by Todd Walker
On the heels of my ax-work classes at the Georgia Bushcraft Spring Gathering, I wanted to cover some of the risks of swinging a tree clever. It’s our job to mitigate some of the risk. Even then, accidents happen.
At the Gathering, my buddy, Karl, shared a recent ax injure he incurred when his ax glanced from the wood he was splitting. He graciously, or not so gracious if you have a weak stomach, allowed me to share his injure here for educational purposes.
********* WARNING: GRAPHIC PHOTOS OF BLOOD AND A OPENED FOOT **********
The ax glanced and struck Karl on the top of his left foot severing one bone completely and halfway through the second bone.
The photos above make it crystal clear how dangerous a moving ax can be. However, not all injuries to wood choppers come from the business end of the ax meeting flesh, or from negligence. Trees don’t always cooperate. They’re known to drop dead limbs on unsuspecting victims below. Trees and axes are not to blame. They do what they do without malice or remorse.
Taking an ax to the woods with the intent of chopping is serious business. 99% of my ax work is done alone in the woods. Even though I try to employ best-practices, the risk of becoming a victim is always in the forefront of my mind. I’m no expert and my ax-related advice should not be trusted but verified through experience.
5 Deadly Sins of Ax-Work
Vernon Law is credited with saying, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”
We can never eliminate all the dangers of swinging an ax. We can only lessen the gravity of missing the mark through commonsense risk management. The good news is… true repentance will change your actions, and, hopefully, save you from the pain of these painful mistakes.
“Only the penitent man shall pass.” ~ Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The toughest woodsman is no match for tonnes of wood crashing to the forest floor. Even a wrist-size limb falling from 50 feet above can crush a shoulder or skull. While toughness is a fine virtue, be humble. The moment an axman approaches his work with superiority and a been-there-done-that attitude is the moment he gets blindsided.
There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confident ax skills inspire. Arrogance will get you hurt or killed. This holds true more so for seasoned axmen than beginners, and, in my experience, men over women.
2.) Entanglements and Hang Ups
Any obstruction in the ax swing arc must be cleared before work begins. Check overhead for nearby limbs and vines which may snag and deflect an ax in mid swing. I’m obsessive about removing the smallest twig when standing on top of logs to buck. I figure if I’m swinging inside my frontal zone (described below) inches from my feet, I can’t afford a stroke to veer.
Fell enough trees and you’ll have one hang up mid-fall. My first strategy, if the tree butt didn’t release from the hinge, is to try to free it from the stump. Some times the impact on the ground will jar the hang up loose. If not, I’ve had some success moving the butt of the tree backward using a long lever pole. Place the lever under the butt end and lift repeatedly to slide the tree butt backwards until it releases.
A safer and less strenuous way is to use a come-along attached to an anchor behind the tree stump. Without a modern come-along, a powerful winch can be made from two logs and a rope/cable. Ratchet the tree butt until it releases. You may be tempted to cut the offending tree which caused the hang up. This is a high-risk endeavor. Be sure to have all your medical/life insurance up to date. You and/or your surviving family will likely need it.
One hazard I hope to never encounter again was the yellow jacket sting between my eyes on my downward stroke in the video below. You’re only defense is to run like you stole something!
3.) No Exit Strategy
When felling trees with an ax or saw, preparing two or three escape routes is wise. When the tree begins its decent, get out of Dodge on a pre-determined path. The safest exit is at 30 degree angles from the back notch of the tree. Put your back against the tree and extend your arms like you’re about to give your mama a hug. Your arms are pointing to your best escape paths. Next safest is in a line opposite of the direction of fall. If this path is chosen, or the only option, put great distance between you and the stump to prevent a kickback from nailing your body to the ground.
