In late March 2018, I took an Axe Skills course with Mountainsong Expeditions. I deeply enjoyed getting a comprehensive education on axes in one day. This saved some of the piecemeal learning, one would normally pick up over time from their elders or through the school of hard-knocks. I started having used an axe only once in my life to feeling confident to split, buck, and limb a tree.
(I am not quite confident enough to fell a tree myself, now having done it twice in my life.)
10 Things I Learned About Axes
#1 Axes vs mauls
An axe is sharp and has a narrow blade angle. A maul is dull and have a wider wedge angle. The axe is using to cut, where as the maul is basically a wedge on a stick/handle. Both tools are handy, but where designed with different actions in mind. You can split wood with either, but depending on the type of wood, one might be easier than the other.
They also make hybrid splitting axes that are sharp like an axe but have a large wedge head like a maul. At the end of the day, this splitting axe became my favorite. The Fiskars are cheaper but quality axes that will last. They often have a fiberglass handle which is less prone to breaking but doesn't absorb as much shock as a wooden handled axe/maul. For the absolute best quality (and more expensive axe), the instructor recommended getting a Swedish made axe.
Example Axe: Fiskar Chopping Axe
Example Maul: Fiskar 8 lb Maul
Example Splitting Axe: Fiskar Splitting Axe
#2 Splitting with a dull axes or maul
Mauls tend to be heavier than an axe, since the weight of the head and the momentum of the swing is splitting the wood. The maul is unlikely to get stuck in the log. The maul will generally either bounce off (leaving a small mark), or split most of the way through the log. Even a dull axe will have the same effect on the wood, but be a little lighter to lift above your head. This reduction in the tendencies to get stuck in the wood is an advantage when splitting firewood.
#3 Splitting with a sharp axes
The sharpness of the axe cuts through the wood fibers. However sharp axes have a tendencies to get stuck in the wood you are trying to split rather if it doesn't slice all the way through. The axe may be lighter and smaller than a maul, which could be advantageous for a smaller human or when first learning to place accurate cuts. A lighter weight axe may also be handy if you have to walk long distances before using the axe, where a lighter weight would be appreciated.
#4 Secret trick: Unstick an axe jammed in a log
As I talked about in splitting with a sharp axe; you axe may get stuck in the log. It cuts halfway through but doesn't separate enough for you to easily remove the axe for another swing. In some cases, the axe is so deeply stuck in the log, it is extremely difficult to remove your axe. The secret trick here is to pick up, axe and log, over your head and swing the an axe back down, hitting the chopping block with the back side of the axe. This can be difficult with heavy logs, but even a short lift can have the desired effect. Otherwise other methods to remove the axe will need to be employed.
When hitting the back of the axe on the block, in general there are 2 possible outcomes:
Option #1: The wood flies off the axe. Congrats your axe is unstuck.
Option #2: The wood splits exactly where your blade was. Congrats you axe is unstuck and your wood is split.
#5 Contact Splitting for Kindling
Contact splitting is used for making kindling or other small cuts. Set your axe (maul not optimal), on the edge of the smallish block of wood you want to turn into kindling. Holding the axe with one hand near the head and the other hand on the wood. Lift the axe and wood together and between to tap the wood on the chopping block.
The weight of the axe and the gravity of the tapping motion will slowly drive the axe through the wood. The axe should have constant contact with the wood log. In this manner small slivers of wood can be stripped from the block.
#6 Wedge Splitting for Gnarly Old Wood
Another option for splitting wood is to use a metal wedge (like this one) and sledgehammer. DO NOT use the back of your axe for metal on metal work. In groove in the wood, set a metal wedge. Using a sledgehammer, pound the wedge through the log. In larger logs, you may need multiple wedges to fully split the log. This method is the slow and steady method for particularly tough wood to split. This may be a good option for wood with lots of knots or twisted grain.
#7 Bucking for Shortening Length
Another axe skill is bucking a tree. Bucking is cutting across the grain, often for the purpose of cutting the tree into manageable length for hauling out. This is not optimal for splitting firewood, but the bucking removes a chunk of otherwise good wood. The bucking also produces a V-cut in the wood, which will make the eventually standing of the log on a chopping block for splitting very difficult.
