How to Use an Ax: A Step-by-Step Guide
Having a bad accident with an ax while out in the woods or out in the country, far from medical help, is something that every ax user wants to avoid. Straining your back and taking twice as long because of improper form, poor technique, and a dull ax is a pain, too.
That’s why I’m going to give you the detailed facts on how to use axes the right way. This article will cover preparation for ax use, proper ax technique, ax safety, and how to take care of an ax.
I hope you’ll find it useful!
How Should I Use an Ax?
Axes should be used for cutting, chopping, and splitting. Other tasks – like skinning an animal or shaving – are best taken care of with other tools. An important part of using an ax is how you prepare to use it. Safety is everything with a sharp and heavy tool that is swung with force or dropped from a height.
First, you have to prepare the chopping area. This is especially important when using big, heavy axes such as felling axes or mauls. But even with smaller axes, you don’t want anything to interfere with your swing or deflect the ax. So clear the area where you’re going to be working – remove stones, branches, and anything else that could sabotage your swing from above or below. An old saying is “clear the ground an ax-length’s round.” This refers to everything, not just the ground. An ax-length means the length of the ax itself, plus the length of your arm. To check that everything is ready, slowly swing your ax in the way that you’ll be using it to make sure no branches or brush snag it. This may seem like overkill, but I’ve heard of close calls where a careless ax user’s swing got deflected by an overhead branch and almost took a couple of his buddy’s toes off. Modern medical care is great, but you don’t want to be taking your digits to the hospital in a ziploc bag to get them sowed back on again. So do yourself and others a favor, and clear the ground an ax-length’s round. Oh, and another thing – onlookers should stand at least two ax-lengths away.
When chopping wood, try to find something to place it on. A tree stump can serve as a chopping block, so can a downed tree lying in a horizontal position. If you chop wood (or, for that matter, anything else) on the ground, you risk dulling and blunting your ax – or even chipping the edge if you hit stone.
Should I Sharpen My Ax Before Use?
Regardless of whether you’re splitting logs, chopping up rounds of wood for firewood, felling a tree, or preparing meat or vegetables for cooking, you should ensure that your ax is sharp enough to do the job. The keyword here is “sharp enough.” Let me explain.
Some ax types don’t have to be sharp – as in, sharp enough to shave – to do what they’re meant to do. This applies mainly to mauls, which split wood using the larger mass and “fatter cheeks” or broader edge angle of the ax head. Other axes, however – hatchets, felling and regular axes chief among them – should be sharp, because they have more concave profiles than splitting axes, which are strongly convexed.
Don’t worry if all of that sounds a bit complicated. It’s actually pretty simple. Mauls – wood splitting axes – can go longer without sharpening. When you do sharpen them, you don’t need to go overboard – they’re splitters, not cutters. Keep the blade edge keen, by all means, but there’s no need to make it as sharp as a hatchet or tomahawk. For other axes, it’s good to aim for “sharp enough to shave with.” A traditional way to test this is by running the ax edge along the back of your arm. Does it cut the hairs on it? Great! It’s sharp enough. Another way to determine whether the ax is sharp enough is to see if the edge “catches” when you run it down your fingernail. If it does, that’s sharp enough, too.
Having a sharp ax is important because dull axes have a much higher chance of glancing off whatever you’re using them on. That can lead to nasty injuries and a much longer time spent on your work. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” I’ll go over how to sharpen the ax at the end of this article.
How to Hold an Ax Correctly
Holding an ax properly is key to powerful, effective, and safe chopping. Hold the ax with your right hand just beneath the ax head. Your left hand should be at the other end – just above the end of the handle. You shouldn’t cling to the handle tightly – with your downswing, when the ax drops for the chop, your right hand – the hand just beneath the ax head – should slide smoothly down the handle so that both of your hands come together. Your grip should not be loose, though, either – aim for a grip strength that allows your right hand to slide up and down the ax handle with ease, but which is firm enough that the ax doesn’t wobble or shift in your hands while holding it.
Left-handed people – simply hold it the other way round.
