Tuesday, 1 March 2011

An introduction to the axe

The internet is both a goldmine and a minefield. On one hand you can dig out nuggets of truth and helpfulness, and with the other find only nuggets of the brown, soft variety. This is especially the case when it comes to axes, hatchets and all things relating to their use and modification.

For some time now I have posted on various forums regarding purchasing, modifying, sharpening, using and maintaining axes. My opinion and views have been developed over years of using axes and working on them. For this reason, I find it amusing that there are experts cropping up everywhere who's favourite tool is a shiny new Gransfors Bruks axe, that has seen more time in front of a camera than out in the woods. For the most part, the knowledgable folks I know prefer old, beat up looking axes that they have grown to love over years of use. This is what I look for when searching for an authority on the subject.

The basics of an axe
An axe is not really a complicated tool. It has a handle, and a heavy, sharp head. Where the science comes into the equation is in designing the optimum profile for the axe / hatchet, and selecting the right one for the job. Axes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, handle lengths and even metals. It's often hard to select the right one first go around, however, there are several things that should be considered before you even consider purchasing it.

What to look for in an axe / hatchet
  1. First and foremost is the quality of the steel. The handle will eventually be replaced (at least on traditional axes), but the head will be kept. I like to give the edge a flick with my fingernail and listen to the tone. It should ring like fine china. If it sounds dull, then it is soft. If in doubt, I take a bastard file a do a scrape test. If it easily removes metal, I move on.
  2. Alignment of the head. When viewed front on, the blade should be vertical. If it isn't, choose another axe.
  3. If I am looking at a complete axe, then I inspect the handle next. The grain should not run perpendicular to the blade of the axe. If it does, the handle is weak. Check for knots and cracks. If these are evident, move on.
  4. Carefully consider the tasks that the axe will carry out. Most people tend to buy axes that are too small to be truly useful for the weight cost. This is because most people don't really need an axe, it just looks cool with all their other bushcraft cliches, like bushlore knives and pace bead bracelets.
  5. Shape of the axe is important. Some axes are better suited to softwoods than others. Check what the old axemen used to use in your locale. They used these patterns for a reason. Don't reinvent the wheel. Go to what is tried and tested, but before you do, ask questions and find out why this pattern was preferred.
  6. Think about the cost. Do you really need an axe? Could this cash be better spent elsewhere, like buying a decent backpack or paying the rent? For heaven's sake, don't buy an axe on credit. There are thousands of old axes that are rusting in woodsheds in any town. These come up for sale at yard sales and second hand shops all the time. Decide on what you want then keep looking. Don't impulse buy.
  7. A name does not mean everything. A brandname is not an indicator of quality, usefulness or necessity in your personal camping / bushcraft kit. It's just marketing, and often times shameless and dishonest marketing at that. Think really hard, am I buying this because I need it, or because somehow if I have this I will feel like a bushrafter. If it's the second reason, then stick with a knife. In fact, stick to staying at home and eating microwave meals. Don't ever buy anything because it will impress others, because, more than likely your inexperience and inability to use it will show otherwise.
What else do I need?
A cover for your axe is a must. You should not consider hauling around an axe without one. An axe must be sharp before use and therefore is not the kind of thing to be carried uncovered. This is a recipe for damage to equipment and the loss of several liters of blood.

I get a good chuckle every time I see people asking a question like... "I have a  *insert expensive brand of axe here*, what can I find that is both cheap and good at sharpening it?" Economically, it makes no sense to buy a car if you can't afford the ongoing running costs, yet we see the same illogical example with axes and knives. If you can't afford a file and a diamond hone, then wait until you can buy it all together. The advantage of this is that if it's an impulse buy, the desire will wither while your funds accumulate. It's a win-win.
I personally have a Bahco axe file, a Fallkniven DC4 and if I feel like treating the axe, a leather strop found on my Portavex sharpener. This is for field sharpening because in the workshop I would just use my belt grinder.

from left to right: Portavex, EZ-lap diamond hone, Fallkniven DC4, I'd recommend any of these.

I would not really recommend an axe under 19" of length. I believe that any smaller and you can probably use a knife exclusively and save on the weight. I find that hatchets are just too limited in their chopping ability to make them viable options when camping. Yes, you can use them to split wood and save battoning with your knife, but I would argue that you probably don't have to baton either in 99% of the cases where people do. My personal favourite length is 26", with around a 2.5 pound head. This makes for a decent 2 handed axe, plus is light enough to use one handed.

So there you have it, a simple overview of the axe, selction and considerations when purchasing. Comments are welcome.


  1. On the subject of hatchets--I'm new to using one, but I can say that it can do some things more easily than can be done with a knife.

    I've been attempting to carve a large chunk of wood (had to cut down a small tree in my yard and I like carving and didn't want it to go to waste). Removing the amounts of material I need to to shape it would take ages with a 3-5" blade, I can say that much. And larger knife would be clumsier to manipulate, IMO.

    This might not be the first use for a hatchet/small axe that pops into a person's mind, but it does exist, and the hatchet definitely does it faster than a knife. I wouldn't even attempt this with my dedicated wood carving tools. *Those* blades are waaay too small. LOL

  2. My comments are based on camp tasks and firewood collection. For carving there is a definate need for a hatchet due to higher control with a shorter handle. The comments are not made regarding carpentry or carving hatchets but rather a multi-purpose tool when out in the woods and a chainsaw is not a viable option. If you compare a hatchet to a 26" axe when processing wood, the 26" will out cut the hatchet in nearly every case (except maybe where VERY limited access or reach is concerned, which is more gardening than firewood processing anyway).

  3. Wielding an axe is not just cool, it is also purposeful and can be a very effective handheld tool and weapon as needed. Having doubts in learning to use an axe? Read this very helpful article here: