Having worked in commercial logging, I might have witnessed fine axmanship—had I been born half a century earlier! But by the time I was learning to walk in the 1950s, the chainsaw had pretty much relegated the ax to the woodpile, where it often languished, unsharpened and unprotected from weather, until someone wanted a few flames in the hearth for an evening eggnog. I’ve felled trees and bucked them with an ax. It’s a good workout for anyone. Proper technique makes it easier; if you’re a green recruit, it’s grueling. Here are some tips.
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As with shooting and boxing, axmanship begins with proper footwork. Take a broad stance at a comfortable angle to the work (the head should strike about in line with your left leg.) Whether felling a tree or splitting “rounds,” grip the haft near the head with your right hand, near the knob with your left. Swivel at your hips as you swing the ax smoothly up and behind your right shoulder. Reverse direction with a rotation of your shoulders. Think fly rod; you’ve “loaded” the ax head and must now tap its stored energy. Let your right hand slide down the handle as the head descends. The right hand should meet the left as your left wrist breaks. The right arm accelerates the head at the finish to increase its striking force, no matter the swing angle. The swing is more like throwing than pushing. The weight of the head should do much of the work! When an ax head gets loose, secure it with tightening wedges driven into the end of the haft, at the eye.
People get into trouble felling timber mainly because they don’t put it in the right place. Skillful use of an ax will drop almost any tree wherever you want it. The first step is to determine that spot! Make a horizontal cut on that side, then swing your ax down at an angle to chip out a notch. Repeat. Make early cuts wide enough to ensure big chips as the ax bites deeper into the tree and the notch shrinks. Depending on the “lean” of the tree, continue this cut-and-chip routine to its center. Now move to the opposite side. Above the notch (2 to 4 inches, depending on tree diameter), cut a narrow notch at a gentle angle down so your ax approaches the middle of the tree just above the original cut. A straight tree should fall neatly to the notch side. If you must work “against the lean,” you may need a wedge. Extreme leans require two—and a pro’s attention. You don’t want to stick that ax or land the tree on your pickup.
Tools & Types
Splitting firewood is wonderful therapy and the easiest of all ax tasks. For hard or knotty wood, you’ll want a splitting maul, with a dull, steep-sided blade. Wedges help with truly recalcitrant rounds.
The best ax is a heavy single-bit with a relatively steep cheek (it acts as a wedge to separate wood fibers). Don’t strike a maul or a steel wedge with your ax! It wasn’t made for that. If you must drive wedges, use the much heavier, blunted maul poll, or a sledge. Set your round on a chopping block that’s knee height and firmly set. The ax head should strike the top of the round when the haft comes horizontal near the end of your swing. You’ll follow through as the blade penetrates. The chopping block protects it if it drives through. At the strike, give the handle a little twist. This prevents the ax from sticking in tough wood and will help pop ripe wood apart. Splitting is usually easiest just after the wood is cut into rounds. A prompt splitting also speeds drying. Fresh wood holds about 45-percent moisture. A summer can bring split wood down to 25 percent or so, just right for a crackling hearth and a glass of eggnog.
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Ax Sharpening 101
As with knives, axes work best when sharp (barring specific tasks that call for a blunt blade). To touch up an ax by hand, secure the head horizontal in a vise. Stroke a mill file toward the blade. Maintain an angle of 15 to 20 degrees on the secondary (edge) bevel. File on one side until a burr forms, then flip the head to file the burr off. Repeat. Now file a primary 10-degree bevel well up the blade (on its cheek, to meet the secondary bevel). Done. A whetstone gives a fine edge. Use it with oil to float away particles.
When filing becomes drudgery, follow factory protocol. Abrasive belts sharpen new axes. You’ll find compact belt units under the Work Sharp brand (by Darex). They stow in small spaces and are easy to set up and use (110-volt current). Priced from $69, each comes with three sets of belts of different grits. Such units are superior to an electric grinder, which can heat the head enough to destroy its temper. Old-fashioned hand- or pedal-turned wheels, with water to dissipate heat, work fine. But they’re as scarce now as undiscovered Henry rifles and Confederate dollars. Once you’ve sharpened it, protect the ax head with a light film of oil. Slip on a plastic sheath for safe storage. Don’t keep axes in leather, where acids and moisture can cause rust.
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Throwing The ’Hawk
At the edge of the American frontier in the 1820s, General W. H. Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company devised the rendezvous to collect furs from remote corners of the West. The event became a party for trappers, as well as a chance to deliver and resupply. Hurling tomahawks at a mark was part of the entertainment. ’Hawk throwing remains a sport at reenacted rendezvous.
Enthusiasts say a throwing ’hawk should have a forward-tapered haft of hickory or ash. Both are strong, springy woods. The haft can measure from 14 to 20 inches, depending on the user’s size and throwing style, and the weight and shape of the ’hawk’s head. Competitors in Scandinavian ax games, governed by the Swedish Axe Throwing Society, commonly use a 2.5-pound, 24-inch double- bit ax. The 4-inch bullseye is 20 feet away. As with the American ’hawk, technique figures heavily in the contest!
To throw, grasp the haft well to the rear, thumb alongside. Extend the ’hawk toward the target, cutting edge down. Bend your arm (but not sharply) to raise it over your shoulder, as you might a fly rod. Now swing the ’hawk forward, releasing when it’s almost horizontal. Power comes from your arm and shoulder. A snap of the wrist can help ensure a clean, uniform release; but that snap affects the ’hawk’s rotation, too. If the flight looks good but the toe of the blade hits too early or too late, change your wrist action or back up until you get consistent bite. For one revolution of the ’hawk, stand between 11.5 and 13 feet from the target (close for short hafts, far for long ones). Back up 12 more feet to get two spins. If the head hits on its cheek, make sure your wrist isn’t breaking to the side upon release.
There you have it, a quick primer on the woodsman’s way of the ax. Now all you need to do is get yourself the right ax and get to working out! Hey, before you know it, winter’s cold will come calling, and that woodstove of yours sure isn’t going to feed itself. Safe swinging!
The Ax Through The Ages
The ring of an ax in tall timber flips chapters, not just pages, in history. We’re many decades past the time of Natty Bumppo, when forest primeval sprawled from the Eastern Seaboard across the Ohio Valley into regions unexplored. Hostiles lurked in the shadows of hardwoods not yet hewn into cabins.
While the Kentucky rifle earned its fame during the Revolutionary period, and figured heavily in the settlement of the Appalachians, the ax was arguably more important. A patched ball could kill a deer or stop an adversary. But it couldn’t change landscapes or build structures.
According to some sources, the ax has been with us for 1.5 million years. Ax-like tools gave way to hafted axes (those with handles), which most likely appeared during the Mesolithic period. Think 6000 BC. By then people were probably using clubs, which cracked the skulls of antagonists and opened nuts and gourds. Adding stone to the end of a club gave it more authority. Starting around 3000 BC, stone was replaced by copper, bronze, iron and steel. Metal could be sharpened, so the club’s blow could be used to cut as well as bludgeon. Ax-like tools followed.
BATTLE STANDARD: At the same time, the ax became a deadlier weapon. Early in the 9th century, Norse raiders drove south through Ireland and England. Called Vikings, they crossed the channel to raid the Frankish Empire. One predatory clan charged into battle clad only in animal skins—or naked! These berserkirs (from Norse for “bear shirt” or “naked”) appeased the war god, Odin, in brutal attacks with battle axes. The curved blades, 12 inches across, took a fearsome toll. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, axes figured heavily in European warfare. They became heavier to counter the use of steel armor, their edges blunted to crush rather than cut.
The development of the longbow in the British Isles changed the nature of warfare. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Normans drew their English foes onto the field with a false retreat, then drove arrows en masse toward the oncoming troops, inflicting heavy casualties to win the day. The bow that resulted, during the next three centuries, was called a longbow not for its tip-to-tip measure, but for the anchor point on the archer’s cheek. The English were quick to adopt the Viking and Norman tactic of hailing arrows into distant troops, draining them of strength and will before the forces closed to engage in hand-to-hand combat. At Crecy in 1346 and Agincourt in 1415, English archers were pivotal in defeating larger French forces.
With the pike and the sword, the battle ax had been displaced as a primary offensive weapon. The advent of firearms would soon make it all but irrelevant.
