Posts Tagged With: axe cordwood challenge

Off-Grid Firewood: Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax

by Todd Walker

Off-Grid Firewood- Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Imagine having only one off-grid tool to heat your home, would your family stay warm or freeze to death? Silly question, right? Only a lunatic would rely on one tool for firewood getting… especially with the antiquated ax. Call me crazy, but I chopped a full cord (128 cubic feet – 4’x4’x8′) of firewood with an ax.

Here’s why and a few things I learned in the process…

Off-Grid Firewood ~ Stay Warm with an Ax

I began Steven Edholm’s Axe Cordwood Challenge on February 7th and finished a cord of ax-cut firewood the last day of winter, March 19, 2017. I took the challenge to hone practical ax skills which were commonly known and practiced by our woodsmen, homesteader, and pioneer ancestors.

This was one of my most rewarding and satisfying journeys of self-reliance I’ve undertaken. Stacking that last stick of firewood made me pause to appreciate the journey more so than the finish line. In fact, finishing one cord actually whetted my appetite for another.

In the process of this challenge, I’ve compiled a fair amount of video footage documenting some ax skills and techniques. For those interested in video format, you can find these on our Axe Cordwood Challenge Playlist. Another resource you may find a bit of value in is our Ax-Manship Playlist.

Risk Management

The only way to improve ax-manship is to swing axes. Even with good technique and accuracy, your body is at risk from not only sharp steel, but falling timber and dead limbs being dislodged high overhead. There’s no way to insure safety 100%. You can, however, mitigate a large portion of the risk by using common sense.

Off-Grid Firewood- Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Chopper Beware: This dead pine broke midway up during the fall. Give a wide berth when felling trees.

Even so, you have to accept the potential for injury. One tree I felled got hung up. To free it, I had to fell a smaller tree (5 inches in diameter) under great tension. Misreading the direction in which the tree would release its tension, my last chop sent the tree into my thigh. Fortunately another tree stopped the full impact. It could have much worse than a bruised muscle.

Off-Grid Firewood- Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Not a part of the Cordwood Challenge, this dead pine hung up at the top and stump. This set up helped free the base by leveraging with a rope and 10 foot pole.

Even bent saplings as small as your wrist pose a huge danger to the wood chopper if cut without a strategy. Here’s a video link demonstrating a safe method to release stored energy.

Off-Grid Strategy

I chose to cut a cord of wood at base camp. Not because I’m more pioneering than other’s who have undertaken this challenge, it’s just that base camp is where the trees live. And firewood hides in trees.

In my off-grid setting, the greatest challenge, in my mind, was transporting large diameter logs on my shoulder over uneven terrain, vines, and ravines without a modern means of conveyance. My strategy was to fell, buck and split logs too heavy to lift for transport.

Off-Grid Firewood- Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Red Oak logs hauled back to camp

Splitting Strategy: Wedges and Maul

To accomplish the plan with an ax only, I carved two sets of wedges (or gluts as Kephart called them in Camping and Woodcraft) from a dogwood tree to be used at each felling site. Each set contained 4 wedges – Fat Set: a steep incline plane; Skinny Set: a gradual taper with less slope. Both were useful for different tasks. I found that the fat gluts inserted into smaller splits would bounce out after a couple of blows from my wooden maul or ax poll. The fat set could be driven deep to separate stubborn logs after the skinny set opened the split wide enough to accept the fat wedges.

Off-Grid Firewood- Lessons from Staying Warm with an Ax - TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Pine halved for hauling

The skinny wedges, inserted in the initial ax split at the butt of logs, performed beautifully to further the split down the logs – even on seasoned red oak.  I found the one pine tree I cut to be the most cantankerous to halve. You’d think a soft wood would split more easily than hard. However, once halved, the pine split into rails more easily with my ax without the aid of wedges. That is, if the log was knot-free.

The dogwood wedges held up to a great amount of pounding even though they were green (non-seasoned). I had the idea to make a maul from the base of the dogwood tree which gave me the wedges. I discovered that dogwoods have a hollow space in the root ball which travels a foot or more up the trunk depending on the tree’s size. This fact makes this species unsuitable as a maul unless you cut the hollow part off. Hickory, oak, or other hardwoods have a solid root base and makes a fine maul for driving wedges.

