Penetration, Saturation and Coating, 3 Main Factors in Oiling Wooden Axe and Tool Handles

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Over the years I keep evolving and refining my methods and understanding of the process of oiling tool handles.  Although it is painfully simple, the obvious is not always so obvious.  I've been soaking my handles pretty deeply with oil for a long time, but still have had something of a fixation on coating them with a protective coat.  Until, I realized that a well saturated handle is it's own finish, and more.

a Coating ona a handle is a barrier between the wood and the environment.  But does it achieve that goal well, and what is the goal anyway?  The goal is to protect the handle from environmental changes in moisture basically.  Moisture swells the wood, and when it leaves, the wood shrinks.  When wood shrinks, it is stressed and those stressed can lead to cracks.   For some reason cracks seem more likely to form if the wood swells and shrinks repeatedly.  If the wood swells within the eye of a tool, the wood compresses against the hard metal of the eye walls, becoming crushed.  When it shrinks on drying again, it many shrink smaller, than it was before it expanded.  That is why soaking the eye of a tool in water when it is loose will eventually make it even looser.  A good thick coating of cured linseed oil can help prevent the entry of moisture, and anytime oil is used on a handle, some of it soaks into the wood to some depth, bringing in the factor of penetration, which must help some.  A coating is basically still very thin though and will wear off over time.  These are handles remember,  They are essentially rubbed over and over again.  And although some penetration is always occurring, the questions to ask is how much good is penetration when it is shallow and of a low saturation.

Enter Saturation.  Saturation if you look it up, basically means full or at maximum capacity.  But it is commonly used with a quantifier or clarification like partially, mostly, completely.  If I soak a handle numerous times with linseed oil, it will penetrate to a certain depth, but unless it is applied regularly and in quantity, it will have a very low saturation as the oil spreads itself out deep into the wood structure.  Eventually, it either reaches the middle or some unknown depth and starts to increase it's saturation eventually filling the wood to the point that no more will soak in.  This 2 minute video shows the process I pretty much use now.  If you get tired of adding expensive oil to a handle, try stopping for a month to let the oil in the handle cure and penetration should slow down.  Some handles will take a lot of oil.  Fortunately, oil is light.

Now if we think about a handle that is fully saturated with oil, for even 1/8 of an inch deep, let alone more, we now have something like the equivalent of a 1/8 inch coating.  But even more cool, it is actually protecting the wood itself by filling the pores and structures that water would fill.  If you leave such a handle out in the weather, water droplets just bead up on it and sit there.  Not recommended, they aren't necessarily immune to moisture, but it's telling.

droplets on a well saturated knife handle.  Two hours later they were still there, though smaller, but I have little doubt that at least the majority of missing water left be way of evaporation and not penetration.  That is a test better done in high humidity, not on a warm breezy morning.  This handle has probably not been oiled since it was originally treated 2 or 3 years ago.  After all, the treatment cannot wear off.

droplets on a well saturated knife handle.  Two hours later they were still there, though smaller, but I have little doubt that at least the majority of missing water left be way of evaporation and not penetration.  That is a test better done in high humidity, not on a warm breezy morning.  This handle has probably not been oiled since it was originally treated 2 or 3 years ago.  After all, the treatment cannot wear off.

Try it on a handle and see what you think.  It is a long process and the oil is not always cheap.  many tools are also not subjected to much in the way of atmospheric changes, so it's not something we have to use everywhere.  I'm pretty sold on it though and any axe that I plan to keep and use gets the full treatment now.  Dudley cook recommends the same basically, but he maintains with an occasional coat, which I think is unnecessary if the wood on the outside of the handle is well saturated.  The wood essentially becomes it's own finish.  If the wood will ever take oil on and soak it up, do it, but it it doesn't, there is no need to keep coating it. 

I use food grade linseed oil (usually labeled as flax oil, which is the same thing) anymore and have found ways to pick it up cheap enough.  Boiled linseed oil is toxic and I think it probably dries too fast.  Prices change on amazon constantly, but this brand is usually about the cheapest, but do your own research.  I've also found flax oil at the local cheap food outlet where they send overstock and expiring stuff.  Other oils can be used as well, walnut, hemp, poppyseed and tung oil should be adequate, but I really haven't used any of them enough to say for sure.

For handles that you don't need to saturate, I recommend a thin coat of oil once or twice a year, or better, just whenever you have an oily linseed rag.  Raw linseed oil will cure, it just takes longer.  So called "boiled linseed oil" contains metallic driers and solvents that speed curing time.

I have more ideas and experiments brewing around this problem, and no doubt you'll hear more about it in the future.

Bark Tannned Leather Clinic With Zack, Vegetable Tanning

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Zack Hribar came over to show me his first batch of bark tanned leather.  We shot an informal video talking about them and vegetable tanning options, troubleshooting the hides, stories and that sort of thing.  It was fun.  Zack is an enthusiastic new bark tanner, check him out on instagram as z._hriack_bar

Winnowing Seeds for the Bulgarian Giant Leek Seed Saving Project

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Seed saving requires seed cleaning.  In this video I use simple methods to clean the leek seeds from the Bulgarian Giant Leek seed saving project.  Without the use of fans, and without any breeze, seeds can be winnowed and "sifted" on flat tightly woven baskets.  The seeds will be ready in 2 or 3 weeks after final drying, germination testing and packaging.

Etter's Blood Apples, Unique, Beautiful and Tasty, Red Flesh, Red Flavor

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This year I have three of apple breeder Albert Etter's red fleshed apples fruiting.  They are very unique and interesting apples, though they still represent unfinished work.  Red fleshed apples will be coming more and more into the public eye over the coming years.  They could have arrived much sooner had anyone taken up Etter's work, which was already well started.  With all their faults, these apples are still worth growing.  Also a short video on Gold Rush, which might be the apple I've seen most universally endorsed by home growers for flavor, keeping ability and disease resistance.

Axe Grinding Dummy Rule, the Fan or Crescent Grind, What's Up With that?

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It is very rare for axes to come out of the factory in good chopping condition.  If an axe does not cut, more of the energy of every swing will be dissipated as useless percussive energy- pounding away on a log.  Failure to cut well causes more handle shock and is just less fun.  An axe that doesn't cut well may also be more likely to glance.  A guideline stated in some books and not infrequently repeated, is that the area that you grind to make a new axe cut well should be in a sort of fan shape.  Some sources also recommend that it is a certain depth, three inches.  While that can be fine, there are various circumstances where application of that as a rule simply won't work.  This is the classic dummy rule scenario, where a guideline that is already rough, even in a context where it is at least applicable, is broadly stated without any qualification.  I made this video for two reasons.  One is that the recommendation causes confusion and someone asked me about it recently.  The other is that I think people should not use it as a recommendation, but more like a point of interest in context.

