The Best Axe

There is no shortage of advice on the weight an axe head should be and how long (and what shape) the handle should be. Today I wanted to inject a my opinion into the discussion, as well as describe my favorite axes.

An axe with a longer handle is safer than one with a shorter handle. The longer handle allows the user to position himself further from the impact point. The further this distance is, the greater the safety buffer.  There’s much more to using an axe safely than handle length, but it is an important consideration.

I think that it’s best for people to learn the skills of using an axe with a full-size axe; a 3-3.5 pound head and a 30-35″ handle. Once they’ve learned how to safely fell, limb, section and split using this tool, they can choose whatever size axe they like because they’ve learned how to use it.

Whatever size axe you learn with and spend a significant amount of time using will probably always feel like the right size to you. This is because you build familiarity and muscle memory with it, and these aren’t easily gotten rid of.

The two axes in the photo are my favorites. They were both made in Oakland, Maine more than 60 years ago. The top is an Emerson & Stevens head, the bottom is a John King. They represent an era of great craftsmanship in axe production. The John King has been my every day axe since I convinced Don Merchant to sell it to me. It’s a 3 1/4 pound head on a straight, 29″ white ash handle.  I would much rather have it, and it alone, than a pack full of modern survival gear for a month in the forest.  Someone asked me if I’d sell it for $100. I told them even if they offered $5000, it’s not for sale.

I’ve also got two great old Snow And Neally axes that hold an edge amazingly well, and a few ugly, unmarked and unnamed axes that hold their own with the best and most expensive.

If you’re new to using an axe, never lose sight of the fact that it’s the tool user, not the tool, that gets the job done. The best axe in the hands of a novice will be far less effective than a marginal axe in the hands of an experienced user. Your time is better spent using the axe you’ve got than pining over the one you don’t.

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