Green Guide to Chopping, Hewing and Racing Axes

I learned to use an axe the hard way. When I was ten and school had just turned out for the summer, a couple of neighbor boys asked me if I’d like to help them with a little chore their father had tasked them with, and being a nice kid I said, sure, be glad to help. Bring a hatchet, they said. I figured it would take a couple of hours to clear out some brush someplace on their farm and then we’d go swimming in the pond.

It turned out that I’d volunteered to help clear fifteen acres of second growth woodland in about its twentieth year of struggle, and the chore took all summer. The biggest trees were no more than eight inches through, and the majority–a mix of sassafras, oak, chokecherry, hickory, and virtually anything with prickles on it–were saplings. All we had to work with were two hatchets and a double bit axe with a crooked handle.

To their credit, those boys stuck it out the whole summer and got the job done. I felt a little bit shanghaied by the job, and even though my parents thought it was a fine idea because it got me out of their hair until school started, I quickly lost interest in the actual work. I did some chopping and my hands were nearly always blistered, but I didn’t have the gusto for it that took over the minds of the neighbor boys, Don and Gene. They wanted to prove something to their father, and I didn’t. So I spent a good part of my working day sitting in the tops of the trees they were chopping down, swinging to the lee side to help pull them over and then scrambling to the top side when they toppled. That part of it was great fun, as long as there were good branches on the underside to cushion the fall.

By the end of that summer we all knew more about swinging axes and hatchets than we’d ever wanted to know, and when the last of it was done and we’d clipped off the stragglers that grew up behind us, Don and Gene waved their father over that fateful August afternoon and proudly told him they were done.

Arthur looked up and down the hill with a skeptical eye and nodded once, and without a glance in their direction said, “Barn needs cleaning,” and walked away.

I’d learned my lesson, and did not volunteer to help. There’s something to be said, though, for learning the things the hard way, through blisters and close calls. Things like that aren’t stored in your mind as much as in your hands and your back. Repetition is the best teacher for the basic work. The rest of it you learn in other ways–finer work takes thought and better tools.

When an Axe Makes Sense

Years later when I had a farm of my own, the advice I got from all my elder neighbors was to get a good chainsaw and use it. Very few of them ever used an axe any longer–the only exception being an older fellow who sold me cedar posts and sharpened the points on them with a razor edged double bit that cut like a samurai sword. It looked efficient to me, and it was quiet. I’ve never liked chainsaws–not the noise nor the smell of the exhaust nor the constant threat that the chain will break and rip off an arm. Not all machines are evil, but chainsaws are constantly looking for ways to kill you. It’s a shame there’s no substitute for them that works as well, and there truly isn’t.

Axes still have a place, even though most people ignore them. Axes save labor–for the right task they are more efficient than a saw. Used correctly, axes are safer than chainsaws, and if you enjoy manual labor (yes, there are many of us who do) they turn unpleasant work into healthy satisfying exercise. Some world class athletes even treat this old skill as a sport.

The Family Tree of Axes

Let’s start by talking about the different types of woodsman’s axes still available. You’ll find three basic kinds: chopping, hewing, and racing — plus a bewildering assortment of smaller special purpose axes and hawks.

  • Chopping Axes are the only kind most people know. The poll ax has a single edged wedge shaped blade and a flat poll that many have been tempted to use as a hammer. (Don’t do that; I’ll explain why in a minute). The double bit ax, with two cutting edges, is even more familiar. Paul Bunyan always carried one. Real lumberjacks sneer at them.
  • Hewing Axes are known only to people who learn the old craft of timber framing and log cabin building. Also called broad or “side” axes, the hewing style has a single bit head and an asymmetrical shape, beveled on one side and flat on the other. The hewing ax is used to make flat sides on round logs, turning them into timbers. They are usually hafted for right handers, but on the old styles like mine all you need to do if you’re a leftie is put the handle in the head from the opposite direction. Newer versions are available in either pattern.
  • Racing Axes are the cream of the crop. If you’re a world class lumberjack and travel from Europe to the Pacific Northwest to New Zealand on the racing circuit, your axe probably cost many hundreds of dollars. If you want an axe for serious work, you’ll find it here. A good axe costs about a hundred or a hundred fifty dollars, and is worth the money.
  • Stepping down in size you’ll find many special purpose camp axes, throwing axes, hatchets and even tomahawks. In the brushy and crowded woodlands of frontier North America, the tomahawk was the preferred sidearm. It makes quick work of chores a knife can’t handle, and you can swing it in self defense without getting caught up in low hanging branches. Special Forces soldiers still use them.

axes and adzes

A few of the old and new axes and adzes I’ve acquired. The one with the lacquered handle hasn’t been used much, not very useful. As much as I like axes, I dislike adzes. The only fellow I’ve known who was good with one was Frank Prothero, a boatbuilder in Seattle.

