Cut with care: Axe techniques and safety

There have been many debates on the "proper" way to swing an axe. This means different things to different people. What is most important is feeling comfortable with the axe you are using, and feeling comfortable with the swing style you use. The desired result is split wood and no injuries. Repeating that result in as safe a manner as possible will make for many years of happy splitting.

Handling an axe

It should go without saying that axes, hatchets, and mauls, just with any other bladed tools, should always be handled extremely carefully. In my opinion it is way better to come off as a ridiculous over-enforcer of safety rules than to risk the types of injury careless use of these tools can produce. Respect your axe. These are tools designed to cut, and they will. If you are moving over more than a short distance, you should sheath your axe rather than walking with the cutting bit exposed.

Swinging an axe

I typically use the same technique I learned in the woods of Wisconsin as a boy scout. This is how I feel most comfortable, and it's an effective and reliable way to get momentum and therefore cutting power from the body through the hands, to the handle and through the head to chop wood accurately and safely. 

The method I'm referring to is a traditional one hand stationary near the base of the handle, the other hand beginning the swing near the head of the axe, in one fluid motion raising over the shoulder, building momentum first up and then down as the top hand slides down to meet the bottom hand as the axe swings downward, generating speed and power through the wrists. If you have ever used a sledgehammer, this is the technique you are most likely using. 

Your stance is crucial. Regardless of swing technique, you'll want to have your legs spread a bit wider than your shoulders, square to the piece of wood you are cutting. This not only gives you good stability and the ability to bend your knees a bit, but also protects you in the case of an under/mis-swing or a glancing blow off the wood. If you instead have a leading leg out towards the direction you are swinging, and you miss, guess where that axe is going to go?

Accuracy is also key. Split wood wisely and use the advantages the wood will give you. Look for cracks and aim for them. Avoid knots. If you get tired, take a break. An axe is not something you want to be swinging if you are losing focus or energy. That's when mistakes happen. Becoming more accurate and therefore proficient in splitting wood takes practice. Take your time, get comfortable with the axe you are using, and be safe.

This video is not only here to break up all this text (thanks for reading), but also because Dick Proenneke had some serious axe skills.


Handing an axe to someone

One way to protect against the danger of getting cut or dropping an axe while handing or receiving it is to simply not hand an axe off. In most scenarios, it is just as easy to set an axe down and allow someone else to pick it up rather than trying to hand it off. While that may be the case, many people will not want to take that extra step and will want to hand an axe off to someone else. The main thing to remember here is to keep the cutting bit aimed in a neutral direction, neither towards the hander nor the handee, but rather outward perpendicular to the arms reach. The crucial moment is the hand off, in which both parties should be absolutely certain that the person being handed the axe has a firm grip on the handle and is ready to receive the weight of the axe. The person handing the axe should not let go until they have checked that the other person has a firm grasp on the axe. A simple, "you got it?" should suffice. Again, better safe than sorry. It only takes one moment of carelessness or a minor slip to cause an injury.

Temporary/camp storage of an axe

If the desire to temporarily store an axe outside of it's sheath arises, use common sense in keeping the cutting bit away from potentially harming someone. Single bit axes can simply be sunk into a log, while double bit axes should be covered in some way in which both cutting bits are not creating a dangerous situation for anyone who might walk by. Common sense is the rule here, if you have to think twice about it, then you probably know what you should do. Take the time to protect yourself and those around you.

Establishing an axe yard

It is never a bad idea to create an "axe yard" if you are going to be splitting wood in any one particular area for a period of time. You can do this by measuring at least double an axe length in each direction from your cutting area and creating an boundary for others to be able to recognize the situation and that there may be cutting edges nearby.

Be prepared, be smart, be careful

The two biggest safety issues people encounter when swinging an axe come in the form of glancing blows and over/underswings. Again, let's state the obvious for obvious sake here, you are using a heavy bladed tool designed to cut things. It will cut you if you are not careful. It may cut you even if you are careful. You can help protect yourself from injury by following some common sense guidelines. 

Keep your axe sharp

A dull axe is dangerous for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest reason is that a dull axe can bounce off the surface of wood, especially if swung at an angle, then glance off and potentially hurt you. A sharp axe will typically bite into the wood, protecting you from this happening. 

Account for mistakes

If you are using a stump or chopping block as a base to cut wood on, place the piece to be split away from the egde of the block nearest you. This way, if you miss with an underswing or other wild shot, the axe will likely just sink into the shopping block. This affords you an extra level of protection, and it never hurts to take every safety advantage you can get.

 Some of Dick's carving techniques make me nervous, and I would never recommend cutting as near your hands as he does a couple times in this video. It is impressive to watch, however, and it should be noted that he was a highly skilled and experienced craftsman, carpenter, and woodsman (if that's not readily apparent by watching the videos). That is to say, don't try this at home. Go to Alaska!

What to do in case of injury or emergency? Stay calm. Assess the situation. Stay calm. Take swift yet careful action to improve the situation. Stay calm. If the injury is such that you or the people with you can treat it, set to the task of cleaning and treating the wound. If the medical attention needed requires a trip to a hospital, figure out the best way to get there and proceed. Did I mention that you should do your best to stay calm? 

I still feel like I'm barely scratching the surface here, but I'll finish by asserting a few main points again. Find your comfort level in a smart and safe way, don't take unnecessary chances, and practice. Safe splitting, happy splitting!