Colby College senior Isaac Needell of Durham, NH tries his hand hewing a white pine log with a broad ax in this 2008 file photo. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

This story was originally published in November 2020.

An ax is one of the most useful tools that you can have around your yard, whether you’re felling trees or just splitting a few logs to use in your wood burning stove. However, used improperly, axes can be extremely dangerous.

Knowing how to use an ax safely is essential to protecting yourself.

“Our most useful tools in the hand of someone skilled are also our most dangerous tools in the hand of someone not being safe,” said Tim Smith, founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School. “Accidents never happen when it’s 70 degrees at 2 p.m. in the hospital parking lot. The more remote you are the more you have to be focused on safety.”

Ax safety is also important to Connor Winn, general manager of The Axe Pit in South Portland, where you can throw axes for sport.

“Ax throwing and splitting kindling and firewood are not mutually exclusive,” Winn said. “They’re very similar. When teaching how to throw it is a chopping motion. It’s very much that same isolinear motion, over the shoulder [and] straight forward.”

Step 1: Have the proper ax for the task

Smith said in general, there are three things that need to be safe when using an ax: the user, the bystanders and the ax itself.

“The only safety equipment that really matters is the gray matter between your ears,” Smith said. “If you can constantly ask yourself what can possibly go wrong here, you’ll probably be safer than if you’re doing things recklessly and have $5,000 worth of equipment.”

Still, you want to make sure you are choosing a good ax for the job that you want to do. In general, Smith said a heavier ax with a longer handle will be a little safer than a light one, though you should never choose an ax that feels completely unwieldy to you based on your height and strength.

“A longer, heavier ax is safer than a shorter, lighter ax,” Smith said. “If you have a little hatchet with a super short handle, you have to be really close to where all those impacts are taking place. That puts you closer to the danger zone.”

Also, make sure your ax is sharp. An ax with a sharp edge is more likely to accurately cut through what you’re aiming for without deflecting in another direction. Sharp axes are, perhaps ironically, also safer if you were to injure yourself.

“A sharper edge is more likely to make a clean cut in something whether it’s what you’re swinging at or if you’re going to injure yourself,” Winn said. “A clean cut is likely to heal quickly than a ragged edge and leave less of an impact.”

Smith said that there are four main tasks that you would use an ax for: felling a tree; limbing a tree, or taking the branches off; sectioning or cutting a tree into pieces; and splitting firewood.

You shouldn’t use an ax for tasks that will damage it, like digging up rocks and roots.

Step 2: Clear the area

Before you start chopping, clear your surroundings. Make sure all bystanders are a good distance away.

“If I take my ax out and hold it as far out away from me by the handle, and move in a semicircle around me,” Smith said. “I consider that my zone of blood and I want everyone to stay out of my zone of blood.”

Make sure the area where your ax is going to follow through after you swing it is also clear, so that you don’t hit anything once your ax goes through what you need it to.

“Imagine somebody swinging a golf club,” Smith said. “After they impact the ball, that club comes up and keeps swinging around until they finish the stroke. An ax will do the same thing. That will be the follow through.”

Step 3: Grip the ax

Holding an ax is a two-hand job. Smith said the most efficient way to hold an ax for any of the four standard tasks is to grip the bottom of the handle with both hands together.

“Inexperienced people will split their hands a bit like a hockey stick and that’s way less efficient,” Smith said. “If you look at the guys who are hitting home runs in baseball, having your hands the same way on the ax is probably a good analogy.”

Step 4: Take your stance

A strong, safe stance is important to making sure you don’t hurt yourself in the process of using an ax. Winn said that you want to take a wide, stable stance so you’re in control of your body and don’t lose your balance.

Smith to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and imagine you have laser beams on your shoes.

“The area between the feet is called the frontal zone,” Smith said. “You want the impact of the zone to be outside the frontal zone so that the inertia of the ax is past [your] leg. That gives me a safe followthrough.”

The same goes for horizontal chops, like when felling a tree.

“If I’m standing shoulder width apart, I want the tree to be out of front zone,” Smith said. “[That way] if the ax glances and doesn’t bite into the tree, I don’t have my leg in the way.”

Step 5: Swing with confidence

Before you swing, if you are not experienced, you might want to mark where you are chopping for accuracy.

“It’s really all about muscle memory,” Smith said. “Have a very specific target. When you’re learning, having a thing like a magic marker to mark where you hit [and] keeping your eye on the target when you’re swinging the axe [is helpful].”

When you are ready to chop, raise your ax and swing it down slowly and methodically.

“You don’t have to swing nearly as hard as you think,” Winn said. “The more energy, more torque you’re trying to put into the ax, the less likely you’re going to hit where you’re aiming. Controlled, swift movements are recommended.”

Be aware that some ax tasks are going to be more dangerous than others, and take stock of the consequences of each cut after you do it.

“Felling is maybe the most dangerous thing you can do in the woods with an ax,” Smith said. “You’re swinging as hard as you can [and it can] deflect and go where it wants. The added potential energy of a tree falling makes felling the most dangerous. If people are learning, practice with a tree on the ground.”

One trick with splitting wood, Smith said, is to make sure your ax is parallel to the ground at the end of your stroke.

“If your wrists are real high and the ax is real low, it can bounce and come back at you, at your ankles, toes [and] knees,” he warned.

Once you know the basics, though, Winn said not to overthink it too much.

“The more you overthink anything, the harder it gets,” Winn said. “When you’re going to do something you have to commit to the swing. You’re going to get better results that way than if you’re hesitant.”

Step 6: Share with care

If you are handing an ax to someone, make sure you have the handle pointed towards them, like you would with a knife.

“If you go parallel, lift the handle and grab the top of the ax head [so that the] flat metal is in your hand [and the] blade points to one side or the other,” Winn asked. “You’re not going to be in any danger of cutting yourself.”

Step 7: Put your ax away

Once you have finished using your ax and cleaned it off, sheath the head before you store it.

“Always have a sheath. The sheath will protect you but it also protects your ax from little dings,” Smith said.