There are many tools of the survival/outdoorsman trade that are guaranteed to come in handy. However, if you could only carry one single tool with you into the great wilderness, your wisest choice may, in fact, be the axe.
It is a tool, a weapon, in some cases, simply a good companion for a burly beard, among many other things.
The role of the axe is one to be reckoned with (hell, our country was populated and colonized to the thumping of axes, which, ironically led to the major advancement of woodsman axes). Since iron tools become prevalent, the axe is considered the most important and has always drawn the primal side of man out.
In this article, let’s examine and consider the ins and outs of the world of axes.
As mentioned above, the axe is not only one of the most important tools of humanity’s history, but it is one of the oldest and possibly the most versatile. It has been found that our early ascendants used stone wedges they had chipped an edge onto as axes nearly 2 million years ago.
After a few thousand years, some caveman genius found that adding the leverage of a handle would increase the power behind the axe. This one move made the axe a forever useful and multifaceted tool.
As our production of metals advanced, so did the axe naturally follow. It was during the Bronze Age that the blacksmiths of the world began to perfect versions of the axe strictly for battle. On up through the late Renaissance, the axe was focused on as a form of weaponry.
A single common “trade axe” was the only axe used to perform homestead needs typically, felling trees, splitting firewood, etc. However, it was not very capable and it took migrant Europeans heading to North America to help boost the axe to its next level.
The earliest blacksmiths that settled in America understood the struggle of using the archaic “trade axe”, it simply wasn’t going to cut it. They began experimenting with the designs and modified its head to make for a better felling tool. There was much to be chopped down, and much to be built up, and the axes needed to rise to the occasion.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, different regions of America began yielding an assortment of axe heads. The designs differed from state to state, but had a distinguishing point from the old European designs; the heads were stouter, shorter, and broader. This design was much more qualified for felling trees.
Using these new designs, pioneers were able to clear out whole forests in a much faster amount of time than ever before.
Advantages of the Axe over the Chainsaw
- Quiet – There is a certain calmness that comes along with the meditative act of using an axe in the woods; the obnoxious roar or a chainsaw will annihilate that serenity.
- Safer – While being just as serious as a chainsaw, an axe will not shred your body up as fast, nor will you experience kickbacks or pinches.
- Less maintenance – No oil, no fuel, no air filters or chains. With your axe, all you will need to worry about is keeping the edge keen.
- Fewer accessories – For the proper use of an axe, all you really need is a sharpening stone and/or sharpening files. Oh, and some safety glasses, of course.
- Exercise – This advantage totally speaks for itself.
It is important to orient yourself to the parts and jargon used to describe axes:
- Axe’s Head- Two sides- the bit and the poll
- Toe- Upper corner of the bit; where the cutting edge starts
- Heel- Bottom corner of the bit
- Cheek- Side of the axe head
- Handle/Haft- Made with wood or synthetic materials; where you grip the axe
- Eye- The hole in which the head mounts to the handle
- Shoulder- Where the head mounts onto the shaft
Buying an Axe: What to Look For
Types of Axes
Of the many types of axes in the world, they can commonly be classified by two primary categories:
This is the most common felling axe. The head of a single bit axe has two ends; one for cutting (the bit) and the other is the poll (butt; used for balance among other things, *though not as a hammer).
The single-bit axe is a great well-rounded tool. While not being much for splitting wood, the single-bit is good for felling trees up to medium sized, bucking them, and even limbing them.
The double-bit axe has two cutting edges. On average, one edge is very sharp for quick, effective chopping, and the other is kept slightly dull for limbing or getting at tough knots in the wood.
The double-bit does not have a curved handle like most single bits. It requires a straight handle in order for you to swing in either direction. With a straight handle, the double-bit is more accurate, with better balance and allowance for more speed and power.
It may, at first, seem as though the double-bit may be the only sensible choice axe. They not only look badass, but they are also seemingly more capable. But unless you plan on becoming the Paul Bunyan of the 21st century, the double-bit is, in fact, overkill.
For most of today’s needs, the single-bit axe is the best choice. Now picking the right one, that is of another beast. You must consider several factors: size, weight, handle type… Your particular needs will let you know which is best for you. There are a ton of different styles and options out in the market.
Suggested reading: How to Split Wood with A Maul
Olden or Newfangled?
The head is, for obvious reasons, the most important part of the axe. The edge must stay sharp. The capacity to keep a keen blade is conditional to the quality of the steel that the axe head is made of. This is where things can get a bit funky.
The axe heads made in the old days were made from a steel that had a higher amount of carbon than today’s. This means your best bet of finding a great axe is going to occur by scouring antique stores, old estate sales, and flea markets.
The best part of this “shopping method” is the fact that you will more than likely save money. Which is quite ironic, since today’s axes you’ll find new in hardware stores are made of a cheap China metal that is soft, incapable of holding an edge, and apt to chipping, or worse, breaking.
