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Riving, a Viking-age woodworking technique (hurstwic.org)
234 points by sea6ear 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 89 comments

This is an interesting article, but riving is not specifically Viking. It was the primary method of producing workable wood blanks from tree trunks in every civilization that used wood blanks. Which is to say, it was used all over Europe and Asia (at least), for at least the last 2000-plus years. I'm not as familiar with the woodworking traditions of Africa or pre-European-contact North or South America, so I don't know whether they used wood blanks.

It's also used today by "green woodworkers" - woodworkers who specialize in building using non-dried wood. This mostly includes chair makers, but also some others. You can buy riving tools from a lot of places. Lie-Nielsen makes a very nice riving froe. You can also find antique ones at almost any antique woodworking tool show.

Where do you guys come from? How do you know all this stuff?

It's so interesting and I'm often surprised at the diversity of knowledge, experience and backgrounds on HN. For even the most esoteric of subjects folks here will have interesting input. I love to try and experiment, and like people who are passionate about things.

Just wanted to get it off my chest. I love this place and it makes me appreciate life and its peculiarities more. When I was in high school I dreaded only observing greasy nerds interested in techy stuff. It's been a while but HN has really shown a different side of the world to me.


If you're at all into woodworking it's just a matter of time before an evening in the YouTube rabbit hole leads you to riving, or Alaskan chainsaw mills, or Wood Mizer demo videos, or silent Japanese guys that are wickedly good at joinery.

I'm going to put a plug for the Fine Woodworking and Fine Homebuilding magazines and websites here. They both also run excellent podcasts filled with inspiration and advice.

No connection to either, but they're institutions.

Inspired by Fine Homebuilding I'm setting out this summer or autumn to construct this building:


If you've any desire to build your own house, accomplish a DIY or other wood built project - I have an especially good tip here.

Go to Amazon.com and search for "Fine Homebuilding on" or "Fine Woodworking on". These are incredible repositories of hard won knowledge on a specific topic for often literally $0.01 per issue.

The real benefit of all this wood using culture is though - is that you can say to yourself "I think I could do that" and this is invaluable.

hahaha. I've been down the Alaskan Chainsaw mill & Riving rabbit holes, as well as the Paul Sellers stuff (silent british guy that's wickedly good at joinery), but I'll have to check the other 2 out.

2nd this. Buddy and I are currently building a bandsaw mill out of A motorcycle. All because of YouTube.

Links??!?! :)

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVcHxw2MHN0SCgxkqsQUg... is a pretty good selection of traditional greenwood skills. The shingles videos contain a fair bit of the riving as described in the article.

Youtube search is actually pretty good. Toss in the terms suggested.

I'm having a bit of a difficult time finding relevant results for "silent Japanese guys that are wickedly good at joinery" on YouTube; the results tend to leave out the "silent" part.

Most people have a hobby. The kind of people who hang out on HN are the kind of people who'll obsessively learn everything there is to know about their hobby.

>"How do you know all this stuff?"

I've sometimes been asked this from friends and colleagues, when I've talked about some subject that I happen to know something about, be it electronics or plumbing or bicycle repair or baking or sound mixing.

I absolutely do not claim to be an expert or master in any field, but I do have reasonable knowledge and familiarity, as well as an unceasing desire to learn more.

Being a "knowledge sponge" and constantly curious about the world is a hallmark of geekdom to me. As is the willingness to try, fail and try again, and learn from it.

My parents made sure to instill these values, so I was naturally helped into the geek mindset.

My mom is a teacher and naturally curious about everything, she's a popular science enthusiast, if such a thing exists.

My dad is what used to be called a "radio mechanic", and has never been afraid to take on DIY tasks of any kind, and involve me in them.

In general hobbies have always been important in my family. My uncle assembles his own racing bikes and has hand-built several wooden kayaks, just as an example.

Maybe not everyone has taken the same way into greatly expanded general knowledge, but I like to think a lot of us have this desire to learn new things.

The real trick is to know the limits of your knowledge, and to admit when you hit them ;-)

Well, I'm far from being as knowledgeable as some folks on HN, but have a lot of factual knowledge about odd things. My only advice is curiosity and reading, notably about "real" subjects. That could include well written fiction. I don't plan to read about specific things, just let my brain be filled with lots of stuff.

Also when you see old people doing interesting work, talk to them if they don't mind it. At my current job, I made a point of talking with the old-timers about the technology, and gained a lot of practical knowledge that would otherwise be lost.

I'm ready to hear about some of your odd areas of interest that otherwise I may never think of... Please post something for pique my interest, thanks.

> Where do you guys come from? How do you know all this stuff?

Same way as anyone else - we found something fun or interesting, we explored it more :)

If you do it long enough, it usually turns out eventually you are the expert.

I'm not OP but if (s)he's / they're my age or older (young 30's) we grew up in a time where, depending on where you lived and how much money your family had growing up, knowing these non-technical (in a computer / digital sense) skills was more of the norm. Think "handyman" skills.

I grew up in a household where my father worked in the cement industry. He made nearly all of our furniture, made a full deck in the back yard with an overhang out of wood, as well as created an entire 9.5' deep x ~35' long kidney bean shaped cement pool (something similar to this: https://i.imgur.com/i6eW9UM.jpg ) with a few of his buddies. Beside a cement mixer coming to do the initial pouring everything else was done by hand or with hand tools. I'm still in awe when I see the pictures (developed film in a physical album) of the entire process from start to finish. A grassy hill was turned into our family's happiest and most fun spot on our property all while I was an infant still. I would have loved to be old enough to have helped with that and just thinking about it gets my juices flowing!

Often when he wasn't working he'd have This Old House on the television (started in 1979. The VERY BEST wood working / handy man show NO CONTEST including anything that has come out since) and that'd usually spark off a new ideas for projects and after a trip or two to the local hardware store I was always his day laborer-type-helper. I carried boards on my shoulders, many-o-paving stones, dug many holes, held many things in place, wheelbarrow'd heavy things endlessly, carried buckets full of all sorts of materials, learned how to use every hand and power tool, and banged my thumb many times trying to drive in nails.

Any chance he had he avoided calling construction workers or any other type of service industry for help / to hire because he not only had the skills to do most things himself but he truly enjoyed the hobby of wood working and the craft of being a handyman, so to speak.

I'm really and truly grateful (especially these days) that I grew up admiring him and the type of things he did / liked to do. Just having grown up with that kind of role model and being able to soak up the skills, knowledge, and thought process behind a litany of different handy man skill sets come in handy at least once a week in my life. Also, having grown up slightly before the time when computers just started to become something for the average home, I was exposed to that side of things early and often as well.

The reason I bring all of this up is because my first and longest job I ever had (working with elementary school aged children, 5-10 years old, for an after school / summer camp program at the school I went to growing up) I got to see, first hand, how younger generations (through the kids that I took care of and in the later years via my younger co-workers) may have missed the type of exposure I had to "handy man-type things". Many friends I made at college and in my adult life never got into that type of stuff and would need to make a call to some sort of professional every single time anything more complicated than a light bulb burning out happened. I realized that I was lucky to have had that exposure and those skills and I realized that not everyone else was lucky enough to have had the same.

Being handy saves me money, allows me to customize all sorts of things for myself and others, gives me much more wiggle room when it comes to giving gifts since I can create and modify them, allows me to re-purpose all sorts of things to extend their usefulness, and generally be the type of person others can count on when shit goes down. It also allowed me to work part time jobs of the construction variety or similar things when I was in college and just out of college starting my own web development business when I needed to make sure I had enough money to cover my ass.

I find myself feeling really bad for younger generations that didn't have exposure to that type of life before everything became computerized and digital but I was ignorant in thinking it was only people younger than me. Not everyone is interested in that type of thing even when they have the chance to be exposed to it but looking back on it all now I wouldn't change a thing. I feel like I got two lifetimes of skill sets having grown up and come of age at the time where computers hadn't fully taken over yet and having hands on skills was the norm. I put both to use constantly and just having those skills to draw from has helped raise my value in the eyes of my employers and co-workers countless times and in ways I'd never have suspected going into a gig.

I'm not sure what else I was trying to get at but I'm always thinking about this stuff and rarely find the opportunity to try and explain where my head's at in terms of these topics. But, just like you, I'm in awe of the specific and sometimes very rare skill sets and hobbies HN community members tend to have. I love seeing that passion in general. Something about it reminds me of my passions and I get exactly how they feel even if I don't understand an iota of what they are doing / talking about. It's almost like a shared language of love for a hobby / task / skill / skill set / way of life. Everyone can see and feel that genuine type of love for something and it translates to all corners of the Earth (and now internet ;) )!

Excellent post!

