Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes

by Todd Walker

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Photo credit: Didi Davis

Less than a century ago, woodsmen skilled with an ax could chop wood all day and return to do it again, day after day. They were held in high esteem and highly sought after. Power saws and combustion engines sent yesteryear’s axes to hang on old barn walls. Today the usefulness of axes seems to be limited to splitting firewood… or, for the lumber sexual, as boutique wall-hangers.

How you choose to acquire wood is up to you. However, the steps of cutting timber hasn’t changed. A tree must be felled, limbed, bucked, and hauled. Like other aficionados of working axes, I enjoy experimenting with the potential of our most under-appreciated tool in the woods.

It doesn’t take long for the ax handle to transmit to an inexperienced axman’s brain, and his muscular system, that brute force only dulls the functionality of this tool. Fatigue and frustration are the result. And injury is not far behind. There are no secrets to becoming a proficient axman. However, there are a few techniques and strategies I’ve learned over the years which may shorten the learning curve.

Giving unsolicited advice is not my thing. But if you’d like to continue, here’s my take on thick ax handles, brute force, and working axes.

Heavy, Stupid, and Unreasoning

Watching a beginner axman swing is painful. I cringe when I think back on some of my early ax work. But ax-manship can only be improved through swinging sharp steel on the end of a stick. Like any other skill, practice makes permanent; whether good or bad.

When asked to coach someone new to the art of ax work, I try to convey the two types of force used – finesse and brute force. The origin of the word brute comes from the Latin word brutus, meaning “heavy, stupid, unreasoning.” Set the macho aside in ax work and you get a beautiful, rhythmic relationship between the wood and axman.

Muscling through wood is a white-knuckle affair. I broke my favorite double bit handle last year, not by over-strike or mishit, but by stupidly applying my full force throughout initial contact. The handle was thin, flexible, and a joy to use. Brute force ended its usefulness. It is now taped together and serves as a pattern when thinning down fat factory double bit handles.

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Bucking eastern red cedar with the tuned handle on my best double bit.

Simply reducing my forward force just before the moment of impact would have allowed the inertia of the axhead to do the work. Giving that extra “push” through the strike does more harm than good. You’ll not only save ax handles, you’ll reduce some shock sent up the handle. A thinner handle flexes to help absorb and reduce the beating on your body. At least that has been my experience. Wielding an ax with brute force is not how the old timers lasted all day, day after day. This type of finesse is seldom mentioned or passed down to inexperienced axmen.

The resurgence of interest in axes is encouraging to see in outdoorsy groups. Axes are chic, sexy, and scary – all reasons we like them. The novice buys a high dollar ax and proceeds to break the fat factory handle, even after adding a bulky leather over-strike collar. Handle manufactures compensate for low Ax I.Q. with fatter handles. And then again, the age of working axes was so long ago that even commercial handle makers have no reference point as to what a handle should look like and feel like in the hands.

Thicker, modern handles are not the cure. Wrapping your hands around these clubs makes the uninitiated think they’ll never break. Stephen Edholm makes a logical argument (from actual experience with working axes) for thinner handles in the video below. Anyone who chopped all day with an ax will echo the same.

No replacement handle I’ve ever bought in recent memory was ready to hang and go to work. To be fair, there may be some turnkey handles out there. I’ve never found them. I either make my own or customize the club-like handles from hardware stores. Then there’s the rare occasion of finding that forgotten ax at an antique store or yard sale grandpa used before the chainsaw came along.

You can see the noticeable difference between the modern and old working ax handle below.

Power vs Finesse

On occasion, I have split toothpicks (Stim-U-Dent – matchstick size toothpicks) with my ax. I don’t say this to brag. It is, however, a lesson in muscle memory, striking where I look, and relaxing at the end of my swing. Knowing I’m not chopping heavy wood, I began to notice that I was unconsciously easing up about halfway into the downward arc of my natural swing. As a result, I’d hit my mark more times than not.

Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes -

Striking where you look.

The human brain is a beautimus, complicated computer. Since few people actually use axes, baseball may help illustrate the point. A pitcher doesn’t aim the baseball as it leaves his outstretched arm. The ball is thrown, not aimed. There’s a significant difference in the two. The same goes for batting. I coached my players to throw their hands at the ball. This is oversimplified. But the brain tells a player when to grip the bat tightly and when to relax the grip. A death grip at the beginning of the swing tightens the muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper torso causing the swing to be herky jerky. As a result, accuracy plummets since the “flow” is lost. Through years of drills, coordination, practice, and timing, batters learn that aiming won’t hit the target.

I don’t aim my ax. I look at the exact spot I want my blow to land. I then throw my hands through an imaginary plane from my nose to the small target. My only swing thought is “strike where I look.” My natural, controlled swing gets the job done more efficiently. Once you can strike where you look, power will follow accuracy.

Accuracy and Precision

Wasted ax strikes are frustrating and exhausting. Making every blow count takes a combination of accuracy and precision. At first glance, the two words seem the same. But in my world of teaching math and science, they have different meanings. Let’s apply them to working axes.

Accuracy is how close you come to the desired result. Precision is how consistently you get the same result using the same method. Translated to ax-manship, does my swing hit the target and is it consistent enough to repeatedly hit the target?

When bucking, I try to overlap each cut in a three to four swing pattern (depending on log diameter) down the face of the log. This overlapping pattern opens wood fibers to help prevent the ax bit from get stuck in the wood. Repeat this cutting pattern one double bit length wide from the first line of cuts. If accuracy and precision is dialed in, chips the size of the notch will go flying.

Developing accuracy and precision with working axes is like hauling logs, you gotta really want to do it. There’s not a lot of finesse in log hauling.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Doing the Stuff, Homesteading, Lost Skills, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Brute Force vs Finesse: The Art of Working Axes

  1. Excellent! And much needed. I’ll repost on FB.


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