The rule is not applicable to any but one approach to axe design, which I've seen people refer to as high center-line.  These axes are exceedingly common in America, comprising the great majority.  They have a hollow between the eye and the cheek of the axe, and a convex shape from side to side.  When one of these is thinned out until it chops well, the result is often this sort of fan shape.  It does not apply to other styles of axe shape, like flat wedges, some flat, slab-like European axes, or axes with a fairly narrow sharpened bevel, with little to no convexity from toe to heel, and with a hollow right behind it.  It simply does not apply at all to those three types of axes.

Another thing that is silly about this rule is offering any specific measure of how far back the axe should be ground from the edge assumes too much.  To say that it should be ground 3 inches back, or any other number is to misguide.  While the style of axes that the rule does apply to will typically have a lot in common, variability in design and manufacture render any specific recommendation arbitrary.

Axes as they come from the manufacturer are rarely in chopping condition.  They require not just sharpening, but significant filing or grinding to remove a bulk of metal in order to thin the cheeks of the axe so that it will cut well.  If you have this classic pattern of american axe, convex from side to side and with a mid blade hollow as Dudley Cook calls it, it will probably file into some semblance of a half circle or fan shape.  That shape can vary a great deal though in it's shape and dimensions from variability in the manufacture of axe heads.

Suggestions on how to grind axes vary quite a bit and are typically vague.  The most thorough treatment is in Dudley Cook's, The Axe Book.  Both An Axe to Grind, put out by the USDA, and the book that it draws heavily from Woodsmanship, by Bernard S. Mason, (both free to read online) provide a traceable template for measuring the bevels and curvature from the edge back, which is a much more useful tool and idea and in these cases is meant to be used in conjunction with the concept of filing to a fan shape.  To look at the fan shape alone, give it any actual dimensions and suggest it be applied broadly to axes is, I think, a bad idea in any case.  Dummy rules are often not useful and sometimes harmful.  In my opinion, they make dummies more than they serve them.

As to how best to grind your axe for chopping, the mason book is probably a good place to start, if you have that high center line type of axe.  It provides a template for the edge and a little way back of it.  Just ignore the recommendation on the depth of the fan being 3 inches deep, which it may very well not.  Also, remember that the fan shape it not the goal.  An axe with thinned cheeks that cuts well is the goal and the fact that it will end up a fan or crescent shape of some description is closer to a point of interest than a rule.  In some cases, the original shape of the axe may be very uneven, or not a "classic" representation of it's type.  You can file the sides to relieve the cheeks to achieve something more along the lines of that fan shape, in which case the idea becomes more useful.  Anyone interested enough in axes to read this should also own The Axe Book, and Dudley Cook is more specific in there about geometry than any thing else I've seen in paper print, digital print or on video.  Approaches vary however, so each of these is just the Authors belief or preference and we would do well not to take such as gospel from anyone.  I don't have enough of an opinion on three dimensional geometry of axes to make any kind of recommendation, but the bottom line is that your axe needs to cut.  Of course grind may vary with intended use, skill level and species cut.

Cherry Cox Apple Variety and a Few Others, Tasting and Review

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When I moved here 12 years ago, one of the first things I did was start to plan my fruit orchards.  I well knew then that the time to plant a fruit tree is ten years ago, now I might extend that to 15.  I began doing research on apple varieties, which I was very unfamiliar with.  I figured there must be hundreds of them, but the best resource I had available was a thick book called Cornucopia, a source book of edible plants which only listed a few of what I later found out were probably tens of thousands of named varieties.  I also talked to friend and fruit explorer Freddy Menge, who made his best recommendations at the time.  I had helped Mark Dupont of Sandy Bar nursery graft his first batch of fruit trees many years before, and had an outstanding favor owed for fruit trees whenever I finally got my own place.  I called in that favor.  Looking through their catalogue, they said they had a variety called cherry cox that had become a homestead favorite.  I was intrigued.   They had no trees to sell that year, but Mark sent me a scion, one of the first scions I grafted onto frankentree.  I've since sent out lots of scions to other people all over the country.

Cherry Cox has not disappointed.  It really does taste like cherries, among other flavors.  Few descriptions mention that it has a cherry flavor, suggesting even that the name is for the redder color it has.  There is no doubt though that the name is from the flavor, though I don't doubt that it does not always develop and some say they can't detect it at all.  It was also precocious, being one of the first apples to ever fruit on frankentree and one of the most consistent since.  If anything, it sets too much fruit, though it has taken years off as almost any apple will do when poorly managed.  It seems healthy enough so far, but I can't say too much about that as apple diseases are just getting a real foothold here.  It does get scab, and I think it could be called moderately susceptible.  Don't quote me on that, it's just a vague impression.

Cherry Cox is a sport of the very famous Cox's Orange Pippin.  A sport is a bud mutation.  One bud on a tree mutates into something new and thus begins a new variety, no tree sex required.  While many sports are very minor variations on the parent tree, Cherry Cox seems to be considerably different than it's parent.  It tastes different, performs different, allegedly keeps longer, and I'd just about bet that if you planted rows of each side by side there would be some obvious differences.  I was at my friend Tim Bray's orchard and his Cox's Orange Pippins were notably small and the trunks and branches completely covered in lichens, unlike the other trees.  They are known for their poor growability and have no doubt only survived by the virtue of exceptional flavor.  Cox's Orange Pippin is widely used in apple breeding because of it's eating quality, and is probably the apple most commonly said to be the best out of hand eating apple in the world.  Cox's Orange Pippin is indeed one of the few apples I've ever eaten worthy of the classification "best".  Even at it's best, Cherry cox is still not in that category.  It's a good lesson though that Cox's Orange Pippin seems to do poorly under my conditions and cherry cox is consistently good to very good.

Flavor wise, Cherry Cox has a lot going on, like it's parent Cox's Orange Pippin it is complex.  Obvious flavors are cherry, something almost like cherry cough drops, but in a good way, Anise is also present and I've detected some flavor of spice.  There is certainly more going on, other fruit flavors, but I'm not good at picking them out.  If I were to change things about Cherry Cox, I would.  It could use more sugar, which would bring the flavors out more.  Have you ever noticed how much better fruit tastes when you sprinkle sugar on it?  It's not just that it's sweeter, sugar is to fruit what salt is to meat and savory foods.  Cook a fantastic soup with no salt and you will barely taste the potential of it's flavor.  Add salt to it and boom, flavor city.  The cherry flavor develops early in cherry cox, but the sugar develops late.  It is a fairly acidic apple, and maybe even tart before it gets really ripe.  I would not reduce the acidity, I would just balance it with more sugar.  More sugar would also make it a richer flavored apple.  It can be a little thin tasting at times.  More scab resistance wouldn't hurt.  In the Beauty department it lacks nothing. It's is a beautiful apple.  it can grow plenty large under good cultural conditions, though it is not generally a very large apple.  Cherry Cox is a little known and little grown apple.  I doubt it has great potential as a broader market apple, but it has huge potential as a small scale specialty orchard and farmer's market apple.  And then there is the breeding potential.

