Posts filed under axes

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.

Axe Handle Breakage, Designing For Resiliency, Weak Links and Stress Distribution

An axe head with a wooden handle has some inherent problems. The head and handle are made of very different materials that behave differently. Steel has a very high density compared to wood. Wood is much more flexible than steel and will dent and break more easily. When using an axe, these differences can cause problems, such as the wood being damaged by forceful contact with the hard unyielding metal head, or the relatively high density of the steel head behaving differently than the handle, thereby putting stresses on the weaker wood. Breakage just below the eye is a very common occurrence. This article and video are an attempt to explain some common reasons why axes frequently break near the eye, having to do with design, or perhaps lack of design in some cases. Breakage in the main body of the handle can of course also occur, but I’m not really dealing with that here. I’m pretty sure that the greater percentage of axe handle breakages are initiated right where the handle meets the bottom of the eye, or within the first few inches of handle, especially if the breakage is not due to wonky grain or other defects. Shear stresses seem to be particularly high in this part of the handle.

In this article, I will be assuming that we are dealing mostly with American axe head patterns, which tend to have thinner eyes than European and Scandinavian axes. Even though American axe styles migrated back to Europe (many axe patterns on that side of the pond are actually American or modified American patterns) the axe eye sizes largely remained bigger than American axe eyes. This is an important point when we look at overall handle design, because with any given axe head, the eye shape just is what it is, and the size and shape of the wood where it enters the eye is therefore pre-determined. Some of these problems are obviated by the use of tapered axe eyes, in which the handle feeds in from the top and fits by friction, but that is a separate subject also. The assumption here is that we are dealing with American style patterns that are wedged from the top. For whatever mix of cultural and practical reasons, these axes have pushed the limits of strength and resilience of the wood used in handles, by evolving toward a small eye.

Aside from the size of the axe eye being fixed, there are two other things that are pretty much givens as well.

One is that the section of handle just below the eye, lengthwise (poll to blade) is wider than the rest of the handle. If the whole handle was the same front to back dimension as the eye length, it would be unusable, so the body of the haft has to slim down soon after leaving the eye.

Predetermined factor number two is that we need a slight flair in handle thickness just below the eye at the back of the handle, as well as on both sides, so that the head seats firmly around the bottom as it is driven on. The front edge of the handle can come straight out of the eye if desired, with no rise, but the other three sides need at least some flair, though not very much. In my view, it is always unnecessary, and also a detriment, to come out of the front of the eye and then immediately outward, forming a shoulder. I see no reason to do that, and every reason not to. If the handle isn’t completely straight coming out of the front of the eye, the rise is best made as a gentle transition.

WE CAN CONSCIOUSLY WORK AROUND THESE FIXED PARAMETERS. IN OTHER WORDS, DESIGN AROUND THE THINGS WE CAN’T CHANGE.

A Few Common Axe Handle Mistakes and What to Do About Them

On a recent snowy morning I answered a YouTube comment on axe handle breakage that led to a one take video shoot with a beautiful snowy background.  Being conceived and shot in one morning, this is just a partial snapshot of the subject.  It revolves around the specific problem of design factors contributing to handle breakage just below the axe eye.   It could easily have snowballed into a multi-part series on axe handle function and design ideas, leading to yet another video or series on user contributions to breakage; but the snow melted and I couldn't throw out that beautiful backdrop, which some people actually thought was done with a green screen!

This is viewed primarily from the perspective of American axes, which are evolved in the direction of high performance with the consequence of increased delicacy.  At least that is my current take on it.  An axe is a system composed of a handle and head which creates some inherent problems.  In America, the European axe systems that migrated here with early colonists eventually evolved toward higher performance creating narrower eyes that are inherently weaker than the wider ones they descended from.  European axe eyes seem to have remained wider for the most part, often even when copying American patterns.  In fact, I think the standard American axes are refined to a point where the handles could not be much thinner at the eye without becoming impractical for use with wooden handles, and some might argue that they already have become too thin.  That is a subject for another time though.  For now we will just look at, common problems that we see from both manufacturers and folks producing handles at home, which are easy enough to fix with some tuning up. 

