Splitting Fence Rails
Now here's an old skill!
People have been splitting fence rails out of logs for hundreds of years, and up until the 19th century in the United States it was necessary for farmers to know how to build their own fences from scratch... or from trees, in this case.
Issues such as deforestation, and then improvements like mill-sawn fence rails and barbed wire, made hand-split fence rails a moot point in many regions. But in some regions of the U.S. such as Appalachia, the tradition lived on. In some historic areas in New England and Pennsylvania, you can still find fence rails that were split in the 19th century from rot-resistant types of wood like white oak and black locust.
So then, here's the big question: What the heck is the point in knowing how to split fence rails out of logs?
What's the Point?
I happen to have several answers to that question. For one, people are nostalgic, and as a result, there happens to be a market for hand-split and homemade fence material. Around my way, hand-split locust fence rails sell for $8.00 each, sometimes more. Theoretically, if I had no other source of income, I could harvest wood from the forest and attempt to make a meager living selling hand-made fence materials.
I also believe that it's important to know how to do things that used to be essential. Connecting with history is important, and I don't think it's good enough to just say, "Things were hard back then." How hard? And were things so hard, really, or were people just tougher? Either way, civilization is great and all but nothing lasts forever. I'm on a mission to accumulate as many "useless" old skills as I can.
Which brings me to my next point. It's nice to know that in the event of a total collapse of civilization, I could, all by myself, build a fence using only the woods around me - a fence that would be tall and strong.
And finally (like with chopping firewood by hand or mowing with a scythe), splitting fence rails out of logs may not be necessary but it's great exercise, it gets you outside, and it's wonderful for some stress relief.
Fence Rail Wood Should Be...
- A log at least 1-foot in diameter and at least 8-feet in length
- Able to be split without great difficulty
Selecting Wood for Fence Rails
Logs that will be used to make fence rails should be minimally 8 feet long; 10 to 12 feet long is ideal. And the thicker the log, the more potential fence rails it contains, so the log should be minimally one-foot in width. You can split rails out of logs with a diameter smaller than a foot, but they will be thinner and won't be triangle or wedge-shaped.
The best wood for fence rails generally isn't much different than the best types of wood for firewood, with some exceptions.
The wood should be a rot-resistant type, such as oak, locust, cedar, or walnut. It should be rot-resistant, since fence rails spend all of their time outdoors in the weather.
My top five picks for rail-wood are:
- Oak (white oak is better than red)
- Black Locust
- Black Walnut
Elm is also a very rot-resistant wood, and if it was all that I had to pick from I would split rails from it. However, elm is notoriously difficult to split, so if you have other options take them.
Some maples, such as red and sugar, can be good for fence rails. Personally, I would stay away from silver maple as it can be more trouble to split than it's worth.
My top five picks of trees I would avoid:
- Silver Maple
Pine is not out of the question for fence rails, if it is split-able. Long-leaf Yellow Pine was a very popular rail-wood in the southern U.S. before sawn fence material was widely available.
Tools Needed to Split Fence Rails
- Metal wedges, 3 or 4 (the sharper the better)
- A splitting maul or sledgehammer
- A small, sharp hatchet
- A hammer or small mallet (optional)
Let's Get Started!
Splitting fence rails out of logs requires some of the same skills as chopping firewood. If you can chop wood, you can make fence rails—you just need to develop a little finesse.
The idea is to use metal wedges to split the log first in half, then into quarters or smaller (if the log was big enough, to begin with). To do this, you will start at the fatter end of the log and drive a wedge into the end-grain. You will then drive another wedge a little farther down the log. As you go, you will be able to remove your first wedge from the log as the split widens. You will use your wedges to direct the split in the log all the way from one end to the other, "leap-frogging" your wedges as you go.
Please Note: Every log is different, so splitting logs for fence rails is a somewhat creative process that will be a little different every time. What I intend to do with this article is to give you the basic idea, with instructions that are easy to follow. If you actually decide to try your hand at splitting some fence rails, you'll find this article is a good guide but that it cannot possibly describe splitting every log that there is. This article will, however, give you the information that you need to split a log and you'll be able to adapt that information as needed.
Here's the process in a few easy-to-follow steps.
