I enjoy chopping wood. Why exactly, I don't know. Probably it is a symbolic sort of
satisfaction, a spiritual rebellion against our mechanical age. It is unlikely that the kids
riding their bikes outside my window as I write this, will ever know how to use an
ax. When my father was a boy, one of his daily chores was to bring in a bundle of
kindling for the kitchen stove and the stove in the parlor. By the time I was in my teens,
when you wanted the house to be a little warmer, you turned up the thermostat. Yet I
learned to use an ax despite the handicaps of modern life. I recognized early that
axmanship was synonymous with, and a part of, woodsmanship. I believe more strongly
than ever that anyone who calls himself an outdoorsman, but doesn't know how to use an
ax, is a sham. For those of you who grew up with a thermostat and an oil furnace instead
of a wood stove, but want to learn how to use an ax, here is how.
CHOOSING AN AX
The first step in learning to use an ax is to choose a proper one. My recommendation for
all-around outdoor use is a single-bitted ax weighing about three pounds, with a thirty inch
handle. Stay away from axes that are much heavier than this because they are meant
for heavy-duty wood chopping and little else. Also stay away from two-bitted axes - ones
with two blades. They are loggers' axes. The three-pound ax I am recommending can be
used not only for chopping wood, but also for driving tent pegs and for dozens of other
chores around camp. If weight is a factor, you can go to a lighter ax, two-and-a-quarter or
two-and-a-half pounds, with a shorter handle of about twenty-four inches. Such an ax is a
better bet than a hatchet. It will do everything that a hatchet will and more, but a person
of smaller, lighter build may find a smaller and lighter ax more manageable and more
comfortable to use...
When buying an ax, don't skimp on quality just to save a couple of dollars. That is poor
economy. When choosing an ax, sight along the blade to make sure that the handle is not
warped or that the blade is not set off too much from the center line of the handle. Make
sure that the head is attached securely to the handle by being firmly wedged.
Look the handle over carefully. Make sure that the grain runs parallel to the sides. Avoid
axes where the grain in the handle twists too much. This could mean serious structural
weakness. The best ax handles are made of hickory. Never buy an ax with a completely
painted handle. Paint can hide flaws and weaknesses in the wood. Remember, an ax will
last a lifetime if you take care of it. Your choice should reflect this...
Every ax should have a leather sheath for the head, not only for safety, but to prevent
nicks on the cutting edge. Most axes, when they are bought, have too thick a blade and
the cutting edge has too quick a taper to cut well. It should be ground down a little. If you
do this on a power grindstone, keep the blade cool by dipping it continuously in a bucket
of water. If you let it overheat, you will draw or ruin the temper. An ax can be sharpened
quickly on an emery wheel, but eventually this ruins the blade. Coarse sharpening can be
done with a fine file. Then switch to a coarse stone and finish sharpening with a medium
stone. The best stone for ax-sharpening is a round one. It has no sharp edges to rub
through a packsack, so you can carry it with you whenever you take the ax. An ax should
never be left lying around. It can cause accidents or accidents can happen to it. Keep it
hung in its sheath or sink the blade into the top of a stump...
The handle of the ax is its weak part. At home it is easy to replace - all you have to do is
buy a new one, drive the stub out of the ax, insert the new handle, and wedge it firmly
onto the ax. But if your ax handle breaks deep in the bush, that is a different matter.
Stones and hardwood pegs may be used to drive the broken stub of the old handle out. If
this doesn't work, you will have to bum the stub out. Bury the, ax head up to the eye in
loose earth. Build a fire around it and keep burning until the stub bums off and becomes
loose enough to be driven out. To improvise a temporary handle, use any hardwood. To
drive the sap out of green wood to toughen it, roast the wood in warm coals. This will
season it somewhat...
CUTTING WITH AN AX
Now, let's fell a tree for firewood. The best wood is a dead, standing tree. It is dry -
seasoned - and will burn well. Dead trees and branches lying on the ground are generally
damp and make smoky fires. First, walk around the tree to determine which way it leans.
That is the direction you want to drop it, because it is easier. If there is a standing tree in
that direction that might hang it up, then plan to drop it slightly to one side. Consider also
the direction of the wind. It is much easier to drop a tree with the wind than into the wind.
Dropping a tree cross wind represents no major problem unless the wind is very strong.
Before starting, make sure that there are no branches, small saplings, or brush within
reach of your ax. They could deflect your ax and cause an accident. The secret in cutting
with an ax lies in the grip. Grasp the helve - the old term for the handle - with both hands
close together near the butt. Touch the blade of the ax to the tree to get the right distance.
As you raise the ax over your right shoulder, slide your right hand up (providing you are
right-handed) about three-quarters of the way towards the head of the ax. As you bring
the ax down, slide your right hand down the handle until it touches your left hand. Strike
so that the blade cuts into the tree at about a forty-five degree angle to the grain. Don't
attempt to put excessive force into the swing. You cannot get any accuracy this way. The
fastest chopping is achieved with many fast and accurate blows, not with brute force.
The first notch is made near the bottom of the tree on the side on which you want the tree
to drop. Make the notch about half way through. Tyros generally start by making their
notches too narrow. Narrow notches make cutting difficult. A good rule of thumb is to
make the notch as wide as the diameter of the tree that you are cutting...
Your next notch should be a few (three or four) inches above the first one and directly
opposite it. When the tree begins to fall, step away to one side of the cut, not behind it.
Should the top branches of the falling tree catch on another tree, the butt may snap and
fly backwards several feet. Many injuries have been caused by backward-flying butts.
The next task is to limb the tree. Stand on the opposite side of the tree from which you
want to remove the limbs. In this way, if the ax glances off the tree it will glance away
from your legs. Work from the butt to the top, chopping at the bottom side of the
branches. Limbing goes fastest this way, and it is easier to make the cuts flush with the
trunk. The next step is to cut off the crown. On small trees, this can be done with one
notch all the way through. Bigger trees may require two notches, opposite one another,
with each going half way...
To cut the trunk into usable lengths, simply chop two notches half way through the trunk
on opposite sides of each other as before. This is easier than using one deep notch from
the top down. You should always stand on the trunk with your feet spread wide and chop
between your feet. To split these pieces, use the butt section as a chopping block. Lean
the chunk to be split against your chopping block and strike a good hard blow on the
upper end where the piece is resting. If the halves are still too large, split these the same
way into quarters. Don't neglect the larger branches for firewood. Cut these into desired
lengths by holding them across the chopping block with one hand and striking them at a
slight angle with the ax. The chop should be delivered at the center of your chopping
block where the branch is firmly supported. To chop up kindling, always lay the piece to
be kindled horizontally across the chopping block, grasp it at the lower end, and strike the
top. Once the ax is embedded in the piece, you can slam it down vertically to complete
the cut. Never hold the piece to be kindled upright with one hand and chop with the other.
That is an easy way to cut your hand...
Now if none of that is reason to give Axmenship a try... let me add another personal story... back in the day... whenever I went out to the yard to
split cord-wood... the ladies would gather to watch me work... shirt off body glistening with sweat...Something rather primal about woodcutting and
watching a man work... so don't be surprised if you find yourself with an admiring audience too...
edit on 25/8/2011 by Sauron because: title
to lower case