While there are a lot of people that understand some of this intuitively and practice it, I don't recall seeing it spelled out anywhere.  It is my hope that this information will spread and eventually reach manufacturers, many of whom who are clearly not axe users.  Most axe handles will need work out of the factory and that is fine, but the mistakes that are greater in concept and scale are costing a lot of handle breakages at the eye that are totally unnecessary.  The essential problem is that manufacturers think they can just increase the thickness of the handle body to decrease handle breakage.  When viewed as a dynamic system though, it quickly becomes obvious that doing so puts undue stress on the thin eye portion of the axe, instead of sharing the stress across the length of the handle. At some point, continuing to thin a handle will obviously reverse that problem and create excessive vulnerability in the handle's main body.  That is really another level of this discussion though and one I purposefully avoided in this presentation.  Another issue is that there are other types of stress that are incurred from different types of use or mishap that may be more likely to break the body of the handle.  The grain of the wood and it's character is also at play.  We are dealing with a tool that sees different types of stress at different times, has inherent problems that are not entirely solvable and involves an inconsistent natural material.  Wood of even the best quality has fatal faults.  We continue to use it for the same type of reasons I continue to use vacuum tubes in my stereo and guitar amps, and that is user experience.  I personally also like wood because I can cut down a tree and make a new handle without relying on industrially produced products that I have to buy.

There is a lot of forgiving grey area in this problem and we don't have to engineer a perfect handle.  But, we do need to avoid the largest mistakes being made and if we get a handle that has them, we can tune those problems down until we have something that is more comfortable to use for long periods of time and also reduces stress on the eye.  I don't think I've seen a handle yet where the problem encountered was too little wood to work with!

Enough said here.  While this video is incomplete, it presents some ideas that I think are important and which can go a long way toward practical solutions. 

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.

Axe CordWood Challenge 2017 Final Results, 12 Cords, 13 Choppers, 1,536 cu ft.

The Axe CordWood Challenge for 2017 Ended in the first week of june.  It was a considerable success.  Altogether we had 13 people finish 1/4 cord or more.  8 of us finished 1 cord or more and one person cut over 2 cords.  The total quantity of wood was probably around 12 cords, which is a closely stacked block of wood 8 feet wide, 4 feet high and 48 feet long, or 1,536 cubic feet!  The web page is here, with participant links and photos.  ACWC 2018 is on the way...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Slightly Ranty Advice on Expensive Boutique Axes

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

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

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

Axe Handle Shock and Preventing Repetitive Stress Injury in Chopping

These are factors I know of that play a role in the amount of shock you absorb from your axe handle, such as chopping style, grip, handle rigidity, cutting ability and wood type.  These are the kinds of things that can allow a person cut more, longer and in harder wood without incurring numb sore hands, tendonitis, etc.   More text below.

 

Chopping with an axe is a high impact, high energy exercise.  As choppers, we necessarily absorb some of that energy since we are holding the tool.  There are a number of factors I know of which are important in the cause or prevention of repetitive stress injury or discomfort in chopping, most of them at least partially controllable. 

The axe should not be gripped very hard while chopping except as necessary in specific situations.  A hard grip unavoidably tires and stresses the hands, but it also creates a more efficient transfer of the energy from the vibrating axe handle back into the hands.  The Style of chopping is also important and interrelated to grip.  A heavy handed chopping style should be avoided.  Don't think of chopping as pushing or forcing the axe through the wood, but rather as whipping or throwing the axe head into the wood using the handle.  Pushing on the handle after the axe hits the wood adds little if any real power to the cut, but stresses the handle and the hands and probably sacrifices control to some extent.  You can cut plenty deep if you build velocity in the axe head before it hits the wood.  If the work is done before the axe hits the wood, then the grip is only to lightly control the axe after it strikes.

The handle of the axe, depending on it's thickness, density, inherent flexibility of the wood and probably other factors, will transmit more or less shock.  Thin handles transmit considerably less shock than thick ones do and tuning your handle or thinning it down is probably mentioned by authors writing about axes more often than not.  Older axes tend to have thinner handles than modern axes, and vintage axes, old photographs and older illustrations demonstrate this fact.  There is a reason that axe handles have become thicker, which is that they aren't actually used very much.  Most axes are now the equivalent of handbags for men, and are put to real use only infrequently for short periods of time.

If you cut into wood at an angle, usually around 45 degrees, it cuts more easily than if the cut is made at a right angle.  When cutting at 90 degrees the axe stops suddenly and more of the energy embodied in the head is transferred to your hands rather than cutting into the wood.  It's fine to cut at 90 degrees as needed, but generally a poor habit to get into on a regular basis.  Most axe work is done with cuts around 45 degrees for a reason.

Another way to transfer a lot of the energy embodied in an axe head back up the handle and into your hands is to use an axe that is not cutting well for any number of reasons.  The axe must cut well and easily or it will stop suddenly causing more vibration.  Most axes as they come from the factory, nearly all in fact, require at least some reshaping to get them cutting well.  In most cases, a significant amount of metal needs to be removed from the sides of the axe near the bit in order for it to be able to slide easily into the wood.  It is often recommended to file the cheek of an axe in a fan shape, but that depends on the shape of the axe head to start with.

