Firstly let’s differentiate between the ‘axe’ and the ‘hatchet’. A hatchet is simply a smaller version of the axe which can be used easily with just one hand. More often connected to outdoor camping and wildlife adventures, the hatchet is also used in the garden for chopping up smaller pieces of wood or for more intricate things like carving ornaments or statues out of logs or for lopping smaller branches.
The principles of use for both are pretty much the same – an axe is just longer, its head is bigger and it is naturally used for much bigger chopping jobs and requires the use of both hands. However, because of the way in which both of these tools are used, careless use of them is far more dangerous than using the vast majority of other manual or hand-held tools. For the purpose of this article however, it will be referred to as an axe unless stated.
The head of an axe is very sharp and can cause serious damage if you were to suddenly trip over whilst you were carrying it. Therefore, when not in use and being carried around, you should cover its head with a protective sheath. Not only will this prevent you from getting injured, it will also help to protect and maintain the sharpness of the axe head. If you need to hand the axe over to somebody, always do so by offering them the handle end and not the blade end and walk with the blade facing away from you, even when it’s sheathed. Don’t run when carrying an axe and always maintain a firm footing both when walking with it and when using it.
The whole function of an axe requires its blade to be razor sharp and you’d use a special sharpening stone for this. Sometimes you’ll find that the head has become a bit loose from the shaft when you’re out working with it. This would indicate that it’s time to get a new handle but as long as the head is not in danger of flying off the shaft (and if you work with it regularly, you’ll notice it’s becoming slightly looser far in advance of when it would be likely to fly off), then you can temporarily repair it by driving a wedge into the wood of the head or, alternatively, soak the axe in a bucket of water for a few hours as this will cause the head to swell. However, at this stage, it is time for you to start thinking about buying a new axe fairly soon.
Preparing the Work Area
As you’ll be swinging the axe above your head, it’s necessary to ensure that you’re going to be working in a safe environment where nobody can get injured. Therefore, you need to rope or cordon off a designated area in which no-one else is permitted. If you use your axe regularly, you’ll know the distance at which you’ll have to set up your cordon but if you’re unsure, check your clearance by holding the axe at arm’s length over your head and all around your body, then calculate 2 arms length distances and add on a further 3 metres or so. That’s the limit of how close people should be able to get to you.
Most axe related jobs will involve cutting off the branches of a log first before cutting up the log itself if the job involves cutting the log into smaller pieces. This practice is referred to as ‘limbing’. When removing the branches, you need to stand on the opposite side of the log to the branch you intend to remove and chop as close as you can to the base of the branch and thus driving the axe into the underside of the limb. To do this accurately takes some practice but that’s what you should be aiming to achieve. It’s important to work from the opposite side, however, as should the axe miss the branch, the blade will hit the log itself as opposed to your leg.
Note About Hatchets
As with axes, don’t underestimate the damage hatchets can cause and still adopt all the relevant pre-use safety procedures. And, if you regularly work with an axe and not a hatchet, remember to take care with the hand you are not using when wielding a hatchet. You may have become so familiar with using an axe where both of your hands are used to wield the power behind the axe so that it’s your legs you need to be careful about but with a hatchet, you’ll always have one hand free so it’s important you keep that out of harm’s way, even if you need to use your other hand to stabilise an object.
Don’t try to show off your skills by throwing the blade into a nearby tree. You can never be entirely sure of either your accuracy or who might be behind the tree or coming into your vision from the side. Not only that, this ‘trick’ often seen in old western movies and copied by so many would be Cowboys and Indians only results in broken blades and handles and damages living trees at best. At worst, you could seriously injure somebody.
Axe work can tire you out far more quickly than using other tools and when you’re tired, you’re more vulnerable to accidents and misjudgements so if you feel tired, put your axe away, call it a day and return to the job another time.