Friday, July 8, 2011

A Beginner’s Guide to Hatchets

A while back I did a guest post for Section Hiker. You can see the original here. I would like to repost it here now, so you have the complete version in both places.

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Why Use a Hatchet

It is an unavoidable fact that hatchets and axes are heavy tools. An average hatchet will have a 1.25lb head, which tends to make the whole hatchet close to 2lb. That type of weight must be justified by a significant use value. Whether or not a hatchet will have such high degree of usefulness to you will depend on what you wish to do in the woods. If you have no intention of cutting or processing wood on your trip, then any tool designed to do that, including a hatchet would be unnecessary weight. On the other hand, if woodworking is on the menu, a hatchet can truly shine. It is a simple tool that is nearly fail safe. It can shorten the time needed for a carving project that would take an hour with a knife, down to twenty minutes. It can turn fire making into a breeze, and serve every other role in between. The worse the weather conditions get, the more its value shows itself.

How to Select a Hatchet

Assuming that you’ve decided that a hatchet might be in your future, the next step is to go buy one. Tools tend to be very personal, so the ultimate decision will depend on what suits each person best. There are however a few things to consider.

The Head

Needless to say, a good hatchet needs to cut well. This is not only a function of sharpness, but also of the grind of the bit (the area right behind the cutting edge). If the hatchet has a thick bit, it will have a hard time penetrating into wood, even if it is extremely sharp. This is a result of more metal having to be pushed through the wood. A thick bit will also cause the hatchet to glance off the tree when chopping or carving.

If you plan on using the hatchet for woodwork, I would strongly recommend one with a thin bit (about twenty degree angle). You also want the cheeks (sides of the head) to be smooth and continuous. Any rough transitions or abrasive areas will effect the hatchet’s ability to split wood efficiently. You will see hatchets and axes on the market with many head designs, but as long as the above two considerations are kept in mind, you will end up with a very functional tool.

The Handle

There are different handle options on the market, from metal to wood. I would stay away from metal handles. While they are very strong, they are also very heavy and too much of the weight is contained in the handle. Fiberglass handles are a good option, and unless they have some other material as a core, they are very strong and light.

Wood handles are also good. One thing to note with wooden handles is the grain orientation. Ideally, when you put the hatchet on a table, with the bit facing up, the grain of the wood in the handle should be vertical, lining up with the bit. This orientation makes for the strongest handle.

Balance

This is a consideration that comes into play a lot more with larger axes than hatchets, but it is something of which to be aware. A good axe will have a balance point on the handle, right next to the head. This allows for easier control when you choke up on the axe for carving. Additionally, when the axe is balanced in such a manner, the head should rest horizontally. That means that the bit is the same weight as the poll of the axe. This will reduce wobble during a swing, increasing you accuracy.

Recommendations

Unfortunately, there are many axes and hatchets on the market these days that are of very low quality. The biggest issue that effects most beginners is that most tend to have very thick bits. This leads people to try them, and conclude that hatchets overall are not worth the effort.

There are however some good ones out there. From the ones I have tested, I would recommend the Graintex CA1754 Single Bit Camp Axe, the Fiskars 7850 Hatchet (now replaced by the X series axes-still very similar product with similar quality), the Husqvarna Hatchet (now being made by Hultafors; it looks different, but is still of good quality), and the Gransfors Bruks Wildlife Hatchet.

Of course, the lower the price, the more likely it becomes that the tool will have manufacturing defects. When cost is lowered, quality control tends to be the first casualty. All of these hatchets however are quite capable and will serve you well. These are just few examples that I have tested. I am sure there are other good models out there.

How to Use a Hatchet

Chopping

This is the hardest part of this whole post because there is so much to say in such a small space. I will focus on a few things, within this very broad subject.

When first starting to use a hatchet, the main problem is that without the proper technique, you can swing it at a tree all day long, without cutting anything. Imagine that there is a tree in front of you. If you swing the axe and hit it perpendicularly from the side, at a ninety-degree angle, the edge of the axe will cut in. If you keep pulling the axe out and swinging it back in the same way, you will spend the rest of the day making cuts into the wood, without much progress.

A much more efficient way to chop wood with an axe is to start by selecting the area where you would like to cut. Then picture a wide V shape with a point ending at least in the middle of the tree trunk. Then begin to cut it from the top and the bottom.

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When a cut is made on the top and the bottom, the material between the two ends of the V should fall off, or can be removed by a slight twist of the axe.

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Keep doing that until you reach the point of the V. Then, start on the other side of the tree trunk.

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The wider the V, the faster you will remove wood from the tree, and the faster your cut will go.

Splitting

We have all seen people split wood with an axe. The process can be used with a hatchet as well. The familiar technique it to place the log on a tree stump and hit it squarely with the hatchet. There are three things that I would recommend with this technique. The first is to chop in the kneeling position. Because the hatchet is very short, if you miss the log while standing, the hatchet can swing into your leg. Kneeling will mean it hits the ground before it hits you. The second it to not do it directly on the ground. If the wood splits, the hatchet will go into the ground and the edge may be damaged. The third is that you should aim for the corner of the log instead of the middle. That way the log is more likely to split instead of the hatchet getting stuck.

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Another technique that I find useful is to take a small log and hold it by one of the ends. While holding it, position the blade of the hatchet on the side of the log at the other end. While holding both the log and hatchet in the same respective positions, lift both of them together, and then bring both the log and hatchet together down on another piece of wood. You will find that the hatchet will penetrate the wood. This eliminates any need to aim with the hatchet and is particularly useful for small pieces of wood that can not be balanced on a stump.

Carving

The ability to carve with a hatchet is one of the most underutilized aspects of the tool. Once you become comfortable with it, you will find that your carving projects get completed significantly faster. That is because you can exert a lot more force with the hatchet, which allows you to remove more wood that you would be able to do with a knife. You can regulate how much force you apply with the hatchet my repositioning your grip. The more you choke up on the handle, the more control you will have and the less force you will apply.

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Hatchet safety

Both hatchets and axes are dangerous tools. They rely on weight and momentum to do their job, and if control is lost, the results can be very serious. I have mentioned one safety precaution, i.e. staying low to the ground so in case you miss your target, the hatchet hits the ground before it hits you.

This general approach goes for most safety issues when it comes to hatchets. For each swing, plan out where the head will land if you miss, and make sure that no part of your body is there. Once the hatchet is in mid swing, it becomes very hard to make rapid adjustments. A bit of planning will go a long way towards keeping you safe.

How to Maintain Your Hatchet

Maintenance of a hatchet has some easy and some more complex parts. Once you get your hands on a well designed, sharp hatchet, maintenance is identical to that of a knife. Keep the metal parts dry so they don’t rust; if it is a wooden handle, put some oil on it from time to time to keep it from drying out; and every so often, touch up the edge with a sharpening stone. Any of the hatchets I recommended above, should be very serviceable with just a small amount of work with a sharpening stone.

Many people like to do more serious modifications to their hatchets. Changing the grind angle using a file or replacing the handle are not uncommon. These techniques require patience and effort. You can see some information on axe maintenance here. A good resource on axes is an e-book called An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual. It was put out by the USDA and covers a wide range of topics from the history of the axe, to axe maintenance. These is also a companion video which offers some tips on more sophisticated axe techniques.

Summary

This has been a very basic primer on hatchets. It is my hope that the fundamentals of hatchet selection and proper use, will make the experience of those who are just starting out with the tool just a little bit easier and more enjoyable. I trust that the more a hatchet is used, the more apparent its value will become.

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