Scott Robertson

Selecting Axes

By: Posted On: 2013-07-08

This is part two of a series written by Jon Melick in Quincy MA who is an Eagle Scout, Vigil in the Order of Arrow, and Assistant Scoutmater with Troop 20. I would like to personally thank him for allowing us to republish his "Wood Tools" document.


“Leave ‘em Home”

All too often, a Scout who wants his or her own axe will “take over” an axe which has been sitting in someone’s garage or basement for a while; or they will go out to the nearest hardware store and buy one. It is possible to wind up with an excellent axe in the process; but it is also possible to get an axe which has no business being out in the woods.

For one thing, many of these axes are unsuitable for Scouts, even if they are in top condition. The “Paul Bunyan”, or double-bitted axe, heads this list, and should be avoided under any circumstances. It may capture the imagination of the would-be user; but there are many reasons to leave this kind of axe at home. Many Scout councils do not even permit Scouts to use them, because the extra blade poses a risk of serious injury if even the slightest departure is made from the rules of axe safety. The reason for the extra blade comes from the way loggers and other professional woodspeople use them: one blade is sharpened for chopping, and one is sharpened from lopping off branches. No one, on a Scouting activity, needs this kind of tool (use a second axe, if necessary and if safety permits); so leave the double-bitted axes at home.

“Specialty” axes, like fire axes of “Pulaski” axes (they look like a regular axe, but have a horizontal “beaver tail” blade on the back of the head. These axes are used for trail and conservation work, and for fighting forest fires) should also be avoided, for similar reasons, not the least of which is that the exposed point on the fire axe, or the beaver tail on the Pulaski axe, poses a safety hazard as does the extra blade on a double-bitted axe.

“Garage” or “cellar” axes can be dangerous because their blades are often dull or chipped, the handles cracked, and the heads loose, rusty, or deformed because someone used the axe as a maul, hammer or splitting wedge (this flattens out the rear of the head, and deforms the eye, making it more likely that the head will fly off during use). These axes can often be rehabilitated successfully, but it takes someone experienced in woods tool use to do a proper job of it. If the damage is too great, then discard the axe. Don’t try to “make do” with it.

I include hatchets here because there is little which they can do which the right kind of axe cannot do just as well. I have heard some people say that they prefer hatchets “because they are safer than axes”; but I have not found this to be so. Especially in the case of Scouts, many people look at a hatchet and think “axe”; and more than once I have seen a Scout, often on his knees, whaling away at a log, trying to cut through it with many short, rapid strokes. Such a Scout will quickly tire; and at best he will start missing the log and swinging the hatchet into the ground where the dirt and pebbles will dull it. All too often, a missed swing will result in the blade striking the user, and then a night spent in a hospital bed rather than in a tent.

I would only use a hatchet at an established campsite, for firewood preparation, as a backup to an axe; but again, a regular axe of the right type will serve this function quite well. If at all, I would use a hatchet only for trimming small branches off of trees, or for splitting small sawn logs for the woodpile. In the latter case, you can take a piece of wood and tap the back of the head of the hatchet with it, so that you can use the contact method to split the wood.

“Limited Use”

Hardware stores often carry axes with fiberglass handles, or axes in which the head and handle are forged out of a single piece of steel. I waver between putting these axes in this section or in the “Leave ‘em Home” section, because I don’t care for either variety. While the handles of these axes are virtually indestructible, the handles (despite the claims of the manufacturers) are prone to vibration, which will tire out the user more rapidly than would happen if the axe handle is made of wood. Also, with the “single piece” axes, the blades of the axes are often offset by as much as 1/8 inch; and although that might not seem like much, I want my axe to strike where I want it to strike! Their heads are also narrow, making it more difficult to split logs with them. These axes are better than nothing; but there are much better axes out there.

I own several “full size” axes. The heads usually weigh around 4 pounds, and the handles are around 36 inches long. There is nothing wrong with these axes, as a rule; but they are unsuitable for backpacking, and I would use them only at an established campsite or at summer camp. Even them, I would prefer to use a smaller axe, since these axes are more difficult for a Scout to control – and control, rather than muscular strength or brute force, is the key to efficient use of axes.

