Last month I broke my chopping axe while splitting some wood in the yard. Instead of re-handling right away, I decided to just go ahead and buy a new splitting axe. Why? Because I don’t actually chop wood very often.
You see, there aren’t many large trees where we live – let alone dead ones – so I seldom fell a tree. I do, on the other hand, split wood frequently – mostly thick boughs from our mesquite trees, and other large pieces of dead wood we happen across.
In this article, I’m going to break down the difference between a traditional axe, a splitting maul, and a splitting axe; so you can better understand which one is the right tool for the job you’re doing.
Chopping vs. Cutting vs. Splitting
Before we delve into the differences between axes, mauls, and splitting axes, let’s clear up what may sound like pointless semantics.
Chopping, cutting, and splitting may sound like synonyms to a novice, but they are uniquely different techniques. You need to understand the difference between these techniques before you can fully appreciate the difference between the three tools we’re discussing.
Chopping is when you cut wood fibers across the grain at an angle, producing the classic V-shape a lumberjack makes when they chop down a tree. You’re essentially chipping away at the wood until you get to the other side.
Cutting/Carving is rather self-explanatory: one smooth motion that slices straight through the wood. Most people don’t use axes for cutting, per se, though their are speciality axes known as “carpenter’s axes” that are designed for carving and whittling. Carpenter’s axes are ideal for bushmen.
Splitting is when you swing straight down at the wood and send the head through the grain, parallel to the direction of it, using the head to wedge through the fibers and separate them, as opposed to cutting through them.
Differences Between Axes, Mauls, and Splitting Axes
When most people think of an axe, they are thinking of a forrest axe, which is designed specifically for chopping wood. If your objective is to chop down a tree, you want an axe.
The head of an axe is broad, thin, light, and razor sharp. The handle of an axe typically ranges from 19 to 26 inches, though some may be as long as 31 inches. The edge of the blade is designed to cut across the grain of the wood.
A good axe can be used for cutting and splitting wood in addition to chopping, but you’ll find it’s rather difficult to do this tasks with an axe, compared to a maul or splitting axe.
A splitting maul – usually referred to simply as a maul – is designed specifically for splitting wood.
The head of a maul is thick and heavy with a relatively blunt edge. The handle length is much longer than an axe, typically ranging from 32 to 36 inches.
It’s important to understand that a maul is only for splitting wood along the grain. You should never use a maul for chopping because it’s actually quite dangerous. The blade will deflect off the wood and come swinging back at you.
When you’re splitting wood with a maul, it’s the weight of the instrument and the wedge-like shape of the head that’s doing all the work by separating the wood along the grain. It’s not cutting through the wood’s fibers like an axe.
A splitting axe, as the name suggests, falls right in between an axe and a maul. It’s primarily for splitting but it can also cut and chop.
That being said, chopping wood with a splitting axe can be dangerous; especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Using a splitting axe to chop through small branches in no big deal, but you should never fell a tree with one.
A splitting axe has a head shaped similarly to a maul but with a sharp edge like an axe. The sharp edge enables the axe to cut and chop through small sticks and branches that are too awkwardly shaped or thin to split. It’s hybrid design gives it a lot of versatility, but it is less specialized than a chopping axe or maul, and therefore less effective at just splitting or just cutting/chopping.
Which One’s Right for You?
If, like me, your main purpose is turning logs into firewood, you should get a splitting axe or a maul. You shouldn’t chop firewood, because it’s a slow and wasteful process – more wood will end up on the ground than in your fireplace because you’re chipping so much off the logs to get through them.
If you’re mainly working with limbs and small logs, get a splitting axe. If you’re mainly splitting large logs – “big rounds” – and stumps, get a maul. However, if you’ll mainly be felling and limbing trees, a traditional chopping axe is what you want.
In all reality, though, it’s handy to own at least one chopping axe and one splitter, if not all three.