Choosing an Axe: An In-Depth Guide

Choosing and buying the right axe can seem tricky. What distinguishes the many different axes on offer from each other?

Within the different types of axes – hatchets, splitting axes, mauls, felling axes, carpenter’s axes, historical battle axes, throwing axes and more – there are hundreds of models on offer. They’re not all the same, and each isn’t as good as the other.

That’s why I compiled this axe buying guide for you. All of what I know from experience and many hours of research. What to look for and how to choose the best axe for the money.

Read on to find out how!

Choosing Axe Head Weight and Handle Length

A lot of people, especially guys, are eager to buy heavy axes. The additional weight of the ax head provides more force when swinging. This is why heavier ax heads – that way six, six and a half, and even seven-pound models – are used in wood-splitting and tree-felling competitions. But heavier doesn’t always mean better-suited to your needs.

In fact, it’s probably best to start with a three-pound full-size ax, and a two-pound boy’s axe. If you’re going to be splitting a lot of wood, you can go higher. The main thing is that you’re comfortable using it. It’s also easier to learn the right axe swinging techniques with lighter axes.

True full-size felling axes are 36 inches long, but that’s usually way too large for most people’s needs. Instead, consider getting a 31-inch full-size axe and 28-inch “boy’s axe”. The latter, despite the name, is a great all-rounder in terms of size. It’ll be up to most tasks at your home and if you take it camping – suitable for splitting firewood, felling small trees, and taking care of finer tasks such as preparing kindling.

If you’re going to be taking your ax on overnight hikes, though, you’ll want something lighter and more compact.

Types of Axes for Specific Jobs

First you have to know what you need an axe for. There are all-purpose axes and axes that are design for one main purpose. Knowing what you need is probably the most important part of choosing the right ax.

What are your needs? Will you be using the ax:

  • While bushcrafting, camping, or trekking in the woods?
  • For splitting firewood?
  • For felling trees?
  • For competitions?
  • For historical reenactments?

If you’re going to be in the bush or in the woods, carrying a bunch of stuff around, cutting relatively small pieces of wood for fire or shelter, you’ll want something light – like a “pocket-size” axe or hatchet.

If you’re going to be splitting logs or rounds for wood, you’ll want a bigger ax or even a maul, which are the biggest types of axes and specifically designed to split wood.

If you’re going to be felling trees, you’ll need something big, too, and with good cutting (instead of splitting) ability. Felling axes are made for this.

If you’re going to be attending ax-throwing competitions or historical reenactments, that’s a whole different part of axe culture.

You may be thinking:

“OK, I know what I need. What now?”

Let’s take a look at the different axe types, starting from smallest to largest.

Small Axes – Hatchets, Camping Axes, Tomahawks

Small axes come in different shapes, sizes, and uses.

People often use the terms “hatchet” and “camp ax” interchangeably. The technical difference between hatchets and axes is simply that hatchets are axes you use with one hand. You grip and use regular axes with two hands. There are both one and two-handed camping axes. Hatchets and tomahawks are the smallest axes around.

Hatchets are usually 18 inches long, and weigh around 1.5 to 2 pounds. Hatchets are a good, light, “all-round” choice when going camping. You can split firewood, chop down small trees and remove their limbs, and clear an area of brush and branches with a hatchet. For most people, that’s all they’ll ever need. Good hatchets are also usually less expensive than larger high-quality axes, so if you don’t plan on doing a lot of limbing, felling, chopping, or splitting of large pieces of wood, a hatchet will serve you just fine.

Tomahawks, a Native American hatchet, have a handle that’s usually from 14 to 20 inches long. They don’t have a “standard” weight, as some tactical tomahawks can be made out of very light materials and the handle and blade size vary. Tomahawks aren’t really meant for chopping trees or splitting wood, but were originally war axes. Great for throwing, tomahawks will also serve you well as an alternative hunting tool or for self-defense – hopefully as a last resort, because that would get very messy.

Medium-sized Axes – Limbing axes, Boy’s Axes

Limbing axes were originally designed for just that – removing the limbs of felled trees. Usually coming in at 2 pounds in weight and with a handle that is 24 inches or two feet long, limbing axes are a good compromise between versatility and potential chopping power. Since it isn’t too large or heavy, you can use it with one hand in tight situations. These are not uncommon when limbing trees, with large branches often limiting your swing. If you do have enough space, though, the handle is long enough for you to grip it with two hands and execute a proper, powerful swing.