Other DiY Tools: Chopping Platform

As my strategy dictated, after hauling logs and rails back to base camp, further splitting and cutting to length was necessary. I made a chopping platform based on the one described in Dudley Cook’s authoritative work, The Ax Book. Without a doubt, the chopping platform was the most used and multifunctional DiY tool throughout the challenge.

Initially I had planned on using it for chopping smaller rails to firewood length. It also served as a splitting and bucking platform. I experimented with bucking smaller logs (5-6 inch diameter) on the platform instead of separating them into rails first. The platform offered a solid back up for vertical ax strokes (swinging towards your feet) when bucking.

80% of the wood was split into long rails and cut to length on the chopping platform. In case you’re not aware, ax-cut wood will not stand on end for splitting. The remaining 20% was bucked to length on the platform, tossed on the ground, and split using the Tiger technique (video link).  This method worked well on all clear grained wood. When knots were present, I learned quickly to lay the round on the chopping platform to split.

Make Every Stroke Count

The first human I witnessed felling a tree with an ax was Mama. With that moment etched in my five-year-old mind, I was hooked on axes.

Technique

The ax swing is a basic physical movement. However, proper technique employed efficiently saves energy and time. A tinderfoot, unfamiliar with technique, gnaws into a tree with a flurry of misdirected chops and slashes until the tree submits or he gives up. The wood chips produced are as fine as flower bed mulch.

The super computer in our skull coordinates with our muscles to strike where our eyes look. I’m not saying that you don’t need repetition to develop muscle memory. You certainly do. Practice makes permanent… not perfect.

Every stroke is made under control. Muscle up on swings and accuracy suffers. Use your natural swing and let the tool do its share of the work. When felling, the least practiced skill due to the low number of trees needed to produce a cord of wood, a pattern of overlapping strikes is followed for both the face and back notch. A small notch is created as the base for larger notches. With the small notch complete, large wood chips are freed more easily as you progress. A slight twist of the ax after each stroke helps to loosen and remove chips on the top and bottom cuts of the notch. Repeat this blueprint until you near the center of the tree. Do the same 45 degree notching technique on the back cut.

Aim and Accuracy

My ax placement dramatically improved over the course of this challenge. Cleaner notches in felling and bucking were evident with more purposeful practice. One tip I’d offer in bucking is to swing the ax through a line vertical with your nose as your eyes focus on the target.

As my accuracy grew, I concentrated on cocking the ax handle back with my wrist at the peak of my backswing before the downward stroke. This seemed to increase velocity of the ax head. Accuracy and velocity equates to more work done with less effort.

Trading Theory for Action

Early in my teaching career, I was the sage on the stage dishing out book information and theory. As I grow gray, I’ve come to realize that lessons last when students are given the opportunity to learn by doing the stuff. Building knowledge through experience makes math relevant in the real-world. This is even more true with ax-manship and self-reliance skills.

Remove electricity and the combustion engine from the firewood equation and suddenly the ax becomes relevant. Modern tools, which I own, can get the job done more quickly. But I needed to experience, in context, what it takes to cut a cord with an ax only.

By Doing the Stuff, opportunities and learning took place…

  • Emergent skills were honed
  • Unpredictable situations improved learning
  • Reflected on consequences, mistakes, and successes
  • Improved woodland management
  • I could indeed keep my family warm with an ax

In full disclosure, a bucksaw was used for one back cut on the last tree felled. My buddy, Kevin, came out for about an hour and cut the face notch. A large wild azalea, which I refuse to cut, prevented safe ax work on the back cut. This was the only time a tool other than an ax was used.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has changed. I do not permit the re-posting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.

Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Homesteading, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness

by Todd Walker

how-to-hone-ax-skills-chop-functional-fitness

Crazy eyes! They stare at me when I tell folks I’m cutting a cord of firewood with an ax. No chainsaw, no bucksaw, no maul… just an ax.

Real-world ax skills require massive, deliberate action.

