proper axe technique

Joined
Aug 26, 2006
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i have been using an axe for about a year now, and i have noticed alot of beginner's mistakes that i would have been alot better off not doing :rolleyes:

so here's my attempt (and invite for anyone else to offer advice/tips) to put together a list of things that a newbie should do or avoid.

we have all read about how, when using a full sized axe, you should keep one hand at the butt of the handle and slide the other hand up and down the shaft as you swing. i didn't do that until today, and WOW! what a difference it makes. take a look at the first diagram of this page to see what i mean:
Click

before, i have always held the axe stiffly in my two hands and swung it. this resulted in my back getting tired and sore from being bent over to reach the log, and less control over the axe. today i went out and decided to figure out how to do it the "right way". it really is "right". it allowed me to stay much straighter, saving alot of fatigue, and it gave me alot of control over where the axe fell, as well as where it was when i was pulling out of the cut. i gave it a couple of "tries" before, but never really tried to do it. glad i finally did.

another thing, as seen further down the page in the link above, is standing on the log to chop it. even chopping larger logs, around 12-18" diameter, i find this difficult to do. balance it tricky while swinging a metal lump on a stick, and i have a hard time with the log moving around under me. i strongly advise against this.

brace the log so that it doesn't move around. this can make a big difference. if you are cutting up a tree, start at the base and move towards the crown, limbing sections as you go. if you limb the whole thing at once and start bucking it up from the top, the whole tree moves alot more while you are chopping. if you do it like i say, the tree is held in place more by the crown, and is held up off the ground a little, giving more clearance to chop through it.

when chopping, always have your body to one side. you should be swinging into the wood on the same side as your body, so that if a chop bounces or goes clean through, the axe will swing into the air, and you can catch it before it gets anywhere near your body. i used to keep my body clear center of whatever i was chopping, and have had a few very close calls because of this. i wish i had my camera to show a photo of this, its a little hard to describe.

i like to limb with a small hatchet over an axe, because of the control, but it can be done with an axe too. when you are limbing, cut from the underside of the limb. it is much harder to cut from the top side, because this is the direction gravity has been pushing for a long time, so its stronger from this direction.

EDITED to add; thought of another already:
when you are chopping, don't go mad like a rabid animal. keep your chops slow and don't hit the wood like you are trying to bust up concrete. let the edge of the axe cut, and just put it where it needs to go. space out your chops. if a beginner can't chop for a solid 120 seconds in a row, he or she is chopping too fast and wearing themselves out. slow and steady is the way to do it. (thanks gene for teaching me this...also has made a big difference for me)

that's all i can think of for now, i will add more if it comes to mind. everyone that knows how to use a hatchet and axe, please chime in for those that know less (including me)
 
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Jan 22, 2007
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Very useful tips there. I've been using an axe since I was a kid, guess I kinda take those things for granted. But for a novice, very good stuff to know...
 
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when one is limbing a big branch, with either an axe or a hatchet, there are three different swings you should make in order to remove the limb most efficiently. the normal srtoke, which is what siguy mentioned (for smaller branches, that one swing should work but for larger, these three steps shoud be followed) this swing is made parellel to the tree. next is the side stroke, which is made on the under side of the branch, just like the first stroke but is a bit farther up and should be made at a 45 degree angle to the tree. next is the counter stroke, which should finish the branch off. it is made on the upper-facing side of the branch and should also run parellel to the tree.

this works well for me.
 
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Aug 26, 2006
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luckily it has more or less become second nature for me.

i don't do a lot of chopping with my big axe compared to my hatchets and big blades, so i never worked too much with my technique. i think another part of the reason i always reach for my hatchet, even for slightly bigger tasks is that i didn't really know how to use the axe really well. glad i finally figured it out, i plan to use an axe much more often now.

i use hatchets alot for cutting down and hacking up saplings and little trees, as well as shaping things for various projects.
 
Joined
Dec 11, 2006
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I love using axes. A smaller hand ax is one of my favorite woods tools, and I do not think that most people know how to get the most out of them, or else there would be more talk about them.

Obviously, you are covering a broad spectrum here, so I will try and break my comments up.

Spitting - Full sized ax

Here you are using a splitting ax, or some people call it a maul. I heat my house with wood, and split it by hand this way. So, I have quite a bit of experience with this type of ax :D It is different from a limbing or felling ax in that the head is much thicker and heavier.

In general, the longer handled axes are considered safer because the arc of the swing is big enough that the ax is more likely to hit the ground before it hits your legs or feet. Still, this is my one and only tip for splitting:

Instead of having a true circular arc as your splitting motion, as the ax handle is parallel to the ground stop the circular motion of the swing, and it should now be a straight line.