How to Swing an Ax Correctly and Correct Ax Technique
Wood Splitting Technique
Splitting wood is what the majority of us use our axes for. I definitely split more rounds of wood than I fell trees with an ax, so that’s the swing we’ll start with.
When you’re splitting wood, it’s important to use an ax that is appropriate for the job – and in most cases, it’s actually a splitting maul that’s better suited. What’s the difference? You can check our guide to ax types by clicking here, but the short answer is that mauls are for splitting wood, while axes and hatchets are meant to cut wood or fell trees. Hatchets are best suited for splitting off smaller pieces of wood for use as kindling.
But don’t worry – if all you have is an ax, it’ll split wood just fine by using the proper technique – in fact, some people swear that it’s easier to split wood with lighter axes than with heavier mauls… If you know the right tricks!
When you’re splitting wood, you want to raise your ax above your head and let it drop. When it drops, your dominant hand should slide down from the top of the ax to meet your other hand. Your stance should see your feet normally placed, shoulder-length apart – or, if you’re more comfortable, with one foot slightly in front of the other. An exaggerated stance with one foot forward and one foot back only increases the risk of injury. More importantly, it doesn’t allow you to drop your knees and use your hips when going through with the chop, which is the secret sauce of powerful, low-effort wood splitting.
When you’ve raised the ax above your head and are bringing it down, let it drop instead of using strength to execute a “John Henry” overhead swing. It’s good exercise, but it also heightens the risk of pulling a muscle and straining your back, especially if you’re old. When you’re going through with the swing, squat slightly and pull your hips backwards so that your butt sticks out. This adds extra momentum and more kinetic power to the swing.
If you’re chopping a large round of wood, don’t aim for the center – it’ll be harder to split it that way. Instead, aim for where the gap between the rings is wider – halfway between the center, and the edge of the round is a good place to aim for, generally. It’ll be easier to split the wood that way and, once the round has been split once, it’ll be much easier to split the separated pieces further.
If you’re splitting a longer log, make sure that it is settled firmly on whatever surface you’ll be splitting it on, whether that’s bare ground or something else. The last thing you want is the log rolling and deflecting your strike. It’s especially important for your safety to not use an “enthusiastic” overhead swing for this, but the raise and drop method. It’s more accurate and will allow you to split one or several logs without getting tired as fast.
Tree Felling Technique
For tree-felling, you use what are called “lateral” chops. These are not truly horizontal swings, but more like diagonal swings coming down from over your dominant arm’s shoulder down to the tree. You should stand so that both feet are on one “side” of the tree if you drew a straight line from its base in any direction. This is also referred to the tree being “past your front” – another safety consideration, which makes it less likely that you get hurt if your swing is off and the axe ricochets. Try to chop as low and close to the ground as possible (within reason) – that also makes it safer.
This is a very easy to follow and informative video that illustrates what I mean by “past your front” – safety is important!
The way to fell a tree with an ax is similar to the method of taking down a tree with a chainsaw. You make a 45-degree fact cut on the side facing where you want the tree to fall. Make this cut as low as comfortable for you so that you can use gravity to your advantage. Then, on the opposite side, make another 45-degree cut – the back cut – which is roughly two inches above the face cut. Don’t make it too high, though as that’ll mean more effort and not as clean a break.
The back cut is meant to make a hinge of sorts and, with some effort, the tree should fall in the direction of your face cut.
Tree Limbing Technique
Limbing simply means removing the branches from the trunk of the tree. However, there are a few ways to make sure you use the safest, most effective technique.
First, stand on the other side of the trunk from where you’re cutting. Remove the branches from the upward-facing side of the tree first, because if you cut the downwards-facing side first, the tree might roll over you and the top branches could scratch you badly. Chop in the direction the branch grew in – that is, upwards, towards the treetop.
You can aim to remove medium and larger-sized branches with just two chops. With the first chop, you aim to make a cut perpendicular – that is, at an angle towards the tree – a few inches up from the base of the branch. The second chop should run parallel to the tree and be closer to the base.