February is history as are 88% (probably more) of the 2017 New Years resolutions. Following the season of overindulgence, these were the top five according to the Google:

  1. Exercise more (38 per cent)
  2. Lose weight (33 per cent)
  3. Eat more healthily (32 per cent)
  4. Take a more active approach to health (15 per cent)
  5. Learn new skill or hobby (15 per cent)

Expensive gym memberships, designer workout clothing, and faddish fitness equipment were purchased by folks really wanting to keep their resolutions. I’m so over the whole gym thing… have been for years. Here’s why…

  • Gym workouts are too predictable and safe
  • And the big one, they’re indoors!

Lifting heavy stuff in the gym is loaded with one-dimensional sameness. Running on a flat, rotating rubber mat has to be the most boring exercise ever invented. Any increase in fitness levels will obviously benefit anyone who enjoys the outdoors. But exercising for the sake of exercising is one reason people lose interest.

Why not combine resolution #1 and #5 (above) and actually get stuff done around the homestead, backyard, or base camp? I’m aware that many reading this will be limited in both skills and resources (trees). For those in the beginner stage of ax work, I would highly recommend spending time learning how to safely swing an ax. This is dangerous work. If you’re not a bit nervous before swinging your ax, you’re probably too cooky and will soon be humbled. The danger aspect is what keeps me focused while swinging sharp steel attached to a long stick. There is, however, nothing as satisfying in this woodsman’s psyche as honing an essential self-reliant skill and staring at a stack of ax-cut firewood seasoning.

The functional fitness aspect of wood chopping is a natural byproduct of ax work. Are you gonna bulk up like bodybuilders admiring their sculpted bodies in the mirror? No. If that’s your goal, stick to the gym. You will see noticeable gains in stamina for real-world, ever-changing daily tasks. Moreover, there’s the practical reward of watching a firewood pile grow which will provide heat to your family.

There are many more qualified axmen to learn from than me. I’ve wielded an ax most of my life but never in such a concentrated manner or time frame as the last six weeks. Hopefully, my experience will benefit some, and, perhaps, encourage others to start using our most basic of woodcutting tools. The ax is back!

Tree to Firewood

Old school professional boxers knew the benefits of swinging an ax. Jack Dempsey, George Foreman, and Mohammad Ali, to name a few, were known to chop wood for peak performance. As mentioned previously, finding available resources to chop may limit your adventure. An alternate workout, one I did several years ago, is to swing a sledge-hammer. But swinging a blunt object won’t increase your firewood supply.

There are far too many concerns and safety issues which need to be addressed to turn a standing tree into split firewood with an ax. I’ve covered a few Ax-Manship topics on our blog over the years. Before launching into serious ax work, I can’t recommend The Ax Book highly enough. Mr. Cook covers these topics more thoroughly.

Felling, limbing, bucking, hauling, splitting, and stacking your own firewood, in the woods, on uneven terrain, is physically demanding. According to Dudley Cook, after cutting a cord of firewood with an ax, “you will cumulatively lift about 24 tons for each cord.” Especially if you haul logs back to camp on your shoulder.

Not everyone will choose to cut their firewood with an ax only. If all you have available for a functional fitness workout is a long log, the following movement is an excellent way to exercise your major muscle groups.

Shoulder Log Lift

I’m in the middle of the Axe Cordwood Challenge at my base camp. There are some interesting obstacles with my scenario. Once a tree is down, my means of conveyance is to haul the logs back to base camp on my shoulder. I have neither machine nor animal to transport the wood. I’m the mule… or jackass in many cases.

Daddy taught me this method for hauling heavy pipe early in my youth in his plumbing/welding business. Balancing a long, heavy object on your shoulder is a skill every woodsman should learn.

I’ve found it easier to lift a longer pole than shorter logs of the same diameter. A six to nine foot log needs less vertical lifting force than a 4 footer of the same diameter. The reason is that a longer log tips over the shoulder (fulcrum) without needing extreme vertical force to get it into position.

Here’s the technique on video…

One would be wise to make a pad to protect your neck and shoulder. My makeshift pad is a cloth possibles bag stuffed with a shemagh I carry in my haversack.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

My makeshift shoulder pad. That’s one crooked red oak on the ground in the background.

