A Tenderfoot’s Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp

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by Todd WalkerA Tenderfoot's Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

 

“Next to the rifle, a backwoodsman’s main reliance is on his axe. With these two instruments, and little else, our pioneers attacked the forest wilderness that once covered all eastern America, and won it for civilization.”

~ Horace Kephart, from Camping and Woodcraft, 1917

Not much has more appeal to a young camper than having the opportunity to use an ax. The lure is irresistible. Yet, ax lore is rarely passed down to our younger generation.

The following is a common sense guide which will help a tenderfoot, young or old, learn to safely use an ax for the most basic camp chore – chopping firewood. Keep in mind that “safe” is a relative term. There are risks inherit when an ax is moving, or, even when idle.

Our aim here is to manage the risk, not eliminate it. Not teaching children to cope with the risks and dangers of handling edged tools will never prepare them for real-world self-reliance.

Ax Selection

As I mentioned in our beginner’s guide on knife craft, only you, the parent or guardian, will know when your child is responsible enough to use edged tools. My oldest grandson was seven when I began teaching him how to handle a hatchet.

I recommend a general purpose ax for the beginner. The handle length and weight should fit the user. My favorite felling ax is a double bit. This is NOT the ax for a tenderfoot of any age. A poll ax has only one cutting edge and is recommended for first-timers.

Read our Ax Selection article for more details on choosing your first ax.

A woodsman should carry a hatchet, and he should be as critical in selecting it as in buying a gun.

~ Horace Kephart, from Camping and Woodcraft, 1917

Kephart’s advice is sound on carrying a hatchet. And to the tenderfoot, using a short camp hatchet may seem to be the wise choice. However, shorter handled axes are more dangerous to use than longer axes.

Here’s why…

If I miss my target when swinging my 16 inch hatch, the follow-through, when standing, is likely to strike where I do not wish to strike – my body. A full-size ax, 30 to 36 inches long, would likely strike the ground before reaching a foot or knee. For a young boy or girl, swinging a longer ax which weighs 3 to 4 pounds is ridiculous to even think. In the end, the size of the ax must fit the user.

A more suitable choice might be a 3/4 ax, or “Boy’s Ax.” They tend to be armpit to fingertip length with a head weight in the 2 pound range. If camping on foot, this ax trims a few pounds off your pack. Felling trees, splitting firewood, making kindling, and pounding tent stakes can all be done very well with a sharp boy’s ax.

“Safe” Chopping Techniques

There are two basic ways to safely swing an ax: Lateral and vertical chopping. Before you even lay a hand on your ax, be sure no obstructions, people, or pets are in your chopping zone (a circular area two handle lengths around you). Even a small vine or twig can cause your ax to deflect away from your intended target.

Lateral Swings

Lateral swings (diagonal and horizontal) are used mostly to chop down trees. Any stroke outside your frontal zone is considered a lateral swing. What’s your frontal zone?

Adapted from The Ax Book

For more in-depth coverage of lateral swings, read our article link here. I DO NOT recommend that a tenderfoot attempt tree felling until he/she becomes proficient with vertical swings while chopping firewood.

Vertical Swings

Splitting logs into smaller firewood happens to be the most used vertical swing by the average camper. There are three categories for this powerful stroke. For the tenderfoot, we will only concentrate on #1.

  1. Backed-up
  2. Non-backed (dangerous even to experienced woodsmen)
  3. Bucking, or chopping below the level of your feet (not a beginner skill)

The backed-up stroke is the safest of the three for a tenderfoot (or experienced woodsman). Backed-up strokes are performed on piece of robust wood (chopping block or log) wide enough to stop the ax swing momentum. The earth can serve as a back-up but you never want to ground a sharp ax in the dirt.

A Tenderfoot's Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Notice the position of the wood on the chopping block – to the far side.

Practice your vertical swing by standing a small log (about 6″ in diameter and 12″ long) on top of a wide chopping block. Position the log near the back of the chopping block, not the center or near edge of the block. This allows more room for the ax to strike the chopping block as it separates the round log – or misses completely.

