Chop­ping Com­pe­tently

Ad­vanced Ax Skills for the Bur­geon­ing Woods­man

RECOIL OFFGRID - - Contents - By Kevin Estela

Ad­vanced Ax Skills for the Bur­geon­ing Woods­man

We’ll go out on a limb here and say the ex­tent of most peo­ple’s ax ed­u­ca­tion is prob­a­bly a talk about the “safety cir­cle” and a warn­ing not to cut in the di­rec­tion of any­thing you don’t want to cut off, like your leg. Just about ev­ery­one who has re­ceived some sort of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion on us­ing a hatchet or ax has heard about the “safety cir­cle” — as long as you’re still us­ing an ax, you prob­a­bly still have all the body parts you started with. We get it; you’re not sup­posed to use an ax if you don’t have a safe place to swing it, and no one wants to get cut. It’s good ad­vice. Un­for­tu­nately, too many peo­ple fear what the ax can do, and their lack of ax train­ing and knowl­edge of the tool limit their abil­ity.

For many ax own­ers, the ex­tent of their skill is split­ting pre-cut camp­fire wood on a pic­nic bench at a pri­vate camp­ground or hack­ing away at branches within reach. What we’ll show you are real skills that go beyond the “don’t cut your­self or any­one else” talk. If you aren’t com­fort­able with that, hold that ax at full ex­ten­sion, draw a cir­cle in all di­rec­tions, and prac­tice that first. If you’re ready to see old-school skill, fol­low along as we show you some ad­vanced tech­niques that can save your ass — or at least make your time in the back­woods a lit­tle eas­ier.


Ev­ery­one wants to cut a tree down at some point. It’s al­most an un­writ­ten rule and rite of pas­sage. Felling has prac­ti­cal pur­poses, in­clud­ing re­mov­ing haz­ardous trees or clear­ing an area for a camp and ac­cess­ing larger wood for fuel or building ma­te­ri­als. To cut trees down, aka “felling,” you can't just hack away at a stand­ing tree. Some se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tions and skill go into learn­ing the nu­ances of it. Mis­takes can be for­given with smaller saplings, but ap­ply the same sloppy tech­nique to larger trees and you’ll be in a world of hurt. When­ever you ap­proach a tree you plan to fell, as­sess it first. Look all around to see if there are any dead or hun­gup (wid­ow­maker) branches hang­ing over­head. Many times, these dead branches will fall af­ter get­ting rat­tled free with the first ax cut. This is why we rec­om­mend first us­ing your hands to push against a tree while look­ing up. If part of it starts to break off, get your ass out of the way if it falls.

In your assess­ment, look for the path­way the tree will take when it falls; it should be clear. Trust us, it’s much more re­ward­ing to watch a tree fall cleanly to the ground than get hung up on an­other tree that acts like a crutch. Part of your felling assess­ment should in­clude think­ing about the job af­ter the tree falls. Ask your­self if you can drop a tree closer to camp and if you’ll be able to process it eas­ily.

When you’re ready to cut that tree down, start with a good front cut on the same side in the di­rec­tion the tree will fall. This front cut will serve as a hinge and pre­vent “barber chair­ing” when a tree will ac­tu­ally kick back as it breaks. On a large tree, this could kill you. To front cut, a 45-de­gree di­ag­o­nal cut is made into a tree. On a large tree with the po­ten­tial to hurt you as it falls, cut half­way through di­ag­o­nally down and slightly di­ag­o­nally across.

If some­one tells you to cut hor­i­zon­tally across, they’re used to drop­ping trees with a chain­saw. In gen­eral, a good di­ag­o­nal cut against the grain of wood will shear it in­stead of com­press it like a cut made per­pen­dic­u­lar to the wood. Once you have a good front cut, you can move to the other side and pro­ceed to back cut. An­other sim­ple way of felling a tree is to cut four 90-de­gree an­gles around a tree. This works well with trees smaller in di­am­e­ter than your ax head. Whichever way you choose, when it's ready to fall, go ahead and yell, “tim­ber” if you want, but get out of the way when it starts to move.


If you want to process a tree you just dropped or some branches on a dead tree you’ve come across, the skill you need is limb­ing. Work­ing from the bot­tom of the tree to the top, cuts are made to the un­der­side of branches. Use cau­tion when cut­ting pines and other resinous woods if the tree is ex­tremely dry. Resin col­lects at the joints of branches and trunk and will harden to a point where it’ll ac­tu­ally dam­age some edges when struck. Hard­ened pine resin is the rea­son why sea­soned ax­men will cut around knots in­stead of through them.

When limb­ing, use a “golf swing” and keep the trunk of the tree be­tween you and the ax head. De­pend­ing on the size of the tree you’re work­ing with, ei­ther roll it over to ac­cess the branches on the other side and con­tinue swing­ing in the same di­rec­tion or switch hands if you’re com­pe­tent

work­ing in more than one di­rec­tion. Just make sure that if you’re limb­ing a tree on a hill­side, you stay on the up­hill side of the trunk. The re­main­ing branches on the tree might be the kick­stand pre­vent­ing it from rolling down­hill. A rel­a­tively small tree rolling in your di­rec­tion can be for­given, but a larger tree will hurt or kill you.