Also, when limbing the tree, be sure to cut all limbs even with the trunk. Protruding limbs, even slightly raised, will not only poke into your shoulder and neck, but find a way of snagging every vine along your path of transport.

If it’s too heavy to lift one end, don’t attempt a shoulder carry. Split it into manageable rails first. You’ll develop a feel for what you can and can’t shoulder by standing the log vertically.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Notice the amount of bend required to position my shoulder at the midpoint of this 6 footer vs. the 9 footer in the next photo.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

A 9 footer of smaller diameter. Longer logs require less vertical lifting power.

Once the log is vertical and balanced, position your feet near the base with your heels close together. Squat facing the log where your shoulder will meet near the balance point of the pole. Keep your back straight, grip the base of the log, and let the pole lean back over the shoulder as you lift by straightening your legs. A slight backwards rocking motion helps. Lifting with your back bent is inviting serious injury.

Position the log to balance slightly toward the rear, not forward. To adjust the lay of the log on your shoulder, hold with both hands and give a slight bounce with your legs to move the log forward or backward. When set properly, walk with one arm cradled on top of the log as your travel. Use your other hand if needed over rugged terrain. Here’s where nature’s gym throws a real-world workout at you.

Wear sturdy boots, take your time, and watch for tripping hazards. If you stumble, and a tumble is imminent, drop the log from your shoulder and get out of the way in the opposite direction. If possible, hedge your bets by walking inclines with the log on the downhill shoulder.

When you arrive at your destination, reverse the process to unload the log. With the end place on the ground, flop the standing end over. You’ll create a stack of long logs ready for splitting on a chopping platform. For smaller stock, just toss it off your shoulder taking care to avoid a kickback of the falling timber.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

An updated photo of my ax-cut firewood stash.

The old adage, “Chop your own firewood and it warms you twice,” is a big fat lie! In my experience, the number is more like 7-10 to turn a standing tree into firewood. If you’re up to it, you’ll develop ax skills along with upping your functional fitness level. For those interested in either, check out the additional resources below…

Additional Resources:

Disclaimer: If you choose to use an ax in any manner to chop your own firewood, recognize the inherit dangers and take responsibility for your own wellbeing and safety. I am not responsible for anyone doing stupid stuff, or any other stuff. Even doing non-stupid stuff holds risks of injury and/or death when wielding an ax.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has changed. I do not permit the re-posting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.

 

Categories: Bushcraft, Doing the Stuff, Homesteading, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

2 Ax Techniques for Fast Firewood Splitting

by Todd Walker

2 Ax Techniques for Fast Firewood Splitting ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

The permanent scars on my parent’s car port floor are a reminder of that grand idea Craig and I came up with while splitting firewood in 1977. The winter wind felt like we were tied to a whipping post.

“Let’s get out of the wind.”

“How ’bout the car port? The wood’s gotta be stacked in there anyway.”

Not our best idea ever, but we set up shop on the two-year old concrete floor. Driving the metal wedge with 8-pound sledge hammers, a few, quite a few actually, shot like bullets through the wooden rounds followed by a distinctive twang of metal meeting concrete.

“Ya think he’ll notice?”

“Nah. It’s just a few dimples. And we’ll stack wood on top anyway.” Upon further inspection, they were chunks, not dimples.

Had we known of these two splitting techniques, we could have saved Daddy’s new floor… and a lot trouble when he got home from work.

The Twist Technique

The normal way to turn big rounds of wood into little stuff is to use a splitting maul or hammer and steel wedge. These tools are heavier than an ax and doesn’t mind eating grit, even an occasional rock under ground. But they’re heavy fellows and not convenient to tote to base camp. A proper ax is easier to carry and does a noble job of separating wood rounds.

There are many frustrating ways to split wood. Typically, one balances a round atop a chopping block, takes aim, swings, and one becomes two pieces. And neither piece stays on the platform for further splitting. The cycle of bending over, balancing a half-round atop the chopping block, and splitting again is about as fun as a pulling teeth. Even using an old tire to hold the stick together while splitting requires lifting and placing the wood inside the tire.

If you want to speed up the splitting process, put a twist on your swing.

