Welcome... and Warning:
Because I seem to have “an ax to grind” with many folks (some fellow ax nuts, some nuts in other ways), perhaps I ought to apologize beforehand for any ego-harm some of my comments (plus unintended prejudices and bias) in the discussions below may cause.
Rest assured, however, that my intent here is to elevate the potential usefulness of an ax – one of the tools which, as the future unfolds, I believe we will be glad that we know how to apply seriously and efficiently.
At the same time I wholeheartedly welcome constructive criticism, of course.

May 1, 2011

In Search of an Axe for "The World Made by Hand" PART 1

In view of our collective future, the time to learn how to use an ax is NOW. Why? Well, the likelihood is getting higher by the month that during the upcoming “era of major energy descent”, a good ax and the skills to use it will be a blessing for many country dwellers in areas where wood still abounds. But to realize its potential EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested), that ax should be selected with care. 

This two-part guide is to help with the selecting of an ax, though not in the manner of a consumer report that picks a winner product and points you to its source. Instead, I suggest that you learn enough of the related fundamentals to do your own picking; hence what follows is some relevant food for thought.

Part One addresses the issue of “right” size. Part Two focuses on ax design and is meant to point out that the most expensive or popular ax is not necessarily the one to try to get your hands on, and it's worth considering other options. They may be equally satisfactory, in many instances more so... 

Part One – The "Right" Size

The most obvious questions in the selecting process ought to be:
a) how heavy an ax do I need?  and
b) how long should be its handle?

Most old frontiersmen who wrote on related subjects expressed rather firm opinions as to the size of the (one and only) ax a man, be he a scout or a trapper, should carry with him on extended woodland adventures. But this information is neither easy to find nor necessarily applicable for the present generation to follow as-is.

There is, however, at least one exceptional piece of work that manages to span that historical divide -- "The Ax Book", by Dudley Cook (formerly titled "Keeping Warm With an Ax"). Even if it doesn’t cover a few of the details I want to draw attention to here, it is the most whole source on all aspects of ax-manship that I am aware of. Though readily available, it has yet to become a bestseller...

Meanwhile, plenty of people purchase an ax (perhaps their first one) -– be it from a local hardware store or a mail order catalogue -- without giving the issue of head weight and handle length much prior thought. That is our first mistake. The second one is the tendency to purchase only what is conveniently available. Even when illumination is sought by those individuals who tend to ask questions, wisdom may remain out of reach. Most store clerks nowadays haven’t a clue about axes, and relying on their advice is naïve. The mail-order catalogue descriptions are not much more help, because they are formulated to sell that particular ax. Here is an example:

From Lee Valley Tools’ catalogue:  The double-bit Iltis is used in competitions or by those who prefer the balance and feel of a double-bit axe.

Well, the Lee Valley folks fail to add the prefix "throwing" in front of the word "competitions". As for competition chopping events, no Canadian in his right mind would take this ax to face the others who are using much better designed-for-the-purpose products (from Sweden or New Zealand, for instance).  (Note: The penetrating ability of these Oxhead axes will be discussed in Part Two.) Now even if customers don’t know what “balance” means in relation to axes, the term is automatically attractive. And who would not want “competition quality design” in a tool?...  In the event that someone actually does want to use this $129 ax for throwing competitions, they will have to modify it by cutting at least 4” from the butt end of its 35" handle.

The catalogue writers either disregard the appropriateness for the customer’s real needs or somehow assume that whoever reads the blurb already knows what they want. The technical advisors of these companies may know something about gardening or woodworking tools, but axes? Rarely. On top of it, they very much dislike to admit that axes are not one of their specialties. Instead of useful advice, they come up with something like “this is our bestseller”. Well, a bestseller and an ax appropriate for a certain person and situation may be two very different things...

I think that these tendencies are epidemic. Consequently, the purchases of axes that are too heavy on too long a handle, or those that may have a suitable weight of the head but sport a handle that is too short (in both cases limiting potential usefulness), are all too common. This article is written in the hope of making some improvements.

Having used axes of every quarter-pound increment up to 4½ lbs, with most of these head weights on various sized handles, I now have certain “flexible prejudices” when it come to head weights and handle lengths. The flexibility is rooted in the fact that a certain amount of overlap in function is indisputable, and the “ideal” size for a job is not easily fixed.  (At the same time, a quarter-pound difference in head weight or 2-inch difference in handle length is readily noticed by seasoned ax users, and declared to be “a little too light/heavy or too short/long" for the specific task.)