Step One: Speak to It and Sink the First Wedge
If you read my article on chopping firewood, you might remember the phrase that I use to describe the process of drawing a line in the end-grain of a log with the purpose of encouraging the wood to split down that line. (My end-grain definition: The part of the log where you can see the growth rings; the cut end(s) of the log.)
I call this "speaking to it," and it's a useful little skill that will help you to split the log properly.
To speak to it, simply take a wedge in hand and use your mallet or splitting maul to tap the wedge just into the end-grain of the log. Draw a line that will split the log in half, but that will not direct the split into a knot or a bad twist, if possible.
If the end-grain is already checked (meaning that there is a small, visible split in the wood) and you like the looks of the check, speaking to it is unnecessary.
Now, using your splitting maul, sledge, or mallet, drive the wedge into the end-grain of the log. You should see the log starting to split, hopefully in half.
Step Two: Sink Another Wedge
Now that you have one wedge in the end-grain of the log, you should see that the log has started to split.
Examine the way the log is splitting. Is it splitting half? Do you like the direction that the split is headed? If you want the maximum possible number of rails out of every log, it's important to keep checking your progress throughout the process.
Assuming the split looks good and isn't running off in one direction or another, take another wedge in hand. Sink the second wedge into the log, this time against the grain, which means at a right angle to the way the grain runs. You will basically sink this wedge into the bark of the log.
You should select where to place the second wedge based on the split. Don't put the wedge into where the wood is already well opened-up—move a little farther down the log to where you can see something like a hairline crack in the wood, and sink the wedge there.
When you drive the second wedge into the log, the split will widen and you should be able to free your first wedge. Take the first wedge out of the end-grain, as you will probably need it later.
Step Three: Begin to Play Leap-Frog
Here's where it starts to get pretty easy.
I can split a 10-foot log using only two wedges. How? Because each wedge that I sink into the log allows me to free the one that went in before it. That's why I call it leap-frogging, I guess! It's best to have more than two wedges, but it's not totally necessary.
You've already freed your first wedge from the end-grain of the log, right? Examine the split that you're making in the log, and if everything still looks good you should go ahead and sink the wedge into the log. Again, don't waste time and energy sinking the wedge into a wide part of the split. Go a little farther down to where the log is just cracked, and sink the wedge there.
Sinking this wedge should widen the split and allow you to remove the second wedge that you sank. Remove your wedge, and repeat the process until the log is split in half! If your wedge is stuck, that's okay—that's why I recommended three or four wedges. Until you have split a few logs into fence rails, you won't know how far apart to sink your wedges to allow you to always retrieve the wedge that went before.
Step 4: Split the Two Halves in Half
See how my log is split in half in the above photo? Those two halves are okay for fence rails, but both could and should be split in half again. Keep splitting the log down into smaller pieces until you have fence rails that are the size you're looking for.
To split the two halves of your log, follow the same steps as before. The process is repetitive and labor-intensive, but oh so fun!
Here are some problems you might encounter, and my suggested solutions...
My wedge won't go/stay in the end-grain!
Sometimes you just can't sink your wedge directly into the end-grain of the log because you're working at a funny angle. Sometimes the grain is really tight, and your wedge might pop out when you strike it. If this happens, try sinking the wedge into the edge of the end-grain, at a 45-degree angle to the ground. Basically, you'll be driving your wedge into part bark, part end-grain.
My split isn't straight, and my log isn't going to split into two equal halves!
Twisted logs are hard to split into two equal halves, but you can do it. Speaking to the log isn't enough—you have to fight the twist in the log, which is a result of the way the tree grew. To correct this problem, you'll have to keep sinking wedges into the log where you want it to split, not where it's actually splitting. Stay focused on an imaginary straight line that goes right down the log from one end to the other, and keep sinking your wedges into that line. It is possible to keep pulling a twisted split back to where you want it.
I split off part of the log because my split ran off to one side, but it's not split in half!
This can happen too, especially if you're not paying attention and you're dealing with twisted or knotty grain. There's nothing you can do about the chunk of log that you've already split off. If it's not long enough to be a fence rail, just cut it up and use it for firewood. Focus on splitting the rest of the log properly, so that you can save the rails that are still in there. See the above instructions for straightening out your split.
I've run into a big knot, and the knot won't split!
Unfortunately, you can't split through knots—wood just doesn't work that way. The grain is all balled-up and twisted in there, so there's really nothing to split. If you encounter a knot on your way down the log, you will have to carefully split around it. When you re-direct your split to go around the knot, work slowly to help ensure that you won't split the wood where you don't want it split. Next time, try to pick a line that will split the log in half without passing through a knot.
I've split the log in half, but it's still attached by thin pieces of wood!
This is where the hatchet comes in handy. Simple use your hatchet to cut those stringy pieces of wood away. Some types of wood are more stringy than others, including red oak, locust, and cherry.
I followed the instructions for splitting the log, but the split only goes part of the way through the log!
Sometimes you'll get into a situation where you've split the log all the way from one end to the other, but it's still not split in half because the side of the log sitting against the ground is still together. The simple solution to this problem is to roll the log over and split the wood where it's still hanging together.
Glenn Vatter on October 15, 2019:
I have been making split rail fences for my own use, from black locust trees on my property. Some came out pretty good but some are badly bent and curved. But I have a nice fence in front of my house that will last literally forever, at least the rest of my life. I want to do a couple more, but the trees are now all 80 feet tall and no place to fell them without hanging up, Enjoyed reading your article, BTW I am now 84 years old but still cutting and splitting my own firewood.
Sean M on March 11, 2018:
Thanks for the article, I'm moving onto a 5 acres parcel of land and am looking forward to establishing a small modest homestead. I too love learning the old forgotten skills and this is why I stubled across your article. The parcel is heavily treed and I am planning on harvesting/making an old fashioned split rail fence around the full property (once I perform an inventory of the trees of course). Thanks for the article, it pretty much confirmed my thoughts on how this was done, but contained a few bonus pointers! Thanks again, God bless.
Kenneth Avery from Hamilton, Alabama on April 13, 2014:
Farmer Rachel . .very sweet article. Helpful and a great honor to a part of our American and foreign history.
I voted up and away on your work.
Fact is, my grandpa on my mother's side, split rails for ten cents a day during the Great Depression and was proud to get the work. No telling at the people he helped with his talent for splitting and hewing rails.
Thank you for sharing this.
I am following you and I ask you to look at my hubs and be one of my followers.
That would be tremendous.
howtopam from Alberta, Canada on February 01, 2014:
It is always nice to learn the way things are done. I do many projects with wood and some with the raw tree itself, but I have never considered splitting trees to produce rails for fencing. However, now I may split some logs for other projects. Thanks for the ideas.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on September 30, 2012:
Hi Michael - I don't have any experience with hackberry, so I can't tell you much there. You would know better than me! Maybe it's worth testing out? Anyway, glad you liked the hub, and thanks for commenting.
Michael Tully on September 28, 2012:
Thanks for a fine article, Rachel. Very informative and an interesting read. Trouble is, about all I have on my place is hackberry, which I think would make relatively crummy rails :-( Voted thumbs up!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on September 27, 2012:
Bill - Thanks! If civilization collapses, I'll be ready for it ;) Nice to know you "old-timers" used to split rails.
Wetnosedogs - You'd be surprised to find, I bet, that it doesn't really require that much "strength." It's not like chopping wood or (oh geez) hewing a fence post... that is some hard work!! Splitting fence rails requires finesse. Honest :)
wetnosedogs from Alabama on September 27, 2012:
This is a wonderful read. I wouldn't have the strength for this but I really did enjoy this and love the history. Great work.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 27, 2012:
If civilization collapses I want you on the farm with me.
I haven't done this since I lived in Vermont back in 1980, but for those who are reading this, it really is not that hard to do, and like you, I'm a big believer in history and in knowing these skills.
Great article Rachel!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota on September 27, 2012:
Hi DrMark! Thanks for the comment :) Honeybear, my little genius dog, loves bark and sticks more than food. She likes when we work with wood because she gets plenty to chew on and shake ;)
Dr Mark from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 27, 2012:
Nice article. I have not split rails for over 20 years, so your hub brought me some excellent memories. Keep up the excellent work.
I saw your companion ACD in the background. Helping or just watching?