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...
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.