Posts tagged #firewood

The Blood Zone, Common Mistakes In Splitting Firewood On the Ground With Axes

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Since releasing my video on splitting axe cut wood on the ground with axes, I have seen people engaged in what I consider to be risky behavior when engaged in this potentially very dangerous activity. Ben Scott, new head of the axe cordwood challenge project noticed the exact same thing and released a video pointing this specific problem out about the same time that I recorded this one. This is already an awkward and difficult to learn skill without having to stand in strange positions, but standing just any old place when ground splitting wood is something like driving around blind corners and relying on hope that no one is coming the other way. The difference is that we have some control of the tool and ability to read the circumstances. But we are not reliably accurate and faultless machines and that has to be accounted for. The main problem I see is that I don’t think people understand exactly what can go wrong and how serious the consequences might be, and and pointing those things out is the most important aspect of this video.

For learning ground splitting, for instance if working with a group of scouts, you could literally draw a line on the ground and place the firewood in such a way as to form these good visual habits until they stick. Name one side the blood zone and the other the safe zone.

A backing log for the buckstop could be an axecellent axecessory for training this method. Axeidents can easily happen when learning this technique. I’ve seen in happen. It could also make a good fixture in a longer term camp, so that anyone at any skill level can split wood for camp, or practice unsupervised. Flatten the bottom of the log and cut 5 or 6 notches. But, use it to teach good habits and the importance of direction of cut. Also realize that it is not a 100% guarantee of safety, because the buckstop can only be made so tall before the axe handle will be struck against the top edge.

A backing log for the buckstop could be an axecellent axecessory for training this method. Axeidents can easily happen when learning this technique. I’ve seen in happen. It could also make a good fixture in a longer term camp, so that anyone at any skill level can split wood for camp, or practice unsupervised. Flatten the bottom of the log and cut 5 or 6 notches. But, use it to teach good habits and the importance of direction of cut. Also realize that it is not a 100% guarantee of safety, because the buckstop can only be made so tall before the axe handle will be struck against the top edge.

For learning to split against a back log, the buckstop can be used until axe control is developed and direction of cut is understood. Using a buckstop with an accessory backing log tucked up against it could also be useful in a fixed camp where a number of people at different levels of skill, could safely split wood for camp. A backing log alone is not enough. A friend of mine cut her foot trying to learn to split against a back log, because she wasn’t able to learn direction of cut quickly enough and the axe popped over the log.

Flatten the bottom side for stability and to insure the log is low enough.

Flatten the bottom side for stability and to insure the log is low enough.

The BuckStop is Here! Training ProphylAXis For Bucking Firewood Safely

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I came up with this simple, but very cool idea for safely learning to buck logs with an axe. Here are the whys and whats and a few options for building one.

Watching people learn to buck in person and on video has been fairly horrifying at times. Most of the injuries we’ve seen during the cordwood challenge over the past two years were cuts made while bucking logs. This simple concept could allow people to train in bucking more safely, and just as important, to progress in that training more rapidly. I just came up with this idea a year or two ago and finally got around to trying it. The device is a simply a low guard wall that can be slapped together with some junk that might be lying around. I put together four different versions in about an hour including running around looking for materials. To make just one out of materials laying around would probably be about a 10 minute job.

This low wall should stop the axe should any cut go over the top of the log or through it, thus protecting the user from injury. This idea comes from the practice of using a backing log to buck, as recommended by Mors Kochanski and others. Using a larger log behind the log you are chopping can be very helpful, especially in preventing the axe from coming all the way through the work and continuing to the other side where we are standing. The Bucking Wall is taller and flatter than a log, so it should be more effective in preventing the axe from coming over the top of the log. It also allows one to stand closer to the work, which to me is preferable with a short handled axe. It is also lighter than a log. Finally, it can be built with a floor of plywood to catch the axe in case of over reaching strikes that would normally cause the toe of the axe blade to end up in the dirt.

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Consistent results and physical competence with an axe requires a certain amount of time served swinging one. They also require a certain amount of confidence to use well. The tool needs to be taken in hand and used with enough confidence to keep it under control and it is hard to be accurate and effective when timid and hesitant. It is possible to be so cautious and physically stiff that mistakes are increased or amplified. But how do we have confidence before being habituated to the tool? We don’t, which is why the learning phase is so dangerous. Observe the following quote from The Axe Manual of Peter McLaren published by the Plumb tool company.

“The danger of an axe is largely a mental hazard. The user is fearful; he stands so far from his work that his axe is not under control, forgetting that if he misplaces a stroke, or hits a glancing blow, the axe will always come home to him.

“Safety lies in learning to swing correctly and in placing your strokes accurately. Then stand within easy swinging distance and chop with confidence.

“Of course, there is always a careless man who minimizes any risk and chops more with abandon than with skill. In his hands the axe (or any edge tool) is dangerous. Play safe! But do not fear your axe. Instead--- Master it.”

Celebrity Axeman of old, Peter McLaren’s Manual of axe work put out by the Plumb Tool company. Download for free here…  https://scoutmastercg.com/the_axe_manual_/

Celebrity Axeman of old, Peter McLaren’s Manual of axe work put out by the Plumb Tool company. Download for free here…https://scoutmastercg.com/the_axe_manual_/

It is a lot easier to have that confidence once a reasonable degree of physical competence is gained. We don’t want to have false confidence, but ultimately McLaren was right. As a dangerous tool, it needs to be taken charge of and used confidently, with commitment and purposeful intent to do the work at hand.