Medium-sized and limbing axes are a good choice if you’re going to be working with wood at home, but also want something to take with you when going camping. You’ll be able to both split firewood, chop down trees, and use them in camp. Of course, they’re not as light as hatchets, but the size of the handle means you’ll have to do a lot less chopping to cut through something.

Large axes – Felling axes, Splitting axes, Mauls

These are the big boys of the axe world. These axes are made for felling large trees and splitting big logs and rounds of wood. Felling axes are usually around 32 or 36 inches in length and 3 or more pounds in weight. Mauls can be even larger and go up to 40 inches in length and weigh up to 7 pounds. That’s a lot of kinetic energy in every swing.

Felling axes are made for the sole purpose of dropping trees – large ones. These axes aren’t portable, dexterous camp tools. They are good for splitting firewood, although they will get stuck more in rounds of wood than mauls. Using them is a fine skill in itself, and lumberjacks have an almost mythical status in American culture for good reason. Mastering their use is an achievement for which you need endurance and form. I wrote a long guide on how to use an axe, including how to swing felling axes, that you can read by clicking here.

Mauls are different from felling axes. Not only are the longer and heavier, but the “cheeks” of the axehead are fatter and the shape of the axhead is more like a sledgehammer. That’s intentional. When you’re splitting wood, you want the axe to push the wood apart, not cut into it so much. That’s also why mauls are usually not as sharp as proper axes – it’s just not necessary for what they’re meant to do. Mauls aren’t really suitable for camping needs and are not meant for you to carry them around. If you have a homestead and fell your own trees or get logs or rounds of wood delivered, that’s when a maul will really shine.

Note! Splitting axes are not the same as mauls. Splitting axes are still axes with a sharp edge – mauls are duller and with a wider profile than even splitting axes.  You can still do cutting work with splitting axes and even chop down small trees with them, although felling axes will be better suited for that job. Remember that axes are multi-functional tools – you can use them to fell trees, split logs, carve stakes and so on, but some axes are much better suited for specific jobs than others.

Axe Construction Material

The material an axe – specifically, the handle – is made of is another important consideration when buying an axe. Most axe enthusiasts that I’ve spoken to – and I agree with them – prefer the feel of a wooden handle above all else. There’s just something to axes with wooden handles that is extremely satisfying to the hand and the eye. There are other materials, though.

Reinforced plastic and metal are both common axe haft materials. Reinforced plastic is sturdier than wood and often lighter, but there are cons to it. Plastic doesn’t wear down naturally like wood does, leading a handle that can be uncomfortable to hold if it has been nicked or damaged. Plastic is also hard to replace. Metal handles, on the other hand, are very sturdy, but heavy and also hard to replace. Some ultra-light camping axes are made entirely of metal, with the handle being hollowed out and with holes drilled through it to make it as light as possible, but that is the exception and not the rule.

There’s just something very satisfying about using an axe with a wooden handle. Remember, though, that many axes sold in stores have a varnished handle. This isn’t good at all – in my experience, wooden handles with varnish are slippery when wet, which for obvious reasons is a nightmare. The axe can go flying out of your hands if it’s wet. That’s why you should take some fine sandpaper and remove the varnish from your axe if it comes with any. Friction is good for axe control. You don’t need to sand it too much, and you can treat it with some oil afterwards to protect it from moisture. Check my axe care guide for more information about that.

Axe Choosing Summary

There are hundreds and thousands of axes on offer out there. This guide is my attempt to give you the questions to ask yourself and needs to consider when choosing an axe. There are a lot of things that come together to make a good axe, but it’s not hard to figure out what kind of axe you need. Just figure out your needs and what you’re going to be using the axe for, and go from there. The best hatchets and medium-size “boy’s axes” will go for up to $150 or even more, with high-quality mauls going for up to $400 or $500. These are axes, though, that you’ll be using for many years and handing down to the next generation.

If you don’t have that kind of money to spend, though, don’t worry – there are plenty of axes that go for less – anywhere from $40 to $60 – and do a fine job. I’m preparing in-depth buyer’s guides for each type of axe that will go into further detail and offer good models in each price category. Stay tuned! I hope this guide helped you. If you have any questions or thoughts, leave a comment below. And thanks for reading!