Instructor Corps Pro Tip: If you’re us, you see a lot of sketchy, unsafe axe work. Some folks have never had the opportunity to use an axe very much, and as such, have never been instructed in some of the basic safety practices associated with it. That’s not their fault, and we’re here to educate, not criticize. So today, we’re going to quickly go over four very basic axe safety tips.
The axe is a badass tool. I seriously doubt that anyone’s going to argue that. They’re big, brawny, heavy tools designed to be used with a lot of violent force. Axes are made for heavy work – felling, limbing, bucking, and occasionally splitting trees. They’re generally not used for fine detail work or anything involving finesse - although they certainly can be with practice. As a result, they can inflict some serious injuries. Axe-related injuries usually come in two flavors: small nicks and cuts from sheathing and unsheathing the axe or inadvertently grabbing an unsheathed blade, and horrific, life-altering wounds like amputated toes, broken ankles, or split feet. Losing control of the axe and accidentally hitting bystanders is also not a desirable outcome. So, how do you prevent the most common axe-related injuries? We won’t be going into a full safety briefing on felling trees, because that’s a whole other discussion. And before you make comments asking about hatchets, tomahawks, and mauls, they’re their own animals, too. Another day, for sure. But here are four basic safety tips, which, when applied consistently, will mitigate nearly all axe-related injuries.
1. Clear your work area. Before starting to fell, limb, or buck a tree, hold the axe by the knob (that’s the end of the handle), hold it out horizontally, and move it slowly in a circle around you. If it hits anything, be it saplings, vines, shrubbery, or dead limbs, cut it away. Even a muscadine vine as big around as your pinky finger can deflect the head of your axe mid-swing and send it someplace you don’t want it to go. We highly recommend carrying a machete or other big chopping blade to do your clearing, so you don’t dull your axe and wear yourself out in the process. Clearing your work area also means getting people out of your way. The rule of thumb used by old woodsmen was that bystanders should stand at least two axe lengths away. This is a great rule and you should definitely use it, but it’s still on you to check your surroundings and stay situationally aware before you take that first swing.
2. Keep wood between you and the axe. When limbing a tree, always stand on the opposite side of the tree from the limb you’re cutting. If you miss your swing and the blade skips, or it just cuts clean through the limb and keeps on going, the trunk of the tree keeps you safe from the head of your axe. If you’re splitting wood, always be sure to have the piece you’re working on placed on a larger stump or log. If you botch the swing, the blade goes straight into the “anvil” and not into the ground, or your leg. And if you’re bucking a tree, keep your feet well away from the area of the log you’re working in.
3. Swing for accuracy before you swing for power. Once you develop a working relationship with a well-balanced axe, it truly becomes an extension of your body, and you can swing powerfully and accurately without a second thought. Until then, move slowly and don’t use your full strength until you get used to it. If you’re a beginner, or working with an unfamiliar axe, this is doubly important. Much like instinctive archery, or any number of sporting pursuits involving a ball, look where you want to hit and your muscles will learn to follow. Focus on hitting the same spot on the tree every time. When you can do that consistently, dial up the speed and power. Also, make sure you’re in a comfortable, steady stance before you start swinging. Working an axe from an awkward position with bad footing or restricted motion is a recipe for trouble. Some situations don’t give you a choice, but try to avoid it whenever possible.
4. Practice passive safety when the axe is out of your hands. If you’re not using your axe, keep the sheath or mask on it at all times. An exposed axe is a danger to everyone near it. You’d be surprised at how many guys will finish their camp chores and start cracking beers or shooting whiskey without putting their axes up. Sometimes it ends without incident, but I’ve been present more than once when it didn’t. Some recommend temporarily storing an axe with the head tucked under a large log, or leaning up against said log or a nearby tree. I don’t like either of these. (Full disclosure, that last bad habit is one I’ve had a hard time breaking. I hate to admit it, but I also don’t like being a hypocrite.) Both leave the axe easy to trip over, especially in low light. And if you’re doing serious logging work that involves heavy machinery like skidders, loaders, and excavators (like Jonathan and I both have), this is a sure-fire way to have your axe run over by a multi-ton diesel beast and ruined. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve definitely had nightmares about it. If you’re still using the axe, take a swing and bury the head in a log you’re not working on. If you’re using a double-bit axe, put one bit in a smaller piece of wood and then the other bit in a log. This keeps the blade covered and the axe secure and visible. If you’re done with it, hang it from a hook or stub limb in an axe carrier or by the lanyard. (If you don’t have an axe carrier or lanyard, get one.)
One more point: All of these safety tips have the benefit of protecting your axe as much as they protect you. By keeping control of your blade, you’re more likely to keep it out of the ground and away from rocks – an axes’ worst enemy.
If you follow these four tips, we estimate the chances of lopping your foot off are gonna decrease by approximately 937%. Maybe not. But at least you’ll know better. Whether you do better or not is up to you. Speaking from experience, bad habits are hard to break!
What about you? Do you have a harrowing axe-ident story? Are there any glaring safety tips we missed? Tell us in the comments!
Would you like to learn these safety tips and more, along with axe care, maintenance, and use in an interactive, hands-on environment? Come join us for Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft: Axemanship on Sunday, October 21st, from 2pm-7pm! Register now at www.sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft!