eight-pound maul, and I’ve also found that eight pounds is a much better-weighted tool for me.

Women’s clothes and bikes don’t fit me, either, so why did I think women’s axes would?

While I certainly don’t want anyone to think it’s child’s play to throw these eight-pound implements around (the stiff muscles I have everywhere are witness that it’s not), that extra two pounds (almost one kilo) make a huge difference. Where before it took four or five strokes, in which I threw the sledge with all my might, to get a splitting wedge visibly further into a log, now a single stroke with the heavier sledge does the job–and I now understand why that googled article recommended a technique where you initially lift with dominant hand gripping at the end of the handle and other hand gripping near the business end, raise the tool overhead, slipping the other hand down toward the dominant hand, and then hurl with all your body’s might, eyes focused on the target (either the spot you want the axe or maul to hit or at the splitting wedge in progress). With the six-pound tools, I found it wasn’t worth the trouble (damn the backache) to do that whole hand-sliding thing, but then I needed to throw all of myself into each hurl. With the eight-pound tools, the hand-sliding thing helps a lot to stave off exhaustion, and the extra two pounds makes throwing myself into the hurlage more optional.

What a difference a kilo makes! Today I split a log that had frustrated me so much I’d set it aside into three hunks, and I got through several more intimidating hunks before I’d finished my litre of water and hour of iTunes.

I’ve still got nothing on Grampa, but I like to think all the same that he might be grinning a little curmudgeonly grin from the grave now at the sight of me dripping sweat and throwing myself for all I’m worth at stubborn hunks of red oak, even if I’m not wearing red longjohns while I do it.