FRONTIER LEGEND: Meanwhile, people found more practical uses for the ax. They refined the haft and head to excel at specific tasks. What we now call the American felling ax derived from long-headed axes from England, France and Spain. In the 17th century, it comprised two iron slabs hammer-welded at the poll. A steel bit was later inserted. The felling ax got a heavier poll Stateside when black- smiths added a poll cap. The haft evolved from a straight shaft into a gracefully shaped handle 30 to 36 inches long. A flare at its end keeps your left hand secure as the 3- to 6-pound head gains momentum during its descent. The bit of a felling ax is shaped to cut across-grain, and heads are slim, to bite deep. In the U.S., felling axes gave way to crosscut saws during the late 1800s. By the 1950s, chainsaws had all but replaced both in the woods.
The felling ax produced the most famous, mythical ax-man: Paul Bunyan. Accompanied by a gigantic blue ox called Babe, this towering, plaid-shirted lumberjack toppled trees from New England into eastern Canada and across the Upper Midwest. Michigan writer James MacGillivray published the first Bunyan tale in 1906, though his Paul was no giant and had no ox. Advertisers embellished the legend, as have storytellers since. Bunyan was said to have dug the Great Lakes to water Babe. Dragging his ax into the Southwest, he scratched out the Grand Canyon. Rocks to smother a campfire became Mount Hood.
BROAD STROKES: Another early-American tool, the broad ax, likely came to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, by way of Germany. Unlike the medieval goose-wing broad ax, with its steeply curved blade, the cutting edge of the German head ended in a squared-off heel. Subsequent broad axes, developed mainly to “square up” logs for building projects, are short-handled affairs. Some are sized for one-handed use. Depression-era “tie hackers” wielded broad axes to fashion rail ties. A skilled workmen with a broad ax can turn a log into a smooth- sided square post with remarkable speed. Hewing heads were once offset, so each served only a right- or left- handed user. More commonly now, the haft incorporates a slant; the head can take the haft from either end.
TOMAHAWKS: The first pioneers into the Alleghenies, then pilgrims who ventured beyond, met the ax in battle. In Algonquin, it was called a tomahak. Native American tomahawks derived from war clubs weighted to accelerate the swing and increase the damage. A rock or a steel spike at the “crook” of these rifle-stock-shaped clubs made them deadlier. French, Dutch and English traders brought steel tomahawk heads onto the American frontier. A painting of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh shows him hoisting a tomahawk as he urges support in 1811 for an Indian confederacy. Tecumseh met his end in October 1813, at the Battle of the Thames, leading a charge against American troops under William Henry Harrison. “Tecumseh lifted his tomahawk and was going to throw it, when [a soldier he had wounded] shot him with a short gun.” Native Americans weren’t the only fighters with ’hawks, however. During the Revolutionary War, militiamen used them. In fact, a resolution passed by the Continental Congress in 1775 required soldiers to take up tomahawk or sword! Though better suited to eastern woodlands than the plains, the tomahawk was last bloodied in a Native American battle when Sitting Bull’s Sioux annihilated George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876. Oddly enough, a century later, the LaGana ’Hawk would serve U.S. soldiers in Vietnam!
TOOL TIME: Double-bit axes date to 1850 or so. At least, that’s when Pennsylvanian William Mann made his. Soon they appeared in lumber camps from Michigan pine forests to the Oregon Cascades. Because they have no poll, double-bit axes weigh about a pound less than single-bit felling axes. The hafts are swamped (slim in the middle) but necessarily straight. Woodsmen commonly put a fine edge on one blade and leave the other dull, for “bumping knots.” So though it can’t deliver the blow of a single-bit ax, a double-bit has the edge in versatility. Its flat profile and light weight endear it to guides and outfitters packing saddles for backcountry travel.
During Idaho’s great wildfires of 1910, the actions of forest ranger Ed Pulaski reportedly spared the lives of 45 firefighters. An ax-like tool that appeared the following year bore
his name. By 1913, the Pulaski had earned the blessing of the U.S. Forest Service, which began contracting for its manufacture in 1920. The Pulaski’s dual-purpose head combines a felling blade with a grubbing tool. It excels for trail-building and establishing fire-breaks. The Collins Tool Company, incidentally, made a similar tool in 1876.
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.