How To Choose the Best Wood Splitter

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Tired of splitting wood with an axe? A relatively inexpensive wood splitter can turn your logs into firewood with a lot less effort.

The quintessential wood splitter is a burly lumberjack with an axe, but not every homeowner with logs to turn into firewood easily fits this persona. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that, unless they’re looking for a cardio workout, most people would prefer to have a machine do their wood splitting. Vince Christofora, an engineer and owner of Woodstock Hardware, reports that wood splitters are increasing in popularity, so there must be lots of those people around.

While a person with an axe is definitely a “wood splitter,” Christofora says the phrase most commonly refers to a hydraulic tool. It can be a manual one, or it can be powered by gas or electricity, and it may sometimes be called a log splitter.

Do you need one? It can be a great investment if you have lots of seasoned logs to turn into firewood. If you don’t burn all the wood yourself, you can make a pretty good profit selling firewood to your neighbors or on the open market. A cord of firewood can cost as much as $450 these days, depending on the wood and where you live. Wood splitters aren’t very expensive, so it doesn’t take long for one to pay for itself.

What Is a Wood Splitter?

All wood splitters have three basic parts: a cradle to hold the log, a hydraulic ram powered by a pump (like the one you see on hydraulic car jacks) and a splitting blade. On most machines, the hydraulic ram pushes the log into the blade, but on some, the ram is stationary, and the blade is moveable.

A wood splitter isn’t a sawmill and won’t cut logs into useable lumber, and it won’t turn long logs into shorter ones. It simply splits logs into smaller pieces of wood that will fit inside a fireplace or wood stove. If the pieces are too long, you have to cut them yourself with a chainsaw.

5 Types of Wood Splitters

Wood splitters differ in the type of power they use to do the job. An electric wood splitter has to be plugged in, of course, a gas-powered one runs on gasoline and a manual one uses people power. Besides these three, there is a tractor-mount version that attaches to a tractor’s hitching system and runs on its hydraulic system.

  • Manual Wood Splitter: The user operates a manual wood splitter like the Sun-Joe LJ10M by grasping the long handles and working them back and forth to force the log into the cutting wedge.
  • Electric Wood Splitter: Has an electric motor to power the hydraulic pump. Most run on 120-volt AC power supplied by a cord plugged into a conventional electric receptacle. Models like the 6-1/2-ton WEN Lumberjack are designed for light-duty home use.
  • Gas Wood Splitter: Has a gas-powered motor to operate the pump. Like any gas-powered tool, you have to keep it filled with the proper combination of gas and oil, as recommended by the manufacturer. Workhorses like this 27-ton Champion model can be towed onsite and used in a horizontal or vertical configuration.
  • Tractor-Mount Wood Splitter: Designed to hook up to a tractor with an appropriate hitch, a model like this 20-ton Ram Splitter uses the tractor’s hydraulic system for power.
  • Kinetic Wood Splitter: The only wood splitter that isn’t hydraulic, a kinetic wood splitter, like the Kohler Power King, converts kinetic energy from the motor into a burst of splitting force via a flywheel system.

Which One Do You Need?

If you’re an average homeowner looking for a wood splitter, you’ll most likely be choosing between a manual, electric or gas-powered model. You’d only consider a tractor-mount splitter if you have a tractor.

Choose a manual splitter if you like the idea of getting exercise while you split logs, but don’t want to go full lumberjack. The going is slow, and it may not develop enough power to split oak, madrone (arbutus) and other dense hardwoods easily, so this isn’t the best splitter for big jobs. But it’s easy to carry, and you can cover it with a tarp and leave it outside when you aren’t using it.

Electric wood splitters develop even less power than manual ones, but they are also easily transportable and great for making kindling and splitting small softwood logs. Kinetic wood splitters are exceptions to the power rule. They develop immense splitting force but aren’t always able to handle dense or knotty hardwood logs. They are high-production splitters with incredibly short cycle times.*

If you want to get serious about log splitting, you need a gas-powered model. They come in many sizes, but bigger machines can handle bigger logs and develop more than five times the force of conventional electric splitters. However, you usually have to tow them to where you want to use them.

Wood Splitter Shopping Tips

“Wood splitters are all about power — the splitting force they produce,” says Christofora. “You will want to buy the “biggest,” strongest, highest ton-rated splitter your budget allows,” he advises. This is good advice to remember if you regularly split your own firewood or you want to get into the firewood business.

Of course, much also depends on where you plan to use the splitter. You can use a manual or electric splitter indoors, but not a gas-powered one. And, if you want a heavy-duty machine that dispatches large hardwood logs quickly, you need a towing hitch on your vehicle.

Here are some other things to consider when looking for a wood splitter:

  • Cost: Manual and conventional electric splitters are comparable in price, while gas-powered models can cost four to five times more. Kinetic wood splitters are the most expensive.
  • Maintenance: Besides periodic lubrication and servicing of the hydraulic system, manual and electric splitters require little maintenance, as long as you keep them protected from the weather. Gas-powered splitter engines need the same maintenance as other gas-powered engines, like lawn mower engine.
  • *Cycle time: Many wood splitters automatically retract the ram, and the time from the beginning of one splitting operation to readiness for the next is the cycle time. The shorter this is, the higher the production rate.
  • Safety: Like any powerful woodworking tool, a wood splitter can cause serious injury and must be treated with respect. In particular, tractor-mounted models can cause injury when not mounted properly.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.