Choosing the Right Axe

When it comes to the outdoors, the tool most often associated with camping has got to be the axe. Axes were the first tools invented for chopping trees and building shelters – but the usefulness doesn’t stop there, axes can also be used for splitting wood, hammering in tent pegs, and according to legend even shaving.

There are as many different styles of axes as there are regions in the world. The axe has evolved over the centuries into what we commonly see today. There are three different sizes of axes. The hatchet, the long handled axe, and the splitting maul. Each axe has its own place in the outdoors and if properly cared for by keeping the splitting edge sharp and the axe dry, will last a lifetime.

choosing the right ax
Hatchets are used for splitting small logs or kindling of about 2” in diameter.

The hatchet has a handle of less than 24” (usually around 12” to 16”) and a lighter weight head of less than 1lb. A hatchet is used primarily for splitting kindling from small diameter logs. A hatchet can also be used for cutting small branches off of tree trunks. They can also double as a hammer in pinch for tent pegs and other similar jobs. Hatchet’s small sizes make them very handy to carry with you on hiking trips or in your car or boat’s emergency gear. Every camp site should have at least one hatchet on it somewhere.

A felling axe is used to cut across the grain of a tree to chop it down. A splitting axe is used for splitting logs 4” to 6” in diameter. Axe heads for felling usually weigh between 1/2lb and 2lbs. The hardness of the steel that makes up the head is important when choosing a quality axe. If the metal is too soft, the splitting edge will dull quickly and require frequent sharpening.

choosing an ax for camping or outdoor use
Felling axes are used for chopping down trees and splitting axes are used for splitting logs less than 6” in diameter.

Axe handles are made from hard wood, plastic compounds, or metal and are usually between 28” to 36” long. The longer handle gives greater leverage to the person swinging the axe making the task of chopping easier as the weight of the axe does more of the work. When choosing an axe, look for one that has a nice balance between weight of the head and length of the handle. A comfortable grip and one that you can swing comfortably is also important.

A splitting maul is to an axe what a sledge hammer is to hammers. A maul head weighs between 4lbs and 8lbs. The extra weight of the axe head makes it very easy to split wood. Mauls have handles 36” long and the leverage this creates along with the weight of the head allow it to sail through logs 12” in diameter or more with very little effort. A maul is used most often for splitting logs rather than chopping down trees. It can also substitute as a sledge hammer in a pinch should you need to hammer in splitting wedges or require some extra force around the campsite.

different kinds of axes
Splitting mauls are used for spitting large diameter logs. The heavy weight of the maul head allows this axe to split most pieces of wood with ease.

A sharp edge on the axe you purchase is the key to effortless use. If an axe becomes dull, then it can glance sideways or bounce off the wood rather than splitting it. Either situation can be dangerous to the chopper or by-standers. Keep axes sharp by filing them as soon as the edge becomes dull. Never use a spinning grindstone-the heat generated will blue the edge quickly making it impossible for the axe to be sharpened.

Metal files starting with a 12” bastard cut, second cut, and then smooth cut cutting edges should be used to maintain a sharp edge on the axe head. Folklore tales are full of stories about lumberjacks who would shave each morning with their razor sharp axe while staying at logging camps deep in the bush. Whether or not this is actually possible remains to be seen, but investing is a good set of files will definitely keep you sharp and on edge.

Chopping wood with an axe can be surprisingly dangerous. Be sure to wear work gloves, work boots, and eye protection while swinging the axe. Ensure bystanders or helpers are not standing in the path of your swing and that your chopping block is on solid ground. Keep your work space clear of split logs and make certain there are no overhanging branches to interfere with your swing of the axe.

The axe is one of the oldest tools in the outdoors lovers tool box. Whether used for splitting kindling, breaking up large pieces of firewood, or building a log cabin, a good axe is a must have for your next camping trip.

Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson