Splitsville

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Anyone for a wager? I’m willing to bet that Anthony Hopkins’ house in Legends of the Fall is an anachronism. There’s no way that house existed at the time the movie takes place.

I’m sure you saw the film – everyone did. It’s the one where Brad Pitt is one of three sons of an army colonel (Hopkins) who moves to the wilds of Montana some time in the early 1900s. He carves out a homestead there and raises his three brave, attractive, hard-working sons in the absence of his wife, an east-coast sissy who can’t take the wilderness.

It’s a little discomfiting to find myself watching Brad Pitt and thinking about nothing but firewood.

The house in question is gigantic, a log McCabin in the middle of Canada, which plays Montana. As I watched the movie, all I could think about was how long it would take to cut, split, stack, and haul the cords and cords of firewood it would take to heat the place. Nobody who heated with wood would ever build such a thing, no matter how many noble Native American servants he had. That house post-dates central heating.

It’s a little discomfiting to find myself watching Brad Pitt and thinking about nothing but firewood, but experience with the process of turning trees into fuel will do that to you. That, and age.

In the two years since we’ve been here, we’ve taken down several trees, and cut up several more that storms, or fungus, or old age had taken down for us. There’s been a large pile of logs behind our garden for more than a year now, awaiting splitting.

Wood, unsplit

We’ve considered various methods for getting that job done. First, there’s the axe method. I don’t have any first-hand experience with this one, but I saw it in Legends of the Fall, and it seems pretty straightforward. First, you get really mad. Then you go out to the woodpile and take off your shirt. Then you split pieces of wood that are already pretty small into even smaller pieces – splinters, really. Since we’re starting with pieces that are very big, and we don’t get mad very often, this seemed an impractical way to go.

A machine is what’s called for here. There are many different contraptions that pass for log splitters, and you can see men (it’s always men) injuring themselves on every single one of them on YouTube.

Some of the contraptions are relatively inexpensive, but those are the kind that seem prone both to breakage and to dangerous malfunction. You don’t want a log splitter with “mini,” “electric,” “foot-operated,” or, God forbid, “manual” anywhere in the description. It’s the expensive kind you want, but the big drawback there is that it’s expensive. A decent log splitter can set you back four figures, easy.

Now you know why our logs have been sitting there so long. Luckily, log-splitting is a job you can put off because wood has to be seasoned before you can use it in a wood stove. As far as I can tell, though, wood is the only product for which “seasoning” is the proper term. Usually, leaving things lying around before you get around to using them is called “procrastinating.”

Anyhow, a few months back we were discussing the log splitting problem with our friend Dan. Whenever we have any kind of problem that involves machinery we discuss it with Dan because Dan knows more about machinery than any human being I’ve ever encountered. In this case, though, the discussion was particularly fortuitous because not only did Dan have experience with and expertise regarding wood splitters, he had an actual wood splitter.

Dan’s wood splitter dated from the time he heated with wood. This seems to be a choice people often think better of after a while, and Dan was no exception. It had been several years since he’d split any logs, and his splitter had been sitting in his barn ever since. It wasn’t in perfect working order. It needed either A) a new carburetor or B) a new engine, and Dan told us that, if we could get it working, we were welcome to use it as much as we liked.

We took him up on the offer, and we were faced with a choice. We could try to replace the carburetor, which would be less expensive than replacing the engine, but required mechanical know-how and wouldn’t necessarily fix the problem. Or we could replace the engine – more expensive, but easier and certain. We chose B.

With Dan’s help, we ordered what turned out to be the correct 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine and, a week later, it arrived UPS. With Dan’s help, Kevin replaced the old with the new. At that point, we should have been set to go, but there was one little part that didn’t survive the engine transplant. It was a little piece of metal that connects the engine to the hydraulic pump, and it’s called – I kid you not – a Lovejoy coupling.

A Lovejoy coupling

It seems to me that anyone going into the business of manufacturing couplings should anticipate the ribbing he’s going to get – the bad jokes, the lewd leers. To call your coupling manufacturing business Lovejoy is either short-sighted folly or a bold stroke of genius. I’ll certainly never forget the name, and next time I need a coupling … well, let’s not go there.

Anyway, Kevin ordered the coupling from the local equipment rental place, and it arrived the next day. He put it all together, started the engine, and it worked beautifully.

The kind of log splitter we have (and there are other kinds) works very simply. It has a giant hydraulic piston, powered by the engine, that pushes a log against a blade until the wood splits. If the log is small, you only have to split it once. If it’s large, you may have to split it many times.