Tree Bucking Technique
After you’ve downed and limbed a tree, you’re going to have to buck it into smaller pieces for transportation or further processing. You stand on top of the trunk of the tree or the log you want to buck (make sure it’s stable) and chopping a V-shaped cut into the area between your feet. Your feet should be placed slightly further apart than shoulder-width. The V-cut should be as wide as the log is thick, and you should aim to make alternating 45-degree chops. Some loggers recommend chopping out one side of the notch first, and then the other.
I find that it’s better to make alternating cuts since that allows you to make corrections if your cuts on one side are at a different angle or more forceful than on the other.
Once your first notch has reached the middle of the tree, turn around and make a second notch on the other side. Continue chopping until the two notches meet in the middle, and the tree or log will split apart cleanly.
Don’t aim to chop the log in half or swing as hard as possible. If you focus on making those accurate, 45-degree cuts, the rest will take care of itself. Better to be precise than forceful – staying focused on your technique will also make you more mindful of your swings, which is important because bucking with an ax can cause serious toe and foot injury if done carelessly.
Contact Splitting Technique
After placing the wood or stick you want to split on a surface such as a stump or a log (splitting on the ground brings the usual risk of dulling or damaging your ax), simply drive your ax bit into the center of it. Once the ax is wedged into the wood, raise the ax and the wood together and bring them back down onto the chopping block. This’ll split the piece of wood or the stick down the middle. If you want to chop a stick in two, drive the ax bit in at a slanting angle.
Contact splitting is how you should split wood with smaller axes and hatchets. Swinging small axes is more dangerous than using this method for several reasons. Smaller axes are more likely to ricochet and, since you have to be closer to the wood you’re splitting or chopping because of the shorter length of the handle, you’re more likely to get flying woodchips in your eyes. Contact splitting smaller pieces of wood or sticks for kindling with your tool of choice (hatchets are best suited for this) removes these risks almost entirely.
Axe Use Safety
An Appalachian logger with more than 20 years of experience suffered a compound fracture to his leg. Some sort of freak accident? Not really… He took a personal call that distressed and distracted him from his work. Your headspace is the most important thing when working with axes! Stay focused on and aware of your work. If you’re tired and distracted, take as long as you need to regain your composure before restarting work. Here are a few more principles that will keep you and people around you safe when working with axes.
- Keep your ax sheathed! An unsheathed ax, lying on the ground or resting against a surface, will eventually find a way to nick either you or someone else who steps on it or kicks it over. A sharpened ax will easily slice through clothes and skin. That’s why it’s important to keep your ax sheathed.
If you don’t have a sheath for your ax at hand, embed the cutting edge of the ax into a log or stump. If you have a double-bit ax, stick a piece of wood onto one side before sticking the other side into the log, stump, or another piece of wood. Or just place the ax-head beneath a log.
- Be careful when carrying an ax, and when handing it over to another person – if you stumble and fall with an unsheathed ax, the consequences could be dire. The same goes for handing an ax carelessly to another person – it could lead to simply bruised toes if the flat part of the ax-head drops onto them or much worse, if the bit of the ax does.
- Don’t swing with all your strength! When using the ax, you have to exercise a kind of humility towards the process. You probably could swing it a lot harder, but you shouldn’t. Form, technique, and accuracy trumps raw strength every time and leads to fewer injuries and mishaps.
- Stay focused on your work and your technique. Don’t allow yourself to daydream or use the time you’re working with an ax to think about errands you have to run or issues that you have to deal with. Splitting, felling, bucking time is just that.
How to Care for Your Ax
You need to do three things to take care of your ax.
First, keep your ax indoors and sheathed when you’re not using it. Moisture and cold will both damage your ax over the short and long term. Moisture cause wooden handles to deform and ax heads to rust. Since water is the enemy of metal, you can – and many devoted ax owners do – apply a protective coat of oil onto the ax head. You do this after cleaning the ax and wiping it down with a dry piece of cloth, making sure no moisture remains.