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Looking toward improvement, I think cherry cox is very promising breeding material.  If nothing else for the cherry flavor, but it also must carry most of the exceptional flavor gene pool of Cox's Orange Pippin.  My own breeding efforts include Cherry Cox crossed with various other apples.  If my efforts don't breed anything exceptional, maybe they will produce something that is worth using in further breeding.  I've crossed it with several red fleshed apples in the hopes that I might be lucky enough to co-mingle the berry flavors of blood apples with C.C.'s complexity and cherry flavor.  I've also crossed it with Sweet Sixteen, which has sometimes a cherry candy component, while also being a good grower and carrying some disease resistance.  I've crossed it with Wickson for higher sugar content and unique flavor and probably others I'm forgetting about.  I think Golden Russet might be a good candidate since it is one of the best apples I've ever tasted, and it also has an extremely high sugar content.  I'd like to see more crosses made along these lines.  I would like to see Cherry Cox crossed with sweet 16 and Sweet 16 also crossed with the generally scab susceptible red fleshed apples, and the offspring of both back crossed in an attempt to keep Sweet Sixteen's scab resistance, while reinforcing the cherry component and hoping for a red fleshed offspring.... or something along those lines.  I don't know anything about breeding for scab resistance, but the information on dominance of traits is available out there somewhere if one cared to look for it.  I've got all of those genetic crosses made, and then some, so fingers crossed.

Cherry Cox crossed with Rubaiyat in 2013 and with Pink Parfait this past spring, both red fleshed apples.

Cherry Cox crossed with Rubaiyat in 2013 and with Pink Parfait this past spring, both red fleshed apples.

For various reasons, I'll have few Cherry Cox scions to offer for grafting, if any.  Being uncommon, it may be hard to find scions, but I think with a little effort they can be found.  The more that people grow it, the more scions will be available.  If you have a scion exchange in your area, that is a good place to look.  Online scion trading and fruit discussions can be found at GrowingFruit.org and The North American Scion Exchange.  Information on grafting can now by found on my Youtube channel and on this website.

Cherry Cox trees are listed for sale at Raintree Nursery and Maple Valley lists scions and benchgrafts.


Other apples in my cherry cox tasting video that are worth mentioning are:

Egremont Russet:  A nice russet.  Not up to the best russets as it is grown here, but a good performer and very good at it's best.  Stephen Hayes in the UK is a big fan.  Here is his video review.

 Sam Young is an Irish apple that is rare in the US.  My small branch is just starting to fruit, but seems promising. It's somewhat russeted and is also known as Irish Russet.  I'll be keeping an eye on this one.  It is hard and very sweet.  Below are some old descriptions.

Old Sam Young

Old Sam Young

Sam Young:  Fruit small, flattish, about an inch and half from the eye to the stalk, and two inches in its transverse diameter; eye remarkably large, having some of the calyx attached to it; colour yellowish clouded with russet, reddish to the sun; very apt to crack; flesh yellowish, firm, crisp, sweet and well flavoured. In use from the beginning of November to January. Tree flat headed, shoots declining, of a light brown colour ; leaves sub-rotund, acuminate, coarsely serrated, upper surface shining, under slightly pubescent. An abundant bearer, and healthy on all soils.

Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, 1820
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Sam Young, aka Irish Russet:

Fruit of a smallish size, somewhat globular, flattened, about one inch and three quarters deep, and two inches and a half in diameter. Eye remarkably wide and open, in a broad depression. Stalk short. Skin bright yellow, with minute brown spots, and a considerable quantity of russet, especially round the stalk; in some specimens red on the sunny side, usually cracking. Flesh inclining to yellow, mixed with green; tender, and melting. Juice plentiful, sweet, with a delicious flavour, scarcely inferior to that of the Golden Pippin.
An Irish dessert apple, of high reputation, ripe in November, and will keep good for two months.
The merits of this very valuable apple were made known in 1818 by Mr. Robertson, of Kilkenny. It is certainly one of the best of our modern apples, and cannot have too general a cultivation.

A Guide to the Orchard and Fruit Garden: Or, An Account of the Most Valuable Fruits Cultivated in Great Britain, 1833


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Giant Leek Seeds Ripe After About a Year and a Half

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Over a year and a half ago, I planted Giant Bulgarian leek seeds from a line saved over a handful of plant generations.  Now the seeds from that latest generation of plants are ripe and we are in the final stretch to get them out to whomever wishes to plant them.  The project was to save seed, while also continuing to select for leeks with certain characteristics, as I always do.  A combination of length and girth, general uprightness and tidiness, and tightly clasping leaves are my basic criteria.  I selected about 12 leeks in the end. 

There is much more at stake in seed saving that just our own practical needs.  Yes, it's cheaper and it assures you can get the variety you want since any variety can be dropped by any seed company at any time.  Sure, it's also a good way to adapt varieties to your growing conditions over time.  But all that practical stuff aside, seed saving embraces a different mindset than buying seeds, and has become by default a political act.  Seed laws have become increasingly favorable to those entities with power and influence who have a vested interest in controlling and owning genes.  Meanwhile, fewer and fewer efforts are made in the commercial realm to serve home growers by creating new varieties suited to the home garden.  Well, we can serve ourselves.  Seed saving is the next level of involvement in our own food supply.  Someday I'll type up a sermon on the subject, but many gardeners are now at that level when it's time to move into basic seed saving.  The step after that is creating new varieties, which it is actually a great time to do now.

Saving seed from some plants, like leeks, is quite easy.  Other than elephant garlic, leeks should not inter-breed with any other onion family plants.  So, all you have to do is pick the best leeks and let them run to seed.  It takes time, but you'll have a pile of big pile of seeds from 6 or 8 leeks.  You may get some genetic bottlenecking saving only a few plants like that, but you can always introduce another line, or even another variety and let them cross to reinvigorate and add new genes to the mix.  Then you might be on your way to selecting out a new variety...  If I were to continue this project, that is exactly what I would do.  I probably won't though, so maybe someone else will.

When this seed is dry and processed I will make it available in the Webstore on SkillCult.com. My patrons over on Patreon get first chance, but I think there are plenty to go around.  I will probably sell them in small quantities to make them go further.  To me the point is to get them to more people.  The more people I get them to, the more chance someone will continue saving and selecting this great variety.

Here is the full playlist for this project

Posted on October 15, 2017 .

Opinel No 8 Knife Modifications and Cheese Glue Experiment

The videos below are about modifying a popular knife.  This basic French Opinel No. 8 model is a lightweight, easy to sharpen pocket knife that whatever combination of reasons has stood the test of time.  I like a few things about it, and dislike a few, so I picked one up to play with and modify as necessary.  What I do like is the thin carbon steel blade, the light weight and the low cost.  It is similar to a sheath knife in size and function, but the folding design and the light weight make it an entirely different animal than most pocket knives.  It doesn't weigh down your pants or draw any attention in the pocket.  I dislike the small round handle and the shape of the tip of the knife.  I'm also not crazy about the sharp radius on the belly near the tip, but haven't yet modified that. As far as build goes, I'd say it's well put together for what it is, though there are obvious limitations and potential pitfalls, mostly in the joint "hinge" area.  The joint can only be so strong and the wood is obviously prone to swelling and shrinking.  That said, robustness is far from everything.

