Don’t Axe Me!: Advice on Axe Maintenance and Use

By | November 16, 2011

For you all who don’t know, this site is written by two guys who spend a lot of time with their kids. The subject matter fits in with a lot of the mommy-blogging sites, but every now and then our content becomes a little more rugged. If you are going to take your kids camping, or just spend a lot of time outdoors, it makes sense to learn some woodcraft. Not only will it make the experience more fun, your kids won’t grow up thinking you have no idea what you’re doing. Today’s post from Monkey’s Uncle looks at the proper use and maintenance of the axe. — Grace ‘n’ Tater’s Dad

Would you agree that it’s safe to say almost everyone of our generation has a longing to chop wood to heat their home? Not an actual desire, necessarily, but—on one level or another—an almost archetypal need to chop wood? And yet, if you try to learn how to actually do this thing, you find more on an internet search engine about AXE body spray than using the actual tool. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

So today, I’d like to just share five quick pointers that—should you find an axe in your hand—will make you look like a pro. Or if not that, then at least keep you from looking like a fool.

Look sharp
Now, I’m going on the assumption that you already have an ax and some wood in your hands. Likely, this is a tool that you’ve just found at a camp you’re visiting or in a friend’s garage.

(If you have just purchased a wood stove and need to get serious about chopping wood and buying an axe… well, the wood stove dealer is likely the best place to start, but if not, ask for help wherever you buy axes. If none of that works, write us here at Our Days Are Just Filled and we’ll get you the correct information. Regardless, it goes beyond the aim of this article.)

As you should know by now, if you’re a parent, a sharp tool is always best for a job that involves cutting. Counterintuitively, it is in fact safer to use a sharper tool. There are professionals who sharpen axes. And if you’re looking at more than an afternoon of chopping, you’d do well to patronize them. However, if you’re just trying to split enough wood for you and your kid(s) to have a campfire, at least take a look at the blade of the axe. If you can see dulling or flattening of the blade, or if there are places where you can tell someone’s hit a rock or something and gouged or dented the blade, you’d do well to find a flat file, and placing the axe head on a level surface (picnic table top, etc.) simply follow the obvious angle of the blade and smooth off these burrs. Just this much “sharpening” can do wonders. Helps build lumberjack confidence, too.

Before you start swinging, if you have a pile of wood to choose from, get the driest logs and those with flat ends. These will split the best. And softwoods will of course split easier than hardwoods (generally pine vs. maple or oak)

Hands and feet
Your feet should be shoulder width apart. This provides a solid base. This may seem trivial, but without concentrating on it, you will naturally try to use an axe the same way as you stand at the ordering kiosk at L.L. Bean. And while this may work, chances are that you’ll end up with an axe just far enough into a log to get stuck. And that’s if you’re lucky.

Another point that experts stress is the hand placement. Start with the axe above your head (we’re assuming a gentle but fluid swing has led it behind you before you reach this point) your left hand on the end of the axe, and your right hand up near the head (reverse if you need to and are left-handed). As you swing down, this hand slides down the handle so that just before you hit the wood, it grips just above your left hand for maximum leverage. The reason it is done this way is to increase control and increase power. And power is the difference between getting stuck in the log, and splitting it into two pieces like a lumberjack!

The eyes! The eyes!
It has taken me until midlife, but I think I finally am starting to get what my little league coaches meant when they told me to keep my eye on the ball. Your chances are increased by nearly 100 percent when you watch what you’re doing rather than closing your eyes. This is true, incidentally, on a bicycle as well. If you see a stone in the trail and become obsessed with avoiding it, guess where you’ll steer subconsciously? Exactly—right into that stone.

Now, if you want instead to hit an exact spot on the top of a log, where do you think you should look? At your toes? Not unless you’d like to lose a few. Of course, you want to look at the log. And through the miracle (and I don’t use that word particularly lightly) of the way our bodies work, the arms, trunk, and legs will guide that axe-head to the very spot. It’s amazing, really. And easy to forget. Look where you want to hit.

Break on through to the other side
Though I’m quite sure this isn’t what the Doors were talking about, it’s a good phrase to keep in mind when it’s time to split. Though it sounds a little mystical while you sit at the computer reading this, I assure you from personal experience that intention makes a difference while splitting logs.

If you say to yourself, ‘I am going to hit this log with this axe’, it sends a very real message to your body. “Give this a try, let’s see what happens.” And from the very beginning of the stroke, the effort is halfhearted, which results in an unsplit log, which makes you feel bad about yourself, and makes the next swing even less likely to succeed.

You don’t know how it hurts me to repeat all these old things my coaches told me way back when! I’m not a team sports guy, I’m really not, and I hate to pass along coaching talk. But as I said, it turns out they were sometimes right. I’m talking about what they told you about the follow-through. It makes no rational sense that the way you swing after a ball is hit makes the ball go farther. But it takes just a little practice to see that it’s true, whether you’re talking about a baseball bat, a tennis racket, or a golf club. Or an axe, as it turns out.

What I’m saying is: Swing through the log, not just at it.

Chop more than you need
This isn’t a tip about swinging the axe, so much as an organizational tip combined with a sneaky ongoing self confidence builder. There are two things going on here.

First, dry wood burns better. And the wood gets drier on the outside. So split wood left to sit for long periods will be drier than recently split wood. Obvious, right?

So while you’ve got the sharp axe, while you’re warmed up and well-practiced, while you’re already covering your clothes with woodchips, chop extra wood. It will be better wood to burn the next time you want a fire, and you won’t even have to get the axe out of the garage.

And as an added bonus, if you do enough, you’ll have a little woodpile sitting in the yard (hopefully stacked between two trees) and when people notice it, you can nonchalantly say, “Oh, yeah, well, I chopped some extra last time I was splitting logs…” And who doesn’t like that?

 

(If you enjoyed today’s post, please head over to the Best Made website and browse their signature axes. If you find one you think we’d like, we’d happily send you our address. Thanks! — Grace ‘n’ Tater’s Dad)

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