Axmanship 101

An old woodsman’s maxim says it best: “Give a man a knife and he can survive; give him an axe and he lives like a king.” Basic axe skills are best served by the “small forest axe”—one utilizing a single-poll head weighing from 11/2 to 2 pounds, a blade of 31⁄2 to 4 inches, and a handle length of 19 to 23 inches. This size represents a good compromise between portability and function and is safer to use than a hatchet, which is more likely to hit you on the follow-through of a swing if you miss. But any axe work can be dangerous. Here’s how to safely make the best use of this versatile tool. Fell a Tree: Tree felling should only be attempted by an experienced axe man. To fell a tree safely, chop downward at a 30- to 45-degree angle. Don’t swing the axe in a circular arc, which could result in injury on the follow-through. Instead, push with both hands parallel to each other. The second or felling cut should be made no higher than 10 inches from the ground. A slightly lower back cut must be made first on the opposite side of the trunk in the direction you want it to fall. Stand an axe handle’s distance away from the trunk. width=258 Split Firewood: Splitting blocks is easiest with an axe head of at least 2 pounds that has a concave face. Use a chopping block to absorb follow-through blows. Split the side of wood perpendicular to the direction of the annual rings. Split knots through the center or avoid them entirely. Don’t overreach, which can damage the axe handle. Use a short-arc chopping motion by pushing with both hands parallel to each other. The heel of the axe head should just overhang the edge of the wood, but don’t underreach. width=215 Limb a Tree: The limbs of fallen evergreens are ideal for shelter construction. Stand on the opposite side of the trunk for safety. Limb a branch in the direction of its growth. Try to make the cut flush with the trunk. Follow-through is away from your body. width=197 Use a Safety Log: To section logs, use a larger safety log to absorb glancing blows from the axe. Stand with legs spread wide on the opposite side of the safety log. Chop between your legs, making a V notch. After cutting halfway through, roll it and chop through the opposite side. width=211 Split Small Wood: Hold the axe bit against the small log, then tap them together against a support log. This exposes dry inner wood for fire building in wet conditions. To finish the split, position the axe bit against the head of the small log and tap them together against the support. width=160