Chopping Plain and Simple

Chopping axes are double beveled and shaped like a thin wedge of steel. The most common practical use today is clearing an area for work with a chainsaw–taking down small trees and brush so you have a safe escape route when things start to go wrong, or clipping the branches off a downed tree so you can saw it up without tripping. Yes, you can use a saw for all of that, but a good axe is more efficient, quiet, and won’t blow smoke in your face. A good axe will cut through a four inch branch with two or three swings; a low grade racing axe will do it in one. An axe also lets you hear what’s going on with the tree, whether limbs are cracking and the tree you’ve downed is about to shift. With a saw, you don’t know the tree is about to roll in your direction until it starts to move.

If you work in the back country, an axe for clearing trails and other basic work packs in a lot easier than a chainsaw, oil, tools, and a can of gasoline. Chainsaws are notorious polluters, throwing oil constantly as they lubricate the chain; axes are “green” tools.

The purpose of a chopping ax, applied to a tree or a felled log, is to cut a notch. A double beveled chopping ax will cut both sides of the notch evenly. Work on both sides of the notch with alternate swings, and plan a notch that will go almost through the log with an angle of about forty five degrees. That means if you are cutting through a ten inch log, you’ll start the notch about five inches wide. The ax will chip out the wood in between the cuts. If you don’t guess correctly and your notch winds up short, you may be able to roll the log and finish up from the other side. Otherwise you have to retreat and make the notch wider. A little practice and planning saves a ton of work.

Felling a tree is much more efficient when accomplished with a saw. If you do tackle a good sized tree with an axe you’ll have a lot more respect for old timer lumberjacks. The idea is the same–a notch on the side facing the place you want the tree to fall, that’s a third the diameter of the tree in depth, and a notch on the opposing side, higher up by a few inches and almost two thirds the diameter of the trunk in depth. Even in the old days trees of any size were felled with crosscut saws and it still makes good sense to do that. With an axe you don’t have as much control over where the tree goes, and cutting those huge notches wastes a lot of good wood as well as sweat.

Chopping axes also have a role in hewing timbers for timber frame construction and log buildings. If you have a round log and you want to make a square timber, the old way of doing it is to snap a chalkline on both sides of the future flat surface, chop a series of parallel notches to that depth on the waste side of the work, and then hew out the waste wood between the notches with our next axe, the hewing or side ax. If this is something you want to do, Roy Underhill has written some good books on old skills, as well as a PBS series called The Woodwright’s Shop. The Foxfire series on pioneering skills is also excellent. Don’t be afraid to learn from books–manuals on frontiering skills like axcraft and smithing were staple goods on the wagon trains.

side hawk

Somewhere I have the name of the smith who made this axe for me. It’s a trail hawk in a side axe style, meaning the back face is flat and the blade has a single bevel. Photo by JTHats (that’s me). All rights reserved.

A Hewing We Will Go

If you’ve ever dreamed of building a log cabin you’ve probably done a lot of head scratching when you tried to figure out how. Some of the old chinked designs lasted a year or two, and the modern types obviously require milling machines and sawmill quality saws. Homesteaders are usually left with one practical choice today–the chainsaw. It is possible to become an artisan with one of the beasts, and sometimes even an artist. I’ve spent thousands of hours on the operating end and I can do things with that infernal machine that amaze other people, but I’ve never enjoyed it. It means hours of being frozen in one painful posture with foam plugs jammed in your ears and noise still assaulting you from all sides. It means breathing blue exhaust until soot drips out of your nose. Usually, if you work on tough hardwood like oak, ash, or hickory, even if you have experience and take it easy on the machine, it will mean the quick death of the saw. I’ve used up at least six in that way. Chainsaws are built for crosscutting, not ripping.

The alternative is the ax–actually, a combination of them, both chopping and hewing varieties. To make a hewn timber you need a lot more than two kinds of axes, though–log dogs, peaveys, a good spud, plumb bob and level, snap line, block and tackle, hewing stands, chains and log hooks, gluts and wedges, and the list goes on. It’s an old skill that once was commonly known. Now even the words are like a foreign language to most people. A profession that could take up a person’s lifetime is too much for the scope of this article, but it can still be learned.

