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Safe Splitting
August 2016
Dan Martinez  

Never, ever, ever, do what you see happening in this picture. Ever!

This is a screen grab from Episode 2, Season 2 of History Channel’s hit survival show, Alone. If you are not familiar with the show, 10 people are chosen to be dropped off in the wilderness with a very limited set of gear. Their goal is to live off the land and their wits for as long as they can. They each have an emergency GPS device with them, plus camera gear so that they can film themselves for the show. When they can no longer face another day in the bush Alone, all they have to do is push the button and a crew will race out to pick them up and take them home. The person who lasts the longest is the winner of $500,000.

Both Season 1 and Season 2 are set on Vancouver Island. This woman, Mary Kate, is building a cooking fire, splitting wood for kindling using an axe. The blur you see is the axe glancing off the side of the piece of wood, about to make a very deep cut in her hand near her thumb joint.

When I saw what she was about to do, I cringed greatly, for I knew what was about to happen as soon as she wrapped her hand around the piece of wood. She ended up severing the tendon to her thumb. She describes how the surgeon “had to go fishing” for the cut end of the tendon to re-attach it.

How did I know? I’ve done it. Thankfully, not to the depth that Mary Kate cut herself, but more than once, I’ve sliced myself swinging an axe to split wood. It is so tempting to be lazy – to try to hold the wood with your non-axe hand, trying to balance the piece vertically, attempting to hit it before it falls over.

I’ve had enough minor slices now, that the alarm bells start ringing pretty loudly in my head whenever I start thinking about trying to hold that piece of wood.

Here is a photo of Sam demonstrating how to do this safely. Grab another piece of wood, use that to hold the piece that you want to split in the vertical position. That way your hand is not anywhere near the blade’s edge.

Also notice that the splitting is not happening directly on the ground, but instead on top of another piece of wood, in this case a large plank. Mary Kate had that right at least, sort of.

Notice that she is splitting on top of the rounded surface of a log. You really want to do your splitting on a flat topped wood surface to minimize the chances that the bottom of the piece you are splitting will slide off at exactly the right (wrong) time. A flat-topped stump is ideal for your chopping block or splitting “anvil”.

The purpose of the splitting anvil is less about safety than it is about preserving the sharp edge of your axe. An axe edge that hits the ground will not keep a sharp edge for very long.

When you are chopping or splitting on a chopping block, place the piece of wood that you are chopping on the far edge of the block away from you. That way misses are more likely to go into the block and not into your foot.

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will: Don’t try to steady the piece of wood that you are chopping by placing your foot on it. Don’t. Just don’t.

Get yourself down to the level of the wood you are trying to split. Kneel or crouch. Don’t swing your hatchet into a piece of wood that is sitting at ground level, from a standing position. Again, think about where that sharp edge will go in the case of a miss. If you are standing, an errant swing is much more likely to come swinging back in the direction of your leg. If you are down at the level of the wood, the hatchet is much more likely to stay in a generally horizontal orientation and go into the chopping block in case of a miss.

If there are other folks around, shoosh them away – at least twice the distance of your arm plus the length of the axe. If you are watching someone else split or chop, keep yourself away from that swinging edge. Don’t try to help the axeman other than by giving safe chopping advice.

Most in my audience aren’t lumberjacks, nor are we building log cabins. Therefore most of us don’t have a need for anything larger than a hand axe or hatchet. Most of the time, if I need to cut wood larger than a hatchet can take care of, I will grab a saw.

I’m sure that you’ve heard the advice before, that a sharp tool is a safe tool, because you will need to apply less force to make it work. I keep my hatchets sharp enough to slice paper.

Here are some photos of me demonstrating another safe splitting technique. This is known as “batoning” a knife. I actually prefer to split wood using the batoning technique over using a hatchet to make kindling. Batoning requires the use of a very sturdy, relatively large, full tang knife. The knife I am using here is a Kershaw Camp 10.

It’s called the Camp 10 because the blade is 10 inches long. Kershaw has two others in this series, the Camp 14 and the Camp 18. You might tend to think of these Kershaws as machetes, but you would be wrong. The blade of my Camp 10 measures .20” thick at the spine. A typical machete measures .08”, less than half that. The Camp 10 is a hefty chunk of carbon tool steel.

Full tang means that the steel of the blade carries through the full profile of the handle. Batoning is rough duty for a knife, and full tang is the strongest construction.

Batoning allows you to use the knife itself as the vertical stabilizer for the piece being split. The sharp edge is not swung. Instead you smack the back of the blade with another chunk of wood. This is the “baton”. The long blade allows enough to stick out of the wood to hit, once the blade has been driven into the wood. The thick profile of the blade along with full tang construction, means you don’t have to worry about breaking the knife.

It is likely that your baton will be rather rough, so remember to wear gloves to protect your hands. Do you need to ask me how I know? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

There’s enough weight in the Camp 10 to use it as an effective substitute for a hatchet for many light-duty chopping jobs as well.

The batoning technique can also be used with an axe or hatchet. It is especially useful when you are trying to split smaller pieces, using a knife.

For many of us, the camping experience isn’t complete without a good campfire. In the West in the dry season, maybe you won’t be allowed to have a campfire due to forest fire concerns. But as you can see, there are other campfire dangers that can turn a good time into a very bad one in the blink of an eye. Keep safety at the top of your mind whenever you pick up a sharp piece of steel.

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