Warning, some graphic images of axe injuries in this post may be hard to unsee.
Welcome to the cordwood challenge! The concept of this project is to offer a format in which participants can explore using axes in a way that puts us in a great position to improve our practical axe skills. If we love the axe, we must love what it has the potential to do, and if we strive to realize some of that potential between ourselves, an axe and pile of wood, is that not the ultimate homage to the axe?
There are more details below, but briefly the challenge is as follows. Cut 1/4, 1/2, or a full cord, or more using axes only, without cutting yourself or being smashed or crushed by trees and limbs. Then send a picture or video of you with your firewood and any experiences or insight you’d like to share. I’m making a leather merit badge and axe strops as incentives, but clearly the real reward is less tangible.
If you plan to take on the cordwood challenge, please read this entire post and watch the video, just to make sure all bases are covered.
First the disclaimer. I’m providing this challenge as a framework in which axe users can explore improving their axe skills and learn practical application by doing, while having an opportunity to be recognized for your achievement. What you do with any information I offer, or any information that you gather anywhere else, is your responsibility. I claim no special knowledge of axes and their use, and don’t claim the information that I offer is accurate or guaranteed to keep you safe in your endeavors. I accept no responsibility for what you do with any information offered related to this challenge, or on using axes safely and effectively. If you wind up with an injury doing whatever it is that you choose to do, there will be no one to blame but yourself. Projecting that responsibility on someone else not only shows a weakness and immaturity of character, but betrays an inherently unsafe attitude toward work and safety. Using an axe, and felling and working with trees, is inherently unsafe work. Do not doubt that truth for a minute, and consider this challenge very carefully, and whether it is worth the risk involved to gain these skills.
As I'm preparing this, youtuber Weiderfan, just posted a video about cutting his leg badly with a hatchet.
For your consideration.
Axe wound photos courtesy of http://www.boernebushmasters.org/wilderness-wounds-axe-wounds/
This challenge should not be taken lightly. Regardless of anything else, it is a considerable time investment in an activity that is somewhat physically demanding (though not as much as you might think) and intrinsically dangerous. I’ll tell you why I do it, but your motives are your own. Some people will think you’re cool, but If you think the people around you will be amazed, most of them won't if they even understand what you are doing at all. So, get ready for quizzical expressions, deer-in-the-headlights looks, head shaking and the need to communicate exactly what it is you are actually doing in graphic detail. It might be just as well to finish the job after which you can brandish your axe, point at your ricks of drying firewood, and grunt "me make wood!" That should pretty well do it :)
While there are many possible ways to approach learning to be better axeists, chopping firewood is an activity that keeps it real. Firewood is a necessity for many of us and puts us in direct relation to our own needs. What is the difference between making a pile of chips just for practice and making chips that result in a stack of firewood that keeps us warm through the winter? I don’t know exactly, but there sure is a difference.
Real work = Real Results: Aside from having practical value firewood processing has some advantages when it comes to learning your way around an axe. It is real world work. You will find yourself in all sorts of positions and situations that occur in the field only. Chopping overhead or chopping the underside of a raised log are challenging and force us out of our comfort zone if we are not used to using an axe in the forest a lot.
More is Better: There is also the sheer quantity of the work. You can cut down a tree, limb it and maybe buck it into something you can handle for sawing, but how many trees will you cut down and limb in one year, and how much cutting time is that really going to give you? The answer is not much. It was without any doubt, the bucking which most accelerated my skills with an axe last season and forced my attention to accuracy. Not only does bucking require a lot of chopping, but it is a specific skill all it’s own which requires practice and familiarity to become comfortable with. Without bucking, you can only get so much practice and only of a certain kind.
Repetition: And then there is the repetition and timing. It is very different to go out into the woods at spaced intervals through the year and do just a little chopping, v.s. doing a lot of chopping in a shorter space of time. If we cut a full cord in a few months, we will reap a reward in skill level from executing that work in closely spaced sessions.
Exercise: I can hardly imagine that the exercise afforded by such clean and engaging physical labor is not a positive thing in the vast majority of cases. Viewing the effort required as a valuable product of the process rather than a negative factor is not only reasonable in most cases, but I think more accurate.
Who should accept or consider the cordwood challenge? First some generalities:
Physical Effort: If you can work efficiently at a moderate pace, chopping firewood may be less work than you might think. It is just mildly aerobic and doesn’t really requiring a lot strength. It’s much more about technique and accuracy than force. I thought I’d be ripped after cutting a cord last spring, but I didn’t notice any particular gains in muscle mass, though I think you could certainly see some if you did enough work in a short enough period of time. What I did gain though is the ability to process wood with much less effort because I’m more likely to hit where I’m aiming and my strategy has improved considerably.
