Last Updated on October 9, 2022 by Barry Gray
Splitting axes and splitting mauls have similar names for a reason: they’re both built to make splitting wood as easy as possible. But because of those similarities, a lot of people get them mixed up and don’t know when to use each one.
A splitting axe is an axe with a narrow, tapered head built to split wood. It isn’t meant for cutting logs across the grain like some axes. Instead, you’re supposed to use it to cut wood along the grain. Because of its small, thin head, it’s easy to move around and swing quickly.
A splitting maul is a similar tool, but with a wider head and a piece on the back of the head that looks like a sledgehammer. It’s a larger, heavier tool, but it’s meant for the same purpose: you use it to cut wood along the grain
One of the biggest differences between splitting axes and splitting mauls is the size of wood they can handle.
It’s worth noting that “cutting capacity” means something different for these tools than for other tools like miter saws. Where miter saws have an exact cutting capacity based on the size of wood they can handle, cutting capacity for these tools is more about what is easier or more comfortable.
The main factor influencing cutting capacity in splitting axes and splitting mauls is the size of the axehead. Splitting axes have smaller, more fine axeheads, whereas splitting mauls have bulky axeheads that have large, sledgehammer-like parts on the back.
Because of their much larger heads, splitting mauls are more suited to cutting through large logs. The bulky piece of metal on the back side of the axe lets you swing it down with even greater force, making it easier to split large logs in half along the grain. The wider angle of the blade’s edge serves a similar purpose, dividing large pieces of wood in half with a wider cut.
Splitting axes’ smaller heads are built for cutting proportionately smaller pieces of wood. The finer cut it makes translates to more work if you’re trying to split a larger log. You may have to swing the axe significantly harder or swing it multiple times in order to make the same cut you’d finish in one swing of a splitting maul.
Overall, splitting mauls have a much large cutting capacity than splitting axes, but that’s not the end of the story. Instead, there’s quite a few other reasons you might want one axe over the other.
You might think that portability is close to equal between two handheld, single-blade axes. But depending on what you’re trying to do with them, the differences can actually be significant.
While the large, metal axehead improves splitting mauls’ cutting capacity, it makes it much harder to carry around. The head of a splitting maul usually weighs six to eight pounds, which can be too much for some people to bring on a light backpacking trip.
Splitting axes are much lighter. The heads of most splitting axes weigh between three and six pounds, meaning that only the heaviest splitting axe will weigh close to as much as a light splitting maul. Splitting axes are much easier to move freely and take with you on long trips.
Most splitting mauls have handles that are 32 to 36 inches long, although this can vary significantly. You may be able to find lighter, more portable mauls that have handles as short as 14 inches, although this can impede performance. Splitting mauls rely on their heavy heads being swung in a large arc, which a shorter handle would make much more difficult.
Splitting axes come in similar sizes, from 14 inches all the way to 36. But you may have different preferences for handle lengths between splitting mauls and splitting axes because of their varying head weights and the ways that you use each.
It’s important to note that there are certainly ways to make both kinds of axe heavier and lighter. By changing the material the handle is made out of, for example, you can shave significant weight off of any axe. Fiberglass, plastics, and even lighter wood can all make an axe easier to take from place to place.
Splitting axes and splitting mauls have surprisingly wide price ranges. As you can imagine, an axe or maul with advanced materials that make it lighter, more durable, or able to hold an edge longer will cost significantly more than one with an inexpensive wood handle and cheap steel head.
Despite the significant variation in price, it makes sense that splitting mauls are much more expensive than splitting axes. In almost all axes and mauls, the axehead is the most expensive part: it uses metal, a more expensive material, and it also needs to be worked and shaped in an industrial forge.
That’s why a premium splitting maul with a long, comfortable handle, quality materials, and an edge that will stay can cost more than $250. On the other end of things, the least expensive can be priced below $40, as long as you don’t need a large head or handle, and you don’t mind lugging around a heavy object.
That’s not to see that all splitting axes are cheap. Some do cost as little as $15, but you might not to rely on those. Poor construction can mean that the axe will lose its edge quickly, or even that the head could become separated from the handle.
Nicer splitting axes are still less than expensive splitting mauls. Even the nicest axes won’t break $200 in price, and it’s much more common to find quality splitting axes for $100 to $150 instead.
It’s important to remember that axe prices vary significantly depending on the amount of material and its type. Don’t get intimidated by the prices of professional tools with high-rade axeheads and lightweight handles–there’s an axe or maul out there for everyone.
The different weights and purposes of splitting axes and splitting mauls can make them more or less precise as well. That means that when you use one or the other will likely depend on whether you need clean cuts in an exact place, or whether you can afford to be a little messier with your splitting
Many people find it easier to place the lighter head of a splitting axe where they want it to go. With its thinner head, it’s easier to both see where the axe’s blade will land and to put it there. The longer, more slender blade may also create a smoother final appearance, which may be more important to you depending on your purposes.
On the other hand, the heavy head of a splitting maul can make it more unwieldy to use. It’s both more difficult to see where the blade is going and to wield it with precision. With its wide head, the splitting maul can also create cuts that look more jagged and uneven.
It’s important to remember that even the simplest axe can be a multipurpose tool. Whether you’re adding the axe to your shed as just another tool or relying on it on a camping trip, it’s important to know all the different ways it could be used.
Splitting mauls get most of their versatility from the side of the axehead without a blade. That sledgehammer-like side can be used just as you’d think: as a large, heavy hammer. Whether you’re driving stakes into the ground or demolishing sheet rock, the blunt side of a splitting maul is just as useful as the axe itself.
Splitting axes don’t have the same, sledgehammer-like blunt end. While you can use the blunt side of a splitting axe as a kind of hammer, it isn’t built for it and heavy use in that way could damage your axe.