Over the next few posts I will be sharing the following information:
- A Most Versatile Tool
- Using an Ax Safely
- Chopping Technique
- Felling Trees
- Cutting Pinned-Down Saplings
A Most Versatile Tool
The ax is a wonderful tool. It can be used to fell standing trees, to buck them into logs, and to limb them once they are on the ground. Axes can be used for hewing logs square, or for splitting firewood or fence rails. The tasks they’re suited for range from trail work and fire fighting to restoring historic buildings. Before you lift an ax to admire it or work with it, you need to recognize its potential danger. An ax is a sharp wedge, normally applied with enough force to cut something. Whether that “something” is a log, your foot, or the person standing too close to you depends on your skill and concentration. By taking pride in your work, taking good care of your ax, and learning the correct techniques, you can avoid most of the danger of using an ax. Master your ax instead of fearing it. You master ax work by practicing it. Chopping is an art. It takes years to become an expert. You can learn only so much by reading manuals and looking at illustrations; the rest you can learn only by swinging. Take a cautious, rather than aggressive, approach to chopping your first logs. Placement, control, proper stance, and technique are far more important than power. Only when you have become fully proficient does power become a consideration. This chapter gives some basic instruction–and a few tricks of the trade–for using an ax for felling, limbing, bucking, splitting, and hewing. It also describes how to use an adz for log work. I’ve relied heavily on illustrations from one of my favorite books about axes, Woodsmanship, by Bernard S. Mason (1954). The wonderful illustrations are by Frederic H. Kock. Unfortunately, it is long out of print, but some of the illustrations are reproduced here by permission. We also used some good information from Fred C. Simmons’Northeastern Loggers’ Handbook (1951). Bear in mind that some of these historic illustrations do not reflect modern personal protective equipment, particularly hardhats and eye protection.
Using an Ax Safely
Personal protective equipment that you need for ax work varies with the job. Always wear good, stout leather boots, at least 8-inches high. Always wear safety glasses or goggles for eye protection. Hard hats are needed when there is any chance of being struck by something overhead. Hard hats are a must for tree-felling operations. Some people wear gloves when using an ax, some don’t. Gloves are a good idea for splitting firewood, where you are handling many pieces of splintered wood. Leather gloves are always required while sharpening an ax. For chopping, use your judgment. If leather gloves protect your hands and help give you a good grip on the handle, wear them. I personally don’t wear gloves most of the time because I get a better purchase on the ax handle without them. The last thing I want to happen is for the ax to fly out of my hands on a swing. Then the person next to me really will need that hard hat!
An ax is–or should be–a keen-edged tool. Be very afraid of a dull ax, because it is dangerous. It glances off a surface more easily (Figure 74). A blunt ax, improperly tapered, also has a tendency to glance off. An ax should always be kept razor sharp.
Figure 74–A dull ax or one that is too blunt is more
likely to glance off dangerously than it is to cut
(drawing from the Northeastern Loggers’ Handbook).
When an ax is transported in a vehicle or on a horse or mule, it always should be sheathed or boxed. A simple sheath made from leather will preserve the ax edge and possibly avert serious injury. It should also be sheathed while you are walking from place to place along the trail. Always carry your sheathed single-bit ax at its point of balance near its head with the edge pointing down. The ax should be on your downhill side if you are walking on a slope. If you fall or trip, toss the ax away from you. Carry a double-bit ax at your side. Carrying an ax on your shoulder is asking for trouble, especially in the woods or on rough trails. Don’t do it. Keep track of your ax. Be careful where and how you lay it down, and remember where it is. If you must leave your ax unsheathed, lay it flat with the edge toward a solid object like a log or a wall (Figure 75). Serious accidents are caused by stumbling over or falling on a carelessly placed ax.
Figure 75–These methods may work, but it’s better
to keep a protective sheath on your ax
(drawings by Frederic H. Kock).
For temporary safe storage, stick a single-bit ax in a log or a stump. Never lay it down flat out in the open. Never lean it up against a tree, a wall, or any other object where the edge is exposed. Don’t leave it stuck for long in a block of wood because it will rust. A double-bit ax should never be stuck in a log with one edge sticking out. Place your double-bit ax underneath a log lying flat or put one bit into a small piece of wood and then stick the other bit into a horizontal log. A sheath is better than any of these methods. Here are a few more pointers on ax work:
- Do not chop directly through a knot if you can chop around it or chop the knot out. Knots often are very hard and can chip your ax or adz.
- Never strike the ground with your ax. If you need to cut roots, use a grubbing tool like a Pulaski or grub hoe. If you have to use an ax, use a “grubbing” ax that you don’t care about abusing.
- Never try to drive a stake or wedge with the flat side of your double-bit ax. It is almost sure to crack the eye.
- Never use the poll of a single-bit ax for pounding steel wedges. The poll is there for counter balance to the bit. It is not there for pounding! The poll is not tempered properly to pound and will become deformed or chips of steel may fly off. A single-bit ax can be safely used to pound wooden or plastic wedges–that is all!
- The ax head is brittle at extremely cold temperatures. It is likely to chip unless it is warmed before using. One way to warm up your ax is to place it (sheathed of course) under your armpit, for a few minutes. Or warm it between your hands. If you don’t want to share some of your body heat with your ax (which by now should be considered a family member), chop very slowly for at least 2 minutes in order to warm the ax up in the wood.