Personal quirks notwithstanding, there are general upper and lower limits on the suitable sizes of ax heads and handles with respect to line of duty -- which most experienced users would agree on. I believe we should be able to settle on these "line-of-duty" groups, at least approximately. If so, a condensed version of a “Beginners Guide to Ax Selection” would be just a short step away. More details and refinement could appear in a second chapter. (If a guide along these lines already exists, please let me know where I can obtain a copy.) In the end, the choice of ax will be affected by the specific user’s strength and size (most likely in that order), and the job he/she has for it.

Someone attentively reading "The Ax Book" (by Dudley Cook) will be much better informed than the vast majority of first-ax-buyers today. However, a number of details on ax selection are not discussed, so an addendum of sorts (like the guide I’m talking about here) would be in order. Most other contemporary sources tackling this subject are even more incomplete.

When I questioned local old timers on the weight of their everyday working axes, their answers varied all the way from 2½ pounds to 4 pounds,  but their handles were within a much narrower range –- 30” to 32”. Perhaps the rare extra-tall man used a longer handle, but among the local leftovers of the past such handles are practically non-existent. (The trees here in the East are nothing like the giants of the West Coast, although 50-100 years ago they were not matchsticks, either.)

So I conclude that the head weight was more in line with what each man could swing “comfortably all day” (related to the strength of the user), and the handle length was related to the size and form of the trees and the terrain (e.g., for a longer handle, brushy undergrowth needs to be cleared in a larger circle around the tree to be felled). And because the same (always double-bitted) ax was used for felling as well as limbing, its handle had to be more or less good for both purposes. 

Most of these men must have felt that a 36-inch handle (frequently purchased by novices wanting a “full-size ax”) would be awkward. Having used them myself, at least in the past, I agree –- especially for limbing and bucking.

As a side note: the limbing technique around here was such that a man first walked along the trunk of the dropped tree (from butt towards the top) clearing it of all branches protruding upwards and to the sides. The ax of a good lumberjack rarely made an “empty trip” while limbing evergreens; that is, one stroke took off most limbs -- the larger ones from the bottom upwards, and as the ax reached the end of its travel the handle was rotated to point the edge at another limb (preferably one of the smaller ones ) as it traveled back. This is what I’ve been learning and however “unsafe” it may seem to the uninitiated (especially from my description) it certainly is energy-efficient and has a nice flow to it.

Anyway, the outline below is meant to inspire a dialogue among somewhat seasoned ax users.  Naturally, no matter what I might suggest, there will be folks out there disagreeing. I have, in principle, no difficulty with diversity of opinions as long as they are based on actual experience (preferably a varied one) in the field. But I should also emphasize that I have neither time nor interest to indulge in polemics. My aim here is to help establish some immanently practical guidelines, and to see if at least some consensus could, after all, be arrived at.

Before the merits and limitations of potential head/handle combinations are considered further, let's settle whether we are talking of a desire for only one ax, or several of them.  To illustrate how this influences the choice of axes, I'll paint three imaginary scenarios -- with my preferred options (as fuel for fiery debate?):

Suppose I were preparing for a more-or-less settled existence of farmer (and seasonal hunter/gatherer) in a place where trees are not excessively large (say, not much over 12” diameter at the butt), and these would be my exclusive building and firewood material. I’d have no prospects of obtaining other tools for a long time, possibly years.

If, in that situation, I were to have only one ax (in combination with a small belt knife as my other edge tool), I’d take a
2¼ lb head on a 28-29” handle.

If, in addition to the knife, I could have two axes, they would be 
1¾ lb head on a 24-25” handle, and 
2¾ lb head on a 30” handle.

If, in addition to the knife, I could have a hatchet as well as two axes, they would be
1¼ lb head on a 14” handle,
2  lb head on a 25-26” handle, and
3 to 3-1/4 lb head on a 30” handle,

in which case the last one might be a double bit -- with one bit shaped for felling and hewing in clear wood, the other for the “tough on edge” jobs (knots, dead limbs), and splitting.

