by James L. Michael of Morgantown, WV
I got this idea for a hydraulic post splitter in my mind a few years ago and it just wouldn’t leave. Laziness is the father of invention. Twenty-some years of polishing a hickory maul handle with my grub shovelers was beginning to make me inventive. There just had to be some way to turn seven foot cuts off a locust tree into usable split fence posts without spending long sweaty days in too close association with a maul and wedges. We had tried sawn posts some time before and found that they rot out much sooner than a conventionally split post. Fence, on this farm, has to be bull strong, horse high, hog tight, and arrow straight, so sawing was out.
I got this idea for a hydraulic post splitter in my mind and it just wouldn’t leave. Local skeptics assured me that it wouldn’t work. No on else around here had done anything like that and that was reason enough for any smart person to know that it couldn’t work. Reason enough for some folks, maybe, not me.
As the idea began to gel, I started scouting for material on a casual basis. Six nights a week in a coalmine and daytime obligations on the two hundred-acre family farm didn’t allow time for dedication to a single project. No piece of metal is an orphan if my Dad or I can adopt it into our supply pile. Having a truck large enough to haul them away had netted me several fourteen-foot long six-inch steel H beams on one deal. One of those, I decided, would do for a rail.
A cousin who had some one-inch steel plate and a thirty-inch stroke twoway hydraulic cylinder in his supply pile coveted one of my steel beams. When he decided he wanted that beam bad enough I let him trade me the cylinder and some plate for it. That just left me in need of a wedge and the time to fabricate. Homemade firewood splitters were becoming the rage at this time in our area. Conversation with some friends led me to a man who was making wedges for his friends in the machine shop he worked in. This fellow had need of a steel beam and he had a stack of lumber in need of planing. I’ve got a twelve-inch planer…another mutually satisfying swap agreed upon.
Time to devote to a special project presented itself in a manner I don’t personally recommend to anyone. I messed up mowing a steep pasture field and rolled my tractor over. A broken arm and ribs left me with lots of idle time. Anyhow… time available, I set out to build a post splitter. My Dad’s basement garage and the driveway leading into it served, at that time, as our repair and fabrication shop. The patience of mothers who have to stumble through such a battlefield is hereby acknowledged. I had to give some extra consideration to handling heavy metal parts and fabricating with only one usable hand. Work progressed slowly, but it did progress. I worked all day, ate supper with my parents, and then worked ‘til nine or ten o’clock at night to accomplish what I could have done in a third of the time with two hands. Defeating obstacles placed in my way by one-handedness wore my always limited patience rather thin. “How much longer are you going to have all this stuff in my driveway?” added to the frustration. The lot of a believer in a world of skeptics is hard.
Oscar provided some much needed relief each day. Oscar was a little black and white dog. He was about six inches high and fourteen inches long; with a heart that weighed eight pounds. Oscar owned the neighbors a mile down the road, but he was a gracious soul who found time amongst his many duties to watch over the rest of the community. He made his rounds on a regular daily, and nightly, basis; always willing to lend a hand where needed. When you had twenty obstinate brood cows with their calves driven out of the pasture field and headed down the county road toward the barn lots, Oscar was always glad to remind the lead cows that they had better turn back into the herd and keep personal track of their calves. It was Oscar who joined impromptu neighborhood discussions (bull sessions) and marked the principal speaker with a damp britches cuff, and it was left to Oscar to gather all the food pans left lying about in the community and take them home for safekeeping.
Oscar made me a personal habit. He came several times a day to lend a hand and check my progress. He’d sneak in the basement to eat the food my sister put out for her cat or he’d carry off my welding gloves. When I was too involved to notice him coming into the driveway, he’d announce his presence with a high-pitched bark guaranteed to make me jump out of my shoes!
A man only has so much patience, and me less than most. The evening I was positioning the wedge on the beam so I could weld it in place and finish my splitter, I came to the end of mine. A kick missed, so did the rock I threw. Roundly pelted with words Mom used to make me eat soap for, Oscar hightailed down the road vowing revenge. I got the wedge tack-welded in place and re-checked its alignment with the beam. Alignment satisfactory, I had just settled down astraddle the beam for some serious welding when Mom called me to supper. More aggravation! Dark was closing in and I was so close to being finished. Thirty minutes to wash up, shovel in some food, and I rushed back outside to finish my job. In the failing light I switched on the welder, straddled the beam, and hunched over the wedge; intent on burning a full rod before I let up. The smoke that billowed around my face inside the welding helmet made it immediately plain to me that Oscar had made good his threat of revenge… Don’t know how you folks feel about turning a puddle of doggie pee into a billowing cloud of live steam six inches below your nose with a high amperage electrical arc; but, given the choice I think I’ll go roll another tractor over. Won’t make me any sicker! While I struggled to get my toenails and stomach back in place I could hear Oscar chuckling out in the darkness. I conceded the round, work was over for the evening.
The next morning I finished welding the freshly scrubbed beam and wedge together and got ready to put my rig to the test. By the time I had the splitter moved to the post pile and coupled to the tractor hydraulic system a few of the local folks had gathered to watch. They’d been casually monitoring my progress and wanted to be on hand to tell me why it didn’t and never would work.
Everything ready. I selected a knot-free, straight-grained seven foot cut of about twelve inches diameter on the small end and placed it on the beam. I eased hydraulic pressure into the cylinder and offered up a silent prayer. The post slid forward and the wedge bit into the end. Four more inches of travel and the post flew apart in two pieces with enough force to have broken a leg had anyone been standing beside it. Split clean and true from end to end.
“Look at that!”
“Heck! You could split a cut like that with a hatchet with one lick. What’s it gonna do with a crooked piece with knots in it?”
A man’s got to believe in what he does and lend his machines a little moral support. I took a deep breath and then selected the knottiest, most twisted cut in the pile as though it just happened to be the next in line. I positioned it on the splitter and pulled the lever as though I expected it to split. Darned if it didn’t! Followed the grain from one end to the other and came off cleaner than if it had been split with a maul and wedges! Took the same amount of effort as the first cut had.
Since that day I’ve taken my splitter to several farms in the neighborhood to give my neighbors a hand. We’ve split several thousand posts on it without it showing any signs of wear. The largest cut I’ve split with it so far was thirty-four inches diameter on the small end. Two people can average a hundred split posts an hour with it. The grain of the cut must still be determined by “reading” the bark to minimize waste from under-sized posts, but the splitter saves time and eliminates the heavy labor. Now, if I can just figure how to get an arrow-straight, tight fence without digging holes and tamping the dirt back around the posts… Don’t suggest a driver to me. We’ve had one gathering rust in the shed for years. I said straight fence.