But he recommended that we learn to use the axe, then use it with purpose and confidence. When each swing feels utterly lacking in said confidence as to where it will end up, or whether it will bite or bounce off, and we are not sure how to gauge distance from hands to the blade, how do we learn to use it safely? A certain amount of time must be spent with the tool before it begins to feel natural and go where we want it to. Enter the Buckstop

Because it is vertical and not round like a backing log, it is even more likely to prevent the axe from coming over the back board and hitting the user. So, at a certain height, it is almost 100% sure to prevent deflected and follow through cuts to the legs while bucking. So, there is the obvious advantage in terms of just preventing accidents, but I think the benefits will extent further. With the fear of injury essentially gone, now we can chop with some impunity, which means any timidity caused by being uncertain of striking our target is no longer at play. This may be a significant factor in allowing one to relax a little and chop with more confidence while working on physical technique. A new user can experiment with things like wrist torque for increasing speed, without increasing danger. In order to chop at their best, the lighter axes that I would typically recommend people start with need to be used with a little snap to create adequate head speed. But experimenting with that head speed is the last thing I would want to see a very new user doing. Using the bucking wall though, you could experiment with that acceleration and with tweaking style and technique in general, without fear of injury. Finally, when you do screw up, it is pretty obvious and I would hope that every time the axe hit’s the wall or wooden base, it stimulates the question of what would have happened if that wall wasn’t there. Even when making the final severing cut at the end to separate off the round of wood, the axe hitting the wall means the axe would be coming through, and if we look at footing position it should give some idea of whether we were at risk for injury.

I think this simple device is a solid idea, and could fill a very important need in the learning phase until confidence and skill are gained. I also think it could build that confidence and skill faster if used with intent. It’s not forever, it’s just a training aid. Many axe competitors habitually wear chainmail socks in both training and competition. Safety is good. But, I would recommend not using this indefinitely, because it could very easily foster bad habits and a false sense of security, which brings me to the down sides.

The two caveats I would say are, first that the buckstop should not be used as an excuse to be sloppy and complacent. One should still concentrate primarily on technique and aim, with a relaxed style, and not on speed and power. Ultimately speed and power are earned over time and more importantly they are nearly useless without a good level of accuracy. Forcing speed and power under normal conditions is dangerous, but even with a backing wall, they still will tend to cause aim to suffer and should be pursued intelligently with an aim to improvement of overall effectiveness, of which power is not the main ingredient as every experienced axeman will tell you. I do however, as I said above, think that using the bucking wall could allow one to progress more quickly into not just speed and power, but efficient speed and power by liberating the trainee to experiment more without putting limbs at risk. Which leads to caveat number two.

One could easily develop bad habits and a false sense of security if released from the fear of injury. I actually think it will be hard not to do so, and it is probably even inevitable. If I were training someone from scratch, I would probably approach it as two different stages, where in the second stage with no Buckstop, they have to learn new important habits and reboot the brain into danger mode. There is, of course, the opportunity to learn some safety lessons if you are continually watching that back wall and every time you hit it asking whether or not you would have lost a toe or two, but that requires a sort of intent or presence of mind that many of us aren’t going to have. Try to use the barrier consciously with the intent of hitting that backing wall as little as possible and not as an excuse to flail away with impunity. When the wall is gone, certainly more awareness and presence of mind around possible errors is going to be essential. Regardless, I would try to make the switch from buckstop to no buckstop as consciously and soberly as possible.

As far as design goes, watch the vide All of them work. You can just use a log that is larger than the piece you are bucking, but the wall should work better than a log in that it easier to move around, often easier to come up with, more transportable and allows one to stand very close, which I tend to do in bucking with the short handled axes I use. It is probably also safer, since it is both taller and flatter. If the device is made with a wooden platform for the log, it will also protect the toe of your axe from sticking into the dirt. @watch.your.follow.through on Instagram pointed out that if there is no base at the front for the log to rest on, it allows the device to be moved easily along the back of the log as chopping progresses. That is true, but it is also probably easier to slide a log along a piece of plywood. In a design with no wooden platform at the front, you can just jam a piece of plywood under the section to be cut to protect the axe, though it may not be as effective. Given that this is a training device and not a long term tool, any minor convenience issues like those only matter so much.

I would encourage making something that is super easy to throw together with common materials or junk that is lying around. I like elegant solutions, which means making and using the simple, easy, cheap thing that works. I am very resistant to keep tweaking the thing and turning it into a design project. Many tweaks could prove useful or clever, but the device that works and is actually built because it is so easy to put together is the best one, because that is the one that will actually be in use. Keep it simple and start using it, worry about tweaks later if they really seem compelling for some reason. If you have a saw and either some nails and a hammer or a screw gun, building one should be very fast. So fast in fact that it shouldn’t be a big deal to build an entirely new one or cannibalize the first to build a new one if it seems worthwhile.

I made them at different heights and it looks like 10 to 11 inches will be best. One I made with a 2 x 12 board had to have the front edge chamferred off as I hit the handle on it a few times. If the back stop is plywood, it probably wouldn’t damage the handle. Unless it needs to be shorter for portability, I think that for cutting 16 inch firewood lengths, 5 feet (150cm), or 6.5 feet (200cm), are going to be the magic numbers, with a 5’ wall, you can safely and comfortably cut 3 notches before moving it along and with a 6.5’ wall, you can make 4. But I would not hesitate to use almost any length if it’s easy or what you happen to have on hand.

