Types of axes:
What’s the best axe for you? The short answer: Why limit yourself to one? And, is it even possible?
Buying your first axe can be deceptively dangerous. It starts innocently enough--you just need something to clear a few saplings. Or split the occasional kindling for the wood stove.
You realize early on that your axe, perfect as it may be for the task, just doesn’t, ahem, cut it for carving spoons. Or splitting logs. Or whatever wood-related interest your growing addiction leads to. You need something else for the project.
Before you fully understand what’s happening, you own another axe. And another. You suddenly realize that what you believed was just a series of necessary tool acquisitions, has become an axe collection, universally dreaded by wives and girlfriends alike. You’ve become an axe junkie.
I’ve even heard of folks buying axes just to hang on the wall.
Whatever your interest in axes, if you’re not super familiar with all of the many styles and patterns, you’ll want to take a few minutes to familiarize yourself before diving in.
If there is an “all-purpose” axe, it’s a felling axe. If you’re just beginning to cultivate your axe addiction, this is a good place to start.
Felling axes are designed to chop across the grain. The angle of the cutting edge is relatively low and thin and the blade is slightly rounded for a deeper bite. They’re great for cutting down trees (felling), limbing logs, and bucking them into firewood sized lengths.
Within the category of felling axes, there are nearly countless shapes and patterns which have evolved through the many generations of axe manufacture and use. Each shape has its own merit, though which one you choose is largely based on personal preference.
Splitting axes and splitting mauls are designed to cut along the grain to cleave wood into stove sized sticks of firewood.
The heads on splitting axes are generally heavier than felling axes and have wider polls (the back, blunt end of the axe head). The extra weight and bulkier poll helps to force the split.
A splitting maul, also called a “go-devil”, differs from a splitting axe in that it has a heavier head, a more oblique, or steeper cutting edge, and a longer handle.
A splitting axe typically has a head that weighs between 3 and 6 pounds, whereas a maul can weigh 6, 8, 10, or even 12 pounds. A maul will tackle more gnarly, knotty wood, and its poll is a sledgehammer, so it can be used to drive splitting wedges.
It takes more strength and endurance to swing a maul. If you’re working with something that’s straighter grained with fewer knots (i.e., easier to split), a splitting axe will do the job and you’ll be able to do it longer.
For the modern homesteader, or even the occasional wood-burner, a splitting implement is mandatory. Even if you buy your firewood, you’ll want to split some into smaller sticks for kindling, shorter burns, etc.
Camp axes are generally smaller than felling axes. They’re designed to pack easily and handle smaller projects like cutting up branches and splitting kindling.
One of my go-to axes in this category is an old Snow & Nealley Hudson Bay axe. It’s been through hell and back. I like to keep it in my truck during hunting season and use it for anything from making kindling or cutting stakes for a blind to cutting off deer legs or breaking open a deer’s rib cage and sternum for field dressing.
A good camp axe can also handle carving, limbing, and most other lighter duty projects around camp, as well as the homestead.
A double bit axe is commonly a felling axe with two cutting edges opposite each other. For felling, it’s good to keep both bits sharp. When one gets dull, switch to the other.
For trail, fire, or clearing work, it’s handy to keep one sharp edge and one blunter “grubbing” edge for cutting roots.
The balance and the aerodynamic symmetry of a double bit axe head make it a joy to swing, as it tends to “plane” through the air. They also make great throwing axes.
Be careful where you leave a double bit--many a foot and probably posterior have suffered grave injury at the end of a double bit head protruding from a stump. Some prefer to avoid double bits altogether for this reason.
Hewing axes are used quite a bit differently than chopping and splitting axes. They’re more like knives--they’re designed to slice and shave wood for the purpose of hewing beams, carving spoons and bowls, shaping tool handles, or any other sculpting task.
The cutting edge of a hewing axe is usually flat on one side with shallow bevel on the other. They can also have one steep bevel and one shallow bevel or symmetrical bevels.
I would say a hewing axe is somewhat esoteric compared with cutting and splitting axes. Not everyone will have a use for one, but it’s probably my favorite class of axes. My Gransfors Bruks carving axe is one of my most treasured tools.