I'm similar age and had a similar sounding childhood, but maybe a bit less to do with concrete, and more to do with the woods and the peripheral mechanical stuff that seems to go alongside. Some of my fondest memories are around fall arriving; the sap going down in the trees meant it was time for sawing - mainly for heating, and a bit for cooking. Nicer pieces of hardwood would go to dry for a year or so, then to our little sawmill and be turned in to all sorts of things. Dad was particularly known for the shaker-style spinning wheels he made occasionally, and bits to help with Mom's weaving.

Fast forward to a few months ago - my partner and I bought a house in a town that we moved to ~3 years ago, far from where I grew up. I guess I'm known here as a guy who works from home writing code and doing stuff with electronics, not as much someone who might be comfortable handling a chainsaw or a tractor. It raised a few eyebrows when one weekend, a station-wagon load of timber, box of screws, case of beer (to incentivise helpers, of course), and some old roofing steel from a friend's place turned in to a decent little firewood shed, to go with our new fireplace. I didn't shop around first, but would be shocked if the cost of that shed was anywhere near to what a commercial job would've been, and there wasn't much compromise in the fit either. All this with no youtube video nor real plan, beyond basic dimensions of the finished structure.

Not to disparage youtube of course - I use it all the time to gain short term expertise, especially for car problems. My point is more to share the value in a sort of "muscle memory" that comes from long term exposure to doing this sort of stuff.

How to share/learn these skills? Hard to say, but I remember that my Christmas/birthday gifts started coming from the hardware store (or Computer Shopper) instead of the toy store when I was pretty young, maybe 10, and that materially enabled a lot of learning for me. So, when I have the opportunity to get gifts for friends' kids, I usually look for things like soldering irons or good screwdrivers. When something breaks, I like to think about how much worse it could get if I were to fail at fixing it - usually there's minimal real risk. If you make it worse, you're not likely to repeat the same mistake; you've learned something, and there will always be another broken thing to apply that knowledge to.

Great Post! I'm probably a similar age. I grew up learning how to use a bandsaw, compound miter saw and generally learning how to do woodwork that could hold it's own. I grew up with computers and electronics and turned that into a professional career. But after helping my Dad build a wooden spiral staircase with nothing more than his experience/intuition, I have immense respect for people who don't need a reference like Youtube to make something remarkable. As a side note, it really pays to sit down sometimes and assess what I can do personally without the safety net of a reference or guidelines.

Ah, you know what? I was worried I was off topic and off base telling such a personal story but I'm glad it resonated with you.

I know EXACTLY what you mean about people looking at you and thinking: "This nerdy programmer guy actually thinks he can be the handyman for the apartment he rented from me?!" -Multiple landlords that I saved endless amounts of $ being their live-in handy man.

I've installed ceiling fans, I've installed central air and ducting, I've taken care of all the yard work, shoveling, plowing, and ice breaking. Anything that didn't require a certified professional was in my wheelhouse and where a landlord came to fully understand and trust my skills and judgement we came to a great middle ground where my work would help offset things like bills or rent when there were no more bills to cover the costs of.

>So, when I have the opportunity to get gifts for friends' kids, I usually look for things like soldering irons or good screwdrivers.

THAT IS GREAT ADVICE! I've given relatives and friends books on coding (when they showed interest in my job / career) but I never thought of that. I usually tend to try and give that advice / teach them myself, first person -- but not everyone is always ready right then to be taught. People want to operate on their own and at a pace of their own, especially if they are feeling any sort of anxiety about trying something new or having to "perform" tasks that are out of their wheel house. The thing is, with a little practice, the handy man stuff isn't all that tough!

Just watching someone like Adam Savage (Mythbusters) on his Youtube channel and how much fun he has is all the indication that I need that mostly anyone could pick up basic handy man skills. The only difference between him is that he has the most extensive and professional set of tools and machines possible, but if you pay attention to the majority of his builds, a lot of the things he does only require basic tools for the majority of the projects. He gets a lot done with basic tools and tends to only use more rare and specific / heavy duty tools because he can.

I feel that once you get the hang of handy man work and construction stuff and the like, as you said about your firewood shed. You found the dimensions of your finished project and through experience and a bit of mental planning were probably able to come up with a simple diagram if not an entire floor plan / build plan that contained dimensions, materials, and instructions for cobbling it all together.

Once you've done things like that a few times it opens up the possibilities endlessly and so long as you measure twice and cut once you can seriously continue onward and build anything you like.