Finally, the wood plays a role.  When chopping hard dry wood, less of the energy from each blow of the axe is dissipated in cutting, whereas when cutting soft and green woods, the energy is dissipated gradually as the axe sinks deeply into the cut.  You may or may not be able to control what wood you end up cutting, but you can control other factors that cause or prevent the kind of handle shock and fatigue that might keep you from working or cause a longer term injury that will put you off of work for a while.  The stuff mentioned here is important if a person want's to be able to use an axe under varied conditions, on varied woods, for longer periods of time, on consecutive days.  What separates the men from the boys isn't being tough enough, young enough or dumb enough to tolerate a club of a handle or an axe that otherwise doesn't cut well, but to be wise enough to work smart and not hard.  If you are going to sit at your computer trying to breath life into your flaccid member to some freaky internet porn, or work your thumbs out pushing buttons on your t.v., remote then I guess maybe none of it matters all that much.  If you're going to dig, carry, lift, hammer, weed, process and otherwise use your hands, wrists and arms, you'll be able to do all of it more, and longer, day after day if you pay attention to these types of details.

Introducing Axemanship Series, S.T.A.T.E. Five Factors in Effective Axe Work

Somehow in thinking often and long about what makes using an axe effective, I came up with these five things that I think are pretty fundamental.  Surprisingly, they not only formed a real English word to use as an acronym, but three of them!  Some of these are interrelated and it is not a completely tidy concept.  It's more like a framework to define and identify the things we need to work on or have in line to operate effectively.  But if you think about these five factors and removing any one of them, it becomes obvious that effectiveness will suffer.  I think pursuing these ideas will ultimately make us able to function at a high level.  This video series will be 5 videos long aside from this introduction.

Strategy:  Strategy is all important.  Starting to cut a log with no strategy is like starting on a trip with no map, no idea how to get there, just the general direction and that eventually with enough time and fuel you'll probably get there.  Strategy is the planning of the trip to get to center of that log in the most efficient way.  It may not be the shortest direct distance on a bumpy windy road, but it's something that we think will be the fastest or require the least fuel and time.  Strategy is neglected for two reasons.  One is not knowing that it's important.  A lot of beginners will think about getting to the center of the log, but not how to best get there.  Another is lack of faith in the strategy or abandonment of it due to frustration.  Have a strategy, even if you aren't sure it is the best strategy and stick with it.  Sure, vary it, experiment, adapt, but do those things with intent.

Tool:  An axe is not just an axe.  Most of them need work out of the box in order to cut effectively.  There are seemingly infinite axe head designs, handle designs, lengths, weights and grinds that could work effectively.  But, there are certain parameters outside of which chopping will become much less effective.

Accuracy: with an axe is a hard won skill.  It certainly requires time spent, but I believe it can improve more quickly with intent and a little instruction.  Without it, you can't execute your strategy effectively.  Lack of accuracy is not a reason to abandon strategy or give up on attempting to be accurate. Quite the opposite I think.

Technique:  as I mean it, technique is separate from Accuracy and efficiency, though related to both.  What I mean here is the mechanics of chopping and what you do with your body to actually make the axe cut the wood effectively.  If all the other 4 factors are in place, you will still cut the wood, but there are things you can do to make the axe cut better all else being equal.  Mostly we'll be talking about the generation of velocity, but there are other things and not unlikely some I don't know about or haven't noticed.

Efficiency:  Like the word Technique, efficiency could be interpreted in multiple ways.  What I mean here though is economy of energy and motion.  Basically how much result from a given expenditure of energy.  We already know that it can take one person way more energy to get the same log cut in two.  The ideal of efficiency would be to whittle the amount of energy down to a theoretical minimum by letting go of unnecessary, effort/tension/movement/error etc.

As Onix Pyro said in the comments on this introduction video, "practice makes better, not best"  Any ideal of perfect axemanship is a fantasy when knowledge necessarily has limits, the machine is not perfect and the conditions are variable.  And there is no need for perfection or ultimate speed or any other ideal.  But realizing that there is something out there vaguely resembling a theoretical perfection gives us a measure to observe our effectiveness against.  While I lack the teaching experience to prove it, I believe that a little thought and action around these five points will quickly accelerate a beginners effectiveness with an axe and provide a framework for anyone to measure and improve.  I consider this a work in progress and am willing to revise this list if necessary, but it seems pretty solid as far as I can think and from the feedback I've gotten so far.