To briefly substantiate my choices:

One ax only:
This obviously has to be a compromise in more ways than one.  For felling trees (not teenage saplings), a handle less than 28” is a serious drawback, especially with a head which is only marginally heavy enough. (Yet certain amount of “compensating” is possible. For instance, if the head is ½ lb too light, 2-4” extra length of the handle somewhat makes up for it. Say a 2 lb head on a 30” handle may sort of “equal” a 2 ½ lb head on a 28” handle in trees per hour felled.)
Limbing offers more leeway – and most combinations of 2-3 lb head/26-30” handle would suit me well enough.  However, a handle over 25-26” hinders maneuverability in all those various small ax jobs like finishing corners of a log structure (in place of a log gouge or a slick), squaring 4-5” rails for making gates, fencing, dressing a large animal (deer, moose, cow) etc. Here a 1-3/4 to 2 lb head on 24-25” handle is most handy. Throughout the year we probably use axes of this size on more frequent basis than others. But to have that one ax only, and hoping for it to double for these tasks as well as to function as a more serious felling/splitting tool (which that 2 ¼ head/28-29” handle can represent in an emergency) is a wish to span two ax-work worlds that are a mile apart.

Two ax scenario
Once that handy “small utility version” is on the scene, its mate can grow in size by ½ lb in head and 2” in handle above the “one ax compromise”.

Two axes plus hatchet:
Three axes nearly span the essentials of the ax duties. The smallest (the hatchet) can now take over some tasks of the utility version. The 2 lb head can do the rest of them, as well as portion of the 30” handled one more efficiently. The largest ax would then do for all the rest of my chopping between now and eternity. For instance, while flattening 9-12” trunks (to make a 6” dovetail corner, for instance) a 3-3 ½ lb two-beveled ax is a sufficient replacement for a broadax. It would be nice if it had  5-6” face, but if not, it will do. 

Let me add that for an average family homestead needs I consider a broad ax a luxury; in the future it will be even more so the case... If you can easily afford a broad ax (new ones are far from cheap), then get it if for no other reason than posterity. Food for thought: many a local old-timer squared all the timbers for the traditional 30 by 40 foot post & beam barn (18-foot posts) with his standard felling double-bitted ax.

As for firewood splitting, our family’s favoured tool is a somewhat worn (thereby cheekier) 3 ½ lb double bit. (Our stoves in various buildings contribute to the climate change by swallowing about 10-12 cords of wood per year.) In line with New Brunswick tradition, we do not place billets upon a splitting block and we do not drive the ax straight through down to the ground. A much lighter ax than 3-1/2 lb, used in this manner, can also do it, if need be.

As you see, there is no ax among my choices with either a 19-20” or 36” handle.  The shorter of these two makes neither a handy (one-hand) hatchet nor a decent two-hand ax. I consider it sort of a hybrid, invented perhaps for the city folks’ weekend adventures in the forest. Some strong-armed men can no doubt wield it as if it were a hatchet; in the hands of the rest (incl. me) it wobbles too much to be accurate. If held in two hands its shortcomings are instantly felt by anyone who has used a light ax with 4-5” longer handle for the same job.

An ax with a 36" handle is a specialized tool (primarily for professionals with large trees to fell), with limited small homestead applications. I strongly discourage novices to begin their learning with a 36 inch handle, because at least some of them will get discouraged before they discover the charm and usefulness of a well-chosen ax.

Consider the Weight and Geometry before the Maker

Along with the weight of the head, its “form” or specific shape/geometry plays an important role, at least for me. An ax needs to satisfy both of those parameters before I’d be concerned with who exactly was its maker. This is not to say that I wouldn’t give preference to a reputable product from the USA, Sweden or Germany instead of one of China. I would. But the 
shape of some famous heads is nothing to write home about -- other than to caution my family that all that glitters is not gold...

Upcoming post:
Part 2 -- Notes on ax head geometry

The axes in the photo:
The axes in the photo (from left to right) are:

2-1/4 lb Emerson and Stevens on 29" handle, 
1-3/4 lb Sandvik on 25" handle, 
2-3/4 lb Walters on 30" handle, 
1-1/4 Plumb Scout Hatchet on 13" handle, 
2 lb Wetterlings on 26" handle, and 
3-1/4 lb Grey Gorge on 30" handle.

(All have that "high centerline" -- a feature of geometry to be discussed in Part 2 of this post.)

Notice our preference for straight handles. Two among the pictured group we consider less than "ideal": the hatchet and the Wetterling. The first is an exact replica of the Plumb original (which was rotten) I made 20 yrs. ago, but now find it too round, and a little too short. Today I'd make it differently.
The Wetterling has its original -- albeit refined (see "Thinning ax handles")  during which process I tried to straighten that bottom curve... In the long run I'd replace that handle as well.


  1. I want to thank you for this post, and this blog.

    As someone expecting to end up in a 'World Made by Hand' scenario I'm trying to ensure I get the best tools, gear, clothing etc. that I can, and an axe was one of my first big purchases.

    I asked around, read a bunch of reviews and ended up going for the GB American Felling Ax. I've been working my way through The Ax Book for a few days now and whilst I really do love this ax, I know I need something a little lighter too, so I'm back researching again for my 2nd smaller ax.

    Thanks once again.

  2. To A Northern Farmer: Congratulations. Whether as a product of comprehensive research, intuition or plain good luck, I think you made a fine choice with your first ax. But she does need a mate...

    However, don't rush it; we still have a few more days of grace, and my forthcoming post may help you select the next one. On the other hand, any ax is better than none and a man can hardly have too many axes these days. So you can add a third or fourth later.

  3. Walters... I have a walters I finished rehafting today. I put it on a 30" or so Sugar maple handle. I haven't measured it, but it feels right. Thats all I go by.

    This blog has helped me a lot in my own axe journey, also introduced me to the wonderful offset handle. I made my first and put it on a 2 1/4 pound Mann axe, and I love it. Hits hard and accurate, and the balance is impeccable. Thanks for the blog.

  4. VTclipperJuly 08, 2012

    I found your opinions on axe selection quite similar to my own. Personally living "a world made by hand" lifestyle I have found there is no tool more used than the axe. Dwelling with mixed boreal/ temperate broadleaf forests in the northeast give me my own bias's to my response to "The one Axe". I would have to say if one is homesteading it seems to me a single bit axe of 2 1/4-2 1/2 pound weight with a proper helve ranging from 27-29 inches will take care of everyday chores with most ease. But for those days when one must harvest wood for fire/lumber this axe falls short. The energy one must put forth for felling, limbing, bucking, and splitting is almost vane compared to it's heftier relative; the felling axe. For me, the light single bit is most handy for everyday chores, though, the weight of wood harvesting and limit to one edge is so that it has defined my opinion for the "one axe". The axe that I carry along for every duty regardless is a 3 1/4 pound double bit of Emerson & Stevens make. The pattern i have come to most favor is the classic "maine wedge" style head that forms almost a diamond in the eye rather than an oval. The helve is of thin diameter and stretches 31''. One bit has an angle proper for efficient felling and bucking and stays razor sharp at all times. The second bit has much wider cheeks and of a blunter much more convex grind enabling it to hold up to almost every duty i throw at it. The blunt side is truly the work horse side of the axe, i will frequent this bit about 80 percent of the time but having the luxury of a sharp bit with the twist of the helve is invaluable (a dull axe will wear one down as much as a inaccurate swing). So being able to hone in each bit for different duties truly enables one to have 2 axes in one. To discuss the weight; 3 1/4 pounds is more than enough axe for me to get through any tree of my geographical region with ease but is also plenty light enough to do everyday chores without fatigue. One handed axe use is often overlooked as well, this weight and bit design gives me the proper balance and allows me to use enough finesse for carving lighter duties when in such one hand has to stabilize an objective. For handle; the 31" seems to be the golden length for me and it is what I have grown used to. Trying to chop with a handle that is lesser than the inside seem of ones pant leg is awkward and returns to quickly, causing one to bend over more often and to use more force in result fatiguing your stamina and back which will leave one bitter and sore the next day. Not unlike the short handle, a long handle can be equally awkward and fatiguing on some jobs. The only time I've ever used a handle of say 36'' and was useful was in the felling of trees and doing Pulaski work which involved rooting and excavating. With this in mind the helve of good length should average the tag on your pants.
    This is my idea of the one axe for the homestead, different lifestyles ask for different tools. This one suits mine to the point where I find a functional pleasure in partaking in the arc of the swing with it. The axe is my farmhand but not to say I do not have others nor use them, though, if I was a colonial I would want this one above all.
    Thank you.

    1. VTclipper,

      Thanks for what to date has been the most comprehensive response to our ax blog in general and to the question of (One?) Ax for the World Made by Hand specifically. I can see that you have not only given this subject due thought, but that you also spent enough time at the knob end of the helve... and I agree with practically all your musings.