Many modern knives are overbuilt to my way of thinking.  I think the phenomenon is due to overthinking extreme scenarios where strength is paramount because survival of the knife is equated with survival of the person.  If functionality for everyday common tasks, or even important infrequent tasks is lost in favor of robustness, then the design has in turn lost me.  While this is far from a robust knife, and certainly may not be hurt by a dose of robustness, it does seem like it has potentially good functionality for a lot of everyday stuff and things that are important to me.  If it is damaged or worn out, it is inexpensive to replace and ditto if it is lost.  As a beginner knife, there are certain advantages to a cheap knife, but also to a not-too-robust knife.  With this knife a new user that puts it through the learning experience is not likely to be left with a false sense of security that might be imparted by an overbuilt knife.  The thin blade, weak attachment point and delicate tip are not going to withstand much abuse.  Honestly, bending and breaking tips, mangling edges, loosening joints or even outright breakage are almost an essential part of the learning curve that will serve well down the road.  Where else do we learn the limits of our knives, but by crossing them?

I've not used it enough to know if there are other things that I will really dislike about it, but will probably use it a lot and none too gently, although I'm not likely to flagrantly abuse it.  I've used enough knives and have enough opinions that I would already like to see a model that is optimized for more all around use, though modifying this one is not so difficult.  There is also a model with an unfinished handle that can be carved to suit the user and it's the same price roughly.  I haven't seen it in person, but it might solve the handle issue and even an inexperienced filer can probably take the tip down to make it more functional in 15 minutes or less with a sharp file.

The shape at the tip of the knife just has to go.  This is the most important, non-negotiable modification, requiring just a few minutes of filing.  This mod puts the tip more in line with the center-line of the knife and makes almost every task I would do with the tip easier from cleaning fingernails, to detail carving, to cutting leather and paper on a flat surface.  I can't really think of anyplace that the original tip design is going to be really advantageous for me, and it is nearly always disadvantageous rather than neutral.

The handle size and shape is not very functional.  It is round, so it turns in the hand too easily.  It is also small and doesn't fill the hand up, which can cause cramping and require excessive grip to keep it stable, especially since it is round and prone to turning.  And finally, it is hard to tell how the knife is oriented in the hand without looking at it.  The shape of the base gives some idea of the plane the blade is oriented in, but it's not like the simple automatic feel of an oval handle which drops the blade right into line where it should be.  I used some wood shavings with casein glue as an experiment toward a sort of natural glue laminate to build the back of the handle up.  Cheese glue is more or less waterproof or water resistant, otherwise I would have used hide glue.  I'm not sure I got the mix right or if this will really be water-proof/resistant.  I really need to do some formal testing and experimentation with casein glues and paints to better understand capabilities and limitations.  It's neat stuff though and was once a common glue and paint base when and where water resistance was required.

Deer Leg Skins, Sinews, Hooves, Hide Fleshing and Processing Videos

I shot some footage to possibly use as support videos for my book, Buckskin, The Ancient Art of Braintannning which is in process for reprinting.  These are some videos I put together from that footage recently.  More for the archives.

HillBilly Science, Decoding of Practical Wisdom, It is Momentum and Not Weight Alone Which Chops Wood.

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Some are readers, others are watchers and I'm sure a few are both.  I have two videos and a full blog post today on the same basic theme.  The short video is meant to be a more accessible, shareable, quick download of bullet points and the long version is my nerdy love child.  This is my new strategy if I can pull it off, long geeky video, short shareable quicky video, instagram trailer and blog post.  This project started out when I pulled out Ellsworth Jaeger's book WildWood Wisdom, set it on my kitchen table, turned on a camera and started talked for 15 minutes.  It was supposed to be a super short low effort filler video.  I'm so naive.  Many versions, scripts, shoots, a blog post and 3 or 4 full days of work later, you and I have arrived here on this virtual page.

The short version

The Long Version


The Blog Post

I just dug out Ellsworth Jaeger’s copiously illustrated Wildwood Wisdom from storage.  This book is so much fun to spend a little time with some evening.  It's been a long time since I read any of it and I don't recall it having the best information ever, but it is by far the most fun woodcraft book because it is packed with amusing illustrations.  They alone really are worth the price of admission.  I suggest that anyone who has leanings toward woodcraft/bushcraft type of interests and pursuits get a copy on loan through your local library (if you still have one).  Print copies are cheap used.  https://www.alibris.com/Wildwood-Wisdom-Ellsworth-Jaeger/book/7228375

Illustration from Ellsworth Jaeger's Wildwood's Wisdom.  I haven't tried it, but I'm very skeptical of the idea of burning out axe handles like this.

Illustration from Ellsworth Jaeger's Wildwood's Wisdom.  I haven't tried it, but I'm very skeptical of the idea of burning out axe handles like this.

Of course I flipped to the axe section straight away.  It is short and contains mostly the usual information.  In it, Mr. Jaeger repeats some common, simple ideas that are somewhat misleading.  To quote him:

“HOW TO CHOP:  In chopping, remember that it is the weight of the ax that really chops, and not the force of the swing.  Too much power behind a blow destroys your aim.  The best way to chop is to swing rhythmically.  Do not use force.”

The first statement is false and the last is pretty useless.  The author takes a stab at some truths, but in a very sloppy way that fails to foster understanding at best and in misleading at worst.   I intend here to try to extract the elements of truth from Mr. Jaeger's assertions and fill in at least what I think are the important missing parts.  I suspect that something approaching truth about how weight (mass) and speed (velocity) play out in actual chopping, and how they vary with varying head weights, could get some people chopping better, quicker.  If I didn't think it were so, I wouldn't bother.

There is no real need to talk about handle length here, so we’ll assume the same length of handle on any imaginary axes.  Head shape does matter though, so we’ll also assume very similar designs and grinds regardless of the axe head weight.  Also, I use repetition and restatements intentionally to drive points home and foster understanding, so get over it ;)

The statements again:

“In chopping, remember that it is the weight of the ax that really chops, and not the force of the swing.  This first statement is incorrect.  We will get back to it, as it is really the stimulus for this conversation. 

"Too much power behind a blow destroys your aim.  Too much force can mess up your aim to be sure, though that is greatly dependent on skill level.  Timbersports competitors hit hard and accurately with heavy axes. Too much is just too much by definition, I'm just saying that what is too much is dependent on context.

"The best way to chop is to swing rhythmically.  Yeah, getting into a comfortable rhythm really does seem to help with performance.

"Do not use force.”   This last statement does not really make sense, but I think he’s just trying to say don’t use excessive force, or his definition of force inherently implies excess.  We'll touch on this in the rest of this discussion, so enough said for now.