Access: Then there is access to wood. I’m in a good position to process firewood, having acres of overgrown woods in need of management. For others, the trees may not be there, or there may not be many trees you want to cut down. Or, maybe you have access to wood, but in an inconvenient location. Or maybe you have only dead dried up tangly wood that is a nightmare to process.
Conservation: One important thing that might get in the way of taking the challenge is knowledge about trees and forestry. A certain level of understanding of forest ecology and succession is required to enable us to make intelligent forestry decisions in order to fulfill conservation goals. If you walk into the woods and can’t tell the difference between one species and another, or generally don’t understand what is going on out there, you probably have no business taking an axe to live trees. You could stick to dead and dying or diseased trees, or seek guidance, but I hope that no one will just randomly go out and start chopping on whatever tree is handy. I don’t choose trees just because they will make good firewood. In some contexts I think that is okay, but most forests have trees that are sick, crowded or can be cut to achieve certain management and conservation goals. The forest is generally somewhat resilient, but the trees we cut do have a significant effect, sometimes good, sometimes not so much and sometimes simply depending on what our goals are.
Danger Danger: There is much to consider when taking on this challenge. It is not to be taken lightly. The danger alone should be carefully considered. Perfectly capable axemen can end up with serious injuries. The perspective that the whole idea is just dumb for that reason alone has some merit. But, there are always different ways to look at anything. If you want to be good at using an axe, then this is a great way to get there. It may be the best way, aside from operating in a similar context with a skilled teacher. And doing dangerous things is not without it’s rewards. Danger should sharpen our focus and foster a clarity and contrast that cruising through safe tasks all day dulls. There is, or should be, an immediacy and presence of mind that comes with activities, requiring focused engagement to safeguard our well being. I think for men especially swinging a dangerous tool/weapon around to dismantle trees satisfies something that we are supposed to experience. Someone did a study on the effects of various activities on testosterone levels, and cutting wood with an axe raised testosterone levels the most out of all activities! Hitting trees with sticks would surely not yield the same result.
for simplicity’s sake, I’m dividing us into categories in reference to who should take the challenge
Beginners: I’m inclined to discourage beginners from taking on this project, even at the lowest level of 1/4 cord. I don’t think it’s impossible depending on the person, but learning to use an axe takes time. It is always dangerous, but in the beginning it is extra dangerous. Having a goal or deadline isn’t probably the best attitude to take when learning a new dangerous skill. If you start testing the waters this year and end up with a stack of wood, you’re in, but don’t commit to something that you don’t understand enough to know what you are getting into.
Mid level, some experience: I think this is the group that can benefit the most immediately and jump right into the project. I consider myself in this category, though higher up in it than I was last spring after cutting only a cord of wood. Anyone that writes or makes video content about axes and using axes I would especially like to encourage, to do the cordwood challenge. It will build your credibility and legitimacy in both your eyes and others and can only benefit your audience and content quality.
Veteran choppers: I’d also like to see some veteran choppers get involved. If you cut your firewood with an axe already, that’s fine, do the challenge anyway and show the rest of us how it’s done.
A note to women. Women can definitely use axes effectively. You don’t have to be a lumberjack dude to use an axe. A large stronger man of the same skill level is going to outchop you, but your typically lighter structure and stature does not preclude your participation or ability to chop effectively. Not only are accuracy, efficiency and technique much more important than strength and aggression, I can attest personally that the instinct to try to force an axe through a log by strength is very ineffective and often the very thing that will wreck my accuracy and good form. I still battle with that problem frequently. This is a total boys club for sure, but we’d love to have you on board, possibly more than you’d like actually ;) I’ll try to make you feel as comfortable as possible here and delete or check any disrespectful comments.
Kids and Young Adults: If you are under 18 I need to talk to your parents if you’re going to submit to the challenge. 18 is the legal age of adulthood in my country and I don’t want anyone’s parents thinking I’m responsible for encouraging their offspring to undertake a dangerous activity. Before you leave comments, submit pictures, etc., have them contact me through the contact tab on this website.
No Pressure: In conclusion, consider taking on such a challenge thoughtfully. I don’t want to discourage people in general, obviously I think it’s overall a good idea for a certain type of person at a certain level of skill, and believe there are many potential rewards. For people at any level that are on the fence, planning to spend a year warming up and getting gear together in a feeling out process is probably a great way to go. After all, you may not know if you like the work or not. Fixing up an old axe or tuning up a new one, learning to sharpen, and w chopping are a lot to take on for a first season. If you end up with a quarter cord or more this year, you are welcome to submit your entry. I just don’t want anyone making commitments they can’t keep. You can simply let me know that you are thinking about doing the challenge, or just tell me when you are part way through, or even when you’re finished. I’m good with whatever as long as you aren’t getting yourself into something that you will regret, or that will put you under an unsafe degree pressure. Whatever the case, you can leave comments to that effect on this page.
