Safely use an Ax in the woods

Hand Ax

How to Safely Use an Ax

Hatchet or Ax

By Gary Benton

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Those of use who enjoy hunting often spend long periods of time camping. We drive or hike to our hunting location and then setup camp for the hunt. If we take a vehicle, we will usually have more equipment with us than when backpack. However, in both cases we will usually have a good quality hand ax or hatchet with us. Most outdoorsmen find them to be valuable tools for chopping firewood, clearing brush when setting up camp, or even chopping ice when drinking water is needed. But, how much do we know about this versatile little tool?


First, a hatchet must be kept sharp to do its job well. A dull tool will often bounce and that could cause a severe injury to the user. So, keep your hatchet or ax sharp! To sharpen a hatchet or ax, prop it up against a log with the cutting surface of the blade up. Then, place a wooden peg against the head, where it rests on the ground, to secure it against the log.


Take a file, and remember, files work best when pushed and not pulled, and remove any burrs alone the cutting surface. Start pushing the file from the cutting edge toward the body of the hatchet head. Wear heavy-duty gloves if you have them and always use a file with a handle. Try to keep the angle consistent as you move the file over the cutting edge. Once the burrs have been removed, use the rough surface of a wet stone, lightly oiled if possible, and repeat the process the same way.


When the burrs have been removed and the cutting surface of the blade is smooth, use a wet stone to put an edge on the blade. The stone should be moved in a circular motion and the stone should be kept firmly against the blade. It is easy to allow the stone to fall from the surface, but try to avoid this. Then, turn the hatchet over and repeat the process, but this time circling in the opposite direction on the blade.


The first rule in using any cutting tool, especially an ax or hatchet, is to never swing the blade towards your self. You want to make sure if you miss your target, or the blade bounces, you are not struck. Also, tree limbs are easier to remove if the underside of the limb is struck and not the top. Additionally, it is safer to cut thin pieces of wood as it rests on a log. However, make sure you strike with the blade where the wood rests on the log and not at any point between the log and the ground. If you do, it is possible the blade will either bounce, or the wood, if cut, may fly into the air. And, at any time you are cutting wood on a log, watch where you place your hands and your feet. Do not hold the wood leaning on a log with your foot or hands.


If you must cut a large piece of wood with your hatchet, do not continuously strike the wood straight on. You should strike the wood at an angle, let’s say 60 degrees, and vary impact from one side of the cut to the other. Alternate the sides you hit as you strike the wood. A properly used hatchet will start producing wood chips from the cuts very quickly. I do not recommend the use of a hatchet to cut down trees, unless it is an emergency. The handle is not long enough to give you the force you need and it will take an extremely long time to even cut a small tree down. Over all, using a hatchet to cut a tree down will also use up too much energy, something to consider if you are in a survival situation.


While many hatchets come with steel handles, how do you replace a wooden one if it breaks in the field? (And, keep in mind, a hatchet with a cracked or taped handle is very dangerous to use). Most of us don’t carry spare hatchet handles, so we will have to make a temporary substitute. I suggest you do this only in emergencies, because it can take time and the process will frustrate some people.


Now, most professionally made handles will have a slight curve to the handle, but in an emergency a straight handle will work. Your first step is to find a pieced of hard wood (oak, hickory, etc,) that is knot free. Then cut the new handle to about the same length as the broken handle.


Remove the broken wood in the hatchet head by burying most of the blade (cutting edge) surface in the ground and building a fire on top of it. The broken wood in the blade will then burn out. Keep the fire small. Allow the blade to cool before the next step.


If you have a pencil, you can outline the hole in the head of the hatchet onto the new wooden handle. Then, place the head against the top of the new handle and see how far down the handle the blade will come, mark that spot. Once you have the shape of the hole in the head outlined and the width of the head, you can start removing excess wood. This step should be done carefully to allow a proper fit between the new handle and the blade. I call this the “fitted” part of the handle.


Once you have the new handle properly shaped for the head, you are still not finished yet. Make a notch in the portion of the new handle that will fit into the head. Make the notch with the width of the head in mind. I suggest the notch be more than two thirds of the distance down the fitted part of the wood, or from the top. As soon as you have the notch completed, you will need to cut a wooden wedge. I generally taper a piece of wood that is the same width as the notice in my “fitted” part of the handle.


Now, insert the new handle into the head of the hatchet or ax. Use caution here so you do no cut your fingers. As I suggested with sharpening the blade, wear gloves if you have them. Once the handle has been installed into head, then tap the wedge into the notch you previously cut. Make sure the wedge goes in firmly. Once the wedge has been placed into the handle, remove the excess portion of the wedge with a knife.


Your final step is to soak the head and wedge insert in water over night to tighten the head onto your new handle. Once you have removed it from the water, dry the head and apply a very light coating of oil. This oil will assist in preventing rust on the blade.


Some safe considerations with hatchets:


  • Never leave an hatchet on the ground
  • Keep a hatchet in its sheath
  • If you do not have a sheath, bury the blade straight down in a log
  • Never run with a hatchet in your hand
  • Never attempt to catch a falling hatchet.
  • Keep your hatchet sharp, a sharp blade will cut smoother and not bounce back as often.


Hatches and Axes, we often carry them, but rarely give them much thought. A good quality hatchet or hand ax can make our lives much easier in the field. Good dependable tools allow us more time to hunt by allowing us to spend in less time camp. Remember to keep your hatchet sharp and in good repair and I will see you in the field.



Ax Use



Gary Benton has over 45 years of outdoor experience in camping, hiking, fishing, and other activities. He's no armchair survival man, he's walked the walk from the arctic to the desert and all the area in between. Gary has an associates degree in Search and Rescue, Survival Operations, a B.S. in Industrial Occupational safety, and all but his thesis completed for a M.S. in Counseling Psychology.
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