Bucking could be a good option, if you don't have a chainsaw. If a chainsaw or handsaw blade might get pinched. If you just want to get the pole/tree to a length where it is easier to drag out. If you need to just move the tree to the side of the trail. If you want to make a carved seat in a large log.
To cut a tree by bucking, make two 45 degree cut in opposite directions towards each other. Eventually the cuts will meet in the middle and be completely through the log. To avoid difficult math in the woods, start your V-cut approximate 1.5 times wider than the diameter of the tree. If the tree is particularly large, then you may need inner V-cuts between the main V-cut to remove the center wood.
Start on one side of the 45-degree cut, and give it a few 3-5 whacks from that side then switch to the other direction. (Still standing on the same side of the log, so you have to be a bit ambidextrous in your axing.) This will satisfyingly cause the middle sections of the V-cut to fly. Wear your eye protection please! Eventually, your V-cut will meet in the middle and you have successfully cut your log in two.
#8 Felling Similar to With a Chainsaw
As part of the class we also felled a poplar tree that was preventing sunlight from reach the house. Resulting in the occupants having to use a headlamp even during the day. The process of cutting down a tree with an axe was very similar to the process with a chainsaw. I talked about my first time felling a tree with a chainsaw here: 10 Things I Learned Felling my First Tree (with a Chainsaw)
The idea is to make a face cut on the falling side. With a chainsaw this will have a flat bottom and a sloped top cut. With an axe, it is harder to get a flat precise face cut. The face cut tends to come out looking more like a V-cut. This face cut should be no more than 1/3 of the way through the tree. This cuts trying to convince the tree to fall in that direction, but not yet! This cut is marked in red in the diagram below.
After the face cut, using an axe or handsaw blade start a back cut a few inches higher than the base of your face cut. This cut is marked in yellow on the diagram below. You should not need to cut all the way through the wood for the tree to fall. The tree with fall, with the middle uncut wood acting as a hinge. This hinge wood is a safety precaution that, in theory, prevents the tree from kicking back. This also better helps to control the direction of the fall.
The first most likely direction a tree will fall is in the direction of the face cut. The second most likely direction is 180 degrees from the face cut. When we were felling for the axe class, when the back cut was in process the saw blade was getting pinched. This indicated that there was more significant back weighting on the tree than was visually obvious. Removing the blade, another face cut was made 180 degree around the tree and slightly above the previous face cut. This alone should not have caused the tree to fall, but it did.
Tree felling can be unpredictable, when in doubt leave it to the professionals.
#9 Sharpening Axes with Bastard file
While it can be intimidating to sharpen your own tools, in the pursuit of self-reliance you can't hire someone to sharpen your axe every time you want to use it. While you can do some damage to an axe blade but badly sharpening it, you will have to learn someday. Start with a cheaper axe, which may have come mostly sharp but not completely sharp.
To sharpen an axe, you need a Bastard file (seen here). This metal file with grooves is run along he axe blade in a curved motion that cover the entire length of the file and the entire curve of the blade in one sweeping motion. Each motion over the blade is called a "lick". After 10 licks on one side, switch to the other side. Grind 10 licks on that side. This prevents uneven sharpening of the axe blade. I don't expect you to learn to sharpen an axe from this article. I surely didn't learn everything I needed to know about sharpening axes in one 20 minutes lesson.
What I did learn, was which file I should be using. I learned the motion and learned how to test if my blade was sharp. Instead of trying to cut a hair on your arm, and potentially cutting your flesh with a sharp blade. Try to cut your fingernail instead. Try to shave a small curl of nail off the center of your fingernail. This will prove your blade is sharp without risking cutting your flesh.
#10 Axing is Fun and Empowering
After my class my wrists and forearms were sore but I deeply enjoyed the day. It was empowering to know how to use an axe in an efficient and ergonomic way. We recently had a few snow storms that caused major tree damage across the region. Limbs and full trees are down everywhere. In hiking along trails, I have often come across trees not yet cleared out of the way.
Each time I think to myself, how would I handle this if it was on my property? I am proud that I now can say, I would limb it with a axe then use a chainsaw to cut it into sections. I then could use my axe to split it for firewood. Or I could use my axe to buck it into manageable sections and push it out of the way, if it's not suitable for another purpose. This axe class gave me the confidence to use this powerful tool.
Do you split wood for firewood? Axe or maul? Let us know your preference in the comments below.