Friday, May 6, 2016

The Only Tool You Need

Many moons ago, a lot of poor but adventurous souls hiked into the wilderness to forge a new life with only two pieces of hardware, a muzzleloading rifle (or a fowling piece), and an axe. With those two tools, they would shoot game, build traps, clear a spot in the forest, build a cabin and start a garden patch. Of course, some who were better-heeled would take a few other tools (picks, hoes, froes, etc.) without handles, which they’d then make and install once they reached their destination. I remember reading once that the Scandinavians used to say that saws were for people who had no skill with an axe. They often used theirs not just to chop, but to hew, plane and carve. I wouldn’t have wanted to give up the chainsaw or sawmill in my younger days but, even then, everything started with the axe.

Dad always used double-bitted axes. One bit was kept with a slightly blunt grind and was only moderately sharp. It was used to grub brush around any tree to be felled, so we wouldn’t trip and be hurt in the process. The other bit was literally razor sharp, to the point of being capable of shaving hair from your arm. We always had bald spots on our arms in those days, from testing the sharpness of the chopping bit and chopping was, indeed, what it was used for.

Chainsaws were a real godsend compared to doing everything with a cross-cut saw (though Dad was expert with it, too, and I was passable). Back then, however, chainsaws were heavy, awkward things compared to what we have today. As a result, after the tree hit the ground, we would grab our axes, take opposite sides of the tree and cut the ends from limbs and chop the small and moderate-sized ones from the trunk. We’d then put the small end of each limb on the ground, hold the larger end with our left hands and whack the smaller limbs off the pole that was left. That required choking up on the handle about 2/3’s of the way, in order to maintain good leverage and safety. We’d then throw the poles in a pile for firewood.

Lastly, using the axe and a rule, we’d mark the tree into log lengths, cut off any large limbs that remained with the chainsaw, and cut the logs to length. The main change that I made after Dad passed away was to use the newer, lighter saws to cut the limbs off, and use a logger’s tape, or even my marked axe handle to measure logs to length as I went. I’d then return later for the limbs, if I wanted them. Times were changing, though, and the firewood was growing less valuable proportionally. In my area, it still brings about the same money that it did 20 years ago, so its value hasn’t even begun to keep up with inflation.

One last point about the axes we used is that we always used “eastern” style axes, which had sharp angles at the corners of the blade, as opposed to “western” style, which had rounded corners. The reason was that we did so was that the heel of the blade (lower corner, next to the handle) could be used as a pickaroon (or hookeroon) to roll and shift logs. Western timber was, undoubtedly, too large to be handled that way, so no corner was needed. Incidentally, despite one link I used, I DO NOT advocate buying any axe from Mexico or China. Stick with American made, Canadian or Scandinavian axes. © 20106


Sixbears said...

The Vikings main weapon was not the sword but the ax.

Bet you were in condition back in the day. Ax work is real work.

HermitJim said...

Folks had to work smarter and harder to get things done. Working with an axe was an art form. Still is, if done right.

Gorges Smythe said...

I was in decent shape for sure, Sixbears, plus, we split all our wood by hand, using axes, splitting mauls and sledge and wedges.

There are a few folks who still have that talent, Jim, but not many.

Ralph Goff said...

Thought you were going to say the Swiss army knife after reading that title :-) Most of the axes I have here are older than me. I made this video years ago while splitting some firewood for the wood stove.

Harry Flashman said...

I still keep all the old tools in the shed, you never know when you will need them.

Gorges Smythe said...

Liked the choice of music, and the cameo appearance by the mouser. Good door latch, too! I think it's neat that you record these little moments of farm life. Incidentally, Ralph, I have a Swiss army knife in my pocket AT ALL TIMES!

At least they don't require batteries, Harry!

Chickenmom said...

Love these bit of information about your life, Gorges! Thanks for sharing!

Gorges Smythe said...

You're welcome, Cm.