by Todd Walker
“Next to the rifle, a backwoodsman’s main reliance is on his axe. With these two instruments, and little else, our pioneers attacked the forest wilderness that once covered all eastern America, and won it for civilization.”
~ Horace Kephart, from Camping and Woodcraft, 1917
Not much has more appeal to a young camper than having the opportunity to use an ax. The lure is irresistible. Yet, ax lore is rarely passed down to our younger generation.
The following is a common sense guide which will help a tenderfoot, young or old, learn to safely use an ax for the most basic camp chore – chopping firewood. Keep in mind that “safe” is a relative term. There are risks inherit when an ax is moving, or, even when idle.
Our aim here is to manage the risk, not eliminate it. Not teaching children to cope with the risks and dangers of handling edged tools will never prepare them for real-world self-reliance.
As I mentioned in our beginner’s guide on knife craft, only you, the parent or guardian, will know when your child is responsible enough to use edged tools. My oldest grandson was seven when I began teaching him how to handle a hatchet.
I recommend a general purpose ax for the beginner. The handle length and weight should fit the user. My favorite felling ax is a double bit. This is NOT the ax for a tenderfoot of any age. A poll ax has only one cutting edge and is recommended for first-timers.
Read our Ax Selection article for more details on choosing your first ax.
A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun.
~ Horace Kephart, from Camping and Woodcraft, 1917
Kephart’s advice is sound on carrying a hatchet. And to the tenderfoot, using a short camp hatchet may seem to be the wise choice. However, shorter handled axes are more dangerous to use than longer axes.
If I miss my target when swinging my 16 inch hatch, the follow-through, when standing, is likely to strike where I do not wish to strike – my body. A full-size ax, 30 to 36 inches long, would likely strike the ground before reaching a foot or knee. For a young boy or girl, swinging a longer ax which weighs 3 to 4 pounds is ridiculous to even think. In the end, the size of the ax must fit the user.
A more suitable choice might be a 3/4 ax, or “Boy’s Ax.” They tend to be armpit to fingertip length with a head weight in the 2 pound range. If camping on foot, this ax trims a few pounds off your pack. Felling trees, splitting firewood, making kindling, and pounding tent stakes can all be done very well with a sharp boy’s ax.
“Safe” Chopping Techniques
There are two basic ways to safely swing an ax: Lateral and vertical chopping. Before you even lay a hand on your ax, be sure no obstructions, people, or pets are in your chopping zone (a circular area two handle lengths around you). Even a small vine or twig can cause your ax to deflect away from your intended target.
Lateral swings (diagonal and horizontal) are used mostly to chop down trees. Any stroke outside your frontal zone is considered a lateral swing. What’s your frontal zone?
Adapted from The Ax Book
For more in-depth coverage of lateral swings, read our article link here. I DO NOT recommend that a tenderfoot attempt tree felling until he/she becomes proficient with vertical swings while chopping firewood.
Splitting logs into smaller firewood happens to be the most used vertical swing by the average camper. There are three categories for this powerful stroke. For the tenderfoot, we will only concentrate on #1.
- Non-backed (dangerous even to experienced woodsmen)
- Bucking, or chopping below the level of your feet (not a beginner skill)
The backed-up stroke is the safest of the three for a tenderfoot (or experienced woodsman). Backed-up strokes are performed on piece of robust wood (chopping block or log) wide enough to stop the ax swing momentum. The earth can serve as a back-up but you never want to ground a sharp ax in the dirt.
Notice the position of the wood on the chopping block – to the far side.
Practice your vertical swing by standing a small log (about 6″ in diameter and 12″ long) on top of a wide chopping block. Position the log near the back of the chopping block, not the center or near edge of the block. This allows more room for the ax to strike the chopping block as it separates the round log – or misses completely.
Note: For younger children using a short ax or hatchet, this exercise should be modified. Here’s how I taught my grandson to chop kindling. Adult supervision required!
