Sunday, January 4, 2009

Splitting Elm

What do they say? Catching lighting in a bottle...riding a camel thru the eye of a needle? Didn't Hercules have 12 labors? I think they were supposed to be difficult...weren't they? I bet that Hercules didn't face the daunting task of splitting 28 inch elm logs...did he???
Last summer, my good friend who is a retired excavator called me and asked if I would like to cut a tree down at his church...he is on the maintenance committee there...and, if so, he would help me with his backhoe and I could keep the wood. I jumped at the prospect of the extra help and "free" wood. And hey, since it was from the grounds of a church, it had to have something good going for it for firewood...I thought. I loaded up my truck and drove to the church. My heart sank when I saw my tree, a 60 foot bark...with a perfectly round trunk...28 inches diameter. I had mentioned in an earlier post that I love the elm tree...I have one of the last remaining live American Elms in my front yard, and I have made a vow that I refuse to cut down a live elm forever and ever. I figure what those damn Dutch did to them is Elm doesn't need to feel the cold steel sting of "Big Orange" too. But since this one was dead...out came the saws.
One thing I have learned from woodcutting is that elms make difficult firewood. Of course they burn nicely but you may have to work too hard to get them in your firebox. You see...elms do not all...try as you might...even a log splitter will strain in its quest to open one up. I read a book on elms and found that their toughness was exploited in the construction of wagon wheel hubs and butcher blocks because of their resistence to splitting. My friend the excavator said that elms were his most dificult tree to deal with as their roots were extensive, and deep... and digging them out, even with a backhoe, was a chore. Elms are notoriously tough trees to the elements, they rarely blow down in a storm and are this country's most reverred trees for shade lined streets. But for firewood...well...lets just say they are much more useful for shade...when they are alive. I have learned my elm lessons the hard way, thru trial and error...and I now offer my three "Ohio Woodburner's Rules on Elm Trees."
Here are my "Elm Rules"...
1. Never cut down a live Elm.
2. If you don't have to split the logs, take them home.
3. If you have to split them, leave them behind.
Well, I kinda got painted into a corner with this particular tree. Because this was helping out a friend, I still would have cut this one up even knowing its species. This particular elm must have been a beauty when it was living. It had the classic Elm shape, like a vase, and had a crown about as wide as it was tall. It is sorry to see such a wonderful tree like the elm be decimated the way they have.
I got three F150 loads and two S10 loads of wood out of that tree but also inherited 10 perfectly round, 28 inch trunk sections of elm dumped behind my woodshed. The one log has a five inch gash on one end where I earnestly sunk my wedge into it with the faint hopes that it would miraculously split in two. It didn't...the log swallowed my wedge...and there they sit, frozen and covered in snow. My buddy with a log splitter told me to try splitting them in the winter when they freeze. He said that would make the work easier on my back. I asked to borrow his splitter and he told me to get lost. He didn't want his splitter beat to pieces on those elm logs.
So yesterday and today, I split three of the logs...I peeled them like onions...going around the edges with small splits. I am left with a large center core that is just big enough to fit into my firebox. That is enough for me. It was quite a workout...I won't have to go to the gym now. Out of those three logs I am left with probably enough wood to heat my house for 4 to 5 days. I plan to split up one log a day until they are gone. Or until my wedge is worn out. It had already mushroomed from the previous three. God bless the Elm.


  1. great story....neighbor had a deal elm and said I could cut it for firewood......dropped it last week and cut it up. Had no idea how difficult Elm is to split. I have a gas powered splitter and had little success splitting....I actually thought something was wrong with my splitter.......

  2. I have been burning elm most of this winter. I cut down two very large dead elms and had know idea what they were at first. in order to split them I sliced the trunk into 8" slices and then quartered that with a log splitter will be junk by springtime but darn the burn is worth the trouble.

  3. Hey there OWB,
    Came across your site while researching white elm. I was out cutting yesterday and came across a giant elm. 80 ft tall,30 inch diameter, dead, no bark. I thought it was red elm, (newbie) and after felling it, cutting rounds I hauled it back to the house only to have my hydraulic splitter fight like hell to get through it. This stuff is awful to split. I haven't even got to the main trunk yet. I bet there is 3 more loads on that tree. All of the small branches had broken off the tree and it looks to have been dead for a few years but it still seems green on the inside. Any tips on using the rest of the tree? It's at my brother in law's place and I don't want to just leave it lay even though it is out in the back fourty. Maybe round it out and let it sit till next year? Cool blog by the way. You can check out mine called The High Cost of this Low Living. Just follow my profile. Thanks a bunch!

  4. Bushman...Thanks for visiting my site and the nice words. Regarding your elm, us woodcutters call that SDE which means "Standing Dead Elm." Usually the bark has fallen off and the once proud gem is a ghost. My best advice to deal with large elm rounds is to "noodle" them with a chainsaw. Noodling is not cross cutting. If you don't know this technique just go to YouTube and type in "Chainsaw Noodles" or "Dolmar Noodles" etc. You can quickly quarter an elm log by noodling it into manageable peices with very little wear on your chain. I am glad to meet you and hope to hear back from youi in the future. Safe Cutting.


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