Tag Archives: Ax

The Noble Ax

The ax is a noble tool. One of, if not the earliest tools used by man it has been by our side since time immemorial. Different cultures mythologize different axes as part of their cultural heritage, from prehistoric cave drawings, to vikings to Native Americans to western pioneers but at their core the ax and its purpose is the same.  All of these cultures had similar needs– to provide food, shelter, and protection for its citizens.

Over time this commonality seemed to fade away, relegated to a cob-webbed corner of the barn or missing from the home altogether as many people live in a world where providing for food, shelter, protection etc is derived from modern trade and conveniences.  For those that remember their father or grandfather using an ax and want to re-capture that piece of their heritage, even finding a decent ax in a modern store will often only turn up cheap caricatures of what an ax used to be.

Rather than lament this loss I fell down the hand-tool rabbet hole many years ago and I have no intention of returning to ignorant life I led when I thought power tools and jigs were the best way forward. Sure I still have plenty of power tools for some mundane tasks like thicknessing wood in volume, but more often than not I reach for a hand tool — to enjoy the relative quiet (always good as their is a baby in the house), the energy efficiency (I can stand to lose more weight so burning calories is better than burning kilowatts), the speed, the accuracy and connection to the past.

Wandering out into the woods with an ax....
Wandering out into the woods with an ax….

Nothing I wax on about in this post is new or novel in the woodworking community, but it strikes a nerve for me that can at times be hard to articulate. A quote from early in Roy’s first book aptly summarizes a core bit of his philosophy that is near and dear to my own heart:

“I teach traditional hand-tool woodworking — how to start with a tree and an axe and make one thing after another until you have a house and everything in it. The satisfactions of this work are immediate and personal. You find the tree, fell it, shape the wood, and join it together. The mistakes and successes, the accidents and discoveries are between you and the tree.” — Roy Underhill ‘The Woodwright’s Shop: A Practical Guide to Traditional Woodcraft’

I owe a big debt of gratitude to Roy Underhill for helping me get in touch with my inner Carpenter/Joyner via his show, his books and in person classes. At NBSS I got real familiar with a felling ax and a hewing ax for hewing timbers, but I never took down a tree by hand using an ax. Even though I had the axes on hand I always used my trusty chainsaw. On a recent weekend of clearing trees in the yard I decided to get an item off my bucket list, grab my trusty Gransfors Bruks felling ax (sharpened/maintained so that I could shave with it if need be), and fell a tree by hand.

Bucking a tree into a log
Bucking a tree into a log

I wandered out in the woods and trimmed some dead branches to clear a bit of a path. Whack — nice clean cut and a lot less work compared to my tree saw on a pole. Let’s go bigger. I took down a small pine tree about 8′ tall. In a few minutes the tree was down. Still too easy. Let’s go bigger. A standing dead remnant of a tree. Now the blood is flowing and adrenaline is kicking in, but apparently there was no fear of death by crushing. Let’s go for something bigger still.  I found a medium sized (~40′ tall) eastern white pine that was between me and where I wanted to dump some stumps in the back acreage. I notched in where I wanted the tree to fall. Each strike with the ax severed fibers or popped out chunks as I worked my way into the tree. I then notched in from the opposite side, though higher, so the tree would hinge over where I wanted. Timber! Down it went. Time to de-limb it and buck it into a movable log size. Bucking the tree into logs was a similar process of working through the tree as I did when felling it, though this time I was going completely through rather than creating notches to pivot on.  Once I got the logs down to about 8′ sections I was able to drag them out of the way, put them up on some rocks to keep them off the ground and make use of this newly created path.  The logs will start to season over the dry winter and we’ll see if they become firewood or maybe some other use around the house or yard.

It was a great workout and came with a sense of accomplishment that stayed with me along with the realization that there are some muscles in my back and shoulders that clearly are not getting enough use. 😉 I felt more a part of a continuum dating back to those earlier generations who started at the tree and made all the items they needed to survive and eventually thrive. It also gave me a new appreciation for the amount of human energy invested in a lot of those earlier buildings.