As far as using the buckstop to train yourself or anyone else, here are my thoughts. First of all, this is so awesome! I’ve not had the opportunity to train someone from scratch, but I’ve often shuddered at the though of teaching someone to buck for the first time. This tool makes that so much easier. We can both exhale a sigh of relief and work on aim and a relaxed technique without worrying about safety. We can also work on the mechanics of acceleration and other technique stuff that would be much more dangerous to toy with otherwise. If used consciously, we can also get some good feedback on when the axe comes through or over the log and whether it might have hit a body part, trying to form good habits regarding body placement. Footing placement should be conscious as otherwise students might tend to stand right behind the cut with feet together, rather than in a safer wide stance. I think in a long term group or fixed camp such as scouts or a multi-day class it might be good to have one for each student. That way every cut in the board adds to a personal history. The wall could also be painted initially so that cuts show up better. Not every cut to the wall really indicates an accident, but it means something. For a more formal training for kids, I could see having a graduation test at some point where you have to buck so many feet of log with a freshly painted wall and if you make no cuts in the wall or base and meet some other criteria, you get to burn the thing ceremoniously and move on.

It could also be very useful for the student to carry out comparative lessons about such things as chopping styles and angles of cut. Also for trying different grinds and tools, but it can all be done safely. You can not only show people what can go wrong, you can have them do it, which will drive the point home much better, without driving the axe into their leg.

I do think that when it’s time to ditch the thing there should be a hard reboot on safety and awareness. I noticed just testing it briefly that I became very lax about footing placement and edge awareness. If you’re working on your own, you have to be your own bad guy, which is not always easy. If training someone else, be the eyes they need to help them cultivate that constant awareness of the edge and of follow through in relation to their body parts. When it’s time to move on, there really will need to be an emphasis on the fact that the game just changed and there are now real consequences and you can’t just hit NEW GAME after a serious accident.

As I said, I don’t think this should be a long term solution. I think it should be used to the best effect, then gotten rid of or it will cultivate bad habits and dependence. Switching back and forth could prove dangerous, because the two mindsets will be quite different. It is also more work to have it available, to move it to the logs or the logs to it. A skills over gear mindset doesn’t accommodate unnecessary accessories. Make a crappy one out of whatever cheap or free junk is available, don’t fix it unless it’s causing you problems, use it mindfully, then get rid of it and reboot your brain into high safety alert mode.

I think this device is going to prove very useful in certain contexts if it is used with intent. Let me know here or on YouTube if you try it, as I would like to get some feedback. As always stay safe and keep the red stuff inside.

CordWood Challenge 2019, New Leadership and Expansion

This year, I have turned over leadership of the challenge to a young, enthusiastic and very intelligent guy named Ben Scott on the other side of the Atlantic. Though relatively new to the game, he is level headed, confident and truly curious. He posts more to the cordwood challenge facebook page than anyone, including me and has been hammering out axe related YouTube content, much of which shows insight from experience. A lot of that experience and insight comes from doing the cordwood challenge last year where he cut 4 ricks of wood. I think he will not only do a good job, but a much better job than I at facilitating the project, taking it forward into new territory, and being consistently focused and involved. We chatted on skype for quite a long time and have very similar visions and ideas about the cordwood challenge concept and where to potentially go in the future. Pretty early on in the challenge I think I realized the potential and the need to grow or centralize a community and information source around practical axe work. I even took out a domain name, which I’ve offered to Ben if he wants to run with the idea.

I can see clearly the need for such an internet destination that is strictly focused on practical axe work and design and specifically avoids a sort of axe fetishism centered around collecting which tends to take over axe groups and discussions. I think such a project could be run and funded by members, and could house a database of sorts. This might provide a mutually supportive community that learns at an exponential rate and that is instrumental in welcoming novice axe users to facilitate their progress and understanding of the tool and it’s safer use. Ben has also already added some other challenges that could make the project more accessible to people that don’t have access to a forest, or that are doing axe-centric building projects.

I feel like this is really the best case scenario right now. I am also very sure that I know the best place to put what energy and time I can into engaging with the axe community by providing content on axe use, safety and theory. That also has to compete with the many other subjects I want to cover, but I’m quite sure the content I have planned on axe stuff is extremely important, and will do a lot of good and will very likely remain viable into the future. As popular as axes are, my take on them as a practical user who generally buzzkills gearheadism, collecting and fetishism is not very popular, but I feel almost obligated to produce that content, especially in support of the cordwood challenge project.

Any axe head should subscribe to Ben’s YouTube channel. People just interested in the Axe CordWood Challenge in general, or who just want to be supportive of the project are welcome to join the FaceBook page, which Ben is now an administrator of along with myself.

If you want to know more about how my messed up life and health have compelled me to forego this project this year and are limiting my activity, you can watch the video below. My life is pretty messed up lately and I’m having a hard time maintaining anything resembling focus to carry through projects.

As always stay safe choppers.

New Axe Cordwood Challenge Facebook Page

I've started a facebook page for the Axe Cordwood Challenge.  We needed a destination of sorts to coalesce and interact as a community of people doing the same thing, sharing information and progress and discussing relevant stuff.  I'm open to discussion of other axe reliant projects as long as they are all about axes and don't just happen to use an axe, for instance hewing with axes or building a log cabin using axes for the majority of the work.  It's not for axe porn (at least not if unrelated to the challenge :) or general axe discussions, identification, collecting, restoration and all that stuff, because every other axe group I can find is dominated by that sort of thing to the point that posts about working axes and how axes work flounder or are rapidly buried.

It is a public group, so anyone can check it out, hang our or support participants.  I would have preferred to have used a different platform, but facebook is easy and most people are on it already.  I would like to move it someday, but am not in a position to set anything up elsewhere or paying for some kind of discussion board service to plug into the skillcult site.  Maybe in the future.

