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From the December 2005 Conservationist

All About Axes

By Robert Henke

Axes are made in a variety of shapes and sizesSomeone wiser than I am said that a person could survive in the woods with nothing more than a belt knife-but to be really comfortable required an axe. In the age of campsites with utility "hookups" and trucks selling shrink-wrapped firewood, an axe sometimes seems an anachronism, but this is not true for those whose camping adventures take them beyond the reach of wheels. For this crowd, a good axe has been a trusted companion since time immemorial.

Cartoon images of early man typically depict a hirsute fellow carrying a club, but the axe was likely the first tool developed by humans. The first recognizable tools date from about 2.5 million years ago. This time is known as the Paleolithic era, which literally means "old stone" age. The first tools were heavy flint hand axes, created by knocking chips off the edge of large stone nodules to make a sharp cutting edge. Human ancestors used these tools for a number of purposes, ranging from butchering game to working wood to bashing one another.

As human culture developed, so did the axe. Over time, the crude but effective hand axe was replaced by a lighter version, still made of chipped stone but mounted on a wooden handle. Later axes had elegant heads of carefully ground stone which yielded a much smoother cutting surface.

Notwithstanding these developments, humans were still confined by forests until the development of iron working, sometime around 700 B.C. in Europe. Armed with strong iron axes that could be sharpened repeatedly, farmers began to open up forested areas for agriculture. Soon, because of the venerable axe, these farmers were able to support larger groups of non-farming people, thus paving the way for the urban/rural living pattern that continues to this day.

A winter woodpileWhen Europeans arrived in America, the metal axe came with them. By now, in typical human tradition, axes were not simply a woodworking implement but had become specialized. There were axes with narrow, heavy heads for felling timber, axes for shaping wood into beams-these had offset handles and wide blades-and axes created primarily for the purpose of chopping up enemies. Archaeological evidence shows that the metal axe quickly displaced stone implements in the Native American's toolkit as well.

The modern outdoorsman seeking an axe is confronted with a bewildering array. This is due to both function and style. There are, however, a few general rules that should guide a user to the most appropriate axe.

The shopper must basically make three choices in order to pick the perfect axe: shape, size, and type of head. Type of head is easy-there are only two. One may use a single-bitted or double-bitted axe. The double-bitted axe basically has two cutting edges. The theory here is that you can have two types of edges, one thinner for rapid cutting, and another thicker for wood-splitting chores. The downside is that you have twice the number of edges to be wary of, and a single-bitted axe is therefore safer. This is particularly true if several people are working in close proximity or if the axe must be carried any distance. The single-bitted axe also offers a flat back area for light hammering chores, such as driving tent stakes.

The shape of the head causes many regional arguments. Generally, the harder the wood, the narrower the blade should be. A broad blade that throws large satisfying chips of poplar may leave a hornbeam looking like it had been attacked by a geriatric beaver. The straight-bladed shape known as the "Maine" head is generally the easiest to handle. Other types put increasing amounts of downward sweep in the blade. One of the most famous is the Hudson's Bay axe. This is a small single-bit axe with a graceful, downswept blade. This head pattern is the same as the familiar belt axe carried by colonial troops. It is light and effective, but dangerous in the hands of the unskilled. Generally, the more sweep in the blade, the more versatile the axe but the more apt it is to injure the user. I prefer quite a bit of sweep on my light climbing axe because this makes it easy to hang on a branch between uses. My larger felling axe has a much straighter blade because the power of the swings is so much greater. Here, safety becomes more important than convenience.

Finally, we come to the issue of size. It is best to carry the largest axe you can. This usually means the further you go, the smaller the axe should be. The longer you are going to stay, the larger the axe should be. Neophytes almost always purchase a hatchet. These are of virtually no use except to parents who wish to frustrate children. Most of us have had the experience of receiving a hatchet as a gift and then being told not to use it. Actually, this was probably good advice because the mighty swings necessary to power a hatchet often bode ill for the user's shins and thighs.

Single-bit axes come in three size categories: timber heads weighing as much as seven-and-a-half pounds, eastern heads of about five pounds, and "youth" axes of two to three pounds. The latter is often the choice of backpackers.

Those preferring the balance and straight handle of the double-bitted variety have two choices. In addition to axes with full-sized heads, they may choose the "cruiser's axe," a smaller version weighing about two-and-a-half pounds.

After you've picked the style of axe appropriate for your use, make your final selection based on the handle. The type of wood is not the most important consideration, although many arguments have been waged between proponents of red oak versus white oak (versus maple versus hickory versus ash).

Actually, the most important consideration is not the species but the speed at which the tree grew. Tip the axe up and count the annual rings. Any handle with more than a dozen rings should be suspect and those with more than 15 are likely to break at the first good whack. Mass-produced axes, particularly those made in China and Southeast Asia, often offer very serviceable heads but tremendous variation in handle quality. American-made axes typically show as much attention to quality in the handles as in the steelwork. Some smaller axes are available in solid steel from bit to handle, with a rubberized grip for comfort and safety. They are durable and virtually unbreakable, but be careful when buying one of these. They make a good alternative for short trips, for despite their small size, they are heavy. However, they have been plagued with point-of-aim problems, that is, the blade is just slightly to one side or the other of the plane of the handle. This makes it difficult to strike accurately unless you remember to make a course correction with every swing.

Once you've made your choice, keep the blade sharp, the head rust-free, and the handle protected from the elements by an annual coat of linseed oil. Experienced axemen often paint the head a bright color to make the axe easier to find in the brush. I prefer bright pink. No one considers stealing a pink axe.

A good axe will become a familiar friend over time, and there is almost no limit to the things that can be accomplished by a person skilled in its use.

Retired Environmental Conservation Officer Robert Henke writes about the outdoors for the Glens Falls Post-Star.

Photo: Bob Henke/Jim Clayton/DEC