The “science” of batoning

Some people think it’s never a good idea to split wood with a knife and baton (“Knives aren’t made for that purpose, and they’re bound to break” etc., they say). Other people seem to do all their splitting with a “bushcraft knife” with a 4-inch blade and have never had any problems. Whether you agree or disagree with the practice of splitting wood with a knife, one thing that can’t be denied is that it works. It may not be perfect or ideal in every case, and there is plenty of evidence and examples of blades breaking, bending and getting stuck in knotty logs, but often enough, knives can be used successfully to split wood.

I first used a knife to split wood about 3 – 4 years ago. I split a lot of wood like that for a while, but nowadays I tend to use an axe for bigger stuff and only split kindling with a knife. One thing that I never really thought about until recently was whether there is a right way or wrong way to baton a knife. I usually just put the knife on the piece of wood and started hammering. This often worked, but I did run into problems with knotty pieces of wood and was concerned by several accounts of knives (thick-bladed, strong knives) breaking while being batoned. I had also experienced minor loosening of a handle on a stick-tang knife back a few years ago. After getting a new big blade recently, I wanted to make sure I didn’t mess the thing up by using it incorrectly.

This led me to think about splitting in a more “scientific” way. When we split with an axe, we apply the power of the swing and mass of the head to a relatively short cutting edge backed up by a wedge-shaped head. This is a very effective combination for splitting wood parallel with the grain. When splitting with a knife, there is a major reduction in the power of the swing (one-handed, using a baton) and the thickness of the blade. Instead of a swift and powerful blow with an axe, a knife is placed horizontally on the end of a piece of wood and hammered progressively deeper until the wood splits. Seeing as how this puts a greater amount of stress on a knife, I thought I would try to figure out the “best” way to baton to reduce the stress on the blade and handle, reduce the amount of energy expended and maximize the efficiency of splitting. I mainly focused on larger, heavier knives which could possibly compete with axes and hatchets. My findings don’t apply as much to smaller knives due to their light weight and short blade length, which make the physics of batoning less relevant and which I personally wouldn’t want to subject to heavy batoning anyway.

I started by thinking about the differences between how the force is applied to the wood when splitting with an axe and a knife. With an axe, the force is applied directly to the center of the end of the piece of wood (in most cases). If the axe gets stuck, the wood can continue to be pounded against a chopping block, further driving the axe head through. The force of the split is always in the axe head, and therefore centered in the wood. When batoning with a knife, the force is only centered in the wood when first pounding the blade into the wood. Once the spine of the knife is level with the top of the wood, force can no longer be applied to the center of the piece of wood (unless you use some kind of wedge on the spine). When the knife spine is flush with the wood, you have to start striking a part of the blade that is outside the piece of wood. What you now have is a lever (the knife) on a fulcrum (the point of tightest contact in the wood). When you strike down on one side of the blade, the other side goes up. This is less efficient than striking directly over the center of the wood.

One solution to this is to push the handle down while striking the blade sticking out of the other side of the wood, but this has been repeatedly shown to weaken and break knives (especially non-sandwich tang knives) due to the stress that results near the handle. So pushing down on the handle is not a good idea.

Striking the blade on the same side as the handle would require the handle to be held upward as the blows are struck. I think this would probably have a similar effect as described above and put unnecessary strain on the handle. I will look into this further, though.

So how do you make the best use of the force being applied while minimizing the lever effect and putting less stress on the knife? My solution is to arrange the knife and the wood in a way that directs the splitting force as close as possible to the center of the wood. The way to do this is to position the knife on the wood so the amount of blade that will be left sticking out on the tip side is just enough to be solidly struck with the baton, and also to strike the blade as close to the piece of wood as possible on the tip side (in other words, striking as close to the fulcrum as possible). Here, the mass and longer lever on the handle side counterbalance the baton blows on the tip side (the balance point of the knife itself should ideally be outside the piece of wood, on the handle side). These opposing forces on both sides of the knife enable the power of the blow to be directed as close to the center of the wood as possible, making splitting more effective. This greatly reduces the lever action of batoning, because the much shorter side of the lever (the tip side of the blade) is the side being struck.

After testing this “theory” I found that it worked surprisingly well in practice in both green and seasoned wood (I tested wood up to about 8 cm/3 inches thick with a 23 cm/9 inch blade), with and without knots. While I was testing, I did see a small amount of the lever effect, with the handle side starting to rise up, but it was only minor, and I just pushed the handle back down between baton blows (I kept my hand loosely on the handle just to keep the whole thing steady, but did not push down on the handle while batoning). I should mention that I started striking the spine of the knife directly over the center of the wood to get the split started and maximize the force. The results of my limited testing are very promising, and I will go out and try some thicker pieces of wood next time.

I would be very interested to know what you think about this and if anyone else has thought this much about this topic. 🙂 If my ramblings don’t make a lot of sense, I can try to make a simple diagram to show what I mean.

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13 comments on “The “science” of batoning

  1. volcanobrian says:

    I’ve not done much batoning, but your reasoning is sound… it is a “sciency” day on the bushcraft blog circuit. I’ve been blinded… with science!

  2. Perkunas says:

    Knots or not, you cant always choose, and sometimes its a lot wiser to hack it in pieces instead of stubbornly baton thru knots and possily ruin the blade. I hate the word science, in anything but i think that scinece of batoning, can be taken in to space….you will need a dedicated, strange batoning knife with a profile that is not good for anything other that just batoning, if you want to ruin your hobby with too much theory and scientific approach :)….by the way, think about the metallyrgy, tech of the blade while batoning….too much stress to tip, will make a thin edge to turn more propeller like, and too much of stress in the spine, when applied to midparts of spine, will make the blade bend downwards, and then , making microsscopic fractures in to edge/bevel…..

    You dont want to think scientifially, man. It will ruin the hobby, and turn you into hitech UL packpacker :).

    • Thinking scientifically has improved my enjoyment of bushcraft and camping. Because of scientific thinking, I have come up with lots of ideas and projects which serve me very well. Thinking this way, in my case, will never ruin the hobby. It only makes it better.

      I’m not interested in making any kind of dedicated batoning knife or anything like that, and I don’t think I will think any more about batoning in this way, because I have already come to an understanding of how it should work, and it does work, so I’m done thinking about it.

      I use an axe for splitting most of the time anyway, so the metallurgical aspects you mentioned won’t really come into play with my knife. It’s only used for batoning occasionally.

      Too bad you hate the word science. It’s the reason why we are not still living under logs with no clothes, no tools and nothing else. To me, “science” can mean critical thinking, experimenting and simple engineering. It doesn’t have to mean over-analysis and laboratories. 🙂

  3. Perkunas says:

    What actually, is wrong in living under logs buttnaked, as we are just part of nature, animals like all others are. We are Not the gods that we think we are, we dont have the right to use science to kill animal species and nature, in name of profit. Science brings only bad thought to my mind,about the mankind that uses his brain creations for money and destruction of others, till this globe, is just a dead black planet with no life of anykind.

    Id like to go 200 years, back in time, or 1000, all the same. 10 000 BC, yes, lets go there too :). Far better than this time after industrial revolution that has destroyed, in bit over 200 years, more than man has ever been able to exploit before science went over head of scientists. We should be still living in forests,tribes, instead of concrete jungles, lead by greedy elite, you know.

    Even batoning was simplier back then. You just picked up your crude wedge shaped rock and hammered it into some wooden piece till it split up. If you didnt get it done, the gene pool worked the weak out of the game, in a clean natural way. No facebook groups to hug you, no medical aids to make yu live longer than you should naturally live, no need for overly large houses for One man to live in it alone,no need for trendy clothing to separate class from lower. But then came science, that could have been used in wise way, but lazy man, uses it to gather possessions that do not follow him in to the grave. We got the idea, that appearance is good way to judge people, so we used science to make up “beautiful” garments, and forgot the meaning of clothing. Then came medicine science to prolong mans life that lead us in to over-populated world where is no pure water and food for everyone living here, not for people, and not for the animals. Science invented paper machines, people bought it, and therefore, the living quarters for animals, are smaller and smaller, every day, as we civilized people, require super smooth paper to wipe our butts, shiny paper for our magazines, strong paper to market unnecessary crap in markets for our never ending artificual needs…..

    No, i dont believe you and i should talk about science anymore :).

    • No, of course it’s not wrong to live under logs, but can you tell me that you can live under a log at -40*C with no clothes, no fire and no tools? I don’t think so. I completely agree with you about our being part of nature, and that modern science is poisoning the earth etc. Read Ron’s comment below. I think he explained well what I mean by “science”.

      So when I talk about “science”, I’m not necessarily talking about scientists in a laboratory making harmful chemicals, genetic engineering, etc. etc. etc. I’m just talking about a scientific way of thinking, i.e. analyzing a problem and solving it. I don’t agree with animal testing, polluting technologies, and all that stuff.

      I would also prefer to live in a simpler, healthier time, and don’t like a lot of the things modern science has created. That’s why I tend to like natural materials and methods.

  4. Ron says:

    First of all a comment to the OP; if I don’t absolutely have to, I don’t batton. I use my axe, even on thinner long down to branches of 3-4 cm. In my opinion that’s what an axe is for and when properly sharpened will do just as fine. I’ll hold the branch upright with a stick, gently plant the axehead into the wood and tap it onto a large log, thus splitting it.

