How to Use an Axe

Get basic axemanship advice and learn how to properly use one of the most useful survival tools available.


| January/February 1971



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Always clear debris from under your feet and around the area of your swing before beginning work with an axe.


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

When it comes right down to basic survival, there is one tool that definitely outclasses all others, and that's a good double-bitted axe. In fact, with a sharp axe there's not much you can't do in the way of providing food and shelter ... even to making a new axe handle if the old one breaks. This tool must be kept sharp, however, and you must know how to use it correctly. Otherwise, an axe can be extremely dangerous, as many would-be woodsmen have learned by badly gashing a leg.

Growing up on a Missouri farm, I learned to use an axe at an early age; there was firewood to cut, brush and hedgerows to clean out, and fenceposts to cut and split. I learned much from a part-Cherokee uncle who, shunning the rest of the world, made a living doing a little trapping and dog training (hunting dogs) for city folks. To watch him cut and split a pile of logs was sheer joy. The axe was an extension of his arm that did his absolute bidding and never seemed to tire him.

A Quality Axe

You should know the first rule of good axemanship if you're interested in mastering this tool: Buy a quality axe that is well suited to the jobs you'll put it to. There are many styles and manufacture of axe and, sad to say, many are of poor quality. Stay away from surplus stores and bargain military axes. They're made of inferior metal and their edges become round as donuts after a few blows. There is absolutely no way you can sharpen such a tool and keep it sharp.

If you want a bargain "cheap" axe, watch the country auctions. An axe may be old and its handle may be cracked or loose, but if the head isn't cracked or broken, the axe can be easily repaired and it will probably sell for less than a dollar. Such an axe was likely bought new from a small town hardware store, so, if you can't find a bargain at an auction, try the local outlet in any small farming or mountain town.

Axe Styles

As for axe "style" or design, decide what you want the tool to do and then try to find the ideal axe for the job. If you plan mainly to split fireplace logs, for instance, get a single-bit (blade) axe with a fat, wedge-shaped blade. It won't stick in the log ends so easily and the extra weight of the head will help provide splitting force. For tree felling or building a log cabin, get a heavy (3 1/2 pound) double-bit axe with a long handle. This combination will almost swing itself through long hours of work, especially if you keep both blades extremely sharp and thin.

I've used many axes and my all-around favorite for anything from cutting a sapling to splitting a few fireplace logs to providing shelter and fire while camping is a small version of the double-bitted Hudson Bay style. I prefer a handle about 6 inches shorter than standard. For me, this is a beautifully balanced tool, but you must realize that an axe is a very personal thing. If you plan to use one much, try several styles and weights to find exactly the one for you. I hone one blade edge of my favorite axe razor sharp and, with it, I can slice off a 2-inch limb with one blow. The opposite edge of the blade is never sharpened quite so drastically and is used for everything from splitting to cutting roots.

thefeckerwest
12/5/2015 6:26:03 AM

When I saw this statement: "An axe left sticking in a block of wood may be picturesque, but is also very dangerous", it put me thinking, since I believe it is wrong. I am referring to single bit axes. When you are splitting firewood, bucking a tree, or cutting one down, there are many occasions when the work stops for a short time for any number of reasons. The axe has to be put aside. Leaving it on the ground is highly dangerous. It is not very visible and somebody is likely to trip over it or worse. Standing it up against a tree or fence is not particularly safe, since in both instances the blade is exposed and liable to do damage to any careless individual, not paying attention to his/her surroundings. Sticking it into a block of wood is a sure way to prevent accidents. The blade is covered and the implement can be clearly seen from a distance. And yes, it does look picturesque. I would not advise that it be stuck into a live tree for the reasons as mentioned in the article, but I see no reason why it could not be left in a dry, seasoned block, even for an extended period. It will not rust. Using a sheath, when the axe is being stored makes perfect sense, but not when it is being used and the implement has to be put aside repeatedly. On a slightly different note, I learned from my father when I was very young, that any working implement, such as a spade, shovel, pike or anything else, when not being using temporally, should be stuck into the ground and left standing upright so that it is clearly visible to anybody in the vicinity. That way it is safe and is easily at hand for when it is needed again.


thefeckerwest
12/5/2015 6:22:38 AM

When I saw this statement: "An axe left sticking in a block of wood may be picturesque, but is also very dangerous", it put me thinking, since I believe it is wrong. I am referring to single bit axes. When you are splitting firewood, bucking a tree, or cutting one down, there are many occasions when the work stops for a short time for any number of reasons. The axe has to be put aside. Leaving it on the ground is highly dangerous. It is not very visible and somebody is likely to trip over it or worse. Standing it up against a tree or fence is not particularly safe, since in both instances the blade is exposed and liable to do damage to any careless individual, not paying attention to his/her surroundings. Sticking it into a block of wood is a sure way to prevent accidents. The blade is covered and the implement can be clearly seen from a distance. And yes, it does look picturesque I would not advise that it be stuck into a live tree for the reasons as mentioned in the article, but I see no reason why it could not be left in a dry, seasoned block, even for an extended period. It will not rust. Using a sheath, when the axe is being stored makes perfect sense, but not when it is being used and the implement has to be put aside repeatedly. On a slightly different note, I learned from my father when I was very young, that any working implement, such as a spade, shovel, pike or anything else, when not being using temporally, should be stuck into the ground and left standing upright so that it is clearly visible to anybody in the vicinity. That way it is safe and is easily at hand for when it is needed again.






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