If you’re grown and strong enough to handle a full or 3/4 ax, stand facing the chopping block. Grip the ax handle with one hand at the base of the handle with the other on top of the bottom hand. Touch the target with the ax in outstretched arms. Raise the ax overhead and strike the top of the log. As you strike the target, bend your knees so that the ax follows through parallel to the ground. This adds another layer of protection to prevent the ax from striking your body on a miss hit or glancing blow.
Increase Ax Accuracy
Accuracy is more important than power. Here are a few tips to help your accuracy…
- Focus your eyes on the exact spot your want to strike. Aim small, hit small.
- On the down stroke, the ax handle should follow an imaginary line drawn with your nose if it were a long sharpie marker… right through the small, focused target.
- Relaxing your grip on the ax to keep your upper body (arms and shoulders) loose. Your brain will automatically tighten your grip for impact.
- Let the ax do the work. You can add power to strokes as your accuracy increases.
A fun way to practice accuracy is to stand a kitchen match or toothpick vertically in a chopping block. Using a safe stance and full swing, try to split the match/toothpick. You may never strike it but this gives automatic feedback on how close you come to your tiny target. If you actually light a kitchen match on a swing, well, you’re an elite axman!
What if there is no “proper” chopping block available at your campsite? Here are two alternative methods I’ve used over the years.
This is a Y-branch from a Red Oak I’ve used for years at fixed camp.
With a little effort you may happen upon a large Y-shaped branch. Place a round piece in the “Y” on the ground. Straddle the bottom of the Y. Strike the round cradled at the top of the Y. Keep in mind that the Y is not as high off the ground as your previous chopping block. Therefore, bend your knees even more to keep the downward ax swing parallel to the ground. Once a round is split, place the halved log back in the Y with the round side up. It’s much easier to split from the round side than the flat.
You may only find a straight log or split wood to use as a back-up. Lay the round to be split perpendicular over the back-up log. Stand with the back-up between your feet and the round. In other words, the round touching the ground should NOT be on the same side of the back-up log as your feet. That setup is inviting injury.
Splitting Without Swinging
To half and quarter smaller logs safely, keep this technique in mind. This works well with smaller axes and camp hatchets. With the ax in your strong hand and the round in the other hand, place the ax bit on the opposite end of the round. Lift the ax and round together and tap them on a chopping block to start the ax bit in the wood. The handle should run parallel down the length of the round now. Now you can lift them both and slam them down on the chopping block. Repeat until the round separates.
Always kneel to the ground when using a short ax/hatchet.
If the wood doesn’t separate, slam the pieces again so that the ax bit sinks into the chopping block. Now give the wood a sideways twist with your off-hand and it usually separates.
The ax bit serves as fulcrum as you twist with your off-hand to separate the wood.
To cut smaller stuff (wrist-size and smaller) to firewood length, chop at a 45 degree angle to the grain… on a back-up, of course. The end that separates can go flying so be careful.
This forked tree stacked the firewood as it broke.
You may not even need to chop long, wrist-size firewood. If you have two trees close together, place the round between them and use leverage to break the round into pieces. Or, just burn them in half over the fire.
Here’s a video demonstrating a few points in this article for those who like moving pictures 🙂
As I mentioned previously, an ax can cause injury while in use or when idle. Practice the following to decrease the risk to you and others.
- Keep your ax sheathed when not in use. When in use, sink the single bit into a heavy chopping block instead of laying it on the ground unsheathed.
- Keep your swing zone clear.
- Axes are daylight tools. Never chop in dark conditions.
- Only use a sharp ax. Dull axes will not bite into wood and glance off.
- Only chop firewood that is backed-up properly.
- Always check that the axhead is securely fixed to the handle. If it becomes loose, stop chopping.
- If you become fatigued, stop and rest.
- An ax is a tool, not a toy!
As you become proficient chopping firewood, expand your ax skills. Check out the resources in our Axe Cordwood Challenge Page with links to our ax videos/blogs and other skilled axmen I respect.
This is the third post in our First-Timer’s series aimed at getting people outside. Here are the previous articles:
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