The first statement is just not true.  “...It is the weight of the ax that really chops the wood, and not the force of the swing.” Lets look at that, because it can help us understand some basic truths about chopping with an axe.

A pretty simple concept is at play here- MASS combined with VELOCITY equals EMBODIED ENERGY.   In other words, every object has mass and if that object is traveling it embodies kinetic energy.  The faster it is traveling, the more energy it embodies.  (I'm what some might call under educated, so some of these terms may not be exactly standard, but I think the concepts are solid.  I actually consider myself over-"educated", but I managed to escape without becoming overly indoctrinated.)

If we look at this equation in terms of axes, they will do different amounts of work, depending on the speed they are traveling. 

  • If we make any given axe head travel faster, it embodies more energy to do work. 
  • The weight or MASS and the speed, or VELOCITY, can be Added or Subtracted to change the EMBODIED ENERGY, or potential to do work. 
  • A lighter axe has to travel faster to do the same work as a heavy axe travelling at a slower speed.

To understand this, we need to get past the common misconception that the chopper somehow pushes the axe through the wood, and I think that this is part of what Mr. Jaeger was trying to get at.  Depending on the weight of the axe head, it is best to think of chopping as guiding, flinging, throwing or whipping the head of the axe into the work.  By the time bit meets wood, the work is already done, so we are interested in how to embody kinetic energy in the head before it strikes.

Does the weight of the axe do all of the cutting?  No, clearly not.  Stand over a log and drop the axe onto it repeatedly.  An axe dropped won’t do as much work as it would if the axe were swung by a person, even if swung lightly.  The heavier the head though, the more the work appears to be like dropping the axe, and indeed it is.  The lighter the head, the less work it will do if it is just dropped.  But!, while a light axe must be swung faster if it is to carry the same authority as a heavy one, if I cut the weight of my axe in half, my ability to do work with a given amount of energy expended does not decrease by half.

Again, Mass and velocity together make for the embodied energy that does the cutting.  It’s just going to get more complicated from there if we keep digging into physics, but we don't need to, so lets not.  The important part here is that velocity is the significant factor we can change to cut deeper if we are given any particular axe head.  Watch any experienced user work with a light axe and they will be seen to be swinging it with some velocity and not just dropping it.  Conversely, watch any experienced user using a 4 lb axe and it will appear closer to true that they are letting the weight of the head do the work.

I think that Mister Jaeger is trying to say that the combination of weight and speed of the head (momentum) are what do the work and the axeman can chill and let that happen rather than taking a death grip on the handle with intent to bludgeon the work to pieces.  If that is Mr. Jaeger's intent, it is very poorly stated and I think it's likely that he understood the problem physically, but not intellectually. 

For example, I can drop the axe straight down onto wood and it will cut a certain amount, but how much work does an axe head's weight do if you drop it on a vertical surface like a standing tree trunk.  Answer, none, it won't fall onto a vertical surface, it will just fall to the ground.  A still axe has no embodied energy, so someone has to swing it at a vertical target to do any work.  If you chop straight down between your legs, the axe will be pulled by gravity sure enough, but it is not only difficult to add to avoid adding extra velocity to the axe at all as you guide it home, but it would also be silly.  Of course you will add a little more cutting power to the process by swinging the axe, why wouldn't you?  There is simply no happy place in this equation where the weight of the axe does all the work.  A still mass does nothing.  Since the faster it is swung the more work it will do, it is not accurate to say the head's weight does the work and the lighter the axe, the less true that becomes.  This point is not just academic, but technique must vary across a spectrum of head weights if the chopper is to be effective and not wear himself out.

If a small axe has to be swung faster, why would anyone use a light axe, such as the once common pulpwood axes with 2.5 lb heads?  Don’t we have to do more work to swing that light axe harder?  To answer that, let's ask another question, what does harder mean?  A light axe needs more velocity, but does that necessarily equate to more energy expended?  A heavier axe may do more work with less velocity, but it does still require some velocity and the force to create that velocity requires energy input.  An axe head represents an inertia that must be overcome.  Inertia, now there is a thing.

Inertia says that a mass wants to remain still if it's already still and remain moving if it's moving.  Matter it appears doesn't care much for change!  It's like getting a kid out of bed to go to school, then trying to get them to go to bed later when they are running around all hyped up.  A heavier head requires more effort to get it moving.   And of course a light head requires less energy to move, which is good, since it also requires more velocity to do the same amount of work.

 Page from Bernard S. Mason's Woodsmanship

 Page from Bernard S. Mason's Woodsmanship

 

Another issue is that the overall work required to use an axe consists of more than just accelerating the head into the work.  We also have to lift it between strokes.  The heavy axe, again, requires more effort to break it’s dead weight inertia in order lift and swing it.  If there was no cost to dead lifting that heavy axe, we might just all be using super heavy axes that we do indeed just lift and drop.  But of course an axe that requires little authority to lift also has little authority when it falls.  I may have to swing a small axe faster, but it is also easier to swing fast than a heavy axe is, and I don’t have to use as much energy to lift it for every blow.  I can lift a light axe all day long.  Likely there is a sweet spot or range in there for different people that balances these differing energy expenses.  I can do quite a bit of work with the small forest axes at only 1.5 to 1.75 lb on 25 to 26 inch handles, by whipping them into the work in a snappy fashion, but I’d rather not, in most circumstances, because they do require a lot of velocity and regardless of how I generate that, and how much of it, it becomes an issue at some point.  The good side is that I will never tire of lifting it and even if greatly fatigued, I can chop on lightly, whereas eventually a too heavy axe becomes a burden that can no longer be worked with effectively.

The issue of what head weight is best could, and no doubt has been, long argued.  There are strong proponents at both ends that could point to physics and various traditions for proof.  But, the judgement is very subjective, given different bodies and styles, let alone types of work and material cut.  I’m still working my way around handle length and head weights to figure out where I want to be with a multi-purpose axe, and that is a very personal thing.  Obviously, different configurations will be better suited to different tasks as well.  I just wanted to try to explain this though, because I think it will help people understand something important in chopping and can lead us toward better use of both light and heavy axes.

If viewed as a spectrum, as I increasingly do with many things, the extremes of light and heavy axe heads eventually decrease in functionality.  Too heavy is just too heavy for anyone except the mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan, and too light it just too light.  Sure, you can theoretically swing a very light axe very fast to achieve a high value of Momentum, but it becomes difficult or impossible at some point and the faster the swing, the more likely aim and control will suffer.  In the middle ground are a fair range of weights that can be chosen and adapted to for varied circumstances.

Here is a suggestion.  Stop thinking vaguely in terms of force and power and weight and think more about velocity.  Assuming the same angle of attack, grind etc, velocity is the thing you can change that makes any given weight and configuration cut more or less deeply, and that goes for light or heavy axes.  I am all about velocity, because velocity is something we have some control over with axe in hand.  The pursuit of velocity is also one of the things that will wear you down if you try to generate too much of it, so don't.  It's not about generating as much velocity as possible, but generating enough when it's needed and generating it efficiently.