It’s a meditation to delicately reduce a spoon blank or bow stave to the line with a finely sharpened hand-axe.
Hewing axes are great to keep around the homestead for wasting wood fast on carving projects. When you don’t need the precision of a knife, an axe can really speed things up. When you get really good with one, you can use an axe for everything including finish work, depending on how fine you like your finish.
There are a few different types of hewing axes:
A broad axe usually has a really wide blade of up to 13 inches or so. It’s mainly used for hewing logs into beams. An axeman will either walk alongside of a log, which is elevated on horses, or work the log while it’s on the ground, taking short sweeping slices to flatten the sides.
The handle of a broad axe is offset to keep the hewer’s hands safely away from the log being hewn.
There isn’t a great need for broad axes these days but they're beautiful tools and learning to use one is an artful pursuit.
A broad hatchet is simply a smaller version of a broad axe with a straight (not offset) handle. It’s used one handed for smaller projects.
Carving axes are great for carving bowls, spoons, and other traditional woodenware. They’re smaller than broad axes, as they’re meant to be used with one hand.
Depending on the intended result, e.g., hewing bigger chunks of wood, smaller shavings, etc., a bowl carver might grasp the handle towards the end, away from the head, and make wider, more powerful swings, or he might choke up on the handle just under the head and make shorter, more delicate cuts getting closer to the line.
The handle of a carving axe is usually curved, as is the cutting edge, which facilitates arcing strokes to delicately slice.
A carpenter’s axe, also designed to be used one-handed, is lighter than a carving axe. Both the edge and the handle are usually perfectly straight. The technique is generally more of a short, chopping stroke as opposed to the slicing sweep of a carving axe.
What’s the difference between a hatchet and an axe? It depends on who you ask, but everyone can agree that a hatchet is smaller. It’s meant to be used with one hand.
Traditionally, one use for a hatchet was to shape and install shingles on a roof; a roofing hatchet has a straight blade with a hammer for its poll.
A hand-axe is also designed to be used with one hand, but it’s typically heavier than a hatchet and purposed for heavier chopping jobs.
Quality & Axes
There are a number of axe manufacturers churning out a wide range of quality. For the most part, you get what you pay for. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a perfectly useable axe at a decent price.
Characteristics that matter are quality of steel, hardness of steel, i.e., how well it holds an edge, and grain orientation or durability of the handle.
Generally, higher end, hand-forged axes are ready to use off the shelf. They’re already ground with a proper bevel and honed razor-sharp, and their makers are more particular about handle selection.
Cheaper, mass produced big-box axes, on the other hand, typically come with a very steep, roughly ground cutting edge that will need to be reworked to make it useable. Expect to put in a fair amount of time with a file or a grinder to reshape and then a whetstone to hone.
Shaping and sharpening are acquired skills so don’t expect to get it right immediately.
The grain of the handle should run straight through the length of axe, which gives it the most strength. For a more in-depth explanation of handle selection, see our axe handle replacement article.
What Works For You?
Decide what your primary uses are and what style is appropriate for those uses. When you’ve narrowed it down, decide how much you’re willing to spend and read some reviews.
Pay attention to who is writing the review (the occasional amateur, a seasoned woodsman, etc.) and what they say about durability of the head and the handle.
You can replace a broken handle--usually--but a head that’s likely to fail is a deal breaker. And of course you don’t want to have to re-handle your axe the first day you put it to wood.
Pay attention to the quality of the grind and its level of sharpness. Do you want to use your new axe right out of the box or would you rather it take a little tweaking?
If it’s crappy steel or if it’s too soft, you’ll spend more time sharpening than cutting.
A dull or badly ground axe is more dangerous than a sharp one, since it’s difficult to predict the trajectory of a head that glances off of an object when you’re expecting it to cut.
Likewise, a badly fitted or loose handle is dangerous. The old “fly off the handle” saying is deeply rooted in unfortunate consequence.
Can you afford to put in a bit more money for a tool that could easily last several lifetimes? Or would something more suited to occasional use better suit your budget?
Whatever axe you settle on, it likely won’t be the last.