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How To Use an Axe, Hatchet, or Maul

A lot of what it takes to use basic woodlot tools (axes, hatchets, mauls) correctly comes down to common sense. And the first part of common sense is to know your tools, so let’s look each of these a bit more closely.

Axes and Hatchets

If asked to describe the difference between an axe and a hatchet, most people would say “a hatchet is an axe with a short handle.” Or, maybe, “an axe is a hatchet with a long handle.” Either of those statements are true enough, but “incomplete” as an answer. So, let’s look at all the differences.

  • Chopping axes are designed to cut across the grain. Think about chopping down a tree (not all that common anymore but think about it anyway). You swing the axe sideways, at a right angle to the grain.
  • Hatchets are designed to cut with the grain. The most common use for hatchets is splitting pieces of firewood, either to make kindling or to reduce the size of logs for a wood stove. You can get away with chopping small branches against the grain with a hatchet, but if it takes more than a few strokes you’re holding the wrong tool.
... A hatchet is designed for cutting with the grain.
  • Axe heads are roughly twice the weight of hatchet heads.
  • Axes are two-handed tools, hatchets are one-handled.
  • And that brings us back to long vs. short handle. The arc created by the long axe swing generates greater head speed than the swing of a hatchet. More speed + heavier head = more force.

Chopping Axe vs. Splitting Axe

A Splitting Axe is somewhat different and is not designed with chopping in mind. Yes, you can use a splitting axe for incidental chopping but it’s not the right tool for felling a tree or any type of prolonged chopping work.

... Chopping Axe (left) vs. Splitting Axe (right)

The primary difference between a chopping and splitting axe is in the head design. A chopping axe is slender and designed for making deep, penetrating cuts; while a splitting axe is heavier and widens to form a wedge shape. The extra weight and the wedge shape push logs apart.

If you have very dry, straight-grained wood, you may find that you can split effectively with a chopping axe (its lighter weight makes it easier to use over long periods), but if your wood is less than very easy-splitting it’s only a matter of time before you bury the axe head in a log. And, since getting it back out is one of those irksome jobs that tends to bring out frustration and salty language, we recommend the splitting axe. Even with a splitting axe you can get stuck but, because it is wider, it creates a bigger crack and tends to be easier to dislodge than a slender chopping axe.

Mauls

A maul, designed specifically for splitting, is significantly heavier than an axe (a chopping or splitting axe) and its cutting edge is blunter. Blunt enough that it is not at all good for chopping. Using a maul that way is more like bashing than chopping. A maul handle also tends to be longer for generating more power. Mauls are the most effective hand tool for splitting; however, they also require the most human energy and strength to make them effective.

So, Which do I Choose?

If chopping is your main use, go for a high-quality chopping axe. If splitting wood is what you are solving for, go with the maul so long as you have full confidence in your strength and stamina to work with the heavier tool for as long as you need to. But many people—even very strong ones—enjoy the easier handling of a splitting axe.

... It's not a bad idea to have more than one tool!

Of course, the best solution is to have both tools, so you can match the splitting tool to the wood. If you have no trouble splitting a given batch of wood with a splitting axe, there is no benefit to switching to a maul. You will work faster and more enjoyably with the sleeker, lighter tool. But if that head is getting stuck too often, the maul may well be the answer.

Safety Tips for Using Hand Spitting Tools

These tips apply to splitting, whether with a maul or a splitting axe:

  • Clear the area where you are working clear of obstacles, people, and pets
  • Use a stump or round to set your logs on
  • If you use a round, make sure it is stable and won’t move due to impact
  • Don’t split a log directly on the ground—a raised surface will create a better swing trajectory and prevent the axe from gouging the earth (or hitting a rock)
  • Take a strong, stable, wide-legged stance before swinging
  • Don’t “swing for the fences” but practice a smooth controlled action
  • Your hands should come together on your swing before impact (don’t hold your axe like a hockey stick)
  • Recommended safety gear: gloves, hard hat, safety glasses, sturdy footwear (preferably steel-toed)
  • Keep the axe head sheathed when not in use
  • Keep your axe sharp

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Last updated: 7/14/2022