In the Meantime... https://www.facebook.com/AxeCordwoodChallenge/

Axe Buying Checklist Series, #1 Damage and Wear

This is a series on common problems found with axes from craftsmanship to use and abuse.  There are many points, like a checklist of things to look at when picking up an axe or axe head which few people are savvy enough to know to look for all of.  After this series, you'll have that mental checklist. 

The four video segments are on:

Wear and Damage,

Symmetry,

Handles

Options and Axe Hunting

Most used axes are either worn or abused in some way.  Fortunately, they are often perfectly serviceable anyway, usually after a little work.  New axes can have various issues and seemingly perfect axes seem to be the exception. 

This links to the video playlist.  One video will come out every day for the next few days.

Axe Cordwood Challenge 2018 is On, Rules and Stuff

The Axe Cordwood Challenge for 2018 Kicks off today, Jan 1st 2018, through Sept. 1st 2018.  Here is the official video.  Also, below is the "must watch" playlist of videos for the cordwood challenge, which I hope to add to in the coming months.  Stay safe and have fun.

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

What to Do With Those Axe Cut Woodchips? The Burning Question

One of the most common questions, if not the most common question on my axe related content is some combination of what do you do with the chips, aren't they wasteful compared to a saw and wouldn't it be better to just use a saw.  The video below is about that and what we can do with the chips which are quite useful for anyone with a garden or who burns wood.  Below that are some further thoughts not really covered in this video.

What I covered in that video was, in short, yes there are a lot of wood chips produced when processing wood with an axe.  This tree was probably 9 inches in diameter and I estimated about two good firewood logs worth of chips were produced.  It takes under 5 minutes to pick up 80% or more, in this case 3.5 minutes.  I talked about what you can use them for, like biochar, mushroom growing and fuel, and how whether it is viewed as wasteful or not is a matter of context.  What I didn't really talk about is why some of us use axes and not saws for hand processing firewood. 

I didn't talk about that, because I more or less just forgot to!  I think that in my head it would be self evident that not I, nor anyone else, is using an axe because it is the quickest and most efficient method of firewood production.  I like saws.  I like my chainsaw.  I'll be using my chainsaw a lot for processing wood this year, not because I need the wood, but because I need to deal with a lot of sick trees that will soon be a fire hazard and which represent a short term opportunity to gather some resources that will soon be unavailable.

But, when I set out to do the cordwood challenge myself the previous season, challenging myself to cut a cord of wood in 3 months, I was slightly wary.  Before committing I think I went and cut up a small tree or two just to be sure I should be announcing to the entire internet that I was going to go for it.  Aside from potential personal limitations though, I knew I could do it, because people used to do it.  Dudley cook said in The Axe Book, that a good axeman could put up 2 cords a day!  I knew the cord he was talking about had to be in at least 24 inch lengths, and not the 16 inch stove lengths I was cutting.  More probably it was cut into between 32 and 48 inch lengths for industrial use, transportation in bulk and most probably very wide fireplaces.  Charcoal makers would cut wood even longer to make large stacks of wood.  Still, do the math.  I'm cutting about 3 times as much to get my 16 inch logs as a guy cutting 32 inchers, but even the slowish guy could probably put that up in just 3 days of average work!

Well, that is interesting to think about, but it doesn't prove anything to me for real or gain me a lot of real insight.  To gain knowledge it is required of us to take information and do more than absorb it, more than mull over it and make assumptions and inferences.  For me that process looks more like taking in information, contemplating it, putting it into practice, maybe getting more information, more experience, more contemplation etc.  At some point, something resembling truths begin to gel out of that process.  In short, I knew that to gain real insight into the problem of axe work and what it's potentials and limitations really were, I had to put it into practice for reals.  Not only that, but I actually had to improve my own skills to a certain level before I could really understand what that potential was and where an axe may be more or less useful than a saw.  Give an unskilled person an axe and a hand saw and tell them to limb this same tree and they are likely to conclude that the saw is easier and faster.  But no matter how good they get with that saw, I'll have the same tree limbed up more quickly, with much less physical effort and many of by knots will be trimmed more closely than theirs.

I'll also have way more fun doing it!  Axe work is engaging, exciting, focusing, cultivates coordination and provides a diverse form of exercise.  Sawing by comparison is dull and tedious work and the best you can do is trade off one side for the other.  I like sawing up to a point.  It is good honest contemplative work.  It is also skilled work and a good hand with a saw will out saw a newb every time.  But it is only so skilled and lacks the special combination of things that makes axe work really engaging and fun.  Saws have their place as do axes.  But the place an axe has in any one particular persons hands is informed by that persons skill level and understanding of it's efficient use, and that requisite skill is only gained by extended use, and not by dabbling at the thing.

All of which is to point out that, while my use of an axe on that fir tree in these last couple of videos did result in two fewer logs worth of large firewood, rather than smaller chips, such is simply part of the cost of admission into that understanding of what is and is not possible with an axe and what place it does or doesn't have in our tree work.  It's a rather small price it is to pay when they are easy to pick up and decidedly very useful as fuel or for other purposes.

And repeat thousands of times :)

And repeat thousands of times :)

Axe Only Firewood Processing, Felling, Limbing, Lopping, Bucking for a Splitting Video

I released a video a couple days ago on processing my last tree for the cordwood challenge.  This was a tree I chose as not particular easy to split for a splitting video I'm still waiting to record.  The question of how you split wood with an axe if it's cut with an axe instead of a saw vies with "what do you do with the chips" as the most common question regarding processing wood with an axe.  The footage I shot for the front of that video seemed like a good stand alone video, so I edited it and posted it with some commentary.

