I have been splitting chunks of timber for firewood on and off for over 40 years and I can tell you for sure that there is a huge demographic that believes log splitters are unnecessary and even detrimental to own.
As someone who has experienced log splitting through all of life’s stages, I can offer some insight into the value (or lack thereof) of log splitters.
Even so, questions relating to ax types, splitter power options, log splitter sizes and construction options are common and require an insightful and experienced answer.
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Is it Worth Getting a Log Splitter?
If you split only a small amount of wood (at least 1 cord annually or more), it is advisable to get a log splitter to the same degree that it’s advisable to use a small car instead of a horse if you travel from your home even just once a month to go grocery shopping.
Using an ax or maul will increase your chances of a mishap (my grandfather lost his thumb chopping wood) and will also increase the odds of chronic joint problems later in life (lots of high-intensity arm swinging with heavy weight and powerful inertia forces).
The only scenario where I would not suggest a splitter is if your annual wood-chopping volume is under 1 cord of wood and even then, you’re dealing with dried logs of only 6 inches or smaller in diameter.
Is a Log Splitter Better Than an Ax?
In nearly every way (other than perhaps price and portability), a log splitter is far superior to an ax just as an airplane is superior to walking when it comes to long-distance travel.
A log splitter is much faster (especially kinetic log splitters) than using an ax and requires almost no energy beyond what it takes to lift a chunk of wood weighing only a pound or two onto the splitter.
A log splitter is not only faster, but more importantly, it is safer than wielding a heavy maul. When wood splits with a maul it is more difficult to predict if or where the pieces will end up after being airborne after a violent swing.
A log splitter can split much larger wood than even the best ax with the strongest operator. A 20-ton splitter will be able to deal with logs of nearly any size (even up to 15 inches in diameter and freshly cut, unseasoned), while anything larger will be of commercial quality and ready to deal with whatever the forest can throw at it.
Safety of Log Splitters
Each year in America, there are dozens of reported accidents involving log splitters. The number is not as high as one might expect given the popularity of log splitters. The exact number of accidents each year is unclear, but what is clear, is that most accidents happen with either a DIY/homemade log splitter and/or dual operators.
According to a research study conducted by researchers on behalf of the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, most log splitter accidents result in a fairly major outcome such as amputation, while lesser injuries are actually less common.
It is important to understand that if consideration is given to conditions under which a single operator is using a commercially made splitter, the instances of mishaps decrease so much that it is nearly inconsequential statistically to cite them.
“Log-splitter injuries that do not result in amputation of digits or limbs are uncommon. The pressure generated by a log splitter, upward of 13.5 meganewtons per square meter, is more than enough to cause amputation as well as severe crush injury. “— Christopher R. Spock, BA, Jeffrey C. Salomon, MD, and Deepak Narayan, MDr
On the other hand, injuries that result from splitting wood and NOT using a mechanical log splitter are higher and nearly everyone who has been swinging an ax to chop wood for years will attest to shoulder and other joint injuries that are chronic and won’t go away even decades after the act.
Should I Buy a Used Log Splitter?
If you have the budget for a new splitter and you’ll be splitting a few dozen cords of wood (or more) annually, it would be best to buy a brand-new splitter rather than take on the risk of a pre-owned unit that may have some unseen issues that come to light after a short time.
In my own case, I only split about a cord of wood each year, so I decided to get a used electric model rated at 9 tons of force.
Electric splitters often have fewer components to malfunction, and smaller units (like mine) wouldn’t break the bank or disappoint me terribly if they were to fail earlier than I expected.
While there are many points to check on when inspecting a used splitter (hydraulic cylinder/pumps, oil leaks, hose condition, etc.) that list increases when dealing with a gasoline-powered log splitter.
Another type of splitter that is relatively safe to buy used is a skid steer unit which really only has a hydraulic cylinder and a couple of hydraulic hoses that hook up to the skid steer. There are not a lot of other components whose condition can be hidden from a potential buyer.
What Size Log Splitter Should I Get? (Is a 4 ton log splitter big enough?)
While many factors will be important in determining the size of the log splitter you need, it would be safe to say that a splitter with a power rating of under 9 tons will cause some frustration at some point because of its lack of power. The smallest overall size that will prevent frustrations related to lack of power would be a splitter in the 20 ton to 25 ton range.
While you can buy a 4 or 5 ton electric log splitter, it’s not advisable for most home users. I own a 9 ton electric splitter and even it often cannot power through any log if there is a knot in the line of travel through the splitter – even if the log is only 6 inches in diameter.
Fresh wood is also a challenge to my 9 ton splitter, which is why the wood I split is left to dry for more than a year.
If you purchase a log splitter of at least 20 tons, you’ll have a machine that should last beyond your lifetime AND it will be able to handle a 4-way or even a 6-way splitting wedge instead of my 2-way wedge.
Compared to the alternative of an ax or maul, a log splitter is more than a worthy investment for all but the most dedicated (and low-volume) woodsman or homeowner.
Electric models of at least 9 tons would be a basic entry-level for homeowners who will be splitting wood close to home rather than heading out to the bush with their splitter.
Used log splitters can be a wise purchase, but discretion and caution are advised. Be skeptical of used gas-powered machines of any kind as they can malfunction more often than electric machines.