What Is a Hand Axe and How It Can Be Used

Stone age man instructed his children on how to make and use the prehistoric Swiss army knife, the hand axe, for literally over one million years. This incredible tool was designed and utilized far before written language was developed and may even predate man’s ability to control fire. Few tools and inventions have survived throughout the ages, but the hand axe has continued to be the primary tool used in felling trees, chopping firewood and splitting wood. This article will explain how to perform a safety check, master your swing and successfully utilize the hand axe.

a lumberjack holding a hand axe

6 Steps on How to Use a Hand Axe

Step One (Perform a Safety Check)

The most crucial step in successfully using a hand axe is following the safety guidelines. Properly cared for axes will be sharp, heavy and possibly greased. This combination is dangerous when handled incorrectly, so take heed of all safety precautions. First, choose strong and sturdy work boots to protect your feet.

Avoid wearing loose articles of clothing. If you have long hair, then it should be tied up to avoid obstructing your vision. Always inspect your hand axe before each use to ensure it is sharp, tight and secure. A blunt hand axe will bounce off, rather than cut into, wood and can lead to injury. The head should not feel loose and should line up with the handle. An axe should not be used if the handle shows any sign of damage or splitting.

Step Two (Prepare the Chopping Area)

Next, choose an area that is free of obstructions. The appropriate distance between the chopping area and anything else is two axe lengths. Prepare the chopping area by covering the ground with a tarp or plastic material for a quick cleanup of wood chippings. It is never a good idea to chop firewood directly onto the ground. Instead, locate a suitable chopping block that you can rest the firewood over for more effective chopping.

Step Three (Master the Swing)

Despite the stereotypical buff stature of a lumberjack, accuracy, rather than strength, is the key to mastering the hand axe. Powerful swings will do very little when they are hitting different parts of the wood with each new swing. Focus on holding the hand axe correctly and building accuracy before putting any power behind swings. The dominant hand should hold the neck about three inches from the head of the axe, and the palm should face outward.

Place the less dominant hand toward the end of the handle right atop the knob with the palm facing inward. Ensure your grip is strong but not tense enough to prevent the top hand from sliding to meet the bottom hand while swinging. Concentrate on the target and focusing your aim with controlled swings. Aiming is the most difficult, yet essential, aspect to a successful swing. Once mastered, add power and speed to the perfect swing.

Step Four (Bucking, Splitting and Limbing Wood)

Bucking, splitting and limbing wood requires a vertical chop or a swing which goes up and down. Bucking is the act of cutting a tree into smaller logs by standing on top of the tree log and swinging downward. Stand with your desired mark between your legs and chop a V-shaped notch into the log by swinging the axe from above your right shoulder toward the log. Once you’ve made a V cut on one side, turn around and chop another V into the other side of the log until the two V cut’s meet in the center.

Wood splitting, or making lumber by cutting along the grain, can be achieved by using the chopping block in your cutting area. The safest method for splitting is to wedge the axe into the center of the wood and cut downward onto the chopping block, but a vertical chop is also effective. Limbing involves removing limbs and branches from the log. Use the vertical chop method and always stand on the opposite side of the tree from where you’re cutting. Chop the limbs in the direction of the top of the tree at a slight angle rather than parallel to the tree.

Step Five (Felling a Tree)

When felling a tree, a sideways chop stroke is required. All horizontal swings should be diagonal, rather than parallel, to the ground. Position yourself so that the tree is in the direction of the swing instead of directly in front. Swing the axe to make an initial face cut into the tree in the direction you want it to fall. Next, make another cut on the opposite side of the tree about two to three inches above the face cut. This method will create a hinge, and the tree should begin to fall in the direction of your first face cut.

Step Six (Take Care of the Axe)

a hand axe and a knife

Always place a mask on an axe if it is not currently being used. It’s acceptable to temporarily drive the axe into a chopping block to mask the blade, but ensure that the axe follows the grain of the wood and is secure. Never leave an axe in this position or outdoors overnight. Hand axes need to be kept dry. It may seem counter-intuitive, but a blunt axe is significantly more dangerous than a sharp one. Take care to check on the sharpness of your axe after each use and sharpen it when necessary.

To prevent rust, the head of the axe should be greased occasionally. It is vital to inspect and care for the axe haft after each use because a damaged haft will almost certainly cause injury. Never attempt to repair a haft that shows any sign of damage or splitting. Instead, replace the haft entirely even if the damage seems small. Oiling the haft with special linseed oil protects the wood from rotting and will increase the haft’s lifespan.

Performing routine safety checks, preparing the chopping area, mastering the swing and taking care of the hand axe are necessary steps to be successful in using this tool. The hand axe can be utilized in a variety of ways to chop, split, limb and fell trees. If you have never used a hand axe before, then this article should encourage you to try this time-tested skill. Share your stories, tips or tricks about this primitive to modern-day tool by commenting below.

Image sources: 1, 2

Pamela M. Slocum