Twisted Grain

Split Wood – Twisted Grain

Today Will and I cut and split more wood for our tiny cottage‘s little woodstove. Two of the logs were maple, one was ash and two were what we know as ironwood but is officially Ostrya virginiana or Hophornbeam – news to me. Tree identification – by leaves in the summer and bark in the winter – is one of the homeschool units we do with the kids.

The logs were buried under about three feet of packed snow so I was glad to have the tractor to dig them out. They have been drying up on the top logging landing since a little over a year ago. Because of the snow I couldn’t drag out the whole logs so I just cut off 20′ sections and brought them down to the tiny cottage for blocking up with the chainsaw into stove size pieces. Will was eager to use the saw again to practice his new skills. That went well. While he cut wood I split.

The splitting was going fine until I got to the blocks cut from the last ironwood log. Usually the ironwood splits easily. Not this time – the splitting axe just bounced or stuck. Whereas normally each block of wood would split with just a single blow these were taking ten to fifteen blows. I was sorely tempted to get out the sledge and wedges but persisted.

I finally figured out the problem. The tree had grown twisted so that within the 18″ length of each block the grain twisted about 2″ to 3″ around the vertical axis. This caused the force of the splitting axe blow to rotate and dissipate. An interesting problem. I finally figured out to strike each piece once on the far edge and once on the near edge to start the fractures along the hard outer edges of the wood. Then I worked the middle of the block with a couple of strikes to split it. Once the block had its first division the subsequent splits to quarters were easy.

Ironwood: Hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana. … The wood is very hard and tough, but not very useful to man. Fruits are small, bladder-enclosed nuts that look like “hops.” Farmers in Europe used similar species to make “yoke-elms” or “hornbeams” for oxen. The seeds are eaten by grouse, quail, pheasants, and ptarmigans. Deer and rabbits eat the twigs.
Fox Island Alliance

My guess is that this tree had branches primarily on one side. Perhaps a lightning strike, open clearing or another falling tree had caused this asymmetry. The prevailing wind, or maybe gravity, had spun the tree as it grew creating a ropier log than the usual straight grain that is so easy to split. I’ve seen that before but never so dramatically as in this log. Looking at this effect, how easy it is to split the demi-block and thinking about ropes and cables raises a very interesting point of physics about the fraying of said items and where their strength lies along the strands of the outer fibers.

With our huge old Sam Daniels wood furnace in the cellar of the old farm house I rarely split the logs so it wasn’t as much of an issue. The furnace would take logs as big around as 14″ and twice the length of our new smaller stove. With the little Vogelzang wood cook stove we split almost all of our logs and use a lot more kitchen wood.

For some adventures in snow creatures hop on over to Ben‘s latest blog post.

Outdoors: 27°F/19°F Overcast, 2″ Snow
Farm House: 61°F/48°F
Tiny Cottage: 72°F/49°F Cut & Split wood (5 – 20′ x 10″ to 14″ logs)

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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11 Responses to Twisted Grain

  1. Don says:

    Hey Walter, I just found your blog and have been reading all about your adventure up there in VT. I was splitting wood myself today and can relate to your desire to be independent. I’ll drop by again, there is a lot of good things to read!

  2. bruceki says:

    We get logs on the west coast that have left and right spirals — clockwise and counterclockwise as viewed from the top of the tree. The right hand you can saw into useable lumber; the left hand is usually firewood. Not very many trees do this — maybe 2-3%. I’ve seen this mostly in conifers, but that’s probably because most of the trees around here are conifers. There’s a defunct sawmill in preston, washington (30 miles east of seattle) that has two sections of a huge spiral tree as gateposts to the old mill yard. The sections are about 10′ in diamter, and 15′ tall, standing on edge. left hand spiral, with a complete circle every 6 feet or so.

  3. Wow, that’s some impressive spiral at the mill!

  4. Hayden says:

    would spiraled wood be good for posts? (assuming the type of wood is appropriate…)

  5. Interesting question, Hayden. I don’t know. The grain might be interesting for a decorative post, especially if it were knotty and debarked…

  6. bruceki says:

    If you saw a spiral grain the board (beam) produced will usually fracture too easily. the grain starts from one side of the (board,beam) and goes diagonally to the other size. Normal checking from drying (beam) or stress from use if kiln dried (board) will cause it to snap with little or no load.

    The mill used the entire huge log as gateposts, two sections. They did that becuase it got transported to the mill but wasn’t worth the time to saw — the lumber produced would have been flawed, and I think they thought it would be a pity to make this 1,000 year old tree into firewood, or maybe they thought it was cool. Dunno. those posts have been there for more than 50 years.

  7. pablo says:

    I’ve heard of something called a basel twist in trees that can do this. I don’t know if it’s genetic or environmental though.

  8. Anonymous says:


    I’ve heard that wood only dries from the ends in, so if you are leaving it in logs, would it not still be too “green” to use by cutting it now? This comes from a friend who is a wood turner and wants to keep his wood from drying and cracking. He waxes the ends of a log to keep the moisture in. He says it dries about 1 ft per year from each end.


  9. Pablo, I tried searching on that but haven’t found anything. Do you have any links?

    Bruce, interestingly, the center of this log was straight grained, it was the outer portion that was a spiral grain.

    Chris, If I need to dry the wood quickly then cutting, splitting and stacking would get the fastest results. Fortunately we weren’t in a rush so by the time we got to the logs they were already dried. They were also cut late in the year when the sap was already out of the wood as the tree prepared for winter. Lastly, we put our wood to be used by the fire for a last little bit of drying which does make a difference even in long tried wood.

  10. Sue F says:

    Ever split elm? I fried two chainsaws and my back cutting up a big one. Rented a wood splitter. Impossible to do by hand and even the splitter moaned and groaned and struggled.

    Most of the ironwood I’ve seen around here has twisted grain. Think that’s the reason they call it iron wood.

  11. Dave says:

    I used a chainsaw and Beam Machine to mill a beam from an elm this past summer. Not too much fun. Great firewood but crappy lumber. I will be giving some to a friend who is a carver this spring, should be some interesting things come from that.

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