Basic Woodsmanship



Basic Woodsmanship

From being swung on ancient battle fields to taming the West, the ax has long been the epitome of masculinity. The ax is one of the few tools that has withstood the test of time. In an age of growing complexity and modernity, the ax remains the epitome of masculinity, simplicity, and grit.

A woodsman isn’t just some grizzled brute swinging an ax out in the wilderness. Rather, he is a skilled craftsman; someone who swings their ax with both skill and precision. A woodsman is someone who has made the simple act of cutting wood both a complex science and a fine art. You are no more a woodsman because you bought an ax, than you would be a musician because you bought an instrument.

As a ranch hand whose work takes him both to fields and woods, I have had many occasions to hone  my skills in woodsmanship. Many believe (and wrongly so) that the chainsaw has long replaced the ax. However, whether I am clearing land, or high up in a tree, the ax remains both my favorite and most reliable tool.

Advantages to using an ax:

Maintenance:  Unlike a chainsaw, the ax doesn’t require fuel or oil. Though it may become dull over time (as does a chainsaw) it can be sharpened with ease in a matter of minutes. You can leave it exposed to the elements for months on end and still find it good working order.

Portability: An ax is relatively easy to carry over rough terrain and doesn’t require anything other than a simple sharpening stone. To this day outdoorsman such as bush crafters, hunters, homesteaders and woodsman choose to carry an ax over more modern contraptions such as the chainsaw.

Dependability: I have had a chainsaw fail to start, but I have never had an ax fail to cut. Though ax handles may break, or ax heads may chip, these can be relatively simple to fix and are often attributed to user error. ax-anatomy

Silence: Unlike the chainsaw which can be heard buzzing over long distances, the ax is quite; only producing a dull and rhythmic thud as it slices through wood.

How sharp should your ax be:

If your ax was meant to be razor sharp, then it would be a razor. If it’s razor sharp, that means it has a thin blade. As such, it will be more prone to chipping.

With that being said. Abraham Lincoln famously said that if he had 2 hours to cut down a tree he would spend one hour sharpening his ax. I’m not saying that you want a dull hatchet, just that it is possible to make it too sharp.

The sharpness of your blade is determined by what it’s intended purpose is. For example, if you are using your ax to chop trees or dispatch animals (such as chickens/geese) then you want your blade to be as sharp as possible. However, if you are chopping kindling, chopping through wood knots, or limbing trees. you want a duller axe with a narrower grind.

The reason for this is that a nick in your ax will make chopping doubly hard. The sharper your ax is, the thinner the blade is. A thinner blade is obviously more prone to chipping or denting. There are two reasons as to why an ax will chip. The first reason is operator failure. That is to say, the person handling the ax tried to chop through something that was harder than the blade could handle. The second reason is because the ax was made with either poor materials or craftsmanship.

It is relatively easy to tell if chipping is the fault of the user or the manufacturer. If the chip has straight  edges, this means that the metal failed and “chipped.” As such, it’s more likely a poor quality ax. However, if the chip is rounded (less of a chip and more of a dent) this means it’s more likely the fault of the user.

Ax Handle: When it comes to ax handles there are a few things to look for. First and foremost you want an ax handle to be made of hickory. Many axes are made with metal handles. Although metal handles will last a long time, they are much more difficult to fix or replace than traditional wood handles.

When inspecting a wood handle it’s important to not only make sure that it’s made from hickory, but also that the wood grain is straight and clear of knots. Many ax handles are m covered in a lacer that makes it smooth and gives a polished look. On inexpensive axes these lacers have a habit of flaking off with extended use. It’s best to find something that has been treated with linseed oil or is untreated so you can do it yourself.

Over time and extended use you ax handle may become rough. This can be remedied by soaking it in hot water until the wood grain starts to stand out. Dry the handle and carefully sand it down until smooth. Once the ax hand has become smooth, treat it with linseed oil. You can also remove cheap lacer with the same method and treat with linseed oil.

Types of axes: Pole Ax, Double Bitted Ax, Splitting maul, Hatchet

There are many different kinds of axes. Many have been either lost to time, or are very specialized and intended for one specific purpose. There are four general types of axes that are most commonly used and available at your local hardware store. These are: Pole Ax, Double Bitted Ax, Splitting maul, and the hatchet.