When you hear people talk about "snap" or "power", or hitting things "hard", they are talking about velocity.  I think most don't know that though.  But, knowing exactly what that factor is that makes an axe of a fixed weight hit the work with more authority can be very enlightening and inform our work and technique for the better.  How to generate that velocity is another topic.

 

PHYSICAL EFFICIENCY

A light axe can be whipped into wood at a high velocity without all that much effort.  This is what I call physical efficiency.  That just means the amount of work actually done for the amount of energy expended by the user.  It is possible for one person to use vastly more energy to do a task than the same task done by someone with a higher physical efficiency.  If someone says that a light axe requires more work to use, they will have a hard time proving it to anyone but themselves outside of obvious extremes, and the opposite is equally true.

In cultivating physical efficiency, one obvious error is that you should not be using muscular effort that is unnecessary.  That means relaxing muscles that you do not need to be using.  Another major factor is that there are many different ways to get the axe to the same spot at the same velocity.  If the axe gets there at the same angle etc, then it should do the same amount of work, regardless of how it got there.  But, how much work and overall movement was done to get it there?  On the way, many joints articulate at different times worked by many muscles.  These orchestrations of motion are remarkable and incalculable.  We don’t think them through as they happen.  It is not a cerebral process, or at least not a conscious one and doesn't need to be. 

Over time, we hopefully get our axes to the target with the required velocity, but do that with less and less energy expended and less and less movement, or at least with the movements that require the least energy for amount of work done.  Some bullet points:

  •  Using muscles unnecessarily is a waste of energy.  Relax.
  • There is more than one way to get the axe where it’s going at a given velocity, but not all will be equally as comfortable or efficient.
  • Chill out.  Unless highly skilled, an aggressive fast pace of work will get you where you are going slower and more fatigued than if you take a more sober approach.

 

IN CLOSING

Many will go into axe work thinking that much force and effort is required.  Experienced axeists are always trying to curb that attitude by saying to relax into an easy rhythm.  One way they try to say this is to "let the weight of the axe do the work" or "Let the axe do the work".  As pointed out above, this is rarely ever actually true and it is easy when thinking in these simplistic terms to be mislead into thinking that a small axe is necessarily more work to use, because it has to be swung "harder".  As I've tried to make obvious though, there are trade offs in either direction and there is no free lunch.  In particular, I think that it is probably more difficult to learn to whip a small axe into the work at a high velocity with very good economy of motion and effort, all while maintaining accuracy.  It is a skill that is hard earned by repetition.  If I were to analyze it more, I might be able to explain and teach the motions involved, but people who are good at it don't think about what they are doing, because they don't need to.  What you can note if you see someone doing it well is that they are fairly relaxed, and the axe accelerates rapidly at the end of the stroke.  Motions are not exaggerated, but pared down to the essentials.  The axe head will be seen to rotate around one or more pivot points, like the elbows, shoulders and especially the wrists in order to create that snap of velocity at the end of the stroke.

Here are what I think are some truisms:

  • Don’t use excessive force, especially when learning. It is likely to throw your aim off, wear you out and it is decidedly unsafe!  However, that said, "excessive" depends on skill and context.
  • Lighter axes require more velocity than heavy axes
  • Heavier axes require more energy to lift than light axes and also require more energy to increase velocity when swinging, but require less velocity.
  • Hitting the target with a given velocity can be achieved with almost endless variation in subtle and not so subtle movements.  How much physical energy you expend to get there is the relevant question, and minimization of that effort is a worthy goal.
  • Whether the axe head is light or heavy, velocity is a useful way to view the generation of cutting power in axes, since it is the factor in the equation that you can actually change with any given axe of a fixed weight.

DANGER, DANGER

The generation of velocity while maintaining accuracy and preventing loss of control can be tricky.  There is hardly a better way for a novice to get into trouble with an axe than by trying to force the use of velocity ahead of skill level.  Don’t push it.  Know that it is a factor, but let ability develop naturally with experience gained.  Don’t expect to do the same work in the same time, or make the axe cut to the same depth with each stroke as someone who is more experienced may be seen to do.  Both excessive force and force poorly applied are a danger to the axe, the user, bystanders and your energy level.  Concentrate on accuracy and becoming comfortable with the movements.  The rest will follow naturally.

     

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      Posted on September 15, 2017 .

      Some Slightly Ranty Advice on Expensive Boutique Axes

      My main points in this video.  Expensive axes do not carry super powers and will not be greatly more effective than an inexpensive axe of reasonable quality.  Quality can matter up to a point, but an axe which does not have the best edge retention or strength is often suitable enough.  Beginners should not be seduced into buying expensive axes.  It is better to start with an inexpensive axe and beat it up, break some handles and generally learn one's way around them.  That kind of use and experience can build experience for making a larger purchase as some point.  One might find that after using some inexpensive axes and vintage axes, that they don't really want to buy any, and may be perfectly happy with vintage heads.  A lot of axe purchases are for collecting's sake alone, or maybe retail therapy or over accessorizing.  The problem is that beginners often won't know what is and isn't important and can be easily up-sold to higher cost axes on selling points that are probably not going to matter that much to them if they are even true in the first place.  Expensive axes are worth a lot and will be devalued by the clumsy use they will often see in amateur hands.  Don't learn to drive in an expensive sports car.

      Bottom line, get a cheap axe and use it a lot.  Mess it up, play with modifying it, break handles, learn to sharpen, then see if you want to spend money on fancy axes.  Best case scenario, get a cheap or free axe with a handle.  Next best, get a cheap or free used head and make or buy a handle.  Third best, buy a budget line axe, like the council boys axe and hope that you get a good handle and head.

      Final Minimalist Strop Video

      This video is me re-glueing and finishing the strop I made in another video.  It's a lot of carving and trimming, with talking points as usual.  It was supposed to come out before the auction, but I didn't have a computer to edit it at the time.

      Posted on August 21, 2017 .

      Turning Green Wood and Minimalist Wood Working

      I have been negligent in posting projects here on my blog.  I post stuff here, but I rarely get any feedback, so my brain thinks I'm just dumping content into a void.  I know that isn't true, but because there's no real feedback, I forget to do it at all sometimes.  It's also partly because I haven't done that manyvideos in the last month.  My old computer finally died too, but I'm back online now and ready to do some cool stuff.  Here are the last few videos I've done.

      The first video is project updates.  Mostly projects I've done content on, that need updating or were never finished.

       

      This one is on doing some minimalist woodworking using just a knife and a hatchet.  This was an offshoot of another two part video project on scraping wood with knives.  That whole project was lost in my computer crash, so I'll have to reshoot and re-edit it, but it will be really cool and useful.  It's more exciting than it sounds lol.

