How to split lengths of untreated round wood for making fence posts, coppice crafts and other random rustic objects

There’s always a sense of adventure when ordering untreated, un-processed fresh from the wood timber. I needed some untreated chestnut fencing posts (chestnut doesn’t rot easily so lasts longer in the ground than any other UK wood apart from oak) and after several weeks of trying to track down a local supply (it felt like I was trying to buy something illicit) I found some being sold from a wood about three miles away. Absolutely perfect! Totally local! Practically zero carbon emissions. Just what I wanted. So I ordered 14 fence posts, gave instructions for the delivery team to leave them in my front yard and went away for the weekend…And when I got back I found not 14 fencing posts but what I can only describe as 14 nightmares. They had delivered me 14 felled trees, ranging from 20-30cm in diameter. Anyone who’s ever looked closely, or even not that closely will notice that the girth of a fence post is considerably smaller. “What the bloody hell am I going to do with those” I thought to myself as I imagined a burly Scot tossing these cabers over my house and into my back garden. To get anything up there I have to take it through the house, up the stairs, out the back door and then up the steep garden path. So I phone the man at the woodland. “Oh its fine, they’re dead easy to split”. “Right, and how do you do that?” After he explained I still didn’t understand. Luckily I was about to do the coppice craft course at CAT and I knew I’d find out. In the meantime my friend Emily came round with her chainsaw and we carried them up to the garden in 6ft and 3ft lenghts. I had to stay in bed the next day I was so bloody exhausted! Never mind my promise to carry only light things up to the garden! Anyway I learnt how to split the wood and its a total bonus. I now have far too much chestnut and I’m trying to work out what to do with it. I’ve got enough fence posts to do the whole garden, instead of just the small section I had planned to do. I’ve made a massive table and four giant seats. I’ll be making a giant cold frame, and I’m going to have to work out what to do with the rest. I’ll put the table pics up when I next have a moment but here’s how to split the wood.

You’ll need three or four heavy metal wedges – at least one of which should be smaller than the others. Bob Shaw, our woodland teacher had a whole heavy hessian bag full of the things I could hardly lift. You can sometimes pick wedges up at car boot sales but they can also be bought from specialist suppliers and sometimes in local ironmongers. I doubt whether Focus don’t do it all will have them but you could see. Apart from that you just need a strong wooden mallet, a firm grip and a good eye. You could cheat and use a metal mallet and sledge hammer but in general its not good to hit metal on metal.

Some wood splits more easily than other wood. Willow for example twists when you split it. Ash and chestnut are good to split. That being said you still have to guide the split to avoid getting split drift which results in one half being thicker than the other.

To split the wood in half you need to find the centre of the rings at the end of the wood. Place your smallest wedge dead centre and whack in with a mallet. It takes a few whacks to get it firmly set in the rings. Like so.

Once you have hit it in far enough you will notice that the wood starts to crack in the centre of the ring and also on the top of the wood. Once the crack is established you can place another wedge in the top crack running along the top of the wood. Like so.

Bash this in and the split will continue beyond the wedge and along the wood. Sometimes you can split the wood with just this one wedge positioning but on a longer piece of wood you will have to carry on placing wedges further along the split, guiding it and making sure you don’t get split drift. Like so.

Wood seems to split easier once its been seasoned for a few months. I got this delivery back in the winter and split some then when the wood was still quite green. The splits were hard won. Now the splits come more easily. Also get a good set of wedges. I borrowed these from my friend Grace and she got them second hand a bit worse for ware. They should be well pointed and have good firm heads. It took about five minutes to split this wood.

After splitting it into half I did the same again, splitting it into quarters. This was much easier.

Yesterday Grace took a few us round the wood from whence my chestnut came, as part of it has been bought by The Centre for Alternative Technology to manage for biodiversity and woodland products and to teach courses. It’s great to see where my wood came from. As you can see it’s a really beautiful spot.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “How to split lengths of untreated round wood for making fence posts, coppice crafts and other random rustic objects

  1. Dom

    Thanks for this page, really appreciated the photos. Spltting stakes is something that i’ve found far harder than expected, good to have some guidance.

  2. john

    i am sure you mean well by showing this method .but its to slow. a break and dul axe is what u need .green wood always splits best.

    • allanshepherd

      Hi John

      This is the method I was taught by a local woodsman but I’m always happy to learn other techniques. If you’ve got a website that shows the other method would be happy to put up a link. It is green wood though.

      Cheers
      Allan

  3. john

    hi allan,
    we are chestnut fencing manufacturers and we do all the coppicing as well . Although we only split palings by hand, the principle for stakes is the same. We coppice and use the wood directly as it is much softer to work with while its green.

    All our stakes are sawn not hand split, because of high demand hand splitting is more time consuming.

    • allanshepherd

      Ah ok I see. Thanks John. Yes, I’d agree with that. And actually very tiring if you’re not use to it – as I’m not. It took me a long time to find Chestnut in my area and I had hoped to get smaller coppiced pieces for fence posts. When they turned up they were the huge pieces you see in the photograph. I don’t have big saws so splitting in these circumstances was the option I went for. Having done it I’d definitely agree it would have been a lot easier to get some locally and professionally split coppiced wood but it actually seems to be incredibly difficult to get hold of. I tried lots of different avenues to no avail – it not being a particularly common material to use in Wales. There is however some satisfaction to learning that you can split wood using hand tools if you need to – and I did find it personally rewarding. All the best Allan

  4. Hi Allan,
    Thanks for the article. I hit on google something like how do you make a rustic looking fence, and your page turned up. Either way, my two cents/pence is this. The local tree trim company out my way dumps their daily trimmings on the side of the road at a certain spot for anyone to take. All kinds of wood turns up. And sometimes there are huge logs of redwood. By huge I mean 5 foot diameter or more and sometimes more then 15 feet long. Either way, I chainsaw it down to about 22-24 inches, and then use a 6 lb mallet axe. Best technique and fastest to wack it is to go around the outside in a circle. Basically walk around it and go in about 2-6 inches. Since the piece is so massive, its nearly impossible for me to do a “one-time” wack and go through. Instead, the common deal is to take an initial wack and hope for a crack. Once there is a crack, its usually just one strong wack right on the crack away from flying apart.
    Back to fences, do you or anyone you know have an idea as to making a rustic looking fence with wood that is similar/identical to what axed firewood looks like?

    Thanks again for the article.
    Adam

  5. Jony E

    Hi Allan

    Small world! Found this whislt sourcing split oak posts.
    My received opinion is that splitting wood makes it last far longer and resist rot because you are not exposing any end grain to allow water in. Sawing always cuts across the grain in bendy hard wood. Charring the ends in the ground also acts as a fungicide.
    Sadly fencing contractors do not like to us riven/split wood as its hard to get a tight straight fence with all the wobbles and triangular shaped posts. They are also unhappy about putting staples into hard wood…economies of time and scale, they get paid by the bundle, not the hour.
    Back in the day I guess you just did your own land and grew your own oak.
    Larch posts can last up to 20 years and oak posts generally longer than the wire if they are thick enough.
    Bye for now,
    Must get you up for tea soon.

    Jony

  6. We make thousands of cleft chestnut fence stakes, as well as post and rail, which we do with wedges, preferably when the wood is green and springy. We find the break and froe a lot slower for the bigger stuff, as you only have to move the wedges rather than the whole log. Smaller stuff, palings, pickets, laths and the like we use a break and froe.

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