The axes are still around. If you have unlimited money you can buy them new, but a good broad axe can run as much as seven hundred bucks today, as a new product. The demand for them isn’t high, so the price is. You can find bargains in flea markets, online auctions, estate sales, and even sometimes in antique stores. The one I use was in new condition when it was laid on the shelf in my neighbor’s barn about seventy five years ago. Jim and his brother, Slim, used to make part of their living hewing railroad ties on their property and selling them to Burlington Northern for fifty cents apiece. Then they got sidetracked by a war with the Japanese, and when they came home from that neither of them felt like working that hard any more. The ax laid on the shelf, rusting slowly, until I traded a plow disc for it in 1985. With a little polish and some steel level epoxy putty I had it up and running in no time. A couple of days ago I saw one just like it on Ebay priced at $25, so you can get some really good bargains if you look around.

If there was ever a good way to get seriously hurt quickly, it has to be by hewing timbers. Many people turn the log so the desired flat face is perpendicular to the ground and stand on the log, so the ax swing is just to your side. It takes a good set of log stands, dependable log dogs, and balance. Don’t trust yourself to always keep your feet out of the way–when people get tired and frustrated they get stupid. Check yourself constantly.

With soft woods like pine you may be able to clean up a side with a short horizontal stroke, standing to the side of the work, but don’t expect to do that with a hardwood like oak.

Some years ago when I was discussing details of a custom forged tomahawk with the smithy I hired to make it, we got into a discussing of hewing, and I mentioned that as a general rule I use the log as a safety device, keeping it between me and the swing of the axe. My log stands are barely off the ground, so I can roll logs onto them easily with a peavey, and I stand on the safe side while I’m hewing the other side. Works well for me, but it seemed like a revolutionary idea to him. I suppose most people don’t think of it. I’ve enjoyed having legs, so I think about ways of keeping them.

Some wood does not lend itself to axwork. Ash, the wood I used in our “Spirit Gate” is very tough and resistant to splitting. I did most of the ripping with a saw, which lasted just almost the lifetime of the project, and finished up with the never fail tools, axes.

more of the tools

At the bottom you see the froe and cant hook I made after buying versions that weren’t worth a damn. You can’t get a cant hook big enough to turn a large log, and today’s froes are soft iron. So I forged my own from carbon steel and made my own handles. Both tools work well.

Getting the Edge

Having the edge over someone else is still a common expression, something people say without thinking what it really means. I’m still amazed at all the people I meet who say they prefer tools that aren’t sharp. Some are even afraid of edges that really will cut, thinking the dull ones are less likely to hurt them. A sharp edge is efficient–saves time, labor, and blood. A sharp tool does the work and doesn’t have to be pushed past sensible limits. Dull axes make you tired, force you to swing harder, and make you prone to blunders, mental and physical.

Today most axes are soft enough in temper that an edge can be put on them with a file. That has to be done cautiously, with the ax clamped securely in a machinist’s vise. Always put the file in a handle and be aware of your fingers, or you quickly won’t have fingers to worry about any more. Double bit axes are popular because you can thunk one edge into a stump or a log and file the other, but in other times they were seen as foolish and dangerous, always with one cutting edge facing the user and ready to do serious damage if you tripped and fell. Single bit axes are efficient and much safer.

If you’re skilled with a grinder you can just barely put an edge on an ax successfully without ruining the temper by overheating. Douse the ax in a bucket of water after every quick pass or you’ll ruin it. Small diameter grinders won’t be a help–in the old days people used grindstones about two feet in diameter, sometimes bigger. The grind has to be very shallow or it weakens the edge beyond use. What you want is a bevel about half an inch wide and absolutely flat, or very slightly concave–the edge should be thin but not so thin it crumples in use. Steel and temper vary from ax to ax. The perfect edge will vary as well.

Handles

Many years ago I started making my own handles because I was tired of spending money on factory axe handles that shattered the first day I used them. Since then I’ve become very opinionated about axe handles, because I saw a huge upgrade in performance when I decided to do the work myself. When I wrote about these things on Hubpages, this statement drew the most argument: if you see a handle with varnish on it, the company that made it doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Here’s why I say that: varnish covers mistakes. If you polish and varnish a handle it disguises faults in the wood like the streaks of heartwood in hickory. Hickory sapwood makes good handles, but the darker heartwood turns punky and soft and is a built-in fault. I’ve broken plenty of manufactured handles and it often comes down to that streak of heartwood that looks like the rest of the handle when it’s colored with lacquer. Lacquer or varnish also stay tacky in use, and that quickly tears the skin off your hands if you use a handle often. The first thing I used to do if I bought a tool with a lacquered handle was scrape the lacquer off. Then as soon as the handle broke I’d make a handle for it that was worth a damn. Most handle companies today are run by college graduates who never cleared an acre of brush in their lives and think kiln-dried lacquered handles are just great. The same companies use oak, ash and hickory interchangeably, thinking that there’s no real difference between them, I suppose, or maybe thinking that customers won’t know the difference if they pretty them up with lacquer before sale. There’s a huge difference in quality between these three woods. Ash is the best, hickory sapwood a close second, and oak is just decorative. Oak handles shatter quickly. People who use axes seriously make their own handles, or buy the good ones from companies that really do know what they doing.