>When something breaks, I like to think about how much worse it could get if I were to fail at fixing it - usually there's minimal real risk. If you make it worse, you're not likely to repeat the same mistake; you've learned something, and there will always be another broken thing to apply that knowledge to.

AH! I'm so glad I made that post now. You are so right. The big takeaway I get from this last part from you is that -- especially for us computer-types who love to figure out how things work, reverse engineer stuff, take stuff apart and tinker with them -- even if you fail after taking something apart and not being able to fix it you wind up learning lots about the thing / things in general.

I've never walked away from a failure of a hobby project without some sort of epiphany or clue about something that came to help me out in the future. Experimenting with hobby work / handy man work and getting the chance to build things yourself and even fail if you don't succeed still provides enjoyment and education. Those are the types of things I would love to pass on to as many as I can. Those are the things I wish schools were teaching. And those are the things that, these days, I wish more people understood and did on their own free time.

> The VERY BEST wood working / handy man show NO CONTEST

TOH was the best handyman show for sure. But he woodworking content was negligible. The Woodright Shop is the best woodworking show.

I'll check it out. I was also young when I watched it and just remember being mesmerized even if it wasn't my favorite subject / show to watch. It made me want to construct the SHIT out of things, you know?

I am honestly excited for you. I can't believe you haven't seen The Woodwright Shop. Roy has been doing this for at least 37 years!

Pick an episode that you think sounds interesting. Roy's presentation style can be a little strange at first but give him a chance...


first up, awesome post! I grew up in much the same way(i'm 35, from lower middle class/upper lower class). If it was at all possible to do it our selves, we did because didn't have much choice.

Today I live on a hobby farm and I still use all the same things I learned back when. i keep a hefty stock pile of "junk" for re-purpose and have rebuilt most of the building, motors, and tools I have.

I've got 2 sons and they both think it's funny watching me fix random stuff with other random stuff. But it's a skill I've watched them pick up. i'm happy knowing they can fix what needs fixed and they're confidence never wavers when they want to build something.

Haha, that's awesome and a hobby farm sounds fantastic. It's great you get to pass on the skills to your two sons. Just know, they might not understand it now, but one day even if they don't verbalize it and especially in the world we are in today, your boys will really be grateful for the knowledge they got from watching / working with you.

I think people in general have diverse hobbies, and when combined with what's usually more than a passing knowledge of a lot of their parents' careers and hobbies, you end up with a very wide well of knowledge in any sizable group.

What makes HN special in my view is that people like to share that knowledge, and this is a very welcoming place to do so. I think the average HN user may be more open to learning new things (or at a minimum learning about new things). It's a great place to share that random trivia you know with a good chance someone will be appreciative.

I'm a very beginning (you might even say aspiring) woodworker. My hobbies are that, and farming. Which are completely different from what I do at work.

Riving is still used for producing timber that needs to have perfectly straight grain with minimal runout, most notably the tops of acoustic guitars. The difference in stiffness between a rived and sawn top can be drastic, with commensurate benefits in tone.



Also for the production of English long bows for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.

They carefully included heartwood for the front and sapwood for the rear of the bow. That gave the bow the most strength and benefits of a modern laminate bow in a single piece of wood.

It is also important for making straight arrows that don't warp or shatter either, especially in the olden days when arrows were made by hand and thus very expensive/time consuming.

Also, baseball bats.

Wood roofing shakes are riven.

And wine barrels.

The article was hosted on hurstwic.org, which is a website dedicated to teaching Viking martial arts. It does not claim that riving is purely a Viking technique. I suppose it could have mentioned that, but I doubt the author ever considered their article making it to the front page of HN.


Sadistic? Ancient armies regularly hacked at each other with these battle axes, along with swords, spears, and other sharp weapons.

It was as normal as guns are today.

I think he meant sadistic purely in the context of woodworking, not in the context of military.


I own a table saw and have been working with wood as a matter of practical necessity for the past several months while renovating a home; this article wouldn't be the first time I've stumbled upon the term riving in the context of woodworking.

So when a 17-image photojournal describing a manual woodworking procedure concludes with a battle axe pose remarking on its ability to chop through a leg bone, the prose struck me as aggressively misplaced. I mean table saw and chain saw accidents are relatively commonplace and surely claim a fair number of limbs every year, but the efficiency of a woodworking tool in its misuse case isn't typically paraded as a metric of merit...unless you're an organization dedicated to combat training...then the prose makes complete sense.

