Get the most out of your ax/knife/saw combo.

American Survival Guide - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Reuben Bolieu

Sur­vival tools, in my opin­ion, are tools that most avid out­doors­men carry on ex­cur­sions as part of their camp­ing gear and sur­vival kits or in their bug-out bags. His­tor­i­cally, knives, saws, hatch­ets, tom­a­hawks and axes have taken on the bulk of the work in these sit­u­a­tions.

While there is some func­tional cross­over, each has its strengths, and all come with a cer­tain de­gree of risk for in­jury. As with all tools, un­der­stand­ing the proper use and tech­niques for the task at hand will make your ex­pe­ri­ence both pro­duc­tive and safe.

Above all, re­mem­ber that a sharper-edged tool is a safer-edged tool. Dull blades re­quire more force to cut, and ex­ces­sive force leads to ac­ci­dents and in­juries.

Here, we’ll get into the ba­sics of each of the three tools of­ten re­ferred to as the “Ness­muk” or “Kephart Trio,” which is a tool sys­tem used to per­form camp crafts and en­hance wilder­ness liv­ing, rather than a one-tool-to-do-all sce­nario.


Safety and suc­cess are all in the grip, and there are sev­eral com­mon and ef­fec­tive tech­niques for get­ting the most out of your knife.

Fore­hand Grip. The fore­hand grip is, by far, the most com­mon way of hold­ing and us­ing a knife. Hold the han­dle in a firm, fist-type grip with your pinky to­ward the butt of the han­dle and the edge fac­ing away from you. Cut­ting heavy cordage, tree roots, mak­ing fuzz sticks or sharp­en­ing a point on the end of a stick can all be done with this grip.

Whit­tling wood or mak­ing fuzz sticks for a

fire with this grip is very ef­fi­cient. Be sure to keep your arm locked, and use your whole body in a slow, smooth mo­tion while ap­ply­ing con­stant pres­sure. This will help keep fuzz sticks nice and even.

On the safety side of things, keep­ing your el­bow in a locked po­si­tion will save you, in the long run, from un­nec­es­sary jar­ring of that joint, which can lead to in­juries such as ten­nis el­bow. Avoid plac­ing your thumb on the spine while whit­tling, be­cause this will put un­even pres­sure on the project and give you less-than-de­sir­able fuzz sticks. This is def­i­nitely a task for which prac­tice makes per­fect.

Be care­ful when fol­low­ing through on your cut­ting mo­tion, es­pe­cially when cut­ting some­thing that pro­vides a bit more re­sis­tance than nor­mal or ex­pected.

Chest Lever Grip. When em­ploy­ing the chest lever grip, the cut­ting edge is ac­tu­ally fac­ing the knuck­les of the hand, and the thumb rests on the flat of the blade or top of the han­dle scales for sup­port. Bend your el­bow and po­si­tion your knife hand across your chest with the spine fac­ing the chest and the edge fac­ing out.

Bring the project hand up to meet the cut­ting edge. The cut is ac­com­plished by us­ing your shoul­ders and back mus­cles with a chest-out mo­tion, pulling your bent arms away from each other. This makes for a pow­er­ful and con­trolled cut. This po­si­tion is unique, be­cause it can also be used for fine tip work on a spear or sim­i­lar sharp stick when com­bined with the push cut.

The ad­van­tage of this grip is that you can have the blade at chest level right un­der your eyes for very con­trolled cuts. Most of all, it is a very safe grip, be­cause the knife is not flail­ing around when you fol­low through.

Ba­ton­ing. Us­ing a ba­ton in con­junc­tion with a knife is a very ef­fec­tive way of get­ting heavy work done with a small tool. Limb­ing small trees and split­ting wrist-thick pieces of wood can eas­ily be done with the help of a stout ba­ton.

To split a piece of wood length­wise, sim­ply stand the piece of wood on end and use your “off” hand to place the knife edge on the end of the wood. With the other hand, use a stout stick to ham­mer the spine of the knife blade into the wood. As the knife sinks in, con­tinue ham­mer­ing the top of the blade un­til the wood is cleanly split.

Un­less the wood is rel­a­tively soft, never twist the knife while it’s in the wood, or you could dam­age the knife. Be aware of any rocks or gravel in the path of the knife that could dam­age the cut­ting edge.

When ba­ton­ing in a cross-grain fash­ion, make sure to ba­ton the spine di­rectly over the wood to en­sure the best pos­si­ble en­ergy trans­fer and lessen the stress on the knife, as well as the shock on the hand sup­port­ing the knife han­dle. It is a good idea to ba­ton at an­gles as if you were cut­ting with an ax, which will cre­ate a V-shaped notch, weak­en­ing the wood enough to break it. This will save time and en­ergy and pro­tect your knife from un­nec­es­sary hard use.



I will use the term, “ax,” to also rep­re­sent a hatchet/tom­a­hawk. This sec­tion will deal with pro­cess­ing downed wood, be­cause this is what you’ll be cut­ting most of­ten.

Chop­ping. Re­gard­less of the task, when chop­ping, back up your work by putting the area to be cut on an­other piece of wood. This will give you the best en­ergy trans­fer and en­sure your bit doesn’t get buried in the ground ... or worse—bone! Chop­ping a small log that is on the ground in a hor­i­zon­tal po­si­tion should be done from a kneel­ing or sit­ting po­si­tion. The fore­arm and ax han­dle should both be kept par­al­lel at the mo­ment of im­pact and there­after. This is known as the “par­al­lel plane.” If the

hand and fore­arm(s) are kept above the point of im­pact, it causes the bit to con­tinue in the path back to­ward you. The longer the han­dle, the safer the tool is to use.

Chop the log with al­ter­nat­ing an­gled strokes to form a V-shaped cut. Make the start­ing width of the V cut ap­prox­i­mately the same dis­tance as the di­am­e­ter of the log. If at all pos­si­ble, roll the log over af­ter chop­ping about half­way through for more-ef­fi­cient cut­ting.

An­other op­tion for chop­ping through a log is to make four sep­a­rate and par­al­lel an­gled chops in one di­rec­tion and then make four chops at the op­po­site an­gle that over­lap the first four, thus chip­ping out the first four cuts. An­other tech­nique is to chop half­way through the log from one side, move to the op­po­site side of the log and re­sume chop­ping from that side. Typ­i­cally, this is meant for larger-di­am­e­ter wood and longer-han­dled axes.

One-handed chop­ping with a short han­dle means get­ting up close and per­sonal with the wood, hov­er­ing over it and still keep­ing the par­al­lel plane. Chop­ping while us­ing two hands with a 19-inch-or-longer han­dle is the best way

to con­trol the bit and get more power out of a lighter tool. Ac­cu­racy counts much more than a hard, blun­der­ing chop. Prac­tice is para­mount for us­ing an ax ac­cu­rately and safely!

Limb­ing. This task is best done on a downed tree while stand­ing on the op­po­site side of the trunk from the branches be­ing cut, us­ing the trunk as a pro­tec­tor log. Chop the branches close to the trunk of the tree and in the di­rec­tion of growth.

Split­ting. The dis­ad­van­tage of a lighter tom­a­hawk is that it lacks the weight needed for split­ting wood. In the con­ven­tional way of us­ing an ax or hatchet, the log is placed ver­ti­cally on a chop­ping block and then split us­ing the tool’s weight and the wedge shape of the head. There are other ways, how­ever. Se­lect­ing wood for mak­ing a fire is a mat­ter of us­ing your brain and not choos­ing wood that’s too thick. Any­thing thicker than wrist/bi­cep thick­ness can be used as larger fuel.

Not ev­ery­one is ac­cu­rate when swing­ing chop­ping tools. Ba­ton­ing with an ax al­lows the user to cre­ate pre­cise, in­ten­tional splits in wood rather than a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous chop.

An easy way to split wood with an ax is by hold­ing the han­dle and the wood par­al­lel, plac­ing the ax bit at the top end of the small log and rais­ing the two up about a foot. Then, bring them both down to­gether on a chop­ping block. This will drive the bit into the wood and cre­ate a split. Just pull the han­dle and wood apart in op­po­site di­rec­tions (like shears) to fin­ish the split. This is the safest way to split small-di­am­e­ter wood. Do not at­tempt to chop into the top of the log first—this is a com­mon thing peo­ple try to do when first us­ing this method. Sim­ply let the mo­men­tum of the ax bit do the work. Nat­u­rally, softer wood will be eas­ier to split than harder, knot­ted-up wood, so be pa­tient and prac­tice.

Fine work with an ax should be lim­ited to smaller splits for kin­dling. Mak­ing fuzz sticks for fire with an ax is a lit­tle more ad­vanced. To think oth­er­wise is fool­ing your­self. So, use a small knife for any­thing re­quir­ing real crafts­man­ship.



Used cor­rectly, a saw will eas­ily out­cut an ax or large chop­ping blade. A saw will not slice

bread, split or chop wood, blaze a trail or skin game. Yet, its at­tributes are just as pro­duc­tive and use­ful. When us­ing a large chop­ping tool, it’s pos­si­ble to have a few bad swings that pro­duce no re­sults (other than wast­ing en­ergy or ding­ing the edge). How­ever, with a saw, as long as the blade is in the cut, ev­ery pull counts, and there is less wasted mo­tion and risk of in­jury.

To use a saw cor­rectly is to use a saw ... safely! When at­tempt­ing to cut a downed log, first make sure it isn’t too large for the saw’s blade. When mak­ing the ini­tial cut with the saw, place the blade where you want to make the cut and cross your free hand over the saw and grip the log. This might seem a lit­tle awk­ward at first, but if the saw blade skips out while es­tab­lish­ing the cut, it will only rub against your free hand’s in­ner fore­arm with the spine. Most peo­ple will place their free hand near the saw blade when they are mak­ing the ini­tial cut. If the saw blade skips around while try­ing to es­tab­lish it­self in the log, it will leave the most un­even gash on the top of the knuck­les of your free hand. I have seen more cuts from saw teeth skip­ping around and land­ing on the hand than from knives.