“Cruiser” axes look like oversized hatchets. They have axe heads, but have short handles, and they have some use as backpacking axes; but there is still a better alternative available. Finally, there are “broad axes”, with wide blades and straight blades. These will do a first-rate job chopping wood; but only in warmer weather, since the thinness of the metal makes them prone to cracking in colder weather. They are also poor tools for splitting logs, due to the thinness of their heads. They are better suited to carpenters, or to builders of log cabins.

“Bring Them”

The best all-around axe, whether the user is a Scout or an adult, is the single-bitted “youth”, “medium” or “three-quarter” axe. Its head is usually around 2 ½ pounds in weight, and the handles are between 28 and 32 inches long. My very first axe was a three-quarter “Hudson bay” axe, with a broad blade and narrow “butt” (rear of the head). Almost 50 years later, this is still one of my favorite axes, although I am 6’6” and can easily handle a full-size axe, because it is so versatile. With it, I can fell a small tree, trim off the branches, cut it up into smaller pieces, and split the wood (of course, I do not cut live trees unless there is a very good reason for doing so). By choking up on the handle, much as a baseball player might do with a bat, I can use this axe as I might use a hatchet. I have several medium axes; and on one of them, I use a 36 inch handle. Those extra four inches gives me enough extra leverage to cut wood more efficiently; and this is my other favorite axe.

As with modern knives, it is sometimes worthwhile to seek out older axes. Even modern axes with wooden handles often contain steel which is not of the highest quality; and the blades often need a fair amount of work before they are suitable for use. I have begun to look for old axes at antique stores, yard sales and flea market; but even there some caution is well advised. You don’t want to buy an axe which will require an extensive amount of work to rehabilitate it; and you don’t want to buy an axe (as I almost did) where a crack is starting to appear at one end of the eye of the axe (otherwise, your axe head may split, making it forever useless). Online auctions are also a good source of axes.

You can also seek out axes from “high-end” manufacturers, such as Snow and Nealley, Council Tool and Gransfors and Bruks; but the cheapest of these axes are well over $50; and some are over $100. Wait to buy one of these (at least, new) until you have a few years of Axemanship under your belt.

Some people resist the use of axes in favor of camp saws, for reasons of “safety”; but while I do not oppose the use if camp saws and own a few myself, I will still always choose an axe over a camp saw if I need to choose between the two, especially if I am at a campsite where rain has dampened the available firewood and I need to get at the dry wood inside to get a fire started. After almost 50 years in Scouting, I have found that, if safety rules are followed to the letter, with no deviation tolerated, an axe is as safe as a camp saw, if not safer. I have seen only one case of serious injury due to improper axe use; but I have seen quite a few cases of injury to people using camp saws, even when attempts are made to follow all safety practices strictly. As with all woods tools, there is only ONE way to use them -- the RIGHT way. It isn’t difficult to learn and follow those rules, so there is no reason not to do so.

Before moving on, I would like to pass along some useful suggestions. First of all, while no one ever wants to have the handle of their axe break it does sometimes happen; or perhaps the head of the axe comes off of the handle. Every patrol or troop should have at least one extra axe handle, with some extra wedges, available in case a replacement of an axe handle is necessary. Second, I suggest keeping the handles moist by rubbing them with linseed oil on a regular basis. My father even taught me to drill a small hole in the bottom of my axe handles, and then hang the axes upside down. For several days, I will drip linseed oil into the handle, and will then seal the hole up with a wood screw. Third, if the handle of your axe comes to a sharp point, trim it off so that there is a flat spot on the bottom at least 1 inch in diameter. This will help prevent your axe handle from splitting or cracking. Fourth, having more than one axe is always a good idea, because that way you can have one axe in use while the other is being sharpened and ready to take over the work when it is time to sharpen the first axe. Finally, I suggest that, if someone has their own axe, they be VERY careful about who uses it. Many veteran woodspeople will refuse to lend out their axes, because they spend a lot of time getting their axes into the desired condition and don’t want to have a “greenhorn” ruin their work in seconds. A patrol or troop should have some axes which can be used by anyone; and if a Scout who owns an axe is on firewood detail, he or she can use a personal axe instead of a patrol or troop axe.

An AX is also a great tool to use in preparing your campfire to cook over. Dont forget to check out our friends at Campfire Grill, for some awesome, portable, and easy to set up grills to use over a campfire.

Next week we will talk about Saws. Tell us what your unit does, what you think of Jon's ideas, etc on facebook.


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