      That said, we can certainly take this topic several steps further and perhaps inspire more folks to join in. At this point into haymaking (and many other tasks...) season I get more behind in correspondence and website-related work by the week. I hope to respond more at length once my head is just a bit above water.


    2. VTclipperJuly 16, 2012


      Thank you, I am looking forward to more discussion. I can sympathize on the joys of haying, wether it be bound by twine or under plastic. Good luck.


  5. Have you tried the Fiskars X27? I really love that axe and I like it better than my Ilthis Ox Head for the same types of felling & splitting tasks.

  6. VTclipper,
    How do you feel about the wedge pattern for fine work like carving? I love the wedge pattern for chopping, scoring, hewing, limbing etc. A 3 lb Snow & Nealley wedge might well be my favorite choice for just one axe. Sometimes it feels like something a little bit thinner might be better suited for carving though (that said I use wedge patterns for carving all the time when nothing else is around). I tend to think its more about the overall thickness, and especially whether or not the cheek right behind the edge is thinned adequately. A worthwhile mention is the Roselli carving axes that are extremely thick and a lot of people love them, despite it going against the fetish of the thin axe for carving mantra.
    Thanks for posting your preference, I really enjoyed reading it. Not many folks are kicking around with Emerson Stevens axes and know what a treasure theyve got.

  7. Ricson thank you very much,

    The 3# wedge does seem to be a jack of all trades. Yours sounds to be a gem as well, what type of carving duties do you encounter? (It seems as if there are many who are fans of the northeastern patterns and companies!) Yes the angle of the grind and overall thickness of the cheek are both traits that determine how crude or fine your work will be, or what is best suited for a job. I look at it with respects to geometry; the thicker your cheeks the greater you can manipulate the angle of your shave. As to Grind profile, the more convex it is the shallower and less invasive your shave will be. Not to say a bit on the hollow side can not work for some. I take preference to a head with superior control with thin convex cheeks sloping to the bit with subtle change, i need not do fine work, for it is an axe there is a reason why we should all have a sharp knife. Such as the author of this blog has displayed and wrote. As for the wedge pattern which I do take bias in, I feel that the angle of which it is forged is inferior for carving simply because the width of the poll in proportion to the rest of the head limits ones ability to control the depth of shave. What do you think?

    I would like to invite you and whomever else reads this to check out my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/LajeunesseAxeHelve -I do custom hafting for axe & tool enthusiasts. If this does not send you there just look under "Lajeunesse Axe & Helve" I have a few specimens up for display.

  8. Thank you for your post, it is very interesting for axe-nuts all around the globe.

    Curiously, the average handle length for small axes (hatchets actually, heads are about 400-500 gram in weight) here in north-west Italy is about 20 inches, all with straight handles.
    However, nobody would really do any serious felling with these, we use them mostly for limbing and clearing brush.

  9. I am not clear on where ax handle length is measured? Does the number include the height of the head - the over all length? Hardware store replacement handles include a long insert that will need to be trimmed, thus changing the effective length.
    Another point of confusion is the difference in overall weight and the head weight. I have gotten the bug now and have been watching for older used heads with some luck. Quite a few have followed me home. Very clearly the newer replacement handles and complete axess are quite "fat" and i will be doing trimming and shaping in the near future. I hate to think of the energy I have expended by not learning about this subject years ago. I vividly recall splitting a mountain range of firewood for heating with a very long handled plumb axe as a youngster. I suspect a correctly sized tool would have saved lots of time and energy (blisters) . I have enjoyed studying this series of pages immensely. Thanks for sharing your experience and wisdom. Trapper

  10. Leonard Lee grew up on a homestead in northern Saskatchewan in the 1940s. His family not only cut and split their own firewood, but also sold firewood and supplied pulpwood to mills. All preparation was done entirely with hand tools (with horses used for transportation). His family cut "countless hundreds of cords" of wood by hand. How much did he know about axes? Probably a very great deal indeed.

    I suspect that the catalogue comment on double-bit axes simply reflects a recognition that, generally, such axes are seldom seen these days, as indeed Lee writes in his book on sharpening (where he also discusses the many advantages of double-bitted axes). I'm well aware that there are places, such as rural New Brunswick, where many experienced axemen may never have used a single-bitted axe, but I suspect that Lee's statement is nevertheless true of the general readership of his catalogues.

    It's a catalogue, not a dissertation. No one should expect to get an education from it.