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Women learn art of wood splitting at hands-on workshop

Joanna Richards

Our reporter, Joanna Richards, is a city girl. But since she moved to the north country four years ago, she's been boning up on the traditions and culture of rural life. She had a chance recently for a bit of North Country skill building, in a workshop on wood splitting especially for women. Joanna tells the story of her lesson.

I'm at Betsey Kepes's home near Colton, in St. Lawrence County. Maintaining this property requires processing a lot of wood. Kepes is off the grid entirely. There are three little houses and a wood-fired hot tub, heated by a total of five wood stoves.

“And some of them need little, tiny pieces of wood, like the bath stove, so I split a lot of wood. I love to split wood; it's something I do all fall. It's great exercise,” Kepes says. 

After a warm cup of tea indoors, we're ready to get started. We don mittens and warm coats and head outside, to Kepes's wood pile. Kepes explains that splitting wood is more about skill than big muscles. 

“The point of this workshop for women is, with the right tool, anybody can split wood. You don't have to be a big he-man,” she says. “Use the right tool, use the right motion, and sort of think through your piece of wood, and it's just going to be easy; it's going to fly apart.”

Kepes shows me the tools of the trade. First, you need a wood block, a short, wide piece of wood that you set the chunks you plan to split on. And I'm surprised to find that you really don't need an ax. Instead, you use a maul – for women, a six-pound one is best – and a metal wedge. The maul has a blunt, heavy head mounted on a long handle. The idea is to identify natural cracks in the wood and aim for them, letting the weight of the maul and gravity do the job.

“Let's get started. Let's split some,” Kepes says.

I imitate what I've seen Kepes do, swinging the maul up over my head. I say a little prayer that I at least make contact.

There are a couple dull thuds, followed by a satisfying cracking sound. A small chunk falls to the ground, and we celebrate.

Kepes keeps setting up pieces for me to practice with, and I keep at it. 

“See, there's this wonderful feeling of success, when you, when you actually get it!” Kepes encourages me, and I agree. 

Kepes knows her wood. She can identify what she's got by sight – and she says that's important, because to get your money's worth when you buy firewood, you need to know what to ask for – and what you're actually getting. 

“If you were buying wood, and the guy said, 'What kind of wood do you want?' Say: 'hard maple, ash, yellow birch, black cherry,'” she says. “Those are the best woods. If he says, 'I got a lot of poplar, grey birch, white birch,' say 'I don't want it,' okay? The wood is very light, it doesn't have many BTUs, it's going to burn really fast.”

Next, Kepes shows me a different approach to wood splitting, using a wedge. The wedge looks like a door stopper, but it's made out of heavy metal. First, you whack the wood a couple of times with the maul, to create an indentation.

“So all's you've got to do is, get the wedge started,” Kepes explains, as she uses the back of the maul to tap it into the wood. “When you've got it in pretty solidly started, you can take more vigorous whacks... And it cracks, and splits.” And it does. “You saw me, I didn't have to aim, I didn't have to do anything...I just had to put in the wedge.”

It's as simple as hammering in a nail.

I take a crack at it, and I have to say, although in some ways it's easier, using the wedge just doesn't carry the same kind of satisfaction with it that using the maul does. There's something really animal and satisfying about hiking a maul up over your head and whacking into a chunk of wood until you hear that satisfying crack.

So in the end, I'm a convert. I see the romance of this North Country tradition – aside from all the money it can save on heating costs. Back inside, over another hot cup of tea, Kepes says she sees that romance, too. She tells me an old expression about wood splitting: “Wood heats you twice,” meaning once in the splitting and once when you burn it. But she says it's really more like four or five times.

“You've got to cut it, you've got to drag it in, you've got to put it in a pile, you've got to split it, you've got to stack it, and then you've got to put it in the house, so...it's a long process, but there's something beautiful about working with wood, too,” she says. 

On my way home from the workshop, I realize I'm tired in that healthy, used-your-body type of way that a good workout will give you. Between shoveling my way out of my driveway in the morning, and wood splitting this afternoon, who needs the gym? Call it the North Country fitness plan.