Buck­ing and Split­ting

Af­ter ev­ery good storm, news re­porters love to make ref­er­ence to trees block­ing road­ways. It doesn’t take a very large tree to stop most traf­fic. It’s easy to clear with a good ax — the process of buck­ing, or cut­ting a tree into logs, can be done while stand­ing next to the log or on top of it. We sug­gest you avoid mim­ick­ing the Stihl Lum­ber­jack Chal­lenge un­der­hand buck com­pe­ti­tion un­til you burn some good reps buck­ing while stand­ing next to the log first.

When us­ing an ax to buck a log, think of chop­ping in thirds. That is, you want to cut the log three times, fur­thest from you, near­est you, and con­nect­ing the two in the mid­dle, be­fore you change your an­gle. Keep your cuts at about 45 de­grees to pre­vent com­press­ing the wood with too steep or too shal­low of an an­gle that will cause your ax to glance. Make sure the kerf, the width of your cut, is at least as wide as the tree is thick around.

Af­ter you buck your tree into logs, you’ll no­tice your ax didn’t cre­ate any flat sur­faces to stand up on for split­ting the logs into pieces. Most be­gin­ners have no trou­ble learn­ing

how to split logs with flat sur­faces. Split­ting ax-bucked logs re­quires more skill to ei­ther ex­ploit nat­u­ral cracks in the wood grain with wooden wedges or to split the logs where they lay in dif­fer­ent ways. For some logs, this will mean prop­ping the log up on an­other log with the side lifted up to face you.

A strong ver­ti­cal chop will split the log and the log it’s propped up on serves as a stop to your ax blade. An ax­man can also swing hor­i­zon­tally at the bucked logs and split them this way. If this is the pre­ferred way, the logs should be po­si­tioned far enough away where they can still be reached with the ax, but a glance won't cause the ax to cut into the ax­man’s leg. The safest way to split is to use a wooden ba­ton

on the pole of your ax. This can be done with the grain from ei­ther the end or the side of the log.

Cre­at­ing Flats (Hew­ing Logs)

There may be a time or sit­u­a­tion in an ex­tended camp or over­land trip when you’ll need to process round logs into squares. You may need to con­struct a more permanent camp in the woods with benches and walk­ways or a bridge to cross a gap. In both of these cir­cum­stances, flat sur­faces are more com­fort­able to sit on and bet­ter for tires to roll across. Hew­ing logs is an ad­vanced skill, but it isn’t a com­pli­cated process.

Much like the method one would use to buck up a log, the ax­man uses his ax to score a log along its length. If you had a saw, you could mark the clean-cut end with a square to use as your beam's di­men­sions as you hew it. With­out a saw, you need to eye­ball the log from dif­fer­ent an­gles to en­sure it ends up square. The scor­ing cuts should be a uni­form depth, or very close to it, for the flat­test and straight­est sur­face. Once the en­tire length of the log is prepped with these marks, the ax­man works from one end of the log, cut­ting away the re­main­ing outer bark and wood along the same depth as the mul­ti­ple scores un­til he reaches the end of the log. The flat sur­face cre­ated can be re­peated to make square beams, and these are more eas­ily joined with other flat beams in con­struc­tion.

Ax Habits

Lack of skill is a dead give­away for ax in­ex­pe­ri­ence; a short­age of good habits is an­other. If we are what we re­peat­edly do, we want to in­still good ax habits in our rou­tine. Rather than cut­ting any wood that you might find, learn­ing which woods work the best for each ap­pli­ca­tion will save time and en­ergy. Good hard­woods work well for pro­duc­ing the most BTUs, and cer­tain soft­woods are bet­ter suited for semi-permanent shel­ter building for in­sect re­sis­tance.

A good ax­man will know which wood is most sea­soned and which wood is too punky and de­com­pos­ing. In ad­verse weather, an ax­man should know to coat his blade with a pro­tec­tant like lin­seed oil that leaves a clear coat on the blade and pro­tects it from rust. He also knows how steel is af­fected by the ex­treme cold and will warm the blade slightly by a fire be­fore use. He also knows not to heat it to ex­cess, as that will take the tem­per out of the blade. Any good ax­man should also have a main­te­nance kit that in­cludes files, a sharp­en­ing puck, and the other tools needed for han­dle re­pair and re­place­ment. In this re­spect, what you carry speaks to your ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge of what could hap­pen.

Ad­vanced skills are ac­quired with plenty of time and a lot of el­bow grease. Learn to use your gear, and it’ll take care of you, whether you’re ca­su­ally camp­ing in the forest or ad­dress­ing your sur­vival needs in the deep back­woods.

When felling a tree, make sure to an­tic­i­pate which di­rec­tion the tree will fall and be mind­ful of branches that may fall on you in the process.

With­out a chop­ping block, you’ll have to im­pro­vise. You can safely swing be­tween your legs with a wide enough base and a clear fol­lowthrough.

To avoid strik­ing through to the ground, the log you’re work­ing with can be propped up on a stump and against an ad­ja­cent stand­ing tree.

Buck­ing is the process of cut­ting through logs to cre­ate smaller lengths. Di­vide the log into thirds on each side of the kerf. This is how a smaller ax can be used to ef­fec­tively process a thicker log.

Your kerf, the cut­ting chan­nel you’re work­ing on, should be as wide as your log is thick. This will pre­vent bind­ing.

Hew­ing is the process of turn­ing round logs into square beams. Us­ing your ax,first start by cre­at­ing scor­ingcuts along one side. Re­move the re­main­ing ma­te­rial be­tween the scores to cre­ate a flat. Re­peat theprocess un­til a 90-de­gree an­gle is made. Re­peat again and again to cre­ate a squarebeam.

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