Escaping perpendicular to the line of fall increases the risk of being struck by falling limbs from adjacent trees. I’ve witnessed trees “jump” and roll several feet to the side of the stump hinge by contacting adjacent tree limbs during the fall. Another overlooked danger is a dead spot halfway up the tree which breaks and falls back toward the woodsman as the bottom half falls in the direction of its lay. Be vigilant, drop your ax, and sprint for your life.
4.) Violating the Frontal Zone
There are two basic ax swings: lateral and vertical. Certain guidelines should be followed for each swing. Take a look at the diagram below to better understand your frontal zone.
In The Ax Book, which I recommend you devour until the pages are dog-eared, Dudley Cook describes the frontal zone as two parallel lines running along side the outside edges of your feet when chopping. All lateral swings should be outside the parallel lines, always. The inertia of an ax in full, extended-arm swing only stops when acted upon by an external force. The ax head has a stopping point, and that point could be your body if you disregard the frontal zone guidelines.
There are two relatively “safe” strokes one can make within the frontal zone: a.) backed up, and b.) bucking. The backed up stroke is what beginning choppers are most familiar – splitting wood on a chopping block. The solid chopping block offers a backstop for the moving ax. Of course, as in Karl’s case above, there remains inherit dangers. Watch our video below to gain some safety tips for splitting firewood, the most common ax-work of campers and homesteaders.
Bucking is simply separating a log into lengths. The diameter of the log to be bucked determines my technique. Larger diameter logs (12+ inch range) allow me to stand on top to cut two V notches. Swings are always below my feet. If I miss my intended target below my feet, my body is out of harms way.
I stand on the ground to buck smaller diameter logs. The log itself is my back up. Accuracy is essential at the top of the bucked notch when your feet are on the ground. Even though the log is between you and your legs, miss the top of the notch and you now have a non-backed up swing in the frontal zone… and a very bad ending.
Another video of ours demonstrates the importance of accuracy on the top of notch cuts when bucking on the ground…
A third stroke in the frontal zone, which I’ll mention, but do not recommend, is the most dangerous and best performed with a saw. Situations arise where a high limb needs to be removed. My risk management strategy is to choke up on my ax handle with one hand and strike the limb at a 45 degree angle without completely severing the limb. A few lighter followup blows usually separates the limb. My forward hand gives me more breaking power as the ax follows through.
5.) Washed in the Blood
“All bleeding eventually stops. The challenge is stopping blood loss before the supply runs out.”
~ Mark DeJong, Off Grid Medic
Injuries related to axes and trees can be deadly. A first aid kit should be in close proximity to your work area. One item which you should consider carrying on your person is a tourniquet. If a catastrophic ax wound occurs where sever bleeding will result in death, this is your only option to see your family again. Practice applying this device on your own body before you actually need it.
A personalized first aid kit will treat the most common injuries such as scrapes, bumps, blisters, and bruises. I carry large sterile bandages, gauze rolls, and Band-Aids. My tourniquet fits in my cargo pocket of my kilt or pants. A few other items I include in my ziplock first aid bag are:
- Acetaminophen for pain
- Wound dressing
- Tweezers and needle – mostly for tick removal, ugh
- Aspirin, proven to assist in heart attack treatment
- Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for stinging/biting insects – plantain isn’t always available in the woods and I don’t react well to stings
- This ziplock first aid kit rides in my haversack along with other kit items for core temperature control and comfort – more info on these items can be found here
6.) Losing Your Head
A sharp hunk of steel flying freely through space is a scary sight… if you happen to spot it. It’s like shooting an arrow straight overhead and wondering where it will stick. Ax heads give an ample warning to observant axmen. A slight gap appears where the ax eye was seated on the handle. Continuing work with this slight slippage is full of hazards. Stop, re-seat the head, and pound a metal step wedge into the top of the handle. My working axes aren’t pretty, but they are tightly fit cutting tools.
Don’t lose your head! Take great care to keep your ax sharp and securely attached to the handle.
If you’re even slightly tempted by any of these deadly sins, put your ax down before you meet your Maker.
Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,
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