If you’re using your ax to chop resinous woods such as pine, a sticky residue might remain on the ax afterward. When it dries, it becomes difficult to remove, so it’s best to scrape it off with a fine knife and clean the ax head after use.
If you have an ax with a wooden handle, you should also make sure to treat the handle with oil every once in a while. It is very important that water doesn’t get into the handle (which will cause it to warp) and doesn’t escape it too much – if the handle dries out, it’ll shrink and the ax head will come loose. That’s why you can coat it with several layers of oil such as teak or boiled linseed oil, or even plain old olive or vegetable oil – although these are less than ideal as olive oil does go bad and oxidizes. A couple of coats later and you can rub it down with beeswax to seal it in even more. You can apply beeswax by simply using your hands – the friction against the handle will melt it. Make sure to apply oil and beeswax to the top (where the eye of the ax is) and the bottom of the handle, as that’s where moisture gets in most.
Second, you should use your ax in the right way – so, not as a hammer (as tempting as it might be), nor when it’s cold – striking with a cold steel ax head can make it chip or even break apart. Before using a cold ax in cold weather, warm it up for a few minutes – either by holding it near a fire (too much heat takes the hardness out of the steel, though) or simply holding it in your hands, between your legs, or otherwise warming it up with your own body heat. This simple step could save you from the unpleasant surprise of your only ax chipping in the forest in the middle of winter.
Last – but certainly not least – a well-cared-for ax is a sharp ax! This is so important that I’ve dedicated the next section of this guide to sharpening your ax. It’s not difficult, but requires knowledge of some basic principles of sharpening. Read on to find out how to sharpen your ax!
Taking care of your ax is the only way to ensure it serves you well for many years. A well-kept, cared-for ax will make your work with it more a simple joy than a tiring slog. Dull, rusty axes serve no one, and just make accidents and injuries and more likely.
How to Sharpen Your Ax
An ax has to be sharp. That is its whole essence and reason for being – to cut into hardwoods, living trees, and to do it with relative ease because it’s a sharp ax! I’ll write a whole post dedicated to sharpening and profiling axes later, but here are the fundamentals that you need to know. Here’s how to sharpen your ax.
First, you’ll need the right tools. I use a DC4 whetstone or sharpening stone and any file that is between 200 to 300 mm fine. These are the basic tools that work just fine for sharpening axes, and they aren’t expensive, either.
If your ax is quite dull, you’ll need to do some work with the file. Take your ax head firmly in one hand. With the other hand, place the file against the edge. Then push the file back along the whole length of the edge using little pressure. Do it several times, if needed, because what you are aiming for is to actually make the edge curve away from the file. This creates an overhang called a burr, which you should be able to feel with your finger and slightly catch with your fingernail. Repeat the process on the other side, and move the overhang to the first side.
From there you can move on to the sharpening stone. And if your ax is already somewhat sharp, then you can skip the file and start with the whetstone.
When you use the whetstone, you should first use the coarse side of the stone and, placing it on one edge, move it in a circular motion. The aim is to move the overhang in the other direction, just as you did with the file. Once you’ve created the overhang, repeat the process with the whetstone on the other side, and make a few “circuits”, alternating sides, until the ax is quite sharp.
Finally, do the same thing with the fine side of the sharpening stone. You’re making the edge finer and sharper. When you feel that it’s sharp enough, slide the stone gently a few times along each side to center the edge. To remove any bits of burr still hanging on, you can just move the edge back and forth over a piece of rough cloth, such as denim, or a piece of leather.
I’ll write up a post that gets deeper into the methods and tricks of sharpening an ax, but a file and a whetstone are tools that any homeowner or outdoorsman should have, either at home or with them in the field. So they make a good basic sharpening kit.
These are the fundamentals of ax use, safety, technique, and care. If you follow the principles outlined in this guide, you’ll be able to use your ax or axes for a long time in a safe and effective way. It’s that simple. Form over strength, care over carelessness. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below or email me and I’ll try to get back you as soon as possible! Thanks for reading!