    As for science; I think every solution mankind has dreamt up, is science. They took a problem, looked at it, used their intelligence and found a way to tackle the problem. To me that is science or at least the basics of it. Science = using common sence + the knowledge you allready have.
    It is neither good or bad, it turns in either direction by the way it is used. Seeing science as a source of evil to me is a bit narrowminded as it shows one is turning a blind eye to the creature that is using it badly. Fire, rocks, hunting and fur for clothes are all science and yes, these go back 10000 years or so.
    Even monkeys use sience in their procurement of food, they use reeds and grasses to pick up termites, use rocks as hammer and anvil to crack up touch nuts, but only after the nut has been lying on the forrestfloor for a certain amount of time, because the monkeys know that than the shell has begun to deteriorate. Whales use the air by blowing circles of bubbles around large groups of krill, knowing the krill will not break that “barrier”. By tightening that ring the whales now it will be easy pickings afterwards. That sound like science to me, too.

  5. Perkunas says:

    Well, tell me about mankind pure good science not used to make money?
    Dropping nail polish remover in labratories, in rabbits eyes, to make a well selling human-safe,beauty product ? Animal suffers in name of moneymaking science.

    Making a glossy science news paper, thats thrown in garbage. Its cut from some animals living quarters. Where it should live after the cutting of his home ?

    Oil rig in the sea, to make money from oil. Scienticts havent been able to drill oil safely, but they dont care, as long as the labjactes make a way to make profit at possible cost of nature.

    Chemical weapons ? Man, they could have spent that budget and time, to find solution to feed starving people and to educate them to vise use of water and to keep a farm. Or, to pass on condoms to prevent over population. But to spent time of science geeks, on ways to build up weapons, to keep a thread of war if someone does not obey the moneytary world order, is way weird to spent time and effort.

    Science allows us to watch movies at home, from 100″ lcd screens when we could do with less too but we are greedy, arrogant breed who need more and more, bigger and “better”, for no reason at all. At first human, was a fine creatre, who dreamed of warm cave, by the clean river, and food. But after he got those, something went wrong and he started to want more, and here we are using our almost unique level of wisdom to create just nonsense crap to fill our nonsense needs.

    Science allows mobile phone companies to get rich, by doing phones built to self-destroy after warranty time passes. People like to talk about sustainable technology, life and lifestyle, about downshifting, but we still use it, to make money, thru scientifically built products, that marketing staff, brainwashes us to buy….”because youre busy, buy a microwave meal”…..” to relax, buy a massage chair”….” to avoid going out the house, order this and get a free this”….”our scientiscts have created the best artificual fresh forest air odorant spray, with a hint of artificual commercial smoke scent in it, to enjoy that campfire DVD,all this for 600 euros a month”… 🙂

    I myself am a part of this machine too, with my seriously nonvital, made-up “needs” that are far away from reality, and thats annoying too :). Hopefully some day, i have the knowledge and skills, to plug myself out of all this ratrace and society and live off the land, off the grit…..

    but i have to buy a few things first ;).

    • Ron and I are not talking about that kind of modern, polluting, destructive science. We are talking about “science” as the process of seeing a problem, thinking about that problem and how it can be solved, and testing and trying things to solve that problem. Example: It’s cold in the winter, so how can I be warm? Maybe if I put an animal’s skin around my body, it will keep me warm. Science.

  6. Ron says:

    Perkunas, I sence a lot of bitterness and anger regarding mankind’s destructive and greedy ways and I have to say I feel that too, all the way up to the living off the grid-idea…
    Like I said, sience is neither good or bad. What we do with it and how we use it, makes it that.

    The Weekend Woodsman is right. What I meant was the sience man has used to make fire; starting by using it and keeping it going all the way to producing it oneself using flint or a bowdrill. The latter is science in its own; how to make the cordage, how to use friction, how to find the right pieces of wood etc… That is sience, too.
    Just forget about modern society and go back 2000 years ago…. old skool enough for you? How about massmanufacturing by the Romans? How about their use of concrete? They made and worked metals too… To modern??
    How about the ancient Greeks then? They used raw materials, worked them and sold them. Still to sofisticated?? The cavemen then? They hunted and killed and traded and acquired wealth, too…. Maybe not in money, but probably in shells or status by killing bigger beasts or slaying more enemies….

  7. Bill Giles says:

    In traditional woodworking, most of the wood was not split with an axe or knife, but with a froe and maul. The froe was used in much the same manner as a knife when batoning, but was made for that purpose.

    • You’re absolutely right, Bill. However, my article (and blog in general) focuses more on camping/bushcraft/etc. in the field with a small set of tools, as opposed to on a homestead or in a workshop with a set of made-for-purpose tools.

      Thanks for the comment.

  8. Glad to hear that your test results were promising :). I know this is an older post, but reading it has got me thinking about my big wood pile in my backyard and how I wish they were all split and easier to manage! Might have to bust out a couple of my knifes and have some “fun” getting some firewood split…

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