Greetings internetians. There is just something about axes and hatchets that gets some of us all worked up. If you’re one of those types, I have an interesting project to talk to you about.
I’ve been interested in and using axes and hatchets for a long time. It’s something I enjoy thoroughly. If at any given time I think, what would I like to do if I could do anything, running out to the woods with an axe and chopping wood is right up near the top of the list! Seriously, I think that all the time. But I rarely do it. There is no time, it takes too long, I have other important things to do, blah blah blah… so when I need firewood, out comes the chainsaw.
I started out as a complete novice with only some books, like Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, and others in that genera. Later I met Mors Kochanski and picked up his excellent book Northern Bushcraft. I almost hurt myself many times, broke handles, replaced handles, broke them again, made my own handles and generally picked up the basics in the school of hard knocks. I’m not a rank amateur, but I’m no pro either, and by any traditional standards I’m still probably a complete and utter dorkus with an ax. Why? Because I don’t use them often enough, or consistently enough. I use hatchets a lot more for small tasks around the place, and running around in the woods doing other stuff, but axes find less day to day use. I do a lot of my limbing with an axe, but not a lot of felling or bucking. Well, I’m over that. I’m feeling better these days than I have in a while and as always making ridiculously optimistic plans, like cutting all my cordwood this year with an axe!
To some, that may sound like a nightmare, or like the least fun thing ever, but to me it sounds like just about the FUNNEST thing ever! I’ve already started. Best idea ever. Now, I will be forced to dial in my gear, clean up, profile, make handles for, haft and sharpen all those axe heads that have been languishing coated in rust for years. I’ll also develop even more personal, contextual opinions about handles, profiles and blade shapes than I already have, and chop my way through enough wood to be entitled to opinions about any of it. Yep, fun galore, and not probably as hard as it may sound.
Most people that have swung an axe have not exactly had a great experience. There are a lot of factors that go into efficient and effective axe use and few of them are typically in play in the average scenario. Sure, if we start with a dull axe, that has a fat bit and a thick handle, and if we have no practice, don’t understand the necessary strategy, strike at the wrong angle, can’t hit what we’re aiming at and start out expecting to make progress if we just give it a huge effort, it’s going to suck and we are mostly going to end up tired and discouraged with very little work done, if not injured or with a broken axe handle. Honestly, even starting with a sharp axe will not help that much if everything else is not dialed in pretty well. A good sharp axe in effective hands, if used to make careful, measured cuts, is effective and fun to use. Watch a lumberjack competition sometime.
When I first was thinking about doing this project, I found the idea daunting. Now I don’t. One of the things that encouraged me was reading that a good hand in the old days could put up two cords of wood a day with an axe. Two cords is a well stacked pile 8 x 4 x 8 feet. YEAH RIGHT!? Here is a quote from a random account I was reading the other day out of the 19th century. It is an instructive letter to the editor about not using too heavy an axe. Full text below:
“When night came we piled up our wood and measured it. Joe's pile measured one and a half cords, mine only three-quarters of a cord….. The next morning I felt lame and stayed at home. Joe put in his cord and a half, as usual.” The farm implement news, volume 7 1885
Now, it doesn’t say what length the wood was cut to in those things, and that could make a very big difference. Cutting 24 inch fireplace logs, 4 foot logs for transport, or arm-span lengths for a furnace of some kind is a good bit different than cutting the 16 inch logs I need for my wood stove. 200 feet cut into 24 inch lengths is roughly 100 cuts, while at 16 inches it’s 150 cuts. That is very significant. The other woodstove on the property takes logs about 12 inches and down. I’m not cutting for that one :)
Another encouraging thing was hearing Mors Kochanski saying in this video that he could drop a 12 inch 50 foot tree, limb it and cut it into arm span lengths in guess how long? 10 to 15 minutes, maybe less! skip to 11:00 min for that part. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2aijEY9njOw
You just don’t get that good, or any good at all, whackin’ at a few trees or logs on the weekend. Nope, as I’ve said about other things, if you want to get good at something and really understand it contextually, put yourself in a position where you do it as a lifestyle thing. I need to cut wood this year. If I decide that this year it’s axes only for felling, limbing, chopping and splitting a certain amount of wood, I’m going to learn a lot very fast! Immersion! that’s what it’s all about!
Axes have become very popular. That is really cool. It is heartening to see the upsurge in interest in interacting with natural environments and using basic tools and materials. Because of that, there is an increasing amount of information out there, but very few people that can actually use an axe effectively. Of those of us who are not complete novices, fewer yet are anything like experts. And it’s no wonder. How many people chop enough wood with an axe to even get good, let alone very good? Not very many. That is an inevitable consequence of our modern way of life.
Well, one Person’s work is another’s play I guess. As long as I have the energy to do it joyfully, effectively and relatively safely, chopping wood is fun as hell. Using an axe, or splitting wood, or doing anything that requires skill and focus is very similar to a challenging sport. And boy does using an axe require focus!
Axes and hatchets are extremely dangerous. An axe is nothing to play with and chopping anything with an axe is a time for humility and sharp focus. At first it is clumsy and tiring and seems futile, but as you gain skill, it becomes increasingly an extension of you and you can get into a groove, or zone as they say in sports. The danger inherent in using an axe has a good and bad side. On the one hand, danger makes us focus and adds an element of immediacy, much like a competition sport or a hunt does. But, then it is also just dangerous and there is no way around that. It can be more or less dangerous, but it is still dangerous to everyone, all the time, not matter how much experience they have. And it’s especially dangerous when we’re learning.
