Lieutenant Chad Belger of the Florida Smoke Diver School teaches...
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Armchair preppers seem to think that splitting firewood (and every other skill) is pretty easy in a survival situation. It must be — those survival guys on TV make it look so quick and easy, and they probably didn't even go to college. But when the harsh reality sets in, and these watchers try to become doers, they find that cutting wood is like every other worthy activity in life — there's some skill involved and practice required.
These soft-palmed TV addicts might not even be able to chop a little piece of wood in two with their expensive survival knives. And this is the point where they realize that they don't know the right technique. If they only knew how to use a baton …
This is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to cutting wood. Using blades of any kind, especially in conjunction with a baton, can be dangerous. Seek a professional guide or a reputable instructor for more information.
Wood batoning is the act of splitting or carving wood using a knife and a wooden baton to tap the back of the blade, thus driving it through the wood you mean to shape or split. The physics involved is similar to hatchet wielding. There's a sharp cutting edge and some weight behind it. But the difference lies in the fact that the weight and the edge come from two separate objects.
By placing the blade exactly where you want it, you have far more control over the splitting and cutting process than if you just swung a hatchet or machete at the “target.” You can use your folding pocket knife or, better yet, your fixed blade to split kindling out of logs, branches, pallets, or furniture. You can also use this technique to make slats, notches, and other shapes in pieces of wood to build tools, traps, weapons, and many other items in a post-disaster scenario.
Learn how to baton, and you'll finally have proof that size doesn't matter, all that matters is how you use it.
The basic technique is so simple that we could have put this article together without words — just a few pictures. But since we know many of you are the thorough kind, we put some together some explanations.
Step 1 (Safety Check): I've had bark chips and bits of wood in my eyes before, and I don't recommend it. And I've had more splinters in my hands than a blind guy stumbling through a toothpick factory — not fun either. You'll want to wear gloves and some kind of eye protection while splitting wood, just to stay on the safe side. It's also very helpful to have a large log, tree stump, or some other surface to act as a “workbench” or “chopping block.” It should provide a stable platform to set up the item you intend to cut or split.
Step 2 (Pick Your Tool): The baton should be an appropriately sized piece of hardwood. For large splitting jobs with a big knife, you'll want a baton a little smaller than a baseball bat. For small tasks with small knives, a little 1-pound wooden club will work fine. It should be hardwood and dry. Wet wood will be softer (even if it's hardwood), and the spine of the knife will dig into it excessively upon impact.
Step 3 (Get To Work): Once you're ready, start hammering the knife down through the wood by tapping the blade's spine. If the knife is really long, you'll have plenty of spine to hit. Consequently, it gets a little dicey when using knives that are too short. Hammer the knife spine until you've finished the cut or split — or you need to stop and adjust the blade. Knife adjustment is common and will happen often in baton work. Just be careful as you pry the stuck knife from the piece of wood that it's stuck in; this is the maneuver in batoning with the highest risk of injury.
Step 4 (Repeat As Needed): This process can be used over and over to reduce logs into splinters and to perform elaborate carvings. In colonial times, house shingles were even made with this technique, using a heavy baton and a special large blade with an angled handle called a froe. But since you don't need to make a lot of shingles in an urban survival setting, let's talk about more practical uses for this technique.
Let's say a storm knocked out your power, and you need a fire to boil your water and cook food. To confound your situation further, the closest thing to firewood you have are a few pallets you found behind a neighborhood store and some ugly furniture you've always wanted gone. With a little nail pulling and unscrewing, the pallets and hideous chairs will come apart, but they won't exactly fit in your apartment's fireplace or the balcony hamburger grill.
Enter the baton and knife. Using a chair leg for your baton, the chair seat as your “chopping block,” and your favorite survival knife, you can proceed to split the pieces of lumber and chair parts in half. Once split in two, these more slender pieces are even easier to split again and again. Soon enough, you have a wonderful pile of split wood.
And if these split sticks are too long, use the knife and baton to partially chop them and then break them to shorter lengths. Light up the smallest wood splinters first, then add slightly larger split pieces until your fire is established.
With the simple technique of using a baton, it's easy to make a small knife act like a large knife. This means that we don't have to carry as much weight in tools to get the tasks of survival accomplished. It also means that we stay safer. There's a lot less that can go wrong when splitting or carving with a baton, compared to swinging a machete or hatchet around.
It's even easier to stay under the radar with the smaller blade during a crisis event. Imagine trying to smuggle a machete through a police checkpoint during a crisis situation. Or perhaps you're trying to stay low-profile as you work your way home from the office after a blackout engulfs your community. Then imagine how much easier it would be to walk around with a fixed-blade knife in your boot or bag, without raising so much as an eyebrow.
Being able to baton wood lets you work smarter, not harder. And at the end of it all, isn't that the way we should approach all survival skills?
By far, the best knife for baton work is a large, fixed-blade knife with a full tang, square spine, and beefy handle scales. A tool like that is built for abuse, and if beating your knife with a hardwood baton isn't abuse — we don't know what is. The average survival knife should meet most or all of these criteria.
But as your knife starts to deviate from the baton-knife formula, the chances of damaging the tool increase. If the knife isn't a fixed blade, you run the risk of breaking the pin that allows it to be a folding blade. If the blade metal doesn't fill up the handle area (full tang), you may separate the blade from the handle by beating it. If the handle is wimpy, or the spine is sharp (like a double-edged dagger), it just won't perform well when batoning. Use a beast of a knife for baton work, or go buy a hatchet. Keep your pocket knife in your pocket.
You could use a baton technique to create shingles from blocks of wood, but kindling and shingles aren't the only things your knife and baton can create. Some careful baton work can shave down a staff of flexible hardwood to create a self-bow or a crossbow prod. Careful shaving and some knowledge of bow-making and tillering are required for best results, but anybody can try it. You could also use a knife and baton to create tent stakes, boards for friction fire sets, trap parts, stabbing weapons, spits, sticks for primitive cooking techniques, camp furniture, and a wide range of other useful items. You can even use the technique to cut rope and vines by setting them on a log as a chopping block.