Wood, split -- part of it, at least

There’s a collar with horizontal wings that slips over the blade, and that will split the log into four pieces at once, but it’s not wide enough to work on the very biggest logs.

Kevin towed the splitter up to the wood pile yesterday, and we fired it up. Inside a couple of hours, we’d split about a third of a cord of wood – a seven-by-six-foot stack of foot-long logs, more or less.

We’ll need two or three cords to see us through the winter, so there’s still work to be done, but most of it will be done by a giant hydraulic piston powered by a 5-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine. It’s not as photogenic as Brad Pitt, but I’m old enough not to care.

Lumberjacking from Tamar Haspel on Vimeo.

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Comments

  1. Great video. I'll bet you had less need for Lovejoy couplings when you lived in Manhattan.

  2. I don't believe Native Americans ever made good servants. They were independent, uppity and uncooperative–rather like Haspels. The need for labor is the reason the pioneers who settled the frontier tended to have a zillion kids. Be glad you live in the machine age.

  3. A fantastic post Tamar! You've got the very best type of logsplitter – a hydraulic one. OIl pressure is the only way split logs unless you want to spend half your time swinging an axe and the other half at the chiropractor with a icepack down your pants. Although, maybe I've been doing it wrong, maybe the secret is taking your shirt off when you split (yet another good reason for me to get a splitter)

    You have officially turned that corner in homesteading: you will never be able to watch another movie again with a willful suspension of disbelief when it comes to practical tasks like heating, water and pasture maintenance. Oh, and laundry – my clothes aren't as clean as Brad Pitt's and I don't have to wash them in a stream.

    Speaking of which, my laundry has been "seasoning", along with the dishes. I think they're both about ready to be tackled now.

  4. immediate new favorite. should add to "best of"immediate new favorite. should add to "best of"

  5. Thank you for this witty post (totally made my morning). As an employee of Lovejoy (your post popped up in my Google Alerts), I'm glad to see our coupling is working well for you. For a bit more on our history & name (spoiler alert: founder's last name) feel free to reference our website:http://www.lovejoy-inc.com/about-lovejoy/timeline

    Happy splitting!

  6. Pat — There are so many things I never needed in Manhattan. Don't get me started on leaf springs!

    Mom — If I didn't live in the machine age, you can be sure I wouldn't be splitting wood. True to my roots, I'd probably be engaging in the traditional business of Jews — money lending. You don't make many friends, but at least there's no heavy lifting.

    Jen — As I was writing the post, I was trying to think of a chore involving something that sits around but doesn't season. It's laundry, of course! Why didn't I think of that? I'm glad we have your thumbs-up on the logsplitter. It's an amazing machine.

    HZ — Thanks!

    Elliot — How 'bout that? It's Internet magic. I mention Lovejoy couplings and there you are! So glad to have you! I figured Lovejoy was a family name, but I couldn't let anything spoil my little joke. And your coupling works like a dream! (Notice the restraint in the lewd jokes department!)

  7. Posh Pilgrim, I'm lovin' the video footage!! Thanks for sharing. Happy Spring, good vibes to you both and all your chickens and shrooms and sprouts and buds~

    Sara

  8. Dianne Langeland says:

    It's almost as much fun to read the comments as the posts. I was expecting you to take your shirt off before you split the logs…

  9. One of the best blog posts I've read in months- thanks for laughs! I work at a CPA firm and we are all a bit dotty at this point, so this was a welcome reminder that there is life beyond tax returns!!

  10. Dianne — I've discovered that the secret to blogging is to get people to make smart, interesting, funny, engaging comments on your posts. That's what keeps readers coming back, and it takes the pressure off!

    Sara — I'm sure it says something about you that you enjoy a video of a woman running a log splitter. It certainly says we're meant to be friends.

    Tracy — What a nice thing to say! SInce I seldom give any good advice, the best I can hope for is to make someone laugh. I hope you get through the next 36 hours successfully! (I just filed my extension …)

  11. Splitting wood by hand and axe is fun and athletic, but I'm glad you didn't opt for that method and post a video of the outcome. If you are going to split by hand you must never cut the wood to short log lengths. When the cut end heals and seasons, it becomes very hard to split. We generally cut our trees down to four- or six-foot lengths and then cut them down further only when we're ready to split them. That way, if our splitter goes kaput, the logs are still 'splitable'. It seems unnatural to be getting into firewood prep when the heating season is finally almost over, but you are right to be doing it now. How it sucks to cut, haul, split and stack wood when the weather is hot and the mosquitoes are out!