Be aware that there is a lot going on when I'm processing this tree that is invisible to the uninitiated.  If I were watching someone else do it, I could spot some of that "invisible" technique and safety stuff, but not all of it as it is very subtle and personal.  The lopping operation is especially dangerous, but I'm using several things to stay as safe as possible.  The most important might be the direction of cut, which means in what direction the force is pointed, the obvious reference point being the cutting edge.  A close second is probably body positioning to decrease the likelihood of a stray edge contacting my body.  Moderation of the force used is also extremely important.  Axe work requires constant adaptation and a certain level of humility where you have to say to yourself "I can hit this really hard, but I'm not going to!"  Finally, you really have to be able to hit what you're aiming at.  Anyway, it's mostly a lot of chopping, but some people really seem to like that.  There are some really good pointers though too.  You can count on some very detailed tutorials in the future.

Axe Cordwood Challenge Almost Over and a 1 Week Extension

The axe cordwood challenge is nearly over.  I'm closing in on my own cord and 3 people have already cut a cord or more.  I'm adding a 1 week extension, just because this is the first year and we got started kind of late.  Actually it's mostly because I want people to have time and not rush too much since that is inherently more dangerous.  I still hope to finish mine by June 1st, because it just takes time to dry wood even in our hot summers and June 1st is a good last date to have green firewood cut.  I'm thinking about how to make it more accessible to people in the Southern Hemisphere in the future.  If you finish the challenge, send me info and pics or links to videos by June 7th through the contact on this website.  Also, leaving comments on the official Axe Cordwood Challenge page is a good idea as well.  I think a lot of people would like to know what axes participants used and what you learned whether you finished or not, and the comments section on that page is a good place to leave those.  I'll probably create a page for the 2017 challenge and post all the various links and experiences there.  I've heard from a lot of people who were maybe going to do it and more that have just been using their axes more and practicing and having fun with that.  No one said this completely sucks and I hate it and didn't learn anything, lol.  It's been pretty much good feedback all around and it's been fun having this thing in common with a group of people.

First Three Axe Cordwood Challenge Participants Finished! Shoutouts, Questions and Comments

Three people have finished the cordwood challenge cutting a cord or more!  Those people rock.  Also a shout out to people that have started or are planning to do it, all of whom are listed below.  Anyone who is doing the challenge should leave a comment on the official web page so that we all know who everyone is, and so that I can keep track of people. 

FINISHED!:

*Tim Springston, Oxbow Farms https://youtu.be/YbeCFT_SIh4?list=PLGQ0YYG8MKkXMuOmeHl_9Bloy5nLnR41d

*Todd Walker, Survival Sherpa https://youtu.be/dRJvHtcS55U?list=PLpxU0SQfqX02pmlspLody0oV8EJKSD2oBhttps://survivalsherpa.wordpress.com/

*Timothy Sutton, Flatland Woodsman https://youtu.be/8zlF4ZLu7v8?list=PLQunotaCvTeKSXcWdUVCU53QWLwxMc8-G

IN PROGRESS OR PLANNING TO DO:

*DevaJones03https://www.youtube.com/user/DevaJones03

*Aaron Fosterhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgwXsfSS1lO3Jj_P0_sJiqA

*Patrick Hale https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYpFteNH2MOaFzQK7JPau_Q

*EmLill Thingshttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCl8L71gIPWRs5muBtgUNRHw

*Homestead Boxhttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCD60T9zMzdmXr696wfqoZOA

*JayDigHsxhttps://www.youtube.com/user/dighsx

*J. Vanier

*Capt Henderson

*Brian Larson

*Crescentson

The Cordwood Challenge, What to Expect and Related Thoughts

A video I shot this morning talking about what to expect when doing the cordwood challenge.  Further thoughts below.

When I did my axe cordwood challenge last year, it wasn’t quite what I expected in every way.  Here are some thoughts on that.  Doing the axe cordwood challenge will affect how the process itself is experienced.  First off, a lot of the experience of anything we do is made up of things like expectation, attitude, pre-conception, social prejudice and just in general what we bring with us that colors our experience.  As a person progresses and improves their skills with an axe, some of those things will change quite a bit.  I tend to think that in most cases, views of the work itself, it’s worth and enjoyability and how much it is percieved as "work" in the negative modern sense, will improve.  On the other hand, maybe that will not be the case if someone has a very romantic and inaccurate view of what it entails to start with.  Who knows.  That is part of this experiment.

Much has to do with efficiency and ability. It is usually a lot more fun and motivating to do something that you are good at and using an axe can be very frustrating if things are not going too well.  Picking up an axe with little or no experience can feel awkward and ineffectual.  In order to be efficient at the work, we have to be able to hit where we are aiming, understand how the axe cuts or doesn’t, have at least a rudimentary understanding of effective strategy, and be able to deliver energy where we want it with a relatively low amount of energy expended; or put otherwise, as little as possible of energy expended is wasted unnecessarily along the way.  It may look easy, but it’s easier said than done and simply takes time with axe in hand to start building physical memory.  Thus, of course, the cordwood challenge in the first place.

The amount of energy expended will go down as coordination is built and excess movement and tension start to fall away.  At least that is how it should happen eventually.  It is possible to waste a lot of energy with excess movement and tension, but the ability to relax into the work will only come with familiarity and comfort with the tool.  I’ll try to offer some tips, but the best recommendation I can probably make is to watch people who are good at chopping and learn that visually.  Watch them a lot and you’ll start to imitate them without even thinking about it.  Look at my recommended axe video play list.  Especially watch competition choppers and the video The Axeman.  Jon Ugalde’s video of 79 year old Basque Axeman Enrique Bildarraz is a great example of high efficiency.  Skills or not, a nearly 80 year old man doesn’t have energy to waste.  Energy efficiency is not synonymous with time or force.