When looking to procure an axe of old, don’t fret too much over the handle; it can be replaced. It is like an old motorcycle, with a good, solid base, you can do anything to it. With a good, solid head, you are set. Buy an old axe and supe it up.
If you are the type that just has to have the newest stuff, it is recommendable to do some in-depth research to find the brands that are best. It is extremely inadvisable to head out to your local hardware store and purchase a cheaply made one.
The weight of the Head
The heavier the head, the more force it generates. However, with more weight, you lose accuracy in your swing. As a beginner axe swinger, your best bet is to go with something that weighs less than five pounds.
Length of Handle
It is always best to go with a handle that is shorter than you may think you need. Some men say that the longer the handle is, the more force you can swing with. Theoretically, this is true.
However, at the “too long” point, you will begin to lose control. There is a center of percussion between force and accuracy. For the beginner, a lighter head with a shorter handle will help you in learning faster the ways of the swing.
A 32-36 inch handle is recommended for most men (36 inches being the max). A 32-inch handle will provide you with both force and precision.
A “boys axe” is not a full-sized felling axe. However, despite its name, its 28-inch handle is actually an appropriate length; ideal for the average-sized grown man. Of course, it does not have the same zest and zing as a full-sized, it is perfectly suitable for the man whom simply needs some chores done or enjoys a little camping in the woods. It gets the job done while simultaneously teaching you to swing better by being easier to control.
On the market, you will find handles made of both wood and plastic. Wood is absolutely the way to go. Hickory or ash is your best bet. In an ideal scenario, the grain of the wood should run parallel to the edge of the axe. The growth rings in the handle should be tight, narrow and abundant.
Curved or Straight?
Most single-bitted axes have a curved handle. This is simply because it feels more natural in your hands and makes the swing a bit easier. Typically, the only time a straight handle is used is when using a double-bit axe; the handle must be straight in order to flip the axe around to use either edge.
Using an Axe Safely and Effectively
Preparing for Chopping
Prep your swinging area before you begin chopping. First off, know that you are going to need plenty of room in order to swing. If something gets in the way of your swing, you are obviously going to be off your mark a bit. An age-old maxim is “Clear the ground an axe-lengths around.” Clear the ground around the spot of any rocks, gravels, or roots. Be sure no one is standing near and even call out that you are about to begin.
Holding it properly is an important part of the action as well. For right-handers, place your left hand just above the knot at the end of the handle and your right hand around the neck a few inches below the axe head. For the left-handed, simply do the opposite. Use a firm grip on the axe. During the swing, the top hand will slide down to the bottom, meeting the other hand.
Your main focus, when beginning, should be on precision, not force. You will cut wood faster and more effectively if you hit in the same spot every time you thump it. Keep your eyes on the point you want to hit, keep your aim true using controlled strikes. Speed and power come with time.
Related article: Harvesting Firewood – How To Do It Properly
Methods of Swing
- Lateral Swings – A lateral chop is technically a diagonal swing that goes from the top down. This is the method used mostly to fell a tree.
- Vertical Swings – This swing goes up and down and is used when limbing, bucking and splitting wood (which, by the way, should always be done with a splitting maul).
Safely Storing Your Axes
If your axe is suitably sharpened, it can easily slice into you (obviously this is why you take so much caution when swinging one). The same amount of caution should be kept in mind when storing one as well. Sheath the blade when you are not using it.
When you are using the blade, to ensure that no one around gets hurt while you are not swinging, swing the cutting edge into a log. Do not lay it down on the ground or prop it against a tree. With a double-bit, simply lay the axe on the ground then place a log over the head so that both edges are covered.
Point the axe away from you when you are walking with it. The best way to tote your axe is to grip it right under the head, bit pointed away.
Care of the Axe
An axe can live for several generations considering how you decide to take care of it.
To care for an axe:
Store it indoors and with a sheath covering the blade. Leaving it exposed to the elements can cause the head to rust and weaken and the handle to warp or rot.
Keep a good edge on your axe at all times. This keeps it effective as well as safe.
Do not use the axe’s poll as a hammer.
Never chop with a freezing cold axe. If you are cutting in cold weather, warm the head by a fire prior to chopping. Using a cold head can cause chipping, or worse, breakage. Be sure not to overheat, you are trying to forge and smith the thing!
For such a simple tool, there’s a lot to consider when purchasing one. But if you take the time to find the right one for you, you’ll have a tool that will provide a lifetime of useful service. Not to mention, you will have the opportunity to preserve a piece of universal history that has nearly been left to the wayside.
Again, this is a single tool that can be used for so many things out in the wilderness. Essentially, you could start with nothing but an axe and soon have an entire fortress.
Practice and time handling an axe is the only way to get good at it. So get out in the woods and get started.
Down with the computerization of the world and get back to our nature roots.
This article has been written by Jonathan Blaylock for Prepper’s Will.