Monday, July 30, 2012

Interview with a woodsman + FREE DVD giveaway!

I recently contacted Alex from the Old Federal Ax Co. His life is dedicated to the survival and homesteading skills associated with the forest, and teaches about these things for a living. I asked him if he's be willing to do an interview here and get people who may be interested in being better with their own ax and woodpile. He is a kind supported of CAF and is a sponsor of this site, but he also offers a free e-booklet on his website, Old Federal Ax Co. That all of you can have for no cost to learn some safety and techniques. Go to to check out the resources. You won't be sorry!

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!


Anonymous treebee said...

i'd love to win this for my woodsman! treevt80 at yahoo

July 30, 2012 at 8:20 AM  
Blogger 2houndnight said...

This would be a great asset for for a couple of newbie who have a ton of wood laying around after the devastating October snowfall last year...we need to know how to process it...safely!

July 30, 2012 at 8:41 AM  
Blogger 2houndnight said...

We'd love to win this, as a cople of newbies with a ton of fallen wood from last Octobers devastating snow storm, we need to learn how to process it....safely.

July 30, 2012 at 8:42 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Jenna.
I enjoyed reading this. I've done a bit of wood splitting. It is fun and it is nice to see the wood split into small pieces for the wood stove.
Lisa in Maine

July 30, 2012 at 8:55 AM  
Blogger oukay said...

Maybe I will win this DVD for my son!

July 30, 2012 at 8:58 AM  
Blogger oukay said...

Maybe I will win this DVD for my son!

July 30, 2012 at 8:59 AM  
Blogger DarcC said...

Wow, there's so much to learn!

July 30, 2012 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth from the Berkshires said...

This has been on my list of things to learn for a while now. (It's a long list.) :)

July 30, 2012 at 9:25 AM  
Blogger Trekout2 said...

Interesting... just from that short clip you can clearly see he is a pro at this...

July 30, 2012 at 9:38 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just moved to our farm and are planning to heat with wood, this could come in handy.

July 30, 2012 at 10:05 AM  
Blogger Ann Torrence said...

Axe skills, yet another thing to learn now that we are on our farm.

July 30, 2012 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Suzzanne said...

Hi Alex. Thank you for the opportunity to ask questions.
My apologies if this is a dumb one, but is there a "-handedness" to splitting wood and handling an axe? We have a "lefty" and a "righty" in our family and I'm surprised at all the tools that can't be comfortably shared.
Also, my hands start to go numb. Am I just gripping the handle too tightly or is it part of the impact coming through the handle?

Jenna, skip me for the drawing--I'll be buying the DVD. Perfect timing--we're getting ready to close on some wooded property in Alaska.

July 30, 2012 at 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow this looked interesting... I have a bunch of wood that came down in the storm we had last October which I need to split. I think I need this video!


July 30, 2012 at 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Pooh Overalls said...

Awesome! I have so much to learn- I guess I'm lacking the "Michael Jackson" in the hips as well. :D

July 30, 2012 at 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Debra S. said...

Very useful information!!!! Thanks so much for all the good info you pass on!!!! There is so much to learn!!!!

July 30, 2012 at 11:35 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

More skills to add to our newly learned techniques at Antlerstock! We have FUN chopping wood now!

July 30, 2012 at 11:45 AM  
Anonymous james edward said...

very good interview,picked up a few tips thank you

July 30, 2012 at 12:23 PM  
Anonymous james deward said...

very good interview , picked up a few tips

July 30, 2012 at 12:27 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

This is to answer Suzanne's question. Being left or right handed doesn't matter. There are some hewing axes (for making round logs square) that can be canted for the right or left handed user but for regular axes and mauls you'll just reverse the grip so the left is the guiding top hand and the right hand is on the bottom of the handle.

For splitting I swing right handed but when chopping I like to switch my grip depending on the angle from which I'm cutting.

Is the numbness when you split wood? I think you're right: the grip should be relaxed and if the axe doesn't split or cut properly then all that energy can transfer into the hands and wrists. So sharpness and striking the wood where you want it are things to think about.

Thanks for all the great comments!


July 30, 2012 at 12:39 PM  
Blogger karental said...

Informative