Not Getting Hurt

In colonial days in the Eastern forests more people were killed by falling trees than any other accident. Axe wounds were a runner up. People used axes frequently and every now and then something would go wrong. One of the great challenges of the blacksmith’s art was finding a way to secure the axe or hammer head to a wooden handle. The best answer is a double wedged system that’s been around for at least a couple of centuries. The socket of an axe or any other wooden handled tool is flared–bigger at the top than at the mid-point of the socket. The handle is sawn across the end, parallel to the length of the head, and shaved to fit the socket precisely. A wooden wedge is then driven into the kerf to expand the end of the handle, and a second steel wedge is driven into the handle across the small axis, expanding the handle lengthwise as well. If both wedges are driven deep and the handle is tight, the head of the tool stays on the handle. If the job is poorly done it quickly loosens up. Worst case scenario is taking a good swing at something and having the head of the axe come off in mid swing. When it happens, they usually go straight up for reasons I don’t understand. When they come down you don’t want to be underneath them.

Many years ago my father was heading out to cut firewood when I noticed the handle of his sledgehammer, which he used to drive splitting wedges, was a little loose. He didn’t like taking my advice so instead of fixing it he soaked it in a bucket of water for an hour. That makes the wood swell and presto! it’s all good again. No one should ever do this, because the wood grain compacts as it swells and when it dries out, the handle will be much looser than it started out. There was no hope of explaining this to my father, who had been working in the woods much of his life and needed no help from me.

About half an hour later he staggered out of the woods clutching one hand over the back of his head, and asked me to take a look at him. He had a bloody spot there exactly the size of a sledgehammer’s striking surface. He’d been splitting wood, and didn’t notice the handle working loose as it dried out. He took a good swing and suddenly the weight of the hammer was gone–the imbalance took him forward onto his knees, the hammerhead went straight up about ten feet before reversing course, and he caught it with the back of his head. We were all amazed it hadn’t killed him outright.

This is not a point to ignore. Your safety as well as that of others around you is at stake. Keep an eye on that ax head and keep some extra wedges in your pocket. If you knock one out, replace it. Tighten them with a punch or a ball peen hammer if they start to loosen up. Don’t get lazy and leave your ax in the woods overnight because you’re coming back the next day–morning dew or rain will do the same thing to the handle that a bucket of water will.

Another good tip is to keep the cutting edge facing away from you as you walk–if you trip on something you won’t gash a shin on the way down. Before you start working, take a look all around you for anything that will get in the way of the swing, and clear it out. Be sure to look behind and up, because it’s possible to hook a low limb and throw your swing way off target. A tree limb might even yank the axe out of your hands if you don’t have a good grip. Measure the arc with a practice swing, nice and slow, before you do the real thing. Think about where the ax head will go if you miss, and what will happen if you cut through what you’re working on. Make sure no part of you is in the path of that arc.

Last, never use the poll side of the ax head as a hammer. If you strike a splitting wedge with it you may shatter the ax like a crazy shrapnel spitting piece of glass. If you need a hammer, bring a hammer.

The Sport of Axe Racing

The best axe I ever owned was called a Tasmanian Racing Axe, heavier than anything I could have bought locally and more than triple the price. It made short work of every practical task I undertook with it, and it’s the only axe of mine that somebody liked well enough to steal. The price has just about doubled since I bought mine. You have to like ax work to pay that much for a simple tool–some people like it so well they compete internationally in lumberjack competitions, not just with axes but with crosscut saws and old skills like log rolling. At the low end of the racing axe price range, a hundred or a hundred fifty dollars, you can get a very good work axe. Some people use them for axe racing, but the real professionals pay as much as five hundred for a top quality blade. One of those has been known to cut down a ten inch diameter tree in one swing–true, it wasn’t an oak and the tree was under load, with another tree already cut and leaning on it, but the racing axe blade cut six inches into the tree with one good blow. A fifteen inch diameter log can be cut through with a racing ax in about twenty seconds.

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