Axes are wonderful timesavers allowing you to tackle tasks that would not be possible with a knife. When used properly an axe can make short work of chopping and splitting firewood, felling trees, limbing branches, feathering sticks, carving, pretty much anything that you can do with a knife can be done with a sharp axe provided that you use the proper technique.
Many people think of axes as a rusty chunk of blunt metal on a rotten handle that lives in the garden shed when in fact it is a precision tool and should be cared for as such.
Axes come in many shapes and sizes ranging from the small, light and short handled carpenters axe to huge, heavy and long handled felling axe. There are many sizes in between those.
Most Bushcraft folk, me included opt for a mid-sized axe, one that can be carried in or on a pack and be used for carving and heavier work if necessary.
The ideal axe will have a 3 1/4″ face and a 19″ wooden handle with the head weighing 1 1/2 lb. There are many manufacturers of axe, a popular choice is the Gränsfors Bruks Small Forest Axe, capable of felling, splitting and carving. An excellent all-rounder excelling in each area. Do shop around though, you may find something better suited to your needs and personal technique.
Using an axe safely is an acquired skill and we must always be on vigilant when using an axe. Even after many years of using axes I still stop before each swing and run through a mental checklist.
- Where will the axe head go if I miss the target?
- Where are my arms, hands, fingers, and other body parts in relation to the axe and will any of them be in the path of the axe when it swings?
- Are there any other people or animals within range of the axe?
- Are there any distractions around me that may take my mind off the job?
- Do I have any loose items of clothing or tree branches nearby that might interfere with the action?
Until I have an answer to all of those questions and solve any problems as they arise I do not begin to use the axe.
If you are feeling tired or the light is poor, do not use the axe. The consequences of making a mistake with an axe can be far too severe to take risks. It is simply not worth it.
Our axe should be as sharp as our knives, razor sharp. We need to protect the edge from unnecessary damage to the best of our ability so we’re going to need to be sure that when the axe strikes the target and moves through it that it has a suitable base block to hit rather than the ground which can contain stones. Hitting a stone will make a mess of your edge and cause you to have to spend a long time re-shaping and re-sharpening the edge. Prevention, again, is better than cure. In addition to protecting the axes edge, a chopping block will make the axe strokes more effective as if you use soft ground; a lot of the energy is absorbed by the sponge like mud and grass. A solid bit of wood under there is going to make things much easier.
Find a chopping block to work on, a tree stump or another log of perfect.
Never use live trees or roots as chopping blocks; this will damage the tree no matter how careful you are.
It is important to be comfortable and in a stable position when using an axe, in fact this is important when using any sharp tool.
The safest way to use an axe is by kneeling down on the ground, this way, the natural path of the axe is down into the chopping block or ground as opposed to your body.
If standing, the arc of the swing makes it possible for the axe to hit you on the shins which is going to ruin your day.
Another way of increasing safety while using an axe for splitting wood is to tap the axe into the grain on one end, then invert the axe with wood attached – that is, turn it upside down and then swing downward onto the chopping block using the weight of the wood to split itself on the axe edge.
To split a piece of wood, either with a knife or an axe, the most effective way to do it is to split it along the grain.
By doing so the wood will practically fall apart into two neat halves and little force should be required. If you find yourself having to use huge amounts of force or the wood is not splitting cleanly into two parts, you are probably not hitting the grain.
Different types of wood have different types of grain, some run in straight lines, some run in a spiral, some are densely packed and others are quite far apart.
Get to know your woods and you will find that some are as tough as nails while other split in half at the sight of an axe or a knife.
Splitting while holding the wood.
This may sound alarming but is actually quite safe as long as you follow the mental checklist I mentioned previously and ensure that any part of your body is well clear of the axe head and that your fingers are not between the axe handle and the wood to be split. It is best described in the picture. The reason that this is a safer way of splitting wood is because the axe is under control, there is no wild swinging or hacking, just a firm tap to split the wood down the grain.
The Baton method
A personal favourite of mine, very easy and has less risk that some other methods of splitting wood
It can be done with either a knife of an axe. The principle behind it is to use either the knife or the axe as a wedge and force it in between the grains by hitting it with something heavy, invariably another piece of wood since we don’t want to damage our knives and axes by using anything that might chip the metal.
Battoning with a Knife
Using the weight of the head of the axe in a swinging action – this is potentially the most dangerous way to split wood so be extra careful with this one. It is fun though. Beware the glancing blow, that is when you miss the target and the blade is deflected off of the side of the wood. Ensure that if the blade does glance off of the log that it will end up in a safe area and not a part of your body. You cannot afford to make a single mistake with an axe.