I was planning to do a cordwood challenge where I challenged people to cut a chosen amount of wood with an axe. I decided to put that off. Putting yourself on a deadline with only two months to go (done by june first is my goal, so there is time for drying) is not safe when doing something dangerous and unfamiliar. My personal goal this year is just a cord, which is 4 x 4 x 8 feet stacked neatly. I’d kind of like to do more honestly, but I actually don’t even need to cut a cord to get through next winter. Honestly, I have a lot of wood now and may not need to cut any at all. I might make charcoal out of some of my left over wood just to make room! I probably don’t usually burn much more than a cord most years and often less. I thought it could be a one cord challenge, but that is unreasonable for a lot of people and it seems better to just challenge people to pick an amount, even if it’s small, like a quarter of a cord (One quarter of a cord equals 4x4x2 feet stacked).
A person, could end up with an expensive hospital bill using an axe, or worse be maimed for life. You could cut yourself where there is no one around and bleed to death. We face these kinds of possibilities every time we pick one of these things up. If you lack experience with an ax entirely, or with using similar long handled tools, a year of gaining familiarity might be in order. That is a challenge in itself, so no hurry. I’m just suggesting that this could be an edifying experience for some people. There are many ancillary skills required too that one might not pick up if not pressed a little to do so in order to accomplish a goal. An axe needs be sharp to be safe and effective. It also needs a good handle. Novices often break them. I've broken many. We all do. Or you may have an axe with an old, weathered or warped handle that needs a new one. Every axe user should be able to replace an axe handle, and it’s ideal to be able to make one.
As far as resources for learning go, I’m not sure I’m up to the task of teaching you how to use an axe, though I will certainly be sharing stuff and talking about the things that I learn or improve at. I’ll try to spend some time on YouTube collecting some stuff worth watching. Maybe I’ll make a playlist of them all, we’ll see what I come up with, but honestly, most of it is either not very useful, if not actually dangerous. Book wise, Mor’s Kochanski’s Northern Bushcraft is a great read and probably the best thing going when it comes to axe safety. I’ve also read the axe book by D. Cook this year and like it very much. Both authors are thorough and thoughtful. most importantly, their knowledge is something they own out of experience.
So, axe interested parties experienced or not, give some thought to taking on my challenge next year. If you are inexperienced, it will be a journey. You’ll need to acquire an axe which may or may not need renovation. Spend the next year learning about axes and getting your gear dialed in, practicing etc. Then when next late winter/spring rolls around, you’ll be primed to improve rapidly and succeed. There is much to be learned and skill to gain. Axes and hatchets can be very versatile tools. Using one requires a lot of energy, but it is also great exercise. Compared to using a chainsaw, an axe will greatly increase your coordination and strength. It is also a more intimate way to interact with wood. You have to pay attention. Enough said for now. I’m hoping to have my cord cut by June 1st so it has time to season. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from me about this project and various axe related things in the coming year or more.
The Axe Book by Dudley Cook: http://amzn.to/1WQYhJe
Mors Kochanski's Bushcraft, great for axe use and safety
Horace Kephart's Camping and Woodcraft, read free!
full text of Light versus Heavy Axes.
A correspondent of the Albany Cultivator describes his experience with axes, which we give in part as an item of interest to our readers who rely so much upon work with these tools:
"My first axe weighed 4-1/2 pounds, being the heaviest one I could find at the time. I was fresh from a class in natural philosophy, knew all about inertia, and had learned something of the force of gravity and the laws of falling bodies; had rightly guessed that chopping wood might be hard work, and determined that my knowledge of physics should help me out. I would have a heavy axe, a long handle—would move slowly, and take strokes that would count when they fell. My axe handle was 34 inches in length, the longest one in the store. I had hired a tough little French Canadian, weighing about 120 pounds, to help, he brought an axe—a mere toy I called it, which weighed 2-1/2 pounds, with a handle only 26 inches long. I told him I had a fair-sized job for him, and thought it would pay him to buy a full-grown axe. He smiled and said he gussed his would do. I had decided that we would work separately during the first day or two, in order that I might show what I could do. As I began to swing my axe I felt proud of its ponderous blows that rang through the woods, and rather pitied the poor fellow who was drumming away with his little axe, taking about two blows to my one. Presently I had to stop to rest, and then again, and still again; but my man, kept pecking away quietly, steadily, and easily, and seemed perfectly able to do all necessary breathing without stopping his work for the purpose. When night came we piled up our wood and measured it. Joe's pile measured one and a half cords, mine only three-quarters of a cord.
The next day I felt lame and stayed at home. Joe put in his cord and a half, as usual. When I went to the woods again we worked together. Not many days passed before I found an excuse for buying a lighter axe and a shorter handle. And every axe and handle that I have bought since, has been lighter and shorter than its predecessor. Whenever I use an axe now I select one very much like Joe's, both in weight and length of handle. I can use this without getting out of breath, and can hit twice in the same place. The result is that I can do more and better work and save a vast amount of strength.