Pole Ax: The Pole Ax is the most common type of ax. It has one cutting edge and a flat blunt side opposite. The blunt end is commonly referred to either as the butt, or the Pole. Hence the name “Pole Ax.”  The sharp end it used for chopping and cutting, whereas the blunt side is used for hammering things such as stakes or wedges.

Double Bitted Ax: The Double Bitted Ax is used for serious, heavy duty chopping. It was favored by loggers due to the fact that when one side became dulled they could simply switch to using the other side and keep on chopping. They would also use different grinds for each blade. One blade would be made razor sharp in order to expedite the cutting process. Whereas the other side would have a narrower grind and would be used for limbing trees and cutting through knots.

Splitting Maul: As the name suggests, the Splitting Maul is commonly used for splitting firewood. Though it’s excellent for splitting firewood, the Splitting Maul the good for little else. As with the Pole Ax, the Splitting Maul has one cutting edge and a blunt side that can be used as a sludge hammer or for pounding stakes.

Hatchet: The Hatchet is a shortened version of the pole ax. A hatchet usually has an overall length of around 16 inches. It’s commonly used for smaller tasks such and chopping kindling, limbing, chopping smaller trees, whittling, or dispatching animals such as chickens or geese. The hatchet is common on farms/ranches and is popular with outdoorsman such as Bushcrafters, hunters, and backpackers due to its small size, weight, and versatility.
How to Chop Wood: Chopping wood or cutting logs is only as difficult as you want to make it. Cutting through is much more about accuracy then it is about strength. Beginners tend to get frustrated and start swinging wildly and furiously. This is not just unproductive, but also dangerous. With each swing one should focus on accuracy. Practicing proper ax maintenance and keeping a sharp bald will go much farther then brut strength.

When chopping a fallen log it’s advisable to chop the log from the sides rather than then chopping from the top down. The reason being is that if you chop down from the top, when you cut through the log the blade may bury itself into the ground where it may become chipped or dented.

It’s also advisable that you chop at a 45 degree angle. Chopping at a more of an angle or straight on is much less effective. Chopping at an angle less than 45 degrees can be dangerous since it may skip off the log. logging101

The “cows’ mouth” refers to a notch that is chopped into a tree to fall it, or a log to cut it in two. The width of the cows mouth should be equal to the width of the log or tree. You can get away with a little less, especially if you are using a chainsaw or cross cut saw.

Chopping firewood: Chopping firewood is a  relatively simple process. When it comes to firewood there should be more emphasis on choosing good quality wood over using brut force. The reason for wood not easily splitting usually has more to do with the wood than the person swinging the ax. For example, I have witnessed beginners trying to chop green and wet maple with great difficulty. The reason isn’t that their swing isn’t true or their ax is dull. Rather the issue is that green maple not only makes for poor firewood, but also is generally difficult to split.

“Green wood” is wood that comes from a recently fallen tree. Green wood is not just more difficult to chop, but also makes for poor firewood. One should look for fallen trees that have been down for some time, but are not rotten. The wood should be dry and cut with relative ease. Pine should be avoided for firewood since it burns hot had produces a lot of soot and sap that will build up in the chimney. This can lead to a “chimney fire.”


Bevel: The foremost cutting surface. Part of the ax head that tappers down to make the cutting edge.

Belly: Curve in the ax handle.

Bit: The cutting portion of the ax head; also known as the blade or the edge.

Beard: Part of the bit that descends below the rest of the axe head.

Eye: Hole where the handle is mounted.

Boys’ Ax: A Three quarter ax weighing 2 ½ pounds and a 28 inch handle.

Poll: The blunt part of the ax head, also known as the back or butt.

Slash: Branches that have been trimmed from logs.

Helve: An ax handle.

Cows Mouth: A notch chopped into a tree to fall it, or a log to cut in two.

Cord: A measurement of wood. Often times used when selling firewood. A “cord of wood” is wood staked to make a pile measuring 8 feet long, 4 feet high, 4 feet wide.

Cruiser: A smaller double bitted ax with a 28-inch handle. As opposed to larger Double Bitted ax with a 36 inch handle.

Crown: The top of trees.

Stem: The trunk of a tree.

Sapling: A small tree.

Wolf Tree: A large tree that blocks the sun from reaching smaller trees.

Back stabber: Term used for the Double Bitted Ax due to its tendency to dig into ones back.

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