Thanks for explaining. I appreciate the reply and respect your position, though I still don’t quite agree.

I'm not even sure it's about battle, I think it's just being aware of where misplaced a axe blow will end up (missing your target when chopping wood and hitting yourself in the shin or foot is a common injury).

Oh and boy has that happened to me. Not an axe specifically but a machete!

I thought he or she was calling severing a leg with a battle axe sadistic (which I disagree with, depending on the context).

Given what I believed to be strict woodworking context and before GP shined light on the combat training mission of the host organization, that's exactly what I was thinking. I hadn't realized that the intent of the photojournal was to demonstrate manual riving as a means of fabricating a weapon handle.

My house built in around 1880 still has lath and plaster ceilings (wooden battens with plaster applied over the top of it). The lath is made from riven oak because it needs the strength at quite small dimensions.

> It's also used today by "green woodworkers" - woodworkers who specialize in building using non-dried wood.

What's the advantage of that technique?

The wood is stronger, as stated by several post above, because the wood fibers are intact all the way through the piece. This is important for chairs in particular, because they take quite large stresses for their size and weight. Apparently green wood is easier to carve as well - I don't have direct experience of that. And finally, it can be steamed and bent. That's how you get the curved wood pieces in chairs.

Riving is the right way to start if you’re making your own dowels too.

Rive first, true the dowel later; use a trivial cylindrical hydraulic cavitation method, extract dowels...only what trivial method was that again? Packing group twice, cavitate once mon.

I suppose you take off your ring and stick it on one side of the branch, push it with a series of hardwood staves while a friend brakes the stock so that a density minimum always appears true, ahead of the ring, and then continue until the limit theorem packing fails to brake?


This must explain why so many broom handles are crap - they have been cut.


Jennie Alexander, an amazing woodworker who just passed away last week, wrote on this topic extensively. Check out her books 'Make a Chair from a Tree'

Her profile on Lost Art Press is a fantastic read: https://blog.lostartpress.com/2017/05/25/meet-the-author-jen...

I do this kind of woodworking as a hobby. A lot of the material I use has been riven or split from firewood or yard trees. I mostly use dry or half dry wood, but sometimes also green stuff.

It is a bit time consuming, but not that much when I take into account that I don't need to be transporting stuff to a sawyer and back home, then to a shop with jointers and planers and whatnot. I can do it all in my home shop with a handful of tools whenever I want.

Here's a gallery of a firewood project I made for a contest earlier this year: https://m.imgur.com/gallery/TCgqd

Riving(rive) means tearing or splitting in Norwegian and English. The word comes from Old Norse and is commonly used in Norwegian, but I didn't know it also was an english word.

To me "I couldn't open it, so I had to rive it." sounds like Petter Solberg(known to mix norwegian and english) trying to speak english. "It's not the fart that kills, it's the smell" (fart meaning speed in norwegian, and smell meaning crash)

If it is a word in English outside of a wood working context, it must be obsolete. I don't think you'd have much luck being understood if you slipped it into casual conversation.

so would "rivendell" mean to "split a forest" or something along those lines?

Split valley[1]. The "deep valley of the cleft" reconstruction in the article feels a bit forced for Tolkien, but I can't see immediately that they weren't his words.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivendell#Etymology

A “dell” is a valley usually surrounded by woods, in English usage. I don’t think it means forrest.

The Danish translation is "Kløvedal", literally "cleaved valley".

A while ago, I ended up watching a video about making roofing shingles using hand tools, which uses the same technique, but on only ~footlong logs.


If you want to scare yourself some time, watch the shingle sawyers do this with power tools.


That's interesting, but riving them with a shingle axe looks faster to me. At least the guys I've seen do it. And there's no wasted material, or very little at least, compared to a saw kerf.

(An example here, not using a shingle axe but a froe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FjpmFwVLtM )

I had to stop when it got to the guy casually smoking a cigarette and manipulating logs while not looking as they came out of the 2-foot-diameter spinning blade of death.

There's a video somewhere that's even worse, where the guy is also doing the 2 foot diameter blade by hand as well instead of it being autofed.

I rather like this video. I aspire to chop so well.


The wood looks like somewhat dried aspen, not the worst to chop. Not to dismiss her skill, at all.

