Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” While this quote is meant to be taken more metaphorically than literally, it certainly does apply to axemanship. There is much more to axemanship than simply knowing how to cut wood. A true woodsman has an understanding of his tools, how and why they function, how to use them, how to maintain them regularly and how to repair them if necessary.
Axes, like any other tool, will vary in size and shape depending on the task at hand. Interestingly, some of the most popular bushcraft axes in the U.S. are made in Sweden and designed/ground for Swedish softwoods and are not well suited for American hardwood forests. In general, the way an axe works is by utilizing the tool’s weight to do the cutting. Accuracy with an axe and the conservation of energy will ensure you are able to swing it with less fatigue and more safety. As a general rule, the heavier the head, the slower you work with it. Also, part of axemanship is understanding that the axe is only part of the equation. Understanding the differences in wood like green versus dry and softwoods versus hardwoods is another. Finding the right wood for heating your home or building your camp is just as important as having the right tool.
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Given the weight of the head and the leverage of the handle, an axe has the potential to inflict serious bodily harm or even death. The best and safest place for a person to learn is on their knees with no one nearby. In fact, a full-size felling axe is safer to learn with than a small hatchet. The safety comes from keeping body parts out of the effective range of the head. By having novices start chopping on their knees with a long axe handle, if the head misses the target, it will impact into the dirt and not their feet or lower leg. While small hatchets may look like toys to some, they are much more dangerous than their larger brethren. The follow-through zone of a hatchet is the thigh and knee area of the leg. When in doubt, always remember this one question before you swing: If my axe cuts through or misses this wood, where is the edge headed? That will keep you safe most of the time. In a survival situation, a saw is safer than an axe.
The proper grip on an axe is firm but not overly strong. Gripping an axe, or any tool for that matter, too firmly only results in loss of blood flow. This will make your hands feel colder in freezing temperatures. When using two hands, the lower hand on the handle remains stationary while the top hand slides down the shaft to meet the lower hand. You can always choke up on a handle for close work, but always utilize the mechanical advantage of a longer handle when chopping.
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Felling & Limbing
Felling a tree is more than chopping it and yelling, “Timber!” Felling requires an understanding of physics and balance. Prior to felling any tree, consider why you’re attempting to do so. There may be sufficient wood nearby for your fire already dead and down. If you scout around, you may also find already downed trees from the last storm. Prior to felling, always look to see if the path of the falling tree is free to ensure it won’t be hung up. Also, look to see if the tree is branch heavy on one side, which can influence the direction it will fall. You can hold your axe head down and use it as a plumb to see how straight the tree stands and if there is a lean to it. Always make a back cut and work on a downward 45-degree angle whenever possible. Cutting upward sends most axes to the follow-through zone where your head is. Remember the old adage, “Measure twice and cut once.”
Limbing is the process of removing branches from a downed tree. The easiest way to limb is from the base of the tree to the top, cutting the under portion of the branch nearest the trunk. This helps shear the wood grain, rather than compress it from the top down. Use the trunk of the tree as a physical barrier between you and your axe and utilize a brisk golf-club swing to separate the branches. Move yourself around the tree whenever possible, instead of the tree around you; it is easy to be poked in the face with a branch otherwise. Limbing downed trees is one of the easiest ways to procure firewood in an emergency situation.
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Splitting & Wedges
While it is possible to make somewhat pointed rounds with an axe, the true companion to an axe is a quality saw. Whether it is a folding saw and hatchet, bow saw and felling axe or a chainsaw and maul, the two go hand-in-hand. Saws create less waste and nice flat surfaces for splitting. Hatchets and smaller axes can split from bark to bark when the wood is placed in line with the head and handle. Depending on the length of your handle, mind your follow through and adjust the height of your splitting base. Also, don’t attempt to split wood too large for your axe. If your head becomes lodged in the wood, flip the axe over, driving the poll into the base and batoning through.
If you do have to split a larger log with a small axe, utilize hardwood wedges and cracks in the wood grain. Create a hardwood baton with your axe and saw and apply wedges along the cracks. You will find you can split much larger logs than you expected.
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It is old etiquette to always ask a friend with an axe to cut something for you, rather than borrowing their axe. The reason stems from the effort it takes to fix a broken edge in case of accidentally damaging it. In addition to using your axe, you should be familiar with sharpening, carrying and storing it as well.
Sharpening and re-profiling an axe can involve stock removal with a bastard file and honing with a pocket stone. I prefer a convex edge on my axes to support the edge with the most amount of carbides behind it. This is easily maintained by working your stone in a circular motion along the edge. The edge will eventually take on a rounded convex profile. Once the edge is of satisfactory sharpness, protect it with a good leather edge guard. These guards do not have provisions for belt carry since this method tends to pull your pants down. When not secured to a pack, axes are usually carried at your side in your hand with the head facing away from the body. When in transport and in storage, a thin coating of linseed or tung oil will help keep the hardwood from drying out and the head from rusting.
Axes help unlock your survival potential if used the right way. With an axe, you are able to collect larger fuel sources, construct more substantial structures, clear an area of dead or downed trees, which are hazardous, and chop wood more efficiently than most other cutting tools. Axes have been carried by outdoorsmen for thousands of years and continue to fit a niche in the woodsman’s edged tool kit alongside saws and knives. Take the time to learn how to care for your axe and your axe will, in turn, take care of you.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.