“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” — Abraham Lincoln.
Abe was a man who was no stranger to the axe.
Until I was about 35 I had never cut down a tree of any real size using nothing but an axe, but I had always been curious about how difficult it would be. I had used axes on the farm frequently, but only for smaller jobs like limbing trees or cutting saplings. Always testing myself against pioneer standards, I eventually decided to cut down a hickory tree I needed for tool handles and other projects. The tree measured about 24 inches in diameter, just a small tree compared to the sort of giants pioneers tackled in the old days. I was fit and primed for the task and thought it might take a couple of hours.
I chopped away at that tree with a 3 1/2 pound double-bit axe nearly all of one hot June day and gave up on it at least twelve times. Every time I gave up I’d sit down and rest and then I’d have another go. Looking back I can see that I did nearly everything wrong except not actually quitting. As the shadows fell towards evening, so did the tree. I gained a lot of respect for the pioneers.
Yesterday I took down an oak tree only a little smaller than that hickory, one that was shading out the end of my garden, using only a 3 1/2 pound double-bit axe, and it took me about an hour. I’m about twice as old as I was when I cut that hickory, and probably only 90 percent as fit. I didn’t spend all my time banging away at the tree and didn’t wear myself out. It was hard work, but pleasant work, and I spent about half of my time refining the edge of my axe. Now it’s almost right, and by the time I take out the trees that died last year from the succession of drowning and drought we suffered here, I expect the axe to be perfect. It’s not really me that makes the difference between ten hours of hard labor and one hour; it’s knowing how to shape that edge that counts. I didn’t learn that until years after the hickory went down to a barrage of brute strength and stubbornness, and I didn’t figure it out on my own. I learned from a neighbor.
Jimmy Widner was an old-time hillbilly who farmed and lost money and made a living cutting cedar fence posts. He cut the red cedar trees with a chainsaw but limbed them with an axe and hauled them to his truck on his shoulder. At his post yard beside the main highway he stacked them up in neat rectangular tiers by the hundreds, and while waiting for customers would sharpen each post to a neat four-sided point using nothing but a highly-refined double-bit axe. I was making a living from turning cedar souvenirs on a lathe back then and stopped in to buy a load of posts for turning stock. I became Jimmy’s good friend when I offered to pay him full price for posts that hadn’t been sharpened, since the pointy end was no good to me.
When I saw him work on a post with that axe, I was amazed and when I went home sacrificed one of the posts I bought in an effort to do that myself. When Jimmy swung his axe it bit neatly into the post and shaved off a perfectly straight facet of wood. When I swung my axe at the post it glanced off or bit in too deeply and split pieces off the post. My post turned out blunt and misshapen and ragged, while his turned out perfect. Even though I kept trying it became obvious that this was not simply a matter of skill. There was something I did not know about axes that was holding me back.
Eventually I asked Jimmy what his secret was and he was surprised and pleased that anyone was interested. It took him about a minute and a half to show me what he did and why. He never used a grindstone to sharpen his axes, instead he used a smooth mill file to put a perfectly flat symmetrical bevel on the edge, about 5/8 inches wide. That’s why his axe always gleamed and cut perfectly true.
If you buy an axe from a hardware store today it won’t be shaped that way. Axe manufacturers shape the axe head by drop-forging usually, and grind a wedge-shaped bevel on the edge. Probably they do this because they A) don’t think anyone will ever actually use their products; and B) have never cut down a tree with an axe and don’t understand the problem. Most axes today are produced by people who don’t believe in them as useful tools and only supply them to feed a legacy market of customers who don’t know any better. The steel is still very good steel, and you can make a good axe from most hardware store axes if you care to take the time and know what changes to make.
Usually people bugger up their axes by trying to sharpen them on bench grinders with stones of about six to eight inches in diameter. That cuts a deep hollow in the edge and weakens the bit physically, and if you don’t have perfect control and know just how fast to move the axe across the stone you’ll burn the edge and ruin it. With an eight inch stone and a lot of practice it’s possible to cut a good bevel of about half an inch in width and then finish it up with a flat file, but it is very tricky to do that and even though I’ve tried to teach some people how it’s done I’ve been amazed at how badly they do it themselves. With a flat file at least you won’t ruin the temper.
In pioneering times, nobody used grinding wheels that small. Another neighbor of mine, Henry Roe, knew a cave in a sandstone cliff where he could cut slabs of good sandstone and whittle them into grinding wheels. Those grinding wheels lasted a long time, so he didn’t do this often, but I heard the story from his stepson, Herbert, years after Henry died. Nobody in the old days used grindstones six inches in diameter to grind a bevel on an axe. Grindstones for axes were about two or three feet in diameter, and when you ran an axe edge across them, the stone ground a nearly flat bevel. Bench grinders today don’t do that. Flat files will. I’ve used both the old foot-pedal grindstones cooled by water dripping from a punctured tin can, and I’ve used the flat files, and I agree with Jimmy Widner on this point, flat files are easier. Today they are still pretty cheap and readily available. In pioneering times axe grindstones were lots cheaper because you could make a grindstone yourself. Today you’ll be lucky to find one and it’ll cost you a lot of money because it’s now an antique collectible. Visitors to my shop used to gasp and whisper amongst themselves when they saw mine and then try to talk me out of it. It wasn’t for sale.
Filing a flat symmetrical bevel on the bit of an axe takes awhile with a smooth mill file, but that 5/8 inch or even wider bevel that Jimmy Widner put on his axe isn’t totally necessary. Jimmy tailored his axe to fine work in cedar, a relatively soft wood, and that thin an edge wouldn’t work as well for chopping down an oak tree. A half-inch wide bevel works fine for harder woods, and even a shorter bevel filed to a symmetrical shape with flat beveled sides works way better than any factory edge. Factory axes come with chisel edges, very short finishing bevels that bury themselves in the wood and bring the cutting action to a quick halt. Flat-filed bevels slice deeply, amplifying the effect of the axe stroke.
You probably won’t get it right the first time. People tend to file a convex bevel instead of a flat one, because they get frustrated and try to hurry things up. There’s no hurry, it’s no doubt a nice day and you can relax and listen to the squirrels bark and file away. You need patience. If the axe isn’t working right, you get tired from the ineffective work, so sit down and file the axe for awhile. Then do some more chopping. After many rounds of this, you and the axe reach an agreement and everything goes well. Mine still needs a little work, I can see that the bevel on the upper edge isn’t quite symmetrical and I believe I can lengthen the bevels a little more and the edge will still hold, because it seems to be good steel. It’ll get better.