If you want to go down the rabbit hole on cool old school woodworking techniques, check this out: http://www.pbs.org/woodwrightsshop/home/

Reminds me of a scene in "Happy People", a documentary about life in the Russian taiga, where the hunter fashioned a pair of skis by splitting a tree.

Link if you're interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cPhWpprLmM

The word ski even etymologically comes from a split piece of wood. The cognates in German (Scheit) and apparently also Icelandic (skið) and English (shide) actually still mean that.


Planks created by riving can have a triangular cross-section rather than a rectangular cross-section. The first picture at http://lumberjocks.com/MattNC/blog/37466 is a good example.

You can create "rectangular boards" by riving too.

Fun fact, this is the same root as Riven.

Or rift.

In Icelandic "rífa" is the common verb for "tear" (as in tearing things apart). Its plural middle voice [1] form is "rífast", literally "we tear ourselves", means to have an argument (as in a disagreement, not logic).

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/middle_voice

See also this technique in the making of an English longbow:


You need wood that'd fit into your stove but only have (maybe fallen) trees around?

Well, duh. That's what you do. You cut it to the convinient length, take an ax and split 'em.

The crafts and stuff grow from that. How do you think boards were made before sawmills?

I mean, really, people were building log cabins for thousands of years before vikings. How do you think the logs were cleaned of bark and brought to more or less uniform diameter for that? This same technique and instruments.

I wish the photos were bigger - as someone who has no idea about woodworking, it's hard to tell what's actually going on in some of them.

The modern equivalent still common in Australia and probably other countries where you turn one log into 5 fence posts: https://youtu.be/rILXrWcav_Q

Funny, I'm always knee deep in long shavings when cutting that way, much shorter knotty lumps which won't split with an axe. Matter of wood, or special chain perhaps? Birch, pine, spruce and normal cutting chain&teeth, in my case. Or maybe there is a non-obvious technique?

Not an expert but I'd suspect it's your timber choice. The specific tree is also important as you want a clean and straight trunk.

I'm Australia based so usual timber for this is; iron bark, jarrah, blackbutt and red gum. We have pine but I've never seen it used as split posts. Only round posts that have been treated.

I’d be wanting chaps at a minimum. Kickback with cuts like that must be easy to achieve.

I recently acquired a gransfors bruks axe for a sculpture I was working on - and I have discovered a newfound love for scandinavian woodworking tools. My arsenal is almost entirely Japanese but I might convert over the next few years.

How is the Granfors axe? I'm considering getting a right handed broad axe from them, but it is quite expensive. I have their froe and it seems to be great.

I'm contemplating either buying one from them or going to a blacksmithing course in Estonia to forge one myself. The price is about the same but doing it myself would give me new skills and experience.

Great all around products from my experience.

They look and feel good, they are easy to sharpen, take a good edge. Most axes are made for green woodworking/soft wood and using them on hard seasoned wood may work and dull the edge fast though.

Hultafors, wetterlings and husqvarna also produce similar products in quality, sometimes cheaper. Granfors has a broader offer, when it comes to specialty tools, such as bearded axes.

Yeah, there are lots of options for splitting mauls, forestry axes and camping hatchets but the only right handed (bevel on one side only) broad axe I've found is the Granfors.

If you happen to know cheaper quality alternatives, I'm all ears.

I have used a bunch of carving axes - nothing matches the gransfors.

I wonder if there are people revisiting non powered 'machinery'. Instead of using your hands directly (which are probably super inefficient), why not make rail to guide the force ?

I would imagine this wood-working technique wasn't unique to the Scandinavians. For one thing, a wedge is much simpler to make than a saw.

French have a word for people producing wine barrel material: "merrandier".

A "merrandier" will select trees (usually straight oak of a certain age), put them down and to size (the logs are then called "merrain", hence the name), split them using wedges, along the grain, them resplit using a froe (called "départoir", which is just a dull blade with a lever), then refine the smaller bit using a specific tool (called "queue d'hirondelle").

The resulting bits will be send to the barrel maker to be shaped into staves (called "douelles").

Riving is at the heart of the process, and is meant to provide longevity in resistance and impermeability.

To your point: a saw is really just a series of sharpened wedges

not exactly - saw makes the cut moving along the line of cut while axe - perpendicular. The significant point of difference here is that axe/wedge/etc. thus presses closed the vascular structure of the wood in the area of the cut, while sawing leaves it open - the result is that cut wood is easier to permeate by moisture.

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