Saws: I’m making one single exception for saws, which is making the back cut when needed for safety reasons. You can’t really wedge a back cut made with an axe, so making a back cut with a saw opens new possibilities for wedging trees in the direction you want them to go, which may be needed for safety or to prevent hang ups or damage to other trees. Most of the time you won’t need to and you’ll get little enough experience making felling cuts as it is, so don’t use this out if you don’t need it. I have never used it. On the other hand, certainly DO use it if it seems necessary for your safety or might prevent the damage or death of important adjoining trees! Otherwise, NO SAWS, that’s the whole point.
Mauls and Splitting: You may use splitting mauls for splitting the wood, but I would very strongly encourage you to use whatever axe you fell and buck with as much as possible. You might be surprised what you can pull off with good aim, technique and strategy. I do all of my splitting with whatever axe I’m using for the other processes involved. If I can’t split it but it fits in the stove, I leave it as an “overnighter” log, which I actually have a shortage of this year. If it needs to be split and the axe is not enough, I chop out a couple of rough wooden wedges on the spot and use those. Tim of Oxbow Farms was skeptical that he could split the wood with an axe, but encouraged him to keep at it and after trying the golf swing method for a while, he’s a convert. You can do whatever you want, but you will learn a lot if you really stick with your axe and concentrate on your aim and technique.
Achievement levels: The levels are 1/4 cord, 1/2 cord, or 1 full cord, or more. 1/4 cord gets recognition and your picture or video featured in a video and web page. 1/2 cord and up gets a merit badge that I make from leather which I tan here on the homestead. It’s sort of like the boyscout merit badge for accomplishing something, but way cooler! I’m still working out the details on that, but the prototype looks pretty cool. 1 cord gets the badge plus a pocket axe strop. You can watch the making of the strops in my video series following that entire process. They are made entirely from scratch from materials gathered here. Clearly for anyone surpassing a cord that is a reward in itself,
Deadline is June 1st 2017: If you live in the southern hemisphere, contact me and will figure something out. I honestly haven't given much thought to how to deal with that problem. Suggestions welcomed.
Send me pictures of you with your finished stacks of wood or post a video and write as much as you want about the experience or not. I’d love to hear about your experience and I’m sure others considering the challenge in the future would as well. Be sure to include the axe or axes you used. If you make a video and don’t have a way to post it, we can work out a way to get the footage to me so I can edit it into another video or post it on my channel.
Tim @ oxbow farms youtube channel has already finished a full cord and is thinking about doing a second cord because he’s having so much fun and learning so much. Watch his cordwood challenge playlist.
hub I have an official page that is the Hub for the project. Please leave all relevant declarations related to the cordwood challenge there rather than on any of my youtube videos.
Resources: I can only offer so much support on technical advice like felling and gear, due to limitations of time and energy as well as qualification in many cases. Please avail yourself of whatever information is out there on axes, chopping, felling trees, forestry, etc., but be critical. A list of resources appears below. Even though I feel I’m not the best person to do it, I’ll be making some videos on axe use and safety in support of the project. Hopefully some of those will be out sooner than later. I can’t completely endorse anything as entirely accurate, “correct” and relevant, these seem to be some good sources of information. I would recommend consuming all of them.
Mors Kochanski, Bushcraft Excellent book all around and great axe use and safety stuff. A must read.
Dudley Cook, The Axe Book And outstanding work focused on using axes for firewood processing. Another must read.
Peter McClaren’s Axe Manual Read free online. Somehow I just discovered this book, so I haven’t even read it yet, but it looks potentially amazing.
Bernard S. Mason Woodsmanship A great old book with considerable detailed axe information. Download it here for free
Woodcraft and Camping, E. H. Kreps Download free:
An Axe to Grind Government manual on axe use, maintenance and safety download free
Best Axe Use and Safety Videos Playlist Some great stuff in here all around and a few exemplary examples of axemanship!
Cordwood Challenge Playlist. Any supportive videos I make on axe use and safety will go in here.
Websites, Forums Etc: There are no forums of discussion type groups I know of that are solely or primarily focused on working axes. If you know of one, please let me know.
AxeConnected The Vido's axe website. Infrequently updated, but deep insightful content from long time axe users.
Facebook's Axe Junkies Over 20,000 members strong. Axe Junkiest seems to be the hub of internet axe culture Lots of advice available on restoring, handles, sharpening and such, and there are a lot of knowledgeable members that will sometimes comment on practical questions.
Reddit's AxeCraft Not a lot on practical application, but again some experienced knowledgeable members. I've had some good conversations there.
Have fun and try to stay safe!