Building a hewing bench, part 2: Splitting the log, change of plans.

Hewing Bench - Livius

This post is long overdue. I’ve been postponing this one, because it’s a lot to write about. In turn, it became a lot more to write about by postponing. I’ve decided to give a short summary of this project. It’s not a success story, but I learned a lot and I’m still pretty happy with the results. But if you’re planning on splitting a big log, especially if it’s your first, you might want to read this post to see what I did wrong and how I solved the problems I ran into.

Last spring, I was given a huge log of oak by a friend. I tried to make a (hewing) bench out of it using only hand tools. It was my first green woodworking project and you could say it was an ambitious one. In the previous post, I showed you how I got the log and how I took off the bark. So far so good. But then I started trying to split the log. It turned out that that isn’t as easy without the right tools. I had no real splitting wedge or maul or sledge or anything. All I had was an old axe head (shown in the previous post) and a big wooden hammer. I decided to order two splitting wedges from a local forge De Wit (which turned out not to be local at all, but forged in Germany, just like the axe I bought). When I ordered them they were supposed to arrive in a couple of days, but it took a couple of weeks. By the time I got them, the log started to crack from drying. I should have sealed the end grain.
I started splitting the log with my two wedges and my axe head. I also made some wooden wedges from smaller pieces of oak. The funny thing is that I liked the old axe head the best. It was thin and wide at first, which made it precise and easy to hit in (didn’t bounce like the others sometimes did), and it was thick at the end, which made it split the wood easily. I think that I’d rather use three old axe heads than three new splitting wedges.
As you can see in the picture below, I broke my first hammer pretty soon after starting. It was already a bit split and crappy, so it wasn’t unexpected.

Broken Hammer

After that, I bought a bigger hammer. A big oak stanley. The first one I bought was the only one the store had at the time. The grain ran exactly north-south on the thing (so in the same direction as the handle goes through it), which turned out to be a bad thing. I split the hammer’s head after a couple of days. Luckily, by that time I had already split the log in two.

13-04-05

As you can see, it didn’t split straight. Now I had one very cupped half log, and one with a large hump in the middle.

IMG_0717 Splitting oak log

I proceeded to split each half into smaller parts. I started with the half with the cup, which still had the largest flat part. There was less wood to push away, so this split was easier than the first one. As you can see in the pictures below, though, the split followed the cup in the plank above. It also followed many cracks that had appeared from drying. I’m sure that the result would have been a lot better had I split the log when I first got it.

First plank split from log
Since the large split was a pain to do and the result less than optimal, I decided to take a different approach now. To split one thick plank from the humped half, I put several saw cuts into the wood that were slightly less deep than where the plank would start. This way, I could split the excess wood off little by little.

Saw cuts to split plank

The excess wood was the perfect lenght for making spatula’s and such. So I now have a huge supply of small riven (thus “quartersawn”) planks. Awesome.

Splitting plank

 

In the picture above you can see the second Stanley hammer. After I split the first one,  he store gave me another one, of which the grain ran east-west-ish. It lasted a couple of weeks. Long enough to do most of the splitting.

Split wooden Stanley hammer

 

Apparently, these hammer’s aren’t meant to do the job I used them for. Instead of wasting more money, I made my own hammer from some oak I split off the log. It holds up really well, I’m still using it.

Making wooden hammer

 

 

After taking most of the excess wood off the humped side, I discovered the cause of most of my problems: almost at the very core of the log, there was a giant knot or some other sort of inclusion. The grain around it had become very erratic and interlocked.
Knot in oak log

If I look at the pictures of the log when I just got it, I still can’t see how I could’ve known there was something wrong with this log beforehand. It looks pretty straight to me, and especially fault free. No knots or anything. The growth lines look normal and concentric. I think it’ll always be a surprise what’s inside a log, at least to a certain extent.
This knot caused some problems in the second plank. After I cut the knot out, there was a big part of the second plank that was now unusable. I tried straightening the planks out and cleaning them up with my scrub plane, but some cups were too deep to plane out (I would have no plank left). Some cracks also went so deep that they could not be planed out or sawn off. So I now had two imperfect planks: one with one face that was severely cupped on one end, and another face that had deep cracks. The other that had one end that was unusable because too much material was removed, and another end that also had cracks. I had to rethink my plans. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to build a totally flat surface anymore. I decided to cut off the unusable end off the second plank first, and make it into a little stool. The rest of the plank was split into feet for the stool and the final bench. Here’s some pictures of how I made the stool and the thing itself.

Stool made from split oak

By the time I finished this stool, it was the end of May. I was working on my thesis and had very little time to do anything else. I didn’t start working on the final bench until I came back from vacation in early August. The plank was mostly planed flat, except for one big cup on one side, which I decided would be the “seat” of the bench. The flat part was a bit thicker and heavier, and would be where most of the work is done, so I put two big feet under that side, joined to the plank with wedged through-tenons.

Making tenons on feet for bench

At the other end I put two thinner feet with stopped tenons. Everything is friction-fit or wedged, no glue. Maybe things will come loose when everything shrinks, time will tell. I drilled a few holes in it for holdfasts. They work really well with the bench. Here you can see I’m clamping a piece of oak as a planing stop. The holes could fit bench dogs as well, but I still have to make those.
holdfast benchSo, that’s about it. I finished the bench mid August, and have been using it for a couple of months now. It’s nice and sturdy, comfortable to sit on, and I think it looks nice. It didn’t turn out as planned, but I learned a lot in the process of making it.

What I learned:
-Seal the end grain to prevent the wood cracking from rapid drying.
-Use the proper tools if you can, especially the right hammer.
-On the other hand, old axe heads can make for great splitting wedges.
-If you can’t get the right hammer, just make a one yourself. Cheaper and not hard at all, if you can find the right piece of wood.
-Logs that look straight and knot-free on the outside aren’t necessarily that on the inside.
-Sawing into the waste wood can help to control cuts.

As I said, I’m still pretty happy with my imperfect bench. Besides, my cat loves it.

Cat on bench

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