If you have the opportunity to take down a tree by hand, I encourage you to learn how to do it safely and then give it a try and make something from some of that wood once it is seasoned. It’s good for the mind, the body and the environment.

If you’d like to learn more about the proper use of the ax or see the more eloquent and entertaining philosophizing of Roy Underhill you may want to check out some of these videos:

  1. Great Video Clip of Roy Underhill in Philosopher Mode talking about historic Axes. (I agree with Chris that Roy should have decimated that podium here.)
  2.  Roy’s Ted talk — ‘Have Broad Ax, Will Travel’  here.
Moving ever larger stumps
Moving ever larger stumps

What have I been up to when I haven’t been swinging an ax?

I apologize that I have not been blogging as much this summer as I have in the past, but with work, teaching, a < 1 year old baby and a big project in the works I’ve been spread thin. My free time has been spent on a different sort of project — one that will have been worth the wait. Since April I’ve been spending most of my free time, nights and weekends clearing land out in the back yard to make room for a timber framed shed/barn and I am finally in the home stretch. I’ve removed about 50 stumps, some of them as heavy as the tractor I used to dig them out with and I have cleared about a quarter of an acre of dense woods. It was a LOT more work than I thought, but similar to tree felling experience has been good exercise and a personal accomplishment I am proud of. A little more grading/leveling and blending the transition from yard to woods and I’ll be ready to break ground on a barn/outbuilding.

Finally some clear land...
Finally some clear land…

I’ll be documenting the process from beginning to end in video, in photos on the blog and with some content partners so I hope you will stay tuned for that along with the regular stream of blog posts.

I hope everyone is enjoying the warm weather.

Take care,
-Bill

Hewing Bench Revisited (Already)

After living with my new hewing bench for a few weeks I finally got around to using the other half of the log. I’m glad things worked out this way as I made some modest improvements based on our time together.

Original bench on the right, revised model on the left
Original bench on the right, revised model on the left

The original bench was fairly solid — it could hold me standing on it and didn’t bounce around when I would strike it in a downward motion — but when I’d do something heavy and lateral I could feel what felt like a tiny bit of flex in the the legs.

Turning thicker legs
Turning thicker legs

At the time I ripped down a 2×3 to make the legs roughly sized to the 1″ ship auger bit which was the largest I had on hand, but I worried about the 1-1/8″ legs being too spindly. The mental image of the legs being too spindly haunted me, so for this second time out I decided to rectify that issue.

Removing the bark from the half log
Removing the bark from the half log

Improvements:

  • Thicker legs (1-1/2″ square) with a more pronounced shoulders (this way the legs don’t add to any unnecessary wedging/splitting pressure and no matter how much hammering takes place on top of the bench the legs are maxed out in how deep they will go into the top of the bench)
  • Legs splayed in both directions to be that much more stable
Leveling the legs
Leveling the legs

Beyond the modest improvements called out above, I otherwise built it the same way as the first hewing bench. (Wedged tenons, wax sealed end grain, leveled legs etc)

Completed benches. They can also work well as a pair of saw horses.
Completed benches. They can also work well as a pair of saw horses.

The Verdict:
The new bench is rock solid and will be a workhorse in the shop. The new legs are nice and stiff. Having a pair of these benches in the shop has already come in handy as you’ll see in the next post.

Take care,
-Bill

The Humble Hewing Bench

If you’ve watched Roy Underhill on the Woodwright’s Shop with any regularity then no doubt you’ve seen him using a hewing bench. It’s a great little bench made from half a log on 4 modest legs.  Roy’s used it for hewing, trimming, holding, sitting and many other common shop uses. It’s a project you can complete in an afternoon and will serve you well for many years in the shop.

Why would anyone really want this rough little bench?

If you do any sort of green woodworking it’s nice to have a place you can quickly hew a blank in the shop with a hatchet or similar small ax. When the ax hits the long grain of the bench it will not dig in the way it would if you were using the end grain of a stump or similar log section. (It also protects the reference surfaces of your real workbench) For tapering the end of treenails, splitting wood or roughing a green turning blank  it has been a priceless addition to the workshop.  It also makes a nice place to sit when people visit the shop. 😉

How do I make one of these benches?