Note: For younger children using a short ax or hatchet, this exercise should be modified. Here’s how I taught my grandson to chop kindling. Adult supervision required!

If you’re grown and strong enough to handle a full or 3/4 ax, stand facing the chopping block. Grip the ax handle with one hand at the base of the handle with the other on top of the bottom hand. Touch the target with the ax in outstretched arms. Raise the ax overhead and strike the top of the log. As you strike the target, bend your knees so that the ax follows through parallel to the ground. This adds another layer of protection to prevent the ax from striking your body on a miss hit or glancing blow.

Increase Ax Accuracy

Accuracy is more important than power. Here are a few tips to help your accuracy…

  • Focus your eyes on the exact spot your want to strike. Aim small, hit small.
  • On the down stroke, the ax handle should follow an imaginary line drawn with your nose if it were a long sharpie marker… right through the small, focused target.
  • Relaxing your grip on the ax to keep your upper body (arms and shoulders) loose. Your brain will automatically tighten your grip for impact.
  • Let the ax do the work. You can add power to strokes as your accuracy increases.

A fun way to practice accuracy is to stand a kitchen match or toothpick vertically in a chopping block. Using a safe stance and full swing, try to split the match/toothpick. You may never strike it but this gives automatic feedback on how close you come to your tiny target. If you actually light a kitchen match on a swing, well, you’re an elite axman!

Improvised Back-Ups

What if there is no “proper” chopping block available at your campsite? Here are two alternative methods I’ve used over the years.

A Tenderfoot's Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

This is a Y-branch from a Red Oak I’ve used for years at fixed camp.

With a little effort you may happen upon a large Y-shaped branch. Place a round piece in the “Y” on the ground. Straddle the bottom of the Y. Strike the round cradled at the top of the Y. Keep in mind that the Y is not as high off the ground as your previous chopping block. Therefore, bend your knees even more to keep the downward ax swing parallel to the ground. Once a round is split, place the halved log back in the Y with the round side up. It’s much easier to split from the round side than the flat.

You may only find a straight log or split wood to use as a back-up. Lay the round to be split perpendicular over the back-up log. Stand with the back-up between your feet and the round. In other words, the round touching the ground should NOT be on the same side of the back-up log as your feet. That setup is inviting injury.

Splitting Without Swinging

To half and quarter smaller logs safely, keep this technique in mind. This works well with smaller axes and camp hatchets. With the ax in your strong hand and the round in the other hand, place the ax bit on the opposite end of the round. Lift the ax and round together and tap them on a chopping block to start the ax bit in the wood. The handle should run parallel down the length of the round now. Now you can lift them both and slam them down on the chopping block. Repeat until the round separates.

A Tenderfoot's Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Always kneel to the ground when using a short ax/hatchet.

If the wood doesn’t separate, slam the pieces again so that the ax bit sinks into the chopping block. Now give the wood a sideways twist with your off-hand and it usually separates.

A Tenderfoot's Guide to Chopping Firewood at Camp ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

The ax bit serves as fulcrum as you twist with your off-hand to separate the wood.

To cut smaller stuff (wrist-size and smaller) to firewood length, chop at a 45 degree angle to the grain… on a back-up, of course. The end that separates can go flying so be careful.

top-tools-for-mechanical-advantage-bushcraft

This forked tree stacked the firewood as it broke.

You may not even need to chop long, wrist-size firewood. If you have two trees close together, place the round between them and use leverage to break the round into pieces. Or, just burn them in half over the fire.

Safety Reminders

As I mentioned previously, an ax can cause injury while in use or when idle. Practice the following to decrease the risk to you and others.

  • Keep your ax sheathed when not in use. When in use, sink the single bit into a heavy chopping block instead of laying it on the ground unsheathed.
  • Keep your swing zone clear.
  • Axes are daylight tools. Never chop in dark conditions.
  • Only use a sharp ax. Dull axes will not bite into wood and glance off.
  • Only chop firewood that is backed-up properly.
  • Always check that the axhead is securely fixed to the handle. If it becomes loose, stop chopping.
  • If you become fatigued, stop and rest.
  • An ax is a tool, not a toy!

Additional Resources

As you become proficient chopping firewood, expand your ax skills. Check out the resources in our Axe Cordwood Challenge Page with links to our ax videos/blogs and other skilled axmen I respect.

This is the third post in our First-Timer’s series aimed at getting people outside. Here are the previous articles:

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has changed. I do not permit the re-posting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness

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by Todd Walker

how-to-hone-ax-skills-chop-functional-fitness

Crazy eyes! They stare at me when I tell folks I’m cutting a cord of firewood with an ax. No chainsaw, no bucksaw, no maul… just an ax.

Real-world ax skills require massive, deliberate action.

February is history as are 88% (probably more) of the 2017 New Years resolutions. Following the season of overindulgence, these were the top five according to the Google:

  1. Exercise more (38 per cent)
  2. Lose weight (33 per cent)
  3. Eat more healthily (32 per cent)
  4. Take a more active approach to health (15 per cent)
  5. Learn new skill or hobby (15 per cent)

Expensive gym memberships, designer workout clothing, and faddish fitness equipment were purchased by folks really wanting to keep their resolutions. I’m so over the whole gym thing… have been for years. Here’s why…

  • Gym workouts are too predictable and safe
  • And the big one, they’re indoors!

Lifting heavy stuff in the gym is loaded with one-dimensional sameness. Running on a flat, rotating rubber mat has to be the most boring exercise ever invented. Any increase in fitness levels will obviously benefit anyone who enjoys the outdoors. But exercising for the sake of exercising is one reason people lose interest.

Why not combine resolution #1 and #5 (above) and actually get stuff done around the homestead, backyard, or base camp? I’m aware that many reading this will be limited in both skills and resources (trees). For those in the beginner stage of ax work, I would highly recommend spending time learning how to safely swing an ax. This is dangerous work. If you’re not a bit nervous before swinging your ax, you’re probably too cooky and will soon be humbled. The danger aspect is what keeps me focused while swinging sharp steel attached to a long stick. There is, however, nothing as satisfying in this woodsman’s psyche as honing an essential self-reliant skill and staring at a stack of ax-cut firewood seasoning.

The functional fitness aspect of wood chopping is a natural byproduct of ax work. Are you gonna bulk up like bodybuilders admiring their sculpted bodies in the mirror? No. If that’s your goal, stick to the gym. You will see noticeable gains in stamina for real-world, ever-changing daily tasks. Moreover, there’s the practical reward of watching a firewood pile grow which will provide heat to your family.

There are many more qualified axmen to learn from than me. I’ve wielded an ax most of my life but never in such a concentrated manner or time frame as the last six weeks. Hopefully, my experience will benefit some, and, perhaps, encourage others to start using our most basic of woodcutting tools. The ax is back!

Tree to Firewood

Old school professional boxers knew the benefits of swinging an ax. Jack Dempsey, George Foreman, and Mohammad Ali, to name a few, were known to chop wood for peak performance. As mentioned previously, finding available resources to chop may limit your adventure. An alternate workout, one I did several years ago, is to swing a sledge-hammer. But swinging a blunt object won’t increase your firewood supply.

There are far too many concerns and safety issues which need to be addressed to turn a standing tree into split firewood with an ax. I’ve covered a few Ax-Manship topics on our blog over the years. Before launching into serious ax work, I can’t recommend The Ax Book highly enough. Mr. Cook covers these topics more thoroughly.

Felling, limbing, bucking, hauling, splitting, and stacking your own firewood, in the woods, on uneven terrain, is physically demanding. According to Dudley Cook, after cutting a cord of firewood with an ax, “you will cumulatively lift about 24 tons for each cord.” Especially if you haul logs back to camp on your shoulder.

Not everyone will choose to cut their firewood with an ax only. If all you have available for a functional fitness workout is a long log, the following movement is an excellent way to exercise your major muscle groups.

Shoulder Log Lift

I’m in the middle of the Axe Cordwood Challenge at my base camp. There are some interesting obstacles with my scenario. Once a tree is down, my means of conveyance is to haul the logs back to base camp on my shoulder. I have neither machine nor animal to transport the wood. I’m the mule… or jackass in many cases.

Daddy taught me this method for hauling heavy pipe early in my youth in his plumbing/welding business. Balancing a long, heavy object on your shoulder is a skill every woodsman should learn.

I’ve found it easier to lift a longer pole than shorter logs of the same diameter. A six to nine foot log needs less vertical lifting force than a 4 footer of the same diameter. The reason is that a longer log tips over the shoulder (fulcrum) without needing extreme vertical force to get it into position.

Here’s the technique on video…

One would be wise to make a pad to protect your neck and shoulder. My makeshift pad is a cloth possibles bag stuffed with a shemagh I carry in my haversack.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

My makeshift shoulder pad. That’s one crooked red oak on the ground in the background.

Also, when limbing the tree, be sure to cut all limbs even with the trunk. Protruding limbs, even slightly raised, will not only poke into your shoulder and neck, but find a way of snagging every vine along your path of transport.

If it’s too heavy to lift one end, don’t attempt a shoulder carry. Split it into manageable rails first. You’ll develop a feel for what you can and can’t shoulder by standing the log vertically.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

Notice the amount of bend required to position my shoulder at the midpoint of this 6 footer vs. the 9 footer in the next photo.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

A 9 footer of smaller diameter. Longer logs require less vertical lifting power.

Once the log is vertical and balanced, position your feet near the base with your heels close together. Squat facing the log where your shoulder will meet near the balance point of the pole. Keep your back straight, grip the base of the log, and let the pole lean back over the shoulder as you lift by straightening your legs. A slight backwards rocking motion helps. Lifting with your back bent is inviting serious injury.

Position the log to balance slightly toward the rear, not forward. To adjust the lay of the log on your shoulder, hold with both hands and give a slight bounce with your legs to move the log forward or backward. When set properly, walk with one arm cradled on top of the log as your travel. Use your other hand if needed over rugged terrain. Here’s where nature’s gym throws a real-world workout at you.

Wear sturdy boots, take your time, and watch for tripping hazards. If you stumble, and a tumble is imminent, drop the log from your shoulder and get out of the way in the opposite direction. If possible, hedge your bets by walking inclines with the log on the downhill shoulder.

When you arrive at your destination, reverse the process to unload the log. With the end place on the ground, flop the standing end over. You’ll create a stack of long logs ready for splitting on a chopping platform. For smaller stock, just toss it off your shoulder taking care to avoid a kickback of the falling timber.

How to Hone Ax Skills and Chop Your Way to Functional Fitness ~ TheSurvivalSherpa.com

An updated photo of my ax-cut firewood stash.

The old adage, “Chop your own firewood and it warms you twice,” is a big fat lie! In my experience, the number is more like 7-10 to turn a standing tree into firewood. If you’re up to it, you’ll develop ax skills along with upping your functional fitness level. For those interested in either, check out the additional resources below…

Additional Resources:

Disclaimer: If you choose to use an ax in any manner to chop your own firewood, recognize the inherit dangers and take responsibility for your own wellbeing and safety. I am not responsible for anyone doing stupid stuff, or any other stuff. Even doing non-stupid stuff holds risks of injury and/or death when wielding an ax.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,

Todd

P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright © by Survival Sherpa: In light of the recent theft of all my content by a pirate site, my sharing policy has changed. I do not permit the re-posting of entire articles from my site without express written consent by me. My content on this site may be shared in digital form (200 words or less) for non-commercial use with a link back (without no-follow attribute) to the original article crediting the author. All photos, drawings, and articles are copyrighted by and the property of Survival Sherpa. You are more than welcome to share our photos and articles on social media for educational purposes as long as you link back to the original article/photo with credit to the author.