In any case, it takes a lot of time to chop wood with an axe relative to using a chain saw.  That is a given.  Although both speed and force could help you finish work more quickly, It is very important not to force either one too fast.  The forcing of either or both is a great danger, making accidents both more likely and worse when they do happen.  Not only that, but forcing either too much is likely to decrease your efficiency, because errors will be magnified and increased.  Be patient and concentrate on technique, aim and strategy.  The power and speed will happen naturally to a point if they are in your nature.  If they are not, that’s okay too.  You will just proceed somewhat slower.  You don’t actually need a lot of either.  We’ll talk more about the generation of power later.  Beginning choppers should err toward gentle chopping and concentrate on accuracy and system.  Make no mistake.  Power and speed are a waste of energy without accuracy and system.

https://youtu.be/rb9fWu7JES8

Expect to have near accidents as you learn your way around the process and build your catalogue of what can happen.  We go through a higher risk phase when first learning to do something dangerous.  With time (except for the common “cocky phase” somewhere in the middle), dangerous pursuits should become safer as we learn what can go wrong and to foresee potential accidents happening.  We all have a little safety officer in our heads watching out for us throughout every day doing even commonplace things.  Some accidents will be foreseen as a matter of common sense and everyday physics that we are already dealing with regularly our whole lives.  Some accidents are not as easy to see coming.  Hopefully we can shorten that high risk period with some demonstration and discussion, but much has to be learned by experience and real life experience.

I think for men especially, it’s important that we have some kind of at least symbolic destructive activity.  Fighting, hunting and violence in general are in our DNA.  That may be inconvenient at times, but it’s there whether anyone likes it or not.  I find dismembering trees with an axe rather therapeutic and relaxing while being a good outlet for my destructive nature.  The work requires an odd combination of aggression against a living or once living organism, relaxation/effort, and focus while letting go of the chattery overthinking mind.  If you do it a lot, and begin to relax into the work, it will eventually pull you into a good place to be, quite, focused, present, engaged, relaxed and active all at the same time.  I don’t know anything quite like it.

Official Launch of the Cordwood Challenge 2017!, Cut Your Firewood with Axes Only

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.

 

Rules

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.

Books:

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

Video: 

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!

Bucking Without Sucking, Toward Efficient Notching With an Axe

I have a great video coming out on tanning the deer skin for the axe strops I'm making for the cordwood challenge.  But the file is huge and my internet was acting up so I made this short video out of something I had sitting around from another project so I could keep my every Saturday posting schedule.

In the video clip, I'm just messing about and demonstrating on this log.  I wasn't actually processing this fallen Black Oak tree, it was just a good size and condition for the project which will be a more in depth video and blog post on common mistakes in bucking, as well as the psychology that leads us into those mistakes and keeps us there.  Bucking well is a hard won skill and can be very clumsy, especially under varied field conditions when working at ground level.  There are several important take home messages in this video that can help people get passed common pitfalls. 

If you see something like the video I'm adding below by Ben at Ben's backwoods on throwing big chips, it looks exceptional in the backdrop of the average axe bucking video (excluding competition choppers), but it shouldn't seem so exceptional.  This is the kind of accuracy, strategy and adherence to a proven system that can make chopping, fun and much more efficient than most people imagine it could be.  I'm also linkng a Basque axe race that viewer Jon Ugalde posted in the comments on todays video that is truly epic!  Those are beech logs they're cutting.  Seriously awesome.

Starting the Husqvarna Forest Axe Project, Intro and Testing the Stock Axe

This is the beginning of a look at the Husqvarna 26” Multipurpose Forest Axe.  After seeing my unflattering review of their hatchet you might expect me to be frothing at the mouth about this one, but I actually think it has potential or I wouldn't have bought it.  The video is a short intro with a lot of chopping.  I kept falling asleep while trying to edit it because the repetitive chopping is somehow very soothing.  This is a class of axe that is light enough to pack, but as the name implies is good for a lot of different stuff.  I like this class of axe for running around the woods here or doing a little limbing.  The Gransfors Bruks Forest Axe is the most famous example, which I own.  Having put that axe through a lot of firewood last year just to see what can really reasonably be done with it, I can say that these light short axes can do some real work!  They are probably not the best at anything.  It’s compromises all around.  I would not really recommend this as a firewood axe to most people.  it is too light and it would be better if it were longer..  However, if someone interested in a packable axe and improving their skill at using one, I think it would be an excellent exercise to get one of these and cut a quantity of firewood with it.  It is also probably an easy axe to learn to chop on.  Although a somewhat longer handle could be safer, the shorter handle should be more accurate.

I’ve had the gransfors for a very long time and thanks to the outstanding quality of the handle wood and my hard won skill at not breaking axe handles all the time, it has survived the years and seen a lot of use.  I like the design, but it’s a tad short at 25 inches, which is my short limit for a truly effective and comfortable axe at my height (5’ 10”).  The workmanship on the head is terrible though.  The bit is extremely crooked.  So if the Husqvarna works out, which I think it will, the Gransfors will go on the auction block.  I’m not interested in these things hanging about gathering dust.

Coming up in this project, we’ll talk about the axe, buying it and what I do and don’t like and then start modifying it.  Some stuff I know what I want and other stuff will be experimental.  during and after, we’ll test it at various uses to see how it performs.

 

Posted on October 22, 2016 and filed under axes, firewood, Forestry, tools.

Take That Axe Off the Wall, The Cordwood Challenge is Coming

I was just starting to stack my wood and in about 24 hours I went from wondering if I should do the cordwood challenge again, to planning the next one and starting to prime potential recruits!  Now I'm all excited about fixing up some axes and getting back to chopping...  Pretty challenging, but so rewarding!  Just think about if for now :)

Posted on September 9, 2016 and filed under firewood, axes.

Finished! What I Learned Cutting a Cord of Wood With Axes over Three Months

This is the video version of what I learned chopping a cord of wood over 3 months.  It was really fun and I learned a lot, much more than I could articulate or fit into this video.  I plan to do a long blog post covering the project and my thoughts in more detail.  Hopefully soon, though there are crazy amounts of time sensitive seasonal work to do on the homestead...

Wood Splitting Series, Part 2: Tools

This series will be almost solely about using splitting mauls, with a nod to axes and wedges.  Splitting with a hydraulic splitter v.s. hand tools is discussed in part one, the introduction.  If you are out in the wilderness with an axe, then you need to use that, but the maul is a much better tool for splitting a lot of woods.  An axe is designed to bite deeply and cut across the grain of wood, not to split it apart.  An axe made for chopping is acceptable in some cases, and even good in others, but not purpose made for heavy splitting.  There are splitting axes that are fatter, but they are kind of stuck between two jobs and I’m not sure what the advantages of a splitting axe are over a maul are.  I don’t think I’ve ever used one, so I wouldn’t really know.  They seem like a partial modification of an axe that hasn’t quite evolved all the way into a purpose built splitting tool.  For the wood I end up splitting a lot, I’m sure a splitting axe is more likely to get stuck.  That’s not to say they aren’t useful.  I’m sure it is just contextual.  See this link for a cool example of splitting wood using an axe by Eustace Conway, subject of the book The Last American Man.  This technique would not work very well on a lot of the wood I end up splitting.  Again with the context.

 

There are a lot of special maul designs out there, most of which I haven’t used.  One that I have used and am not a fan of, is the huge heavy triangle of steel, sometimes called a monster maul.  Yes, it may hit hard from all that weight, but you have to pick it back up and throw it around over and over and over again, while most of that time the extra weight is overkill.  Those monster mauls also have a steel pipe for a handle, which simply sucks.  They transfer more shock to your body.  A tool handle should flex so that it absorbs some of the shock of the blow instead of transferring it all into your body.  Lastly, they never stick.  You’d think that’s a good thing, because you never have to pull them back out, which requires energy.  But when a maul fails to stick and bounces off, I find it very jarring, no matter what type of maul it is, but more so if the handle is a steel pipe.  Your mileage may vary, but if I owned one of those I’m sure it wouldn’t see frequent use.  Maybe that type of maul could come in handy sometimes, but as an only splitting tool, it doesn't make much sense to me.


The Fiskars maul I have was given to me, and I’m not crazy about it, though you will read rave reviews all over the net.  The handle is too short on the small model I have,  which is a total deal killer.  I don’t like the balance or the feel of it all that well anyway.  It is weighted heavily forward so it points down easily, but that makes it awkward to swing around, making it a poor fit for my style of splitting.  It has no eye, so when the plastic handle eventually breaks it can’t be replaced, at which point it’s just a wedge.  It also has a thin bit which is more fragile.  I could see it working really well with a long handle and maybe on not super hard to split wood, but I wouldn't want to abuse that edge too much like I do on my regular maul.


The maul I’m using currently is medium in weight, so it’s not too hard to throw around, though it’s plenty heavy enough to do a lot of work.  The head is just one I grabbed out of my metal scrap pile, where there are several more, probably none of which I paid for.  I’m sure there are improvements that could be made and probably have been.  Out of all the tools I’ve tried, I have still always migrated back to a basic medium weight maul, and lets just say that I’m not highly motivated to look for something better.  This essential design has stood the test of time for a reason.  If I had a bunch of money, sure I’d like to get a slew of different splitting mauls and test them all and figure out what works the best.  Looking for a better design is not motivating though since my basic maul does the job quite adequately.

Standard American splitting maul.  No doubt it could be improved a little, and that even sounds like a fun project I'd like to undertake sometime, but it works well enough that I'm not motivated to throw money out to find a better design.  Aside from the handle, it was free.

 

I love wood handles and I have made a lot of my own.  Splitting mauls is one place that I’m in favor of fiberglass handles though.  Wood handles on a splitting maul are very vulnerable.  The main enemy of wooden handles is hitting them on the piece of wood you're splitting.  Eventually they become splintered and break.  They at least need a rubber bumper or some kind of guard, or to have rawhide shrunk on at the neck.  Another heavy stress on them is pulling them out of the wood when they stick.  With a fiberglass handle, I don’t even have to be careful, which makes splitting much more efficient.  The handles come with epoxy.  If the head ever comes loose, just use any epoxy to fix it.  There are lots of splitting maul heads floating around out there on which someone busted a wooden handle and never replaced it.  I have a pile of them.  If I lost the one I’m using now, I’d just go grab another one out of my stash and buy a fiberglass handle for it.  I do prefer the feel of a wooden handle and, if anything, my fiberglass handle is a little too flexible rather than the other way around.  The advantages of wood in feel, and even function, still don’t outweigh the remarkable durability of fiberglass though.  If I need or want to, I can always revert to wood, but my splitting efficiency would go way down.  I would have to be much, much more careful about how I use the tool, and spend more time knocking the maul out of the wood when it sticks rather than just yanking it out.

 

In my considerable opinion, a maul bit should not be too thin.  If it is too acute, like an axe, it will be more likely to stick in the wood and require some screwing around to pull it back out.  It will also be more fragile.  I like to split at ground level for convenience most of the time, so my maul edge is getting slammed into the dirt and gravel of the driveway over and over.  A relatively acute edge is not going to hold up to that kind of abuse and will dull more quickly.  It may even chip.  This is a compromise and I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what the best compromise is in terms of an angle.  I rarely measure the angle of any edge when I’m sharpening.  If you are sticking the maul deep into the wood frequently, and having to wriggle it out, think about using a maul with a more blunt shape.  It will stick sometimes, and almost any maul will stick in very spongy, soft, wet wood, but in most cases, when the maul sticks, it should not stick too deep and it should be relatively easy to unstick most of the time.  If it’s sticking deeply over and over, you are wasting a lot of energy pulling it back out and should think about a more obtuse tool.  To me, there is a compromise between a tool that always bounces off and one that almost always sticks.  A tool that bounces off occasionally and sticks occasionally, but does neither too often, or too extremely, is the compromise embodied in many of the standard splitting mauls I’ve used.

 

And lets talk about sharpness of the edge for a second.  The edge of of a maul doesn’t need a fine grind.  It just doesn’t make that much difference.  Yes, there is a point where it is too blunt and time to dress it back up, but it’s not a cutting tool.  It’s a splitting tool.  It has to be sharp enough to easily start the split, but after that the edge is not even touching the wood.  The wood is wedged apart by the sides of the maul once the split is started.

 

Wedges.  I don’t use wedges very often.  In fact, if I own any, I’m not sure where they are.  If I wedges to split a long log or something, I just make some out of whatever wood is handy.  Or, if I'm splitting something small, I use an axe or hatchet and pound on the back with a wooden mallet.  I find that with good technique and strategy, I can split most pieces of firewood without a wedge.  If a piece of wood is so hard to split that I have to bust out a wedge, I’m more likely to toss it in a pile to burn in a bonfire at a party, or sometimes I toss them in a gully for erosion control.  I just don’t get excited about using wedges either.  It’s not as fun as splitting wood with a maul.   Part of that is that I'm impatient.  Using a wedge is also loud enough that you should wear earplugs, just another thing to have on hand and have to deal with.  Still, wedges are really remarkably effective and are great to have around when you encounter something really tough.  They’re also going to be handy until your technique develops, or if you don’t have that much wood and have to split every piece.  They are also good for people who are just not strong enough or experienced enough to power through more difficult splits, especially in tall firewood rounds.  You can use an old axe head, but don’t use it if it’s a nice one.  The back will mushroom and the eye may eventually bend out of shape.  you’ll find axes like that all the time.  It’s almost uncommon to find one that is not beaten up at least a little on the poll (back).  most of them are still salvageable, but eventually they will be completely ruined if that kind of abuse is kept up.  So, if it’s a nice head, save it for someone to use as an axe someday.  Axes are actually cool again now, reflected by ebay prices.  The shape of an axe isn’t ideal for splitting firewood anyway.  Typically a fatter wedge will work better, again depending on the wood.

 

Wood splitting is dangerous, though not nearly as dangerous as using a sharp axe for chopping.  Be aware that as you beat on a metal wedge or old axe head with a metal sledge, or the back of your maul, it will begin to mushroom.  Eventually, these bits of metal will bust off and go flying.  Seriously, they can really zing off of there like a bullet.  You should grind them off occasionally, and of course you should wear safety goggles.  Personally, I choose not to wear eye protection when splitting wood, but when I’m pounding on a mushroomed axe or wedge head, I always wear goggles.  The mushroomed metal should be ground off every once in a while.  It is also quite possible to send chips of wood flying into your face when splitting with a maul, but not commonly enough to make me wear googles.  No doubt there is a risk though.  These are personal choices.  A maul may be dull, but it can be used to hurt yourself with its weight and momentum, so watch where that tool is going to swing if you miss or follow all the way through the split.

 

So to sum up, if you use a very heavy maul which is overkill for most of the wood that you split, you will be using a lot of extra energy unnecessarily by picking it up and throwing it around over and over again.  My experience splitting wood year after year has led me in the direction of a pretty standard medium weight maul as the sweet spot for general use, although that may be largely specific to my circumstances.  It is heavy enough to blast through some hard splits with good technique and repeated blows, but not so heavy as to be too burdensome most of the time.  Regardless of anything else, I can say from experience that the medium weight maul, used strategically and with skill is a good workhorse.  If you need to or want to use a gigantic heavy maul, reserve it for really heavy splitting.  If you do most, or all of your splitting with a medium weight maul, it will make you good at splitting wood, because you’ll have to be on your game when you split difficult pieces.  It is also blunt enough not to get stuck very often, but not so blunt as to bounce off and shock your arms, though both will happen occasionally, which just proves my point that it’s in the middle of those two extremes.

 

There is no reason to adopt my opinion as yours.  In fact there are plenty of reasons not to.  Be open to whatever comes along that works.  That’s what it’s about after all.  What works for me may not work for you.  I’m not conservative about this stuff at all.  I like trying new tools if just out of curiosity.  I think a 6 pound maul with a fiberglass handle is a good starting place, but it may even be overkill if you are splitting straight grained soft woods most of the time.  

 

Finally, there are always these videos of new splitting maul designs and various gimmicky wood splitting techniques and devices floating around on facebook and on forums.  I doubt any of them are a huge improvement over a good standard design.  Any advantage is good, but they won’t make up for a total lack of skill and understanding of strategy, or do the work for you.  In the next installment we’ll look at how to use the maul, and after that at the nature and composition of wood and strategies for tackling various situations.

 

I'd love to hear your comments about what works for you.


Posted on October 18, 2015 and filed under tools, firewood, Homesteading.