An Ax To Grind

Classic ax-wielder's guide

I’ve never felled a tree and can count with my hands how many times I’ve chopped wood. Enough swings to have stumbled on the sweetspot, but also uncomfortably close to injury. This guide published by the USDA Forest Service is an incredible resource for everything ax-related, from beginner to advanced (and it’s free!). Filled with succinct and wise passages, clear photos and helpful diagrams, the book explains the in’s and out’s of felling, limbing, splitting, chopping, bucking, and hewing. Plus, no-nonsense tips on how to swing, grip, sharpen, maintain, select and purchase the right ax for the right job. The subtitle is right: practical.

-- Steven Leckart 01/29/09



On a knotty, gnarly block of wood you'll need to start your split from the outside edges and slab off the sides. Inevitably, your ax will become stuck in the block you are trying to split. The best way to remove it without damaging the ax is to rap the end of the handle sharply downward with the palm of your hand without holding the handle.



Accuracy is the only thing that counts; the force of the swing is not nearly as important as its placement. Chop with a series of strokes: the top, the bottom, and then the middle (Figure 80). If you chop in that order (top, bottom, middle) with both the forehand swing and the backhand swing, the chip will fly out after your last cut. On your last cut in the middle on the backhand swing, you should give a slight twist to the ax as you sink it into the wood to pop the chip out. Swing with a natural rhythmic and unforced motion. Always watch your aim. Leaving one edge of your ax blade exposed will help ensure it doesn't get stuck in the log.



Clamp the ax to the bench at a comfortable height (Figure 65). Put on gloves to protect your hands. Hold the file as shown. Because you file into the edge of the ax, not away from it, you need gloves in case of a minor slip. Always file into the edge, toward the center of the ax handle, because this creates the least amount of burr to remove on the other side. The single-cut file sharpens only on the push stroke. Lift it away from the ax head on the return stroke. If you "saw" with your file, it will fill with metal particles. It will not cut well and it can also be ruined as the file edges are peened over. Occasionally brush the metal particles from the file with a file card. Always store and transport your files so they are protected from each other and other metal tools. Banging them together will dull their edges.



Always check the ax for sharpness. A honed ax will cut faster, be safer to use, and stay sharp longer. If you look directly into the edge of your ax with the light over your shoulder (either sunlight or artificial light), the edge that you've just honed will reflect no light. If you see any light reflected from the edge, you need to go back and hone the ax with the stone. Occasionally, a ding or a nick in the edge will reflect light just at one point. It is not always necessary to remove these dings as they will disappear through repeated filings. A correctly honed edge is sharp with no wire edge. It reflects no light. If you followed procedures, your edge should be sharp enough to shave with (Figure 73). I sometimes check the sharpness by carefully dry shaving the hair on the back of my hand. This is a traditional method used in the woods for years. A safer and equally effective test is to carefully put your fingernail (not your finger) against the sharpened edge. The edge should bite into your fingernail and not slide down it.

Basics of Handle Selection

Hickory makes the best handles for percussion tools like axes. You seldom see any species other than hickory offered by ax-handle companies...

Grain: The highest grade does not have over 17 annual rings per inch of radius, a characteristic of faster-growing second growth trees. The orientation of the grain is critically important. If the handle is not straight-grained, it is likely to break...

Defects: Various defects, including stain, holes, knots, splits, streaks, and grain deviations all diminish the grade of the handle.

Camouflaged Defects: Many less-than-perfect ax handles, often on bargain or utility axes, have defects that are camouflaged. This often helps make the ax look better, but you should recognize that good looks can hide defects. Some common techniques include staining, painting, or fire-finishing, which hardens and darkens the handle's surface...

Most ax manufacturers also offer axes with fiberglass or other plastic composite handles. While these may be durable and sturdy and perhaps adequate for splitting mauls, they do not provide the feel that a hickory handle offers. You also cannot customize a fiberglass handle. They are not traditional, which matters to me. And besides, they are just flat ugly.

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