Like any good Roy anecdote it starts with “First you find a tree….”

Splitting the oak log with metal wedges and a heavy leather faced mallet
Splitting the oak log with metal wedges and a heavy leather faced mallet

In this case I took a 12-15″ wide and 30″ long section of white oak from a large tree I recently felled in my yard. This tree was over 130 years old so the growth rings are nice and tight. Using metal wedges and a large leather faced mallet I use for my timber framing I split the log in half.

Watch to make sure the split runs the way you want down the log
Watch to make sure the split runs the way you want down the log

If the wedges alone cannot do the whole job of splitting for you, a froe can help it along.

Log split in half. You can clearly see the heartwood and the sapwood
Log split in half. You can clearly see the heartwood and the sapwood

After letting the slabs sit for a few days, it was time to de-bark the logs. If you don’t have a dedicated de-barking spud you can use any tough metal roughly chisel shaped tool or ax. In this case I used a 16lb post hold digger as shown below.

De-barking the log on the right. A metal post hole digging bar makes a good impromptu barking spud.
De-barking the log on the right. A metal post hole digging bar makes a good impromptu barking spud.

Back again in the shop I squared up the edges of the log with a hatchet. Being a green piece of wood this razor sharp ax made quick work of it.

Square up the edges with a hatchet
Square up the edges with a hatchet

I flipped the log over and removed any remaining bark.

Remove any remaining bark with the hatchet
Remove any remaining bark with the hatchet

Now time for the legs…

Ideally you want to split out some 1.5 inch diameter legs. In my case it was snowing and I didn’t have suitable wood on hand to do that, plus the largest ship auger bit I had on hand was 1″. I ripped down some nice straight grained 2x3s I had on hand to 1 1/4″ by 30″ long. I put them on the lathe and turned down the top 6″ to 1″ diameter. I then used a block plane to chamfer the edges.

Split or rip some leg stock. Drill holes with an auger and set your legs
Split or rip some leg stock. Drill holes with an auger and set your legs

Using a ship auger bit I bored a through hole into the log to allow the legs to splay a bit in both directions. After you set the first leg you’ll want to visually reference that first leg when drilling the next leg. Repeat this process for all 4 legs. After test fitting you’ll want to cut a kerf in the end of each tenon and re-install the legs. Make sure those kerfs are perpendicular to the grain of the log so you don’t split it with the wedges. Then glue and wedge the tenons. If you have ever built a windsor chair, this is a cruder version of the same process you’d use to fit the legs and level the feet.

Test fit on a level surface like a table saw
Test fit on a level surface like a table saw

With the legs installed I put the bench on a known level surface, in this case my table saw. Using a compass or similar tool mark higher up on the legs and cut them where you marked them. Then chamfer the ends of the feet and you’re almost done.

Mark what you want to remove to reduce the height and level the feet
Mark what you want to remove to reduce the height and level the feet

Next I applied some end grain sealer (from Land Ark/Heritage Finishes) to reduce the likelihood of splitting in my heated shop. I also trimmed off the wedges and tenons.

Seal the end grain to reduce checking
Seal the end grain to reduce checking

Now the bench is read for use in the shop. This bench, with it’s delicate looking legs, can hold me standing on it, so it should have no problem handling my in shop hewing needs.

Trim the leg stumps and the wedges
Trim the leg stumps and the wedges

Shown here is a Gransfors Bruks hand made Swedish ax. This carpenter’s hatchet is my goto ax for small trimming work and is sharpened to the point of being able to shave with it. The poll (the other business end) of this ax is hardened and can be used like a hammer. The handle is carefully tapered to fit in the hand and without looking you know when your hand is at the end of the handle. The notch under the bit allows you to use this ax much like a large chisel or plane and can yield impressive results. I used this to quickly level bits of the bench surface.

Enjoy your new hewing bench
Enjoy your new hewing bench

For short cash, a few tools and an afternoon in the shop this project is well worth the effort.

Take care,
-Bill