Interview with a woodsman + FREE DVD giveaway!
Also, I will be giving away a copy of his 2 hour long instructional DVD titled, "Ax Skills for the Homestead & Wilderness Survival." I own a copy myself and think its a wonderful asset to anyone out there on the land or anyone who hopes to be someday. To enter to win it, leave a comment here after this post. Ask a question, tell a story, or share your own tips and techniques. Winner will be picked Wednesday! Now, on with the interview!
Alex, welcome to the farm. Could you introduce yourself to the readers, tell us about your work?
Thanks for having me! I'm a survival instructor in Portland, Oregon and I focus on practical survival, primitive skills and tracking. I also teach nature awareness, what I call Intuition in Nature. Ax Skills are also a big part of what I do and teach - axe history, fixing handles, making handles, sharpening axes, technique and safety classes, felling trees, the ax as a survival tool or a homestead tool, you name it.
How did you get started in Survival and Axemanship?
My dad is a carpenter and woodsman so I grew up with axes and tools and ever since I can remember there's nothing I liked to do more than swing an ax. He taught me how to use axes safely, how to sharpen them, and how to replace the handles - then he set me loose.
I actually had some intensive survival training in the Boy Scouts when I was 11 and 14, which turned out to be some strange life-foreshadowing. I got started pretty young in the Forest Service on a trail crew, then the Park Service as a volunteer backcountry ranger then as a firefighter. At age 19 I went to the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS) in Southern Utah. I got seriously hooked on survival and taught there throughout my twenties.
Why do you think a basic understanding of wood—as fuel and a resource for the homestead—is important?
Oh yes! Understanding wood on all levels is so important, as a side note, I recommend Eric Sloane's book, A Reverence for Wood, for those to want to get to know wood a little more intimately. But yes, first knowing the trees and what they mean ecologically from the soil to the squirrels is essential, then the best uses of each type of wood, like what's the best wood for a bow or an ax helve, and that you want heartwood for a bow, but sapwood for an ax handle. Then knowing not just how different woods behave but different parts of the same tree behave, such as boards with portions of heartwood will bend or "cup" over time.
When it comes to fuel, knowing the BTUs and how each wood burns differently will make life a lot easier, such as how pine is a good fire starter but if it's your main fuel source, the resins in the wood will over time cause a dangerous buildup in your chimney. There's a lot to know and it's all important.
Can anyone get good at this skill set, or are some people just better at it?
I do think that some people just have a talent for physical things but practice and technique are the great equalizers. If I had a motto it would be "Let the ax do the work." Lack of upper body strength can be a limitation when using an ax, but at the same time I mostly see people using too much strength - too much tension in the shoulders. Folks need to get a little more Michael Jackson down in the hips - you raise the ax, relax your arms, then drop the hips and all the parts move together fluidly and easily.
An old firefighter joke was that we all had strong backs and weak minds but I would say that the ax is a thinking tool and that there's a smart way to chop or split wood. A person with less strength can be more efficient than a stronger person by going slowly, being systematic, reading the wood, and using good technique.
It is dangerous to work with splitting wood without proper instruction? are injuries common?
I've used sharp tools my whole life, yet the worst cuts I've had are from opening cans of soup. Axes are dangerous if used without experience or education but if people use good technique and learn a short list of dos and don'ts then it's pretty safe. A quick example, the most common injuries are to the feet and legs so boots and long pants are the most important safety items.
Aside from getting a cut from an ax there are many more safety considerations like, hurting your back, cutting your hands on sharp pieces of wood, exhaustion and frustration that can lead to an accident, tripping while carrying an ax, or injuring the tool and creating a few hours more work of sharpening or handle repair. Done correctly, using an ax is a pleasurable experience that can be very safe. For me it's a deeply contemplative activity.
Do you think mastering hand tools is a lost art or something people are finding their way back to in the DIY movement?I think all this stuff is making a comeback in a big way. Portland is sort of a mecca for DIY so I have a front row seat to a huge artisan movement that includes sewing, blacksmithing, urban homesteading, permaculture, craft brewing, bikes, etc. Incidentally, this movement isn't just a subculture. It's been studied in depth and functions as it's own economy in this city.
The technology we have today is such a gift but I think we're also seeing that on a personal level it's only so satisfying and more and more people are getting back to simpler technologies. We're kind of feeling our way back in time with our hands and creating beautiful lives for ourselves.
How important is the quality of your axes? Is it worth the investment to spend a lot as a new backyard lumberjack?
Quality is important but the best axes aren't necessarily the most expensive. Older American-made brands like Collins, Sager, Mann Edge Tool Co., or Plumb that you score at a garage sale, or flea market have the best steel and are the cheapest and best long term solution. And because replacing and repairing handles is a lot easier than you might think, that's what I recommend.
Council Tool is a company I trust to buy an axe from the web, sight unseen. They're one of the last American made brands and are relatively affordable.
An ax is also a surprisingly specialized tool so just having the right ax for the right job is key. A serious budgeteer could get away with a splitting maul and a 3/4 ax. Most ax work these days is splitting rounds with a maul, then the 3/4 ax is easy to carry and can perform any needed field work and also be used like a hatchet for making kindling.
Any last thoughts or advice?
Maybe just that understanding that the ax helve or handle itself is a huge part of the equation and there is a lot of subtlety in picking out an ax with the right handle. Color, straightness, direction of grain, and just the feel of the handle are all things to consider. I guess we're running out of space but I could do an entire interview just on handles.
Thanks so much, Jenna, and happy chopping!