USING YOUR AXE
If you're a frequent axe user, then you know the importance of having the proper safety measures and techniques down pat. Not only can mishandling an axe be dangerous, but it can also cause damage to both the axe and whatever it is you're working on.
Luckily, here at Brant & Cochran, we’ve put together a guide that covers the essentials of axe use.
Click to learn about:
- Preparing To Use Your Axe: Sharpening, Safety Equipment & Set-Up
- Axe Use Techniques: Bucking, Chopping & Limbing
- Axe Safety Tips
PREPARING TO USE YOUR AXE
Before you start using your axe, it's necessary to make sure you can do so safely. Whether you're a seasoned pro or a beginner, taking a few precautions beforehand can prevent accidents and injuries. From sharpening your axe and wearing the proper safety equipment to clearing the chopping area to holding your axe properly, following these simple tips will ensure you can enjoy using your axe while minimizing the risks of using such a wicked sharp tool.
A Sharp Axe Is A Safe Axe
Abraham Lincoln’s (maybe apocryphal) quotation that “If I had an hour to chop down a tree I would spend 45 minutes sharpening my axe” makes sense from both an efficiency and safety standpoint.
A sharp axe is more apt to land in the wood and not glance off and strike something it is not supposed to (read: you). We have an entire section of our website along with videos dedicated to axe sharpening. We also sell honing pucks and paddles that will help you sharpen that axe.
Inspect Your Axe & Handle
Before using your axe take a look at the axe head and handle. Is the axe head securely attached to the handle? Is the handle cracked anywhere? Is the bit chipped? A few seconds of inspection can save you headaches later!
Wear Safety Equipment
When using an axe, safety is everyone’s responsibility. Personal protective equipment or PPE is highly recommended when chopping to protect you from chips thrown off by using a wicked sharp axe.
Wear or have the following on hand:
- Leather gloves
- Long pants
- Leather boots
- Eye protection
- First aid kit, in case of an accident. This means you Steve!
Preparing for Chopping
Before you start swinging your axe, prepare your chopping area. You need plenty of room to swing an axe, and you don’t want anything (even twigs) to get in the way of your swing, as it can cause you to miss your mark or even deflect the axe into your own body.
Keep this simple saying in mind: “Clear the ground an axe length around.”
An “axe length” means the length of the handle plus the length of your arm. “Around” means overhead and underneath, in front and back, and on both sides. So to check that you’ve got this clearance, hold your axe by the head and slowly swing it in all directions. Then, remove any branches or brush that touches you or your axe.
Besides clearing the path for your axe’s swing, clear the ground of any roots or loose rocks that you could stumble or slip on. Lastly, ensure no one’s standing too close to you. For that, here’s another good saying: “Onlookers stay two axe-lengths away.”
Hold the Axe Properly
If you’re right-handed, hold the axe so that your left hand sits just above the knob at the end of the handle, palm facing towards you. Your right hand should grasp the neck a few inches below the axe’s head, with its palm facing away. (If you’re a lefty, simply reverse these instructions.)
Hold the axe with a grip that’s firm, but not tense. As you swing at your target, your top hand will slide down to the bottom, so that your two hands meet.
Focus on accuracy first, not power. It won’t do any good to swing an axe as hard as you can if it hits the wrong spot every single time. As you can imagine, you’ll cut more wood much more quickly and efficiently if you hit the wood in about the same spot every time you strike it.
Keep your eyes trained on the spot you want to strike and concentrate on keeping your aim true, using controlled strokes. Once you can accurately swing your axe, then you can focus on speed and power.
AXE USE TECHNIQUES
Felling a Tree
When striking a tree laterally, set-up is key. Follow these helpful tips when felling a tree:
- For maximum power and safety, rather than standing directly in front of the tree, you’re chopping, offset yourself so that the tree is in front of your lead foot (your left foot if you’re right-handed). Setting yourself up this way will put your target (the tree) “past your front” in the direction of your chopping. This position will allow you to follow through on your swing, but also reduce the chances of injuring yourself if the axe head ricochets off the tree when you strike.
- Just as when using a chainsaw, you’ll make an initial 45-degree face cut on the side of the tree that faces the direction you want it to fall.