For that reason, that is why a chopping block is so recommended by most. I split so much wood, and generally do it in a short amount of time that I regularly don't use a block. I know there are folks that would yell at me for doing that, but at least I am not doing it out of ignorance :D It is just easier to line up as many logs as I can, and swing away. Much quicker.

For that situation, in order to keep the swing in a straight line (like I mentioned earlier) it really helps to use your whole legs to squat with the swing. It keeps it in a straight line, and can greatly increase your power without a block.

Limbing/Felling - Full sized Ax

I am not the most experienced doing this, since I just use a chainsaw. I know that is not a good excuse, but I have just not done much of it. I don't know of any more tips than those you have already mentioned.

General - Hand Ax

I consider a hand ax anything about 19" handle and shorter. The dynamics and the tips are about the same, so I just lumping them together.

As previously mentioned, this is a dangerous class of axes. The handle length is such that follow throughs, misses and deflections can hit you. Safety is especially important with these.

It is also important to note than an ax like this will likely to be called on for many different tasks. For example, I already mentioned the difference between a limbing ax and a splitting ax. A hand ax does not have the same wide profile as a splitting ax, yet you better believe it is going to get used for that too. So, keep that in mind with these tips.

- Same as the full sized ax when splitting; let the last part of your swing be in a straight motion, rather than circular motion.

- When cutting wood to length:
- Cut at 45 degrees to the grain, not 90 degrees.
- The goal is to make a V in the wood, and chip out large chunks.
- The V should be about as wide as the thickness of the wood.
- When approximately half way through, turn over and continue, if possible.
- The V's from both side should not line up exactly. It will minimize follow through on the very last stroke, and the wood will still come apart fine.

- Splitting wood that can stand up on its own is easy. When it become too small to stand up, and you still want to split it hold the piece of wood in your left hand, parallel to the ax handle. Hold the ax head and the end of the piece. Move both hands in the same motion smashing the wood and ax on a chopping block. This will start the split you can either continue, or generally will split the entire thing for you. (I can explain this one further if it is not clear).

- I guess in general, especially for your finer cutting and chopping tasks use a good backstop. I keep a hair-shaving edge on my ax (I am not kidding) so it would be poor axemanship to go hitting into dirt.

That is all I can think of off the top of my head. As more comes to me, I will post again.
 
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brian, thanks for adding.

for me personally, since i am a little on the taller side, i haven't yet held an axe that would hit the ground before my feet if i missed the wood somehow...this means that i am careful regardless of what i'm swinging.

i have always been worried about splitting small wood like you said, as i also keep a razor edge on all of my cutting tools, and i'm always worried i will somehow slip and hurt myself. so i hold the piece of wood upright with a stick held in my off hand, and swing with my strong hand. this takes a little longer to setup each stick, and its not as convenient, but i feel safer doing it this way.
 
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went out and tried it again...i'm still don't feel that great about it, just having my hand so close to the edge while its moving makes me nervous. so i remembered something i haven't done in a while since i started batoning wood more...

lay a piece of wood down on its side on a chopping block so that its straight out from you. swing the axe straight down into it, sticking in the middle. if the wood is bigger, you might have to swing the axe a couple of times again (with the wood still stuck on the bit). this will split wood that won't stand up on its own (axe-cut ends, small diameter, etc) i have done it with up to around 6" diam wood.
 
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Is this the method you are using? Here is a short video I had on this technique. Bear with me, I have never embedded a video here before :confused:

You have to watch for a few second before getting to the part I am talking about.

Brian

[youtube]nQB5RzQyxHs[/youtube]
 
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similar, but instead of holding the end i just lay it down and instead of hitting the tip i just hit it right in the middle and smack it against the log, driving the edge through.

thought of another that i have had limited success with when i remember to try it. similar to what he does there, just slam the bit through the end of the stick so that it wedges into the log, then yank the stick sideways so that it splits along the length.
 
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similar to what he does there,

That's me btw :D

If you have something that works, then that is cool. But, I really like this method. Because your hands are together, it is extremely safe, and works well (for me at least) on all types of woods.

I briefly mentioned it in the video, but one of the reasons I like to start at the end (and have the ax slightly hanging over the edge) is that it makes for easier starting, and a crack to begin easier. In some cases it may not matter, but on some tough woods, it can.

I also like batoning with a knife, but there are so many other things that the ax can do that a knife can not, that I would not trade one for the other. Of course, that depends on the area you are in too.
 
