The Big Guide to Hewing Logs with an Axe
Hand-hewing a beam from a log by hand, using an axe, is an ancient skill that has been perfected over thousands of years. It was still practised widely in the US up to the middle of the 20th century, when chainsaws became more popular. When felled timber was too difficult to transport to a mill, or not the right size for it, it was often hewn into a beam where it fell. It’s still a useful skill to have nowadays, as well as being serious, but very satisfying work. Milling a log with a chainsaw or mobile mill just doesn’t give you the same sense of satisfaction. A log hewn by a master is a sight to behold.
The process isn’t exactly complicated – hewing is quite straightforward. You cut notches into your log of choice with an axe, and then hew the wood between those notches off, section by section – preferably with a hewing axe – until you’re satisfied with the result.
Of course, a lot of skill goes into it, and there’s a vast difference in the hewing process and result of a master hewer versus someone who is holding a broad axe and hewing for the first time.
This is an in-depth guide to hand-hewing a log using only a few useful tools. With practice, you too can shape beautiful beams out of a log. Read on to find out all about it!
What Tools You Need to Hew a Log by Hand
Bare minimum: an axe and a log (green wood is easier to hew than dry)
Recommended: a regular axe and a broad axe (also known as a hewing axe).
- A saw (a good crosscut saw or chainsaw)
- Tools to mark measurements and cutting lines (chalk and carpenter’s pencil)
- Measuring tape or ruler
- Log dogs to keep the log in place – this is important for safety, and if you don’t have log dogs, you can use a regular old piece of wood such as a 2×4 stuck in the ground and screwed or nailed to the log.
Optional: A chainsaw, a cant hook(for turning and moving the log)
The bare minimum you need to hew a log by hand is a regular, double-beveled axe. If that’s all you have, then sharpen it and start with that. However, hewing axes – mostly called broad axes in the US – are made for this exact purpose. That’s because they have only a single bevel – that is, only one side of the cutting edge is sharp. This is to allow the axe to make fine shavings and not bite into and get stuck into the side of the log (or beam-to-be), which is always a risk with a regular axe.
Other useful tools are for taking measurements and making the whole process safe. I really can’t stress enough how you should make sure that the log you’re hewing is firmly in place and can’t roll over or wobble – especially since the traditional methods of hewing call for standing on it to chop the notches into it. Get a pair or two of log dogs (they come pretty cheap), make your own, or just use sturdy pieces of wood that you drive into the ground and nail to at least one end of the log.
You should use a saw to cut the ends of the log and beam-to-be flat, and if you don’t have a good crosscut saw then you can certainly use a chainsaw – it’s not traditional, but it gets the job done in an already labor and time-intensive process. That’s another thing – hewing a log takes time, mental and physical fortitude, patience, and more time! Your tools should be as good as you can get or make them. Make sure your axe is sharp and your measurements precise (unless you want to struggle with getting a good result at the end).
How to Hew a Log – Step-by-Step
Hand-hewing a beam from a log by hand, using an axe, is an ancient skill that has been perfected over thousands of years. It was still practised widely in the US up to the middle of the 20th century, when chainsaws became more popular. When felled timber was too difficult to transport to a mill, or not the right size for it, it was often hewn into a beam where it fell. It’s still a useful skill to have nowadays, as well as being very satisfying work. Milling a log with a chainsaw or mobile mill just doesn’t give you the same sense of satisfaction.
Preparing a Log for Hewing
Once you have your tools ready, start by securing the round log so that it doesn’t roll over when you’re working on it. You can buy log dogs (they run about $20 or so on online) or make them cheaply (such as from rebar), but you’ll be using them to secure the log in place. You can also use smaller logs known as cribbing to raise the main log up off the ground and make hewing easier on your back. Just cut a notch in them roughly the width of your log and place them under the main log (perpendicular of course). It takes a bit more time and effort, but your back will thank you. Whatever you choose to do, make sure the log is fastened and secure. The idea with log dogs, regardless of their design and shape, is to have one sharp end driven into the main log and the other sharp end driven into the ground or cribbing log. Just make sure it doesn’t roll around!
Continue by cutting each end of the log flat with a good crosscut saw or chainsaw. Then you can take measurements and mark the dimensions of the log so that you don’t cut too much on one side or too little on the other. Use chalk lines and a carpenter’s pencil to do so. The beam end should be centered on the tree rings. This is where it’s useful to have a level so that you can draw a straight line. Line up chalk lines from one corner of the soon-to-be-beam to its counterpart on the other end of the log and snap it so that it leaves a visible line on the log. Use a small nail to fasten it the proper point. Don’t rush this and pay attention to what you’re doing, since you’ll be cutting and hewing according to these measurements.