- The difference in felling a tree with an axe comes in how you do the back cut. Instead of making the back cut perfectly perpendicular to the tree (as you would with a chainsaw), you’re going to make another 45-degree cut with your axe on the opposite side and two inches above your face cut. This will create a hinge and — if everything goes to plan — the tree will begin to fall down in the direction of your face cut.
Limbing means removing the branches from a felled tree. Follow these helpful tips for limbing:
- Remove the limbs on top of the downed tree first, so that when you remove the bottom limbs, if the tree falls or moves, the top branches won’t flail about and scratch or impale you.
- Stand on the opposite side of the trunk from where you’re cutting and always chop limbs off in the direction of the top of the tree; do not cut into the “crotch” of the limb.
- For medium- to large-sized limbs, aim to remove them with two strokes. Land the first at an angle a few inches up from its base — this will loosen its resistance on the tree. Then do a second stroke that’s parallel to the tree and aimed at the limb’s base.
- For smaller limbs, you can shear them off with one stroke: cut sharply into the base at a slight downward angle, rather than parallel to the tree.
If you’ve felled a tree, you’ll need to buck it into smaller, more manageable logs. To do this with an axe:
- Stand on top of the log you wish to buck, with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Chop a “V” shaped notch in the part of the log between your legs, chopping halfway into one side, and halfway into the other. You want the kerf — or the cut you’re making — to be as wide as the tree is thick; aim for an angle of cut about 45 degrees.
- Bring the axe above your right shoulder and swing it down between your legs. Continue until you cut the right side of the notch out.
- Turn your body to the left and chop the left side of the “V”-shaped notch out.
- Once you’ve created a V-shape on one half of the log, turn around and chop another V on the other side of the log until the two notches meet.
Whether you use a hatchet or axe, you always split loose wood on some solid surface. In trying to split small wood on the ground, you may miss, driving the axe head into the ground, where it can become damaged by grit or rocks.
Follow these helpful tips for splitting wood:
- It’s not recommended to split logs with the same axe you use for felling; a splitting maul is more appropriate for the job.
- When splitting wood, place it on a solid, sufficiently broad log or stump. Having something to back it will protect the axe at the finish of the stroke.
- For small kindling, it’s actually easier, faster, and safer not to swing at them at all, but rather to split it using the “contact” method.
- To split wood down the middle, wedge the axe’s bit into its center, and then bring the wood and axe down together on your chopping block. Twist the wood some if needed and it will usually split apart.
- To chop your wood in two, set the bit on a slant across its grain. Raise the wood and axe together and bring them down onto the block.
HOW TO HANDLE AN AXE SAFELY WHEN NOT IN USE
Muzzle the Blade
A properly sharpened axe can easily slice through clothing and your body which is why you need to take great care when swinging one. But the same is also true when you’re not using your axe.
Axes tend to find a way to cut or nick people even when they’re lying inert on the ground — in many instances, users can accidentally kick the axe or fall on it. To prevent these “axe bites,” always muzzle your axe when you’re not using it by putting on its sheath.
If your sheath isn’t handy, take the following precautions to ensure that your axe doesn’t bite someone while you’re not using it:
- For a single-bit axe, stick the cutting edge into a log. Never lay it down on the ground or lean it against a tree.
- For a double-bit axe, sticking one cutting edge into a log still leaves another cutting edge exposed. To remedy that, drive one bit into a small piece of wood before you stick the other bit into the log. Better yet, lay the axe on the ground, but place the head under the log so that both cutting edges are covered.
Walk with an Axe Safely
When you walk with your axe, it’s tempting to throw it over your shoulder like you’d imagine an old-time lumberjack doing. But that’s not the safest way to carry an axe; if you trip, you could fall into the axe’s blade, and if it’s an unsheathed double bit, the blade could even cut into your back.
Instead, you’ll sheathe your axe and then grip it just beneath the head with the bit pointed outward. To walk with an axe safely, always hold the axe pointing down and away from you. If you do happen to stumble, toss the axe away from you and other people.
Hand Someone an Axe Safely
When handing someone an axe, hold it by the handle, with the head hanging down vertically and towards you. Wait until the other person has a firm grip on the handle before you release it.
Drawings Credit: An Ax To Grind, USFS Publication