Use the cross-arm method un­til the spine of the saw blade is deep in the wood; then, ad­just to the more-nat­u­ral com­fort­able grip with the free hand. Al­ter­na­tively, be­gin saw­ing with two hands if the log is im­mo­bile. We want the saw to shred through wood ex­pe­di­tiously, but get­ting cut in the process is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Speed is of the essence, but safety is para­mount.

Cut­ting a branch from a stand­ing tree can be done by hold­ing the branch with the free hand and mak­ing a cut through the bark on the un­der­side first. Then, cut the top of the

branch above the first cut, and the branch will break cleanly with­out the bark strip­ping off un­evenly and un­nec­es­sar­ily dam­ag­ing the tree.

When saw­ing small branches or trees on the ground, use the knee method. Sim­ply put your weak-side knee on the ground and place the wood in the bend of your strong side knee (your right knee if saw­ing right-hand­edly). This will help se­cure the wood, along with the free hand hold­ing the other end. Saw the wood on the out­board side of the bent knee.

Com­pared to swing­ing a chop­ping tool, us­ing a saw of­fers much more con­trol and is safer. Cut­ting over­head with a saw is safer than with a chop­per. I read in a wood­craft book that there are no mi­nor in­juries with a hatchet or ax. This is true, so for cut­ting branches up high, use a saw!

When out prac­tic­ing your bushcraft and camp-mak­ing skills, re­mem­ber that the ba­sics are the most im­por­tant as­pect of proper tool use. No mat­ter what we do, the ba­sics al­ways come back to us, so keep them sim­ple and pre­cise ... and make sure you prac­tice.


Be­low: The fore­hand grip is also used for mak­ing fuzz sticks. The au­thor rec­om­mends keep­ing the thumb off the spine, be­cause this is where most peo­ple go wrong when mak­ing fuzz sticks for a fire.

Right: Scan­di­na­vians nor­mally use three tools for their camps: a puukko, bow­saw and ax. These three Fin­nish cut­ting tools are com­mon in North Amer­ica as well.

A chest-lever grip is a safe way to cut with power. For a pow­er­ful or smooth cut, keep your el­bows bent; pull back with the shoul­ders. Note that the knife is side­ways, fac­ing away from the body.

A chest-lever grip is also very good for con­trolled, fine de­tailed work. The au­thor prefers this grip for both pow­er­ful cuts and light carv­ing.

The au­thor is us­ing a fore­hand grip to cut a wedge from hard­wood. This is a pow­er­ful and safe grip. All cuts should al­ways be away from your­self and other peo­ple.

Near left: Split­ting long or thick wood can be done by us­ing a ham­mer stick (ba­ton) to drive the head deeper into the split in the wood. It is safer and more con­trolled than chop­ping through. The po­si­tion might seem a lit­tle awk­ward at first, but it is eas­ier than us­ing a heav­ier, cum­ber­some ax.Far left: When chop­ping logs, stand be­hind the log with your legs shoul­der width apart, and keep the par­al­lel plane with the cut­ting bit. Make the ini­tial cut as wide as the log’s di­am­e­ter.

Above: Work­ing on an in­cline, the larger ax is used while the au­thor is in a sit­ting po­si­tion. No­tice that the large V cut is about the same width as the di­am­e­ter of the tree.

Be­low: The au­thor is us­ing a short-han­dled ax (tom­a­hawk) one-handed from a kneel­ing po­si­tion. This is a safe po­si­tion, be­cause he is also us­ing a pro­tec­tor log in front of him.

The safest way to split small-di­am­e­ter logs is in a kneel­ing po­si­tion. Af­ter driv­ing the head into the log, pull the han­dle away from the log per­pen­dic­u­lar to the cut to split it apart.

This is an ex­am­ple of a trio the au­thor has used for years: a TOPS C.U.B. knife, Corona 10-inch fold­ing saw and an H&B Forge Large Camp Ax.

Far left: The au­thor is us­ing the knee method to saw smaller-di­am­e­ter wood with a fold­ing saw in a safe and con­trolled man­ner. He is grip­ping the saw to­ward the back of the han­dle for added lever­age.Near left: A large fold­ing saw can do a lot of work—safely. This 10-inch Corona Ra­zor Tooth Saw made quick work of these cuts.

Right: Safely hold the wood on the other side of the saw blade to pro­tect your hand from cuts if the saw skips out. Note that the small branch be­low the cut is rest­ing on a rock to keep the wood stable while it is be­ing cut.

Reach through frame or bow saws to hold the piece of wood un­til the blade’s spine is be­low the sur­face. This pro­tects the hand that is sta­bi­liz­ing the wood from cuts if the saw skips out.

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