4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance

by Todd Walker

Not many a young boy, in our present chainsaw generation, has ever witnessed his mother fell a tree with her ax. My brain cells blur as to the exact date, kindergarten maybe, but the image of Mama swinging sharp steel rhythmically against that tree is permanently etched in my childhood memory bank. Over 45 years later, my ax addiction continues!

4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

A question you must ax…

How long will chainsaws hum along? Long enough… maybe. Either way, self-reliance requires that one never put all their hopes in one tool.

I’m not anti-chainsaw. I love my Stihl… for certain jobs. She allows me to work without much sweat. Ah, but nothing beats a hunk of steel on the end of a stick. When wielded skillfully by fit individuals, it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever!

The ax is the oldest, most under-appreciated, yet invaluable tool which serves not only as a wilderness lifeline, but a simple machine that connects your hands to a forgotten craft… Ax-Manship.

The ax of our past may be the key to our future. You see, the more complicated a machine (i.e. – a chainsaw) the more likely you’ll need a small engine repair shop in your basement to keep it productive. In the field, at a minimum, you’ll need to carry two types of oil, gasoline, gas can, files, and a bar wrench to harvest wood with this machine. You’ll likely need another machine for conveyance just to reach your woodlots with all the stuff accompanying your chainsaw.

A sharp ax (sheathed, of course) can be slung over your shoulder with a sharpening stone in your pocket. That is all. No doubt, a chainsaw can rip through cords of firewood and fell huge timber. But again, the question remains, how long will they hum? If your answer is “forever”, you may view the ax as an archeological artifact with little use for modern man.

Even if combustion engines continue to run “forever”, you’ll never regret owning ax-manship skills. Indigenous peoples, soldiers, farmers, homesteaders, woodsmen, frontiersmen, and craftsmen of old knew the value of this tool and how to use it.

Every self-reliant man should learn these 4 basic ax skills… safely, without shortening your toes.

Warning: Axes are daylight tools. Safe and efficient ax skills only come from using your ax(es) properly. Like other tools, choose the right one for the job. Felling and bucking wood is not the only job axes do well. Job specific axes include: hewing, ship building, butchering, carpentry, fire fighting, wood carving, and many more.

For the purpose of this non-comprehensive ax article, we’ll focus on felling, limbing, bucking, and just a touch of splitting with and ax…

1) Felling

4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Journal Notes ~ A: Face Cut and Back Cut

Without experience felling trees, you should never lay an ax to a trunk you can’t reach around with one arm. Practice accuracy and technique on smaller trees.

Determine the lean of the tree to be felled by viewing it from a distance two directions: front and 90º to the side. Hold/hang the end of your ax handle between your thumb and forefingers and use it as a plumb line to sight the tree’s lean. This will help you determine the lay or path the tree will fall.

With proper tools (wedges, jacks, ropes), a skilled axman can make most any tree fall in his/her desired direction. However, it’s much easier to fell a tree towards its natural lean if that path is clear of other obstacles.

Before Your First Swing

  1. Visually check the tree for any widow makers (dead limbs) that might dislodge and crash onto your body. Dead standing trees are excellent for firewood but also pose a higher risk of dropping limbs when being hacked on. Even small twigs falling can damage your eye the moment you look up to check. Eye protection is advisable.
  2. Clear your swing radius of all debris that might snag your ax mid swing. Miss hits and glances mean potential injury.
  3. Watch the wind. Predominant wind direction and gusts can be your friend or foe when felling trees.
  4. Have multiple escape routes. Things can go very wrong if a tree kicks back or gets snagged in an adjacent tree on its decent. Take time to plan and clear paths. Be ready to drop everything and retreat if need be.

Swing Stance

Position your body so that your feet are behind the chopping strokes and to the outside of your feet. Chopping stokes should be outside the “train tracks” (two parallel lines running to the outer edges of your boots) with your feet inside the tracks on flat ground where possible.

Face Cut

Aim to make a 45º face cut near the base of the tree. This notch should go about halfway through the tree and be perpendicular with the imaginary line of fall. Make progressive cuts in a pattern to remove wood chips. Accuracy is more important here than strength and power.

Never swing in an upward manner to remove wood chips in the notch. Upward ax swings are likely glance and end in your face. Continue making 45 degree cuts from top to bottom of the face cut. Decreasing your swing angle slightly to about 10º will help remove chips… just never swing upward! Also, keep the ax handle as horizontal as possible while swinging. Do this by flexing your knees and waist with the ax head at 45º.

Now you have a 45 degree face cut with an even shelf about halfway through the tree. Time for the next notch.

Back Cut

The back cut is a smaller version of the face cut. Again, this cut needs to be a 45º notch with its shelf an inch or two higher than the face cut shelf. This hight difference creates a “hinge” between the two notches.

The hinge serves as a safety device to prevent kickback when the tree begins to fall. Even with smaller diameter trees, the weight of the tree falling causes the base of the tree to push backwards. It’s physics.

You may find it helpful to score the area of the back cut with your ax to give you an accurate target. Use the same cutting strokes as you did with the front cut. As you close in on the front cut from the rear, pay attention to the trees movement. Once it starts to lean, you may get one more swing in. After that, it’s time to get out of the way and let gravity take over. Do not stand directly behind the falling tree. Move to a safe distance to either side… and get ready to drop your ax and run if need be.

2) Limbing

4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Journal Notes ~ B: Limbing

Limbing can be dangerous since there is no backup to stop the ax once it severs the branch. Here’s some tips for limbing safely:

  1. Swing in a direction from the base (trunk) to the top of the downed tree. This removes the limb even at the trunk leaving little to no snags.
  2. Start by removing limbs from the topside of the downed tree to prevent them from interfering while limbing side branches. Remember to keep your feet inside the “railroad tracks” and the limb outside the tracks on all horizontal swings. Once severed, remove to keep your work area clear for side limbing.
  3. Keep the tree trunk between you and the limb you are removing when at all possible. Keep your body slightly forward of the target limb as you swing.

3) Bucking

Once your tree is down and limbed, you need to move it to camp or your woodshed. If the chainsaws are no longer humming, vehicles probably aren’t either. Or, you may be too deep in the backwoods to be reached with a truck or tractor.

4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance | www.TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Journal Notes ~ C: Bucking


Buck it! Bucking is the process of chopping logs into manageable lengths for conveyance. If you know the length of your ax, use it as a measuring tool to lay out the log sections to be bucked.

Bucking tips:

  1. Scotch the log with wooden wedges or smaller branches on both sides of the log to be bucked.
  2. Stand on top of the log with feet straddling your cut mark. (This is an advanced technique. Bucking with feet on the ground in the video below should be practiced before standing on a log for bucking) Spread feet about shoulder’s width apart with knees and hips slightly flexed. This stance is adjusted up or down depending on the length of your ax.
  3. Maintaining your balance, swing accurately and begin making “V” notches from the center of your mark to a width equal to the diameter of the log. For instance, a log 10 inches in diameter will have a V notch about 10 inches wide.
  4. Once you’ve notched one side of the log, turn and repeat the notching on the log’s opposite side. The two V notches will meet in the middle of the log and break apart.

4) Splitting


Splitting both short and long bucked logs will be covered more thoroughly in our next post in this series. But for now, here is a video that will give you a few tips on how to safely split firewood at camp.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Homesteading, Preparedness, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “4 Essential Ax Skills for Self-Reliance

  1. Excellent post and video Todd! Hope you had a great Christmas and New Year’s


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  14. John

    Todd, what is the best way and product you’d recommend for sharpening an axe and hatchet? I have an old army axe, just a plain steel head. And an Estwing Camping hatchet, made of carbon steel. What do you recommend?

    Also, do you have any blogs or tips and advice on sharpening axes and knives and such? Thanks!


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