       

      This video is a lot of wood turning on my lathe with talking points and some killer heavy old school dub.  I'm just putting away a bunch of wood to use later for making handles and such.  Soon I'll be turning a large batch of awl handles.

      Posted on August 17, 2017 .

      What is Sharpness, Basic Sharpening Theory, the Starting Point for Learning to Sharpen Tools

      Today's video is about basic sharpening theory, looked at through the question, what is sharpness?  This information is where learning to sharpen should ideally start.  Information like which type of sharpening stones to use, techniques for using them, which tools are sharpened at what angle and so on, are not much use without understanding what sharpness is and the factors that create it.  This information illuminates the goal and by extension possible ways to go wrong in pursuing it.


      A Farewell to Spring

      This Spring I would go out now and again in the morning or evening and shoot a little bit of footage of whatever interesting things I'd run across.  This is a 4 minute video of that stuff.  No talking, not much text, just a bunch of flowers, noisy birds in the background and the occasional ubiquitous chicken.  Summer is entirely different there than spring.  Most of the birds have left for greener pastures leaving the obnoxious Stellar's Jays behind.  A few tough native grasses will stay partly green through the summer, and the rest is seared brown by the several heat waves we've already been through.  When I go walking my shoelaces and pants pick up burrs and grass seeds and my heart jumps whenever I smell smoke.  I think I appreciate spring more and more everyday, but contrast is good and the other seasons have their perks, like no ticks, or juicy tomatoes, tor ime to rest and reflect.  Anyway, farewell to spring and hopefully we'll all see many more.

      Posted on July 2, 2017 .

      Finishing the Oak Bark Tanned Deer Leather

      Cute and practical, just how I like 'em!

      Cute and practical, just how I like 'em!

      Last winter I started a project oak bark tanning a deer skin to make leather for the axe strop project.  The project follows the collecting and processing of materials to build pocket sized sharpening strops as prizes for people who completed the Axe Cordwood Challenge.  I'm making everything I need for the strops and decided to show the whole tanning process and everything else in a series of videos.  Almost 6 months ago, I laid the prepared skin away to tan in oak bark.  It sat in there about 4 months longer than it needed to, but I took it out and finished it this week, and it looks like it turned out pretty decent.

      The leather is perhaps a little light and spongy, "Empty", as they say in the tanning trade.  Emptiness results from the loss of structural proteins in the skin by chemical or bacterial action.  It isn't much of a surprise considering that I over-limed it to start with, and that it sat in a weak vegetable tanning (plant based) solution for 4 months longer than it needed to.  Those are actually the type of things that a tanner might do on purpose to a hide in order to make the finished leather soft and pliable.  That's not what I was planning though.  I would prefer a rather firm and weighty leather for this project, but that is not even the nature of deer to start with.  Deer skin, at least our deer skin here in the Western U.S. has an open, coarse-fibered, low density character that lends itself well to softened leathers.  It would have been better to move it through the process faster with shorter liming time.  But, a process that uses somewhat preservative solutions like lime and tannin, begs for procrastination.  Add that I have to make videos of it all and it's a perfect storm for not getting things done in a timely manner.  It will probably work fine for the project, but I haven't assessed it closely yet.  If it doesn't work out, I have plenty of other skins I've tanned over the years that are suitable and I got to show the process start to finish, with some of the warts and mistakes that any home tanner is likely to experience.

      The next steps will be making the wooden paddles, making glue and putting it all together into the finished product.  I only need a small amount of leather for the project.  Seven brave and industrious individuals chopped one cord or more of firewood for the cordwood challenge using axes only and will receive a finished strop and a leather patch when they are made.  The balance of the leather will be stowed away with the rest of my leather cache, to wait for a suitable project.

      My Hand Watering Tool of Choice, the Fan Sprayer, and Cheap Hoses Just Got Cheaper

      My watering nozzle of choice is the fan sprayer.  Unfortunately it's hard to find a good one these days.  Read more below, or watch the video. 

      Also, the hoses I just recommended in another video and blog post, Craftsman 50 foot, 5/8 inch rubber hose, just went down in price further for the next day.  They go off sale TODAY.  Someone commented that Sears is in financial crisis and may go under, so it might be a good time to buy some.  They're like "WE'RE GOING DOWN, QUICK, SELL ALL THE HOSES!"  They are 17.99 with free shipping on orders above 50.00,  or free in store pick up even if they aren't actually on sale in the store.  The 100 foot are about twice that much, so same per foot price.  http://www.sears.com/lawn-garden-watering-hoses-sprinklers-garden-hoses/b-1024024

      The package says the hose contains lead and chemicals known to cause cancer as everything must in California.  I did a brief search and found this hose to actually score very well against most tested for toxic compounds including lead, of which none was found.  http://www.ecocenter.org/healthy-stuff/samples/50-ft-craftsman-premium-heavy-duty-rubber-garden-hose

      Quite a few people commented on the video with positive reviews of this hose, including people that have used them for over 10 years.

      I like fan sprayer nozzles because they deliver a lot of water and deliver it gently if designed well.  The other major reason I like them is that the spray pattern and water delivery can be adjusted by tilting the head side to side.  I can cover a 3 to 4 foot wide swath 8 feet away by holding it horizontally, or concentrate most of that water in a one foot circle at the same distance by simply tilting the head vertically.  In between those extremes, you can adjust the width by adjusting the tilt.  This versatility and the wide horizontal coverage make them especially good for watering wide beds as well as for variable conditions.  nothing else I know of delivers this amount of water in that sort of versatile pattern.  Unfortunately good ones are hard to find and I can't recommend a new one, though I can recommend some old ones.

      Hole size is a major design issue with these.  If sprayers with small holes are available new at all, they will be the exception.  Small holes mean finer streams of water, which equals less trauma to seedlings and seedbeds as well as the fragile soil surface.  High volume and gentle delivery are hard to find in one package.  The older fan sprayers seem to have small holes for the most part.  THE ROSS is the brand I've used most and they are not that uncommon to run into.  THE ROSS #10 shown in this video was patented in 1924.  There are at least two models I can recommend, the #10 and #11. Both have similar holes, but different construction.  Examine old ones for leaks at any soldered or folded seams.  The cast metal body of the #11 can corrode through in some cases, so examine them closely as well.

      Three good fan sprayers.  THE ROSSes #'s 10 and 11 and a no name short brass one that is every bit as functional, if a little less durable.

      Three good fan sprayers.  THE ROSSes #'s 10 and 11 and a no name short brass one that is every bit as functional, if a little less durable.

       

      A common design feature in new models is a valve in the handle of the sprayer.  I think that is a mistake.  The valve will fail eventually and can't be replaced.  From my experience with hose shut off valves, it will probably fail rather sooner than later.  Most people will want a hose shut off valve on the end of a hose anyway for switching appliances and such without going back to shut off the valve at the spigot.  I have one on the end of every hose, which makes a valve in the sprayer body not only an unnecessary failure waiting to happen, but it's also an unneeded restriction in the line.