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ah i thought maybe it was you but i didn't want to assume...

i'll play with that technique tomorrow when my blisters feel better...my hands are pretty callused but using the right technique for about an hour today gave me some new hotspots...goes to show you should really do it right from the start.

i mostly baton at my block in the backyard to make firewood, in the woods i would probably split it with a hatchet or axe because its faster and a tad easier...i like to baton simply for the pleasure of playing with my knives, even though it is fairly effective. in the woods, to tell the truth, i mostly just baton kindling with my mora and then use that to get bigger, unsplit fuel going...i don't find the need too often to split wood up for a fire.

i can't wait to get my new wetterlings axe in...is that a GB or a wetterlings in your video?
 
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...i don't find the need too often to split wood up for a fire.

I know what you mean. I generally don't either. But, it is a good skill to know and practice. Its real use is when everything is wet. You can get to the center of larger pieces, where the wood is going to be dry. I have been camping with friends who have spent years in the woods, and could not get a fire going after a rain :cool:

The ax is the video is a GB, small forest ax. I don't own a wetterlings, but I wanted to buy one just for comparison.

I have been Snow & Neally Ax, and to be honest I think I HAVE to get one just to try it. I have heard good things about their steel in general. I will probably grind those funky bumps off the handle, and I am sure the belt sander would be appropriate for getting an edge as nice as the GB comes out of the box. But, that is not a big deal, and should not be for a knifemaker either ;)
 
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they have some of those snow and neally axes at the local hardware store and i have to say i am not too impressed with them. for the price tag i would be better off buying a wetterlings (and so i did) based on photos i have seen of the wetterlings new.

the heads weren't all very straight or even...some of them had eyes that were thicker on one side than the other by a few mm at least. the edges were thick and roughly ground on what looks like a bench grinder...

it's something that i could fix up easily enough, but i want something i don't have to mod too too heavily...
 
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Aug 29, 2007
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its funny im reading this now...because last night i decided to split some logs using my small hand axe. after getting the axe stuck in the log i proceded to slam it up and down trying to pound the head deeper into the wood. then i didnt hit the bottom of the log flush and the axe came flying back at me and my hand slid down and into the log resulting in quite a mess. i wish i had pictures
 
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That is good to know. I have never seen the Snow's in person, and was only going off what I heard. I can live with a rough edge, but not with the offset eye. So you probably save me some cash :D What you are describing is a $15 or $20 ax, not a $50 dollar one!

Although, I don't know what I am pining over, my ax is just fine :D

Keep us updated on the Wetterlings. I would like to hear more about your experience with it.
 
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after getting the axe stuck in the log i proceded to slam it up and down trying to pound the head deeper into the wood.

In that instance, I would normally baton the back of the ax head with a large piece of wood. Because of the head thickness, it usually does not require going past the eye until the whole thing blows apart. It is a pretty effective method.

What happened to your hand? Did it slip into the ax edge? Or get pinched in the wood? Either way, I hope it is okay.
 
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bmilla...ouch! i hate to hear about axes and hands...

somewhat related story: a female friend of mine was telling me about how a couple of years ago she chopped her friend's finger off :eek::eek: she was swinging the hatchet and her friend was placing the wood to be split on the log...and the friend said "hold on, i have to straighten this piece out" my friend didn't hear and swung anyways...

brian, that's what i was thinking. they could be nice if you get a good one and fix it up, but i saw a few that i wouldn't put past the modern collins stuff (sadly, collins has become the standard "hardware store axe")...and i agree with you, with that GB i figure you should be about set...;)
 
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Mar 22, 2006
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Funny hoe this collective unconcious thing works..I've ben thinking alot about proper axe technique over the past day or so... Brian, I like that method for splitting smaller wood..I've been thinking about upgrading from the fiskars to the wetterlings..But I sure do love my fiskars...
 
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Oct 8, 2007
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hmmm... while we're talking about axe's, how do you feel about the balance of the gransfors?

I have heard that they are not balanced properly.
Also, aren't they designed for european softwoods and not american hardwoods?

I don't think they are efficient as they could be... from what I have HEARD... I haven't ever used one, although I don't want to spend that much money on an axe anyway really.

anyways...
I like to use a knife for splitting... (a big bowie normally does the trick. :D)
I think it's safer, more straight forward/accurate and you can split taller pieces.

but this advice/ new techniques are very good to know and very helpful.
thanks.
I really want to get an axe...probably just a big hardware store one for now maybe a double bit with a fiberglass handle and decent geometry... if I can find one.

It'd mostly be for chopping not splitting. :D
 
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