Stance, Swing, and Safety

Trees, like people, are different yet have similarities. No matter the wood species, when possible to determine, split rounds from top to bottom. That is, position the wood vertically as it grew in the forest, top end up, bottom (butt) down.

Longer axes are safer than short-handled ones. When splitting, even on a chopping block (backed-up vertical stroke), with a boys ax (24 to 28 inch length), if you miss the target and chopping block all together, your follow through will likely turn your foot into a clove hoof. A 36 inch or longer handled ax extends the swing arc and would stop in the ground on miss hits.

With that in mind, and the fact that we’re not using a chopping block, we’re actually splitting what would traditionally be used as a chopping block – a big, round chunk resting on the ground. A slight twist or flick of the handle at the moment the ax meets the wood will prevent the ax from traveling through the length of wood.

To start, target the outside edge of the round. For my swing, I aim about 3 inches in on the outside edge of the chunk. My right hand grips the bottom of the handle and flicks or twists to the right on impact. You’ll be moving around the chuck steadily removing wood so make sure your area is clear of all tripping hazards and swing obstructions.

Clear, straight-grained wood like the Red Oak in the video makes for fine splitting… until you hit a knot. At that point, the twist technique is not effective. Other tree species can be difficult to split even with a splitting maul. Sweet Gum, for instance, reveals a mangled, interlocking grain which frustrates the most seasoned wood splitter. The best strategy to get through knots with an ax is to strike dead center on the knot. Or, just designate the piece a long-burner.

The Tiger Technique

Steven Edholm, who issued his crazy Axe Cordwood Challenge, along with my fellow participants have tried to come up with a name for this splitting method. Nothing official has stuck. What I’m calling this golf-like-swing is the Tiger. You may have figured out by now I’m referring to Tiger Woods, professional golfer.

Whatever you choose to call it, the Tiger is my favorite and fastest method for turning a pile of large rounds into small, burnable chunks. Before the Safety Sally brigade shuts me down for even suggesting you use what appears to be a dangerous ax swing, allow me to explain the method behind what seems to be pure madness.

Safety Concerns 

I covered the basics of swinging an ax inside and outside your frontal zone in a previous article. There are inherit dangers anytime you swing 3 and a half pounds of scary-sharp steel. I get it. No matter how many times I grip my ax, my mind pictures a few online ax injuries, which can’t be unseen, as I soberly begin swinging. Even then I must follow, without exception, the protocol of safe ax use.

A few concerns always pop up from Safety Sally folks who have never attempted the Tiger. It just looks awfully dangerous. Here’s the gist of their advice/concern…

  • A glancing blow and the ax hits your leg. Don’t split that way.
  • The log should be propped up against another back rest.
  • Looks like an accident waiting to happen – especially with a double bit ax.
  • That’s a hazardous way of splitting wood. I’ve chopped and split wood growing up. Never chopped that way.

What’s interesting is that other seasoned axmen comment on the effectiveness of this method. This is a lateral swing and is preformed outside the frontal zone. The important part is to keep your feet ahead of the point of ax impact. Clear-grained wood separates with alarming speed… and will fly many feet in the wood lot.

When clearing and area for ax work, I use this same swing to remove small saplings close to the ground. As the ax arc begins its upward motion, the bit separates the sapling cleanly. Again, follow the Frontal Zone rules for safe swinging.

Just like any other ax technique, Doing the Stuff is the key to improvement. You can’t watch the video or read about it to become proficient. Study proper technique and go split some wood.

Here’s a few photos of my firewood stack at base camp. The Axe Cordwood Challenge is coming along nicely and teaching me some valuable lessons on the journey.

2 Ax Techniques for Fast Firewood Splitting ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

The front stack is all ax cut: felling, bucking, splitting, and cutting to length. The Red Oak in the rear was sawn and doesn’t count in my Cordwood Challenge.

2 Ax Techniques for Fast Firewood Splitting ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Red Oak and Tulip Poplar stacked. You can see the difference between the sawn firewood and ax-cut wood.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has changed. I do not permit the re-posting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.

Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Functional Fitness, Homesteading, Lost Skills, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

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