      Most hoses should have a shut off valve already.  Putting a valve on the sprayer is usually going to be a disadvantage, let a lone redundant.

      Most hoses should have a shut off valve already.  Putting a valve on the sprayer is usually going to be a disadvantage, let a lone redundant.

      The vintage ones can be found on ebay or etsy.  Etsy seems to have quite a few, but I had to search "garden sprinkler" and sort through a bunch of results to find them.  They are not super cheap, but given what is usually available on the market now, it might be worth spending 10.00 to 15.00 on a vintage one.  I've found quite a few of them over the years at flea markets and such, but most of mine came from one single estate sale where I found a pile of them.  Lucky me :)  I have excellent thrift store/yardsale/flea market juju though.  Just ask my mom, or my pile of all clad cookware.

      My second hand juju is strong.  Pray to the flea market gods all you want, some of us are just born with it.

      My second hand juju is strong.  Pray to the flea market gods all you want, some of us are just born with it.


      A Tale of Three Watering Cans and a Hose Recommendation

      I got two videos on watering for ya today.  One is about three quality built watering cans and watering can design.  The other one is recommending the Sears Craftsman rubber hoses on sale now and seemingly every spring at 20.00 for 50 feet.  My friend Mark Albert recommended them saying they are good for 30 years (also confirmed by a youtube viewer).  I've been using them for a few years and plan to keep buying them.   I haven't met a plastic hose that will last yet and If there is one I'll bet it's not this cheap.  If they aren't on sale in the actual store, you can ask for the online price with free delivery and they'll let you walk out with them for 19.99 each.  That's all you really need to know, so you don't even have to watch the video!

      Splitting Axe Cut Wood With a Sharp Felling Axe, Safety and Effectiveness

      The first video is a short trailer or propaganda piece to promote the second video.  Below are a few non-technical points I wanted to elaborate on.

      I just have a few points I want to emphasize or elaborate on.  I made this video in response to a lot of questions from people about how to deal with wood that is bucked with an axe, since it can't be set on end, or on a block.  Also, because of how I'm operating with one axe, I assumed that it would be a small short axe and that it was intended to retain the edge in chopping condition.  That wasn't so much a plan as it was just how it turned out since that's my world right now.  It is not the only way to approach it.  You could, and most probably do, have a dedicated splitting axe, or maybe a splitting edge on one side of a double bitted axe that can taste a little dirt here and there without much worry, especially if it's ground with a fat bevel that is less likely to suffer severe damage than a thinly ground edge.  A longer heavier axe with a fatter grind is great, as is not having to baby it.  However, using a small, short axe and keeping it sharp requires one to refine technique and strategy, and I think that is a good thing.  I'm also very interested in making whatever tool I have work, and in processing wood with one axe.  You'll hardly find anyone out there recommending an axe ground for felling, limbing and bucking as a splitting axe.  Probably the opposite in fact.

      One of the important points in this video is that it requires some investment to figure out what is possible.  Many will discount the possibility of using axes, but not always out of experience, but rather assumption.  I've been guilty of this to an extent myself and it's a mistake.  I personally think that it's worth some investment to figure out what is possible and where an axe is more advantageous than a maul.  I really like splitting with a maul and with some of the stuff I have to split, like dry hardwoods with knots and forks, I'm not likely to ditch my maul altogether.  But, I will keep pushing my limits with axes of various kinds to find out what those limits really are. 

      It is not enough to just just smack a few rounds with an axe to see if anything falls off.  It takes some investment in yourself to develop good technique and at least a basic understanding of strategy as presented in these videos.  The flick technique, as Buckin' Billy Ray Smith calls it, or the twist as the Vido's call it, is essential to develop for splitting anything difficult with an axe.  It is just a way to use the power generated in the swing to good mechanical advantage by prying the wood apart on impact instead of just wedging it apart with the shape of the axe.  It can make up for the lower mass of an axe head v.s. a maul in some cases.  I believe that Tom Clark, inventor of the buster axe, an axe optimized for this technique, actually hit the wood with the head tilted at a slight angle.  I think I twist it on impact, but it's hard to know for sure without a slow mo study.  Either way, you'll develop a feel for what works.  It is a skill that has to be learned by some time spent as it's rather clumsy at first to get the timing right. If you have a very sharp short handled axe that you are trying to stay out of the way of, which often requires somewhat awkward positioning, and on top of all that are trying to hit the center of a knotty piece of wood within a quarter inch, you can imagine that some time will have to be put in to gain a reasonable level of skill.  The catch 22 is that it's only by gaining a certain level of proficiency that we can find out what is really possible and not.

      The flick technique can be used as an alternative to generating velocity in splitting at times, but should not be thought of as a permanent stand in for it.  The ability to generate a high velocity is a critical tool to have and will only complement that sideways torque when both are needed.  I didn't go much into it, but will in the future.  From my observation and experience so far, high velocity is primarily created by the axe head scribing an arc around a relatively fixed, or at least more fixed, point, like the wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist, or a complex combination of all of those.  it is a complex topic.  With the target at a certain height, it becomes less possible to generate velocity, and the higher you go from there, the harder it gets.  That is one reason I don't use splitting blocks much.  Working close to the ground has the advantage that it is easier to generate velocity, because you have more distance in the swing and can use body mechanics to better advantage.

      For me, doing the axe cordwood challenge, in the way I approach it, has been perfect for developing these skills.  I stick pretty much with the axe I'm chopping with, which for now is always small and sharp, and I split in the field with no blocks or contrivances of any kind.  I can only remember abandoning two, maybe three, pieces of wood that were just really knotty or more likely forked.  Even those could likely be split with enough energy, but I know when not to beat my head against a wall for a peanut.  I'm glad that I've invested in this skill, because it will ultimately increase my splitting efficiency in all arenas.  I now have a pretty good idea of what I can get away with and am further refining and defining when an axe will be more advantageous than a maul in splitting sawn rounds as well.  For what it's worth, these videos at least show some possibility that can be put to use or invested in later.  It's not for everyone, and not for every situation, and possibly not for every species, but in the right circumstances it is remarkably efficient and satisfying.  I can say, that just splitting what I incidentally have to cut here, which is Madrone, Bay, Fir, Tan oak and Black oak, that none of those species are consistently difficult to split when young trees are cut and split green.  Older Madrone and Bay can develop some wicked cross grain, but a person is not likely to be cutting those for firewood with an axe, and if they were, large trunks would have to be split, probably with wedges, before bucking, not after. 

      The axe and the technique of using it with good strategy are just another set of tools in the bag to be applied where they are best suited, or when necessary.  But, again, it is a tool that has to be developed and refined to be appreciated and applied to anything but the most easily split woods.  I'm glad I've put in some time and forced my progress by using axes that are not ideal for the job and I get to reap the rewards of that from here out.

      Did I mention that it's fun?  It's really fun :D