On knottiness

by Carl Dyke

It occurs to me while I’m out splitting firewood that this is another of those analogies for teaching. Not that we want to hit our students with axes, you understand.

If you have the right power machinery you can do anything you want with a pile of logs, make them any size and shape you need by application of brute force. This seems to be what a lot of people imagine teaching just is. Or marriages, or politics. But if you’re working by hand it’s fair to say that you have to work with the wood. It splits easily along the bias of the grain, whereas you can whack at it forever, make an ugly mess of it, and break both your heart and your ass if you try to cut across the grain.

So learning to read the grain is one of the basic skills of splitting logs (and indeed any sort of craft woodworking). As always the process is noticing, experimenting, and noticing some more. There are patterns and trends among types of tree and you can build a useful database of approaches and strategies out of that. Within those types there’s all kinds of variation down through particular trees to individual logs, ranging from the size and age of the tree, whether it had to cantilever to get to the sun or twist against its own weight, how it got stunted and adapted to the stunting. Branches make the grain flow in multiple directions at once and finding the splitting bias is either a matter of patient experiment or blind luck. Sometimes around lots of branches, injuries, and compensations, the grain is downright turbulent. That’s when it’s tempting to get out the chainsaw.

There are woods like maple and cedar that split so easily you only have to wave the axe at them. In contrast sweet gum, which we have a lot of, has a close, tight, one might even say grumpy grain and splits very reluctantly. You sort of have to work a suggestion of a split for awhile until it almost relaxes into releasing. Sometimes a piece of wood has set into a twist under some kind of pressure, and those will actually explode apart if you find the right seam. With big, tough old logs you kind of have to whittle them down from the outside in. No matter what, you can’t split a log with one blow. It takes a whole series of whacks.

You can split almost any sound log if you come at it right. But if the wood has been sitting outside in the weather for awhile it may have gotten soggy and rotten. You can’t split soggy, rotten wood. Same thing if the bugs and borers have gotten to it. I bust those up a bit and leave them for the chickens to pick over. My analogy may be breaking down a little bit here. I hope so.

Here’s one of my favorite videos. That’s nice splitty wood she’s working with there, but she’s also got this unbelievably skillful technique where she twists the axe slighty just after the moment of impact to pop the wood apart. That’ll learn it!


8 Comments to “On knottiness”

  1. Coincidence? This week I got to a couple of old apple trees I’d cut down last winter. Apple is interesting, especially when it’s had limbs sprouting all over. It splits really easily even though the result of the split looks like a slalom run. The lass in the video has a slam dunk on her hands. I do them suckers with one hand.

  2. Yeah, I had some cherry in the stuff I was splitting today and it’s the same thing. What’s really a monster is this Bradford pear we have a lot of around here. Hard as a rock, brittle, too close grained to be splitty at all. You almost end up breaking it rather than splitting it.

    Watching a bunch of YouTube videos on splitting wood is a great education on INUS conditions.

  3. Some pear is so hard that to carve it you have to use stone cutting tools. But you can get an awesome surface if you put in the time and effort. I’m past that, thankyouverymuch.

  4. The “object”is never as inert or as passive as we would like to believe.

  5. Earlier this week Lowe’s delivered a carton of manufactured firelogs and tonight before dinner we fired one of them up. No go.

  6. You have to understand. The lawyers at Lowe’s (how low can you go) won’t let them sell a fire hazard.

  7. Returning to the analogy of students to knotted wood: What does this say about our attempts to use the same intellectual axe, swung in the same way, to split prejudices that vary from soft pine to pear?

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