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"The first thing that I would do is inspect the axe," says Peter Buchanan-Smith, author of the new Buchanan-Smith's Axe Handbook ($20) and founder of Best Made Co., a brand known for selling axes with painted handles that was recently acquired by Duluth Trading Company. Many of us don't have experience wielding this ancient implement, but if we show up at a friend's place for a weekend and there's an axe and some wood, chances are chopping will occur. This makes the first step crucial, albeit boring. A quick once-over should do: "Make sure it's not broken and about to fall apart."
Next up would be to make sure the blade, called the bit, is sharp. But again, Buchanan-Smith doesn't expect the occasional swinger to search for a sharpening stone and spend an hour or two honing an edge if it isn't sharp. (Though the mantra bears remembering: A good axe is a sharp axe.)
As you approach the chop log — which, ideally, is 18 to 24 inches wide, and level — take it slow. Properly handling an axe demands and deserves patience, respect and common sense. Plant your feet firmly on the ground, which will almost always be uneven outdoor terrain. They should be wide apart, with knees slightly bent.
With your dominant hand holding the axe handle, called the helve, just beneath the head, and your other hand on the butt, lift the axe across your body until its head is above yours and square to your body. From here, bring the axe down to its target, sliding your dominant hand down the helve to meet your other hand. Don't lock your wrists — the action is more whip than arc. The goal, Buchanan-Smith says, is to bring the axe straight down, "like a guillotine," rather than with a sweeping motion.
Taking a few slow-motion practice swings is a good idea. If you misjudge the distance to the target too short, you could end up striking the lower portion of the bit, called the heel, or the part of the helve where your dominant hand just was, which runs the risk of breaking. Misjudge the distance too long and watch the axe head go into the ground, or worse, your boot. "An axe is not indestructible," Buchanan-Smith notes. "Neither is your foot."
Like golf, getting good at swinging an axe relies upon muscle memory. It's less about brute strength than an efficient and precise movement — gravity will do most of the work. You want to swing through the target instead of merely at it.
Swinging the axe too hard is one of the most common mistakes beginners make. Another failure is not noting one's surroundings before beginning to chop. "The scariest incidents I've experienced with an axe are when you get caught on something that's seemingly not a factor, like an overhanging branch that's no bigger than your pinky finger," Buchanan-Smith says. "You don't even notice it, and the axe can get hung up on it and go completely out of control."
Buchanan-Smith, it should be said, didn't learn his technique from a teacher as astute as the one he's become. His first axe was the one he had on his family farm in Ontario, Canada, and he says it was probably too big for him at the time. "I just grabbed it one day and, for better or for worse — probably much more for worse — started chopping away with it."
His appreciation for the tool came from time spent at a Northern Ontario summer camp (also attended by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau). Buchanan-Smith didn't perfect his swing there, but he did learn how to handle and sharpen an axe, as well as how to exercise general safety. A sharp and intact axe was indispensable during a 30-day canoe trip. "By God, you respected that axe,” he says. “It was your lifeline.”
More recently, he took the advice of a friend and invested in a mechanical splitter for his property in the Catskills region of New York. Then a timber worker came to drop off a load of wood. Curious, Buchanan-Smith asked him how many cords he processes in a summer (a cord is a unit of measurement for firewood; in the US, a cord is generally 128 cubic feet). His answer was "eighty, or something ridiculous," recalls Buchanan-Smith.
That prolific output, the timber worker explained, is only possible when you chop by hand. Mechanical splitters are more powerful than axes, but they're slower. Buchanan-Smith took note. These days, he's chopping by hand again, reveling in the meditative quality of such a repetitive, physical chore and the human scale of the tool he swings. "There's something about the axe,” he concludes, "that demands more reverence.”
As detailed in the Axe Handbook, the axe has a surprisingly vast taxonomy — there's the double-bit, the maul and the Pulaski, among others, and variously shaped heads that aren't easily differentiated by monikers like the Maine Wedge, Narrow Wisconsin or Baltimore Jersey. The American felling axe is an excellent place to start. Buchanan-Smith notes that a well-made example can serve for limbing and bucking as well as splitting wood for a fire.
Whether you buy a new axe or an old one, sizing is a crucial consideration. Place the butt in your armpit and hold the head with the same hand; you should be able to wrap your hand around the metal and hold it up without strain. Oh, and steer clear of plastic helves.
Here — three of Buchanan-Smith's favorite axes and why, in his own words.
"Most of my axe work is splitting wood. [For that job, this axe is] one of life's greatest pleasures to swing, it's highly efficient, and a wonder to behold. I could chop cords for days and never get tired of swinging this beauty."
"This is my favorite American-made axe. Made in limited quantities with long lead times that are well worth the wait. Supremely versatile, exceptionally crafted — if I could only buy one axe, this would be it."
"Good luck finding a good axe these days under $100, and even better luck finding a Swedish-forged axe for under $100. One of the best bangs for your buck would be the Husqvarna Multi-Purpose Axe. Simple, versatile and affordable. A great utility axe, ideal for camp or home. I keep one in my truck at all times."