Tip! Start measuring at the top (thinner) end of the log, since you’ll have more room to work with at the other, lower (wider) end of the log.
The following video demonstrates how to take and mark measurements (starts at 7:40 minute mark):
Scoring the Log
Once you’ve done the preparation, you can get to the fun (and hard) work – cutting notches, also known as scoring. Depending on the size of your log, you can either stand on top of it – be careful, of course – or on the ground, with your body and legs on one side of the log and your axe swinging and cutting into the other.
Slash scoring or Japanese hewing is making overlapping, angled (roughly 30 to 40 degrees) axe cuts down the log. They should be 2 to 3 inches apart.
Joggle or German scoring is cutting v-shaped notches into the log. They should be angled at roughly 45 degrees and made twice as wide as the length needed to reach the measurement line. The joggles is the wood that remains sticking out between the notches. Removing this remaining wood is called joggling (or juggling).
Removing the Wood
Joggling wood is the step of the hewing with the greatest risk of injury. That’s because you’re making powerful strokes outside of your frontal zone. Using axes in the frontal zone basically means imagining two parallel lines, of which the left one (or the right one, if you’re a lefty) passes right by the outer edge of the tree that you’re chopping. You place your feet according to those imagined lines. However, with this step in the hewing process, you can’t do that, and you risk an axe in the foot or shin. Needless to say that would be a very bad outcome, so here are the recommended methods for joggling:
- Joggling while standing on top of the log. This is the best method, balancing safety and efficiency, but, of course, you can only do this if the log is thick enough to hold your weight. I find that the longer the axe you use, the better – 36-inch felling axes work great, but depending on your height you might be more comfortable using something smaller. Experiment if you can, but if you can’t stand on the log or don’t have a large axe, then move on to the next method.
- The second method is simple – you put your right foot forward and about two feet away from the log, and your left leg should be braced on the log with your foot well away from the axe’s potential swinging or deflection zone.
- You can also stand on the opposite side of the log, which is very safe but involves turning the log so that you’re able to reach and strike the joggles, and then repositioning to plumb before you hew it.
- Finally, you can straddle the log, but I don’t recommend it. It seems unnecessarily risky to me and isn’t too comfortable, to boot.
Remove the wood using whatever axe you have at hand. The important thing is that it’s sharp and you’re able to handle it in the position that you’re using it in. This is where cribbing – raising the log up off the ground – will really help, as this will take a while and be tough on your back.
Actually Hewing the Log!
The joggles should be removed to about half an inch (1.25 cm) before the chalk or cutting line that you made. The rest will be done with a hewing axe. That way, you have a bit of wiggle room to work with if you hew off too large of a piece.
The way you use a hewing axe is in a controlled motion with your forearms. No mighty swings like with a felling axe. With the log to your left, place your right foot forward and away from the log. The left leg can be braced against the log or placed on it for stability – whatever works better for you. Your grip on the handle should be close to the head – 6 or so inches away from the axehead. Experiment and find out what works best for you.
Hewing is not a full swing. It’s more like a circular slicing movement. Use your forearms to control each swing, starting with gentle ones at the top to hew it to the chalk line and continuing downwards until you reach the bottom of the log. You won’t manage to hew a section of the log with just one swing, so don’t even try. The key is patience and attention to detail here. After you’ve done a bit (or when your arms need a break, and they will), step back and check if the hewn section is plumb. It’s often the case that the bottom of the log still has wood that needs to be removed. Some of the chips that you hew off will be very thin – that’s fine!
When you’ve made one pass with your broad axe, check how it looks. You’ll almost certainly need to give it another pass, because the first pass usually gives you a rough surface (unless you’re a master hewer which, if you’re reading this, you most likely aren’t!)
Hewing a Log with a Chainsaw
I won’t go into milling a log using a chainsaw and an Alaskan mill, since that’s not hewing, but you can certainly use your chainsaw to speed things up a bit. Namely, you can use a chainsaw to cut notches into the log you’re going to hew. It’ll be a heck of a lot faster and will allow you to save your energy for the hewing itself. Just make straight cuts or v-shaped notches into the log 3 or so inches apart from the previous one, and you’ll be ready to hew in no time. You can even use your chainsaw to remove the joggles, but that gets you dangerously close to milling and that’s not what we’re here to do, is it?
Thanks for reading – I hope this was informative for you!