Chop Wood, Carry Water, but by Hand or Machine?

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

This is well-worn Zen saying. The gist of it is that just because you’ve become enlightened doesn’t change what you do. I like chopping wood, so let’s get my bias out of the way right up front. Let’s compare the splitting of a cord of wood by hand and machine.

If I split a cord of wood, it takes me approximately four hours. If we value my time at $15 per hour, that’s a cost of $60. A splitting maul can be gotten for as cheap as $25, but the bottom of the reasonably priced quality splitting axes is closer to $50 (I’ve been using a Fiskars). What I not-so-secretly covet is a Gränsfors Bruk splitting ax, which rings out at about $150. Any of these axes would split tons of wood before needing replacement. I’ve broken the cheaper splitting mauls, but not higher quality axes. This is a long way to say that if you’re splitting lots of wood, the cost of the ax is incidental, but the more expensive ones split more cleanly if kept sharp.

According to Scott at Dobbelare, it takes a worker three hours to get through a cord of wood using a hydraulic splitter. The splitter costs between $1200 and $1800. The professional ones run on gas and would take about a gallon to split a cord. I’ve also seen cheaper electric splitters, but if we’re talking about a significant amount of wood, we should probably go professional grade all around.

How many cords of wood would I need to split to make up for the cost of a hydraulic log splitter? I’ll use the value of the good ax and the lower-end professional-grade splitter. The following equations will give us the per-cord cost, but note the 1000 cords per tool is an estimate that varies wildly by individual use:

By hand: 4 hr/cord × $15/hr + $50/1000 cords = $60.05/cord
By splitter: 3 hr/cord × $15/hr + $3 (gas) + $1200/1000 cords = $49.20/cord

But this is over the life of the tool, so how many cords would have to be split before the wood splitter, with greater up-front costs, would be worth it?

X(4 hr × $15) + $50 = X(3 hr × $15 + $3 gas) + $1200 → X = 95.8 cords
Where X = number of cords

So, unless you’re splitting almost 96 cords of wood, you’re better off with hand-splitting wood. The equation would vary, depending on the price of the tools. If we went with cheap-o versions, say a $25 maul and $600 splitter, it would be more like 48 cords to break even. On the other hand, if we got a $1800 machine and $150 ax, you’d have to split more than 137.5 cords to justify the cost.

Also, this doesn’t take into account the maintenance or transportation of the tools: an ax needs a file and can be hand carried, but a hydraulic splitter needs tools for maintaining a gas engine and hydraulic press and a truck or tractor to pull the 600-lb machine.

If you are going in with your neighbors to buy a splitter and the machine is being used often and for splitting wood for many people throughout the year, it might be worth the investment, but otherwise, just enjoy the physical activity: splitting wood warms you up twice, once when you split the wood and another time when you burn it.

And a final note, it is worth mentioning that people with physical limitations will have an easier time with a mechanical splitter. I would make the argument, though, that perhaps this individual could provide another service in exchange for someone else splitting their wood, you know, flexing that social safety net that we should foster in our communities.

Keep an eye out for the plans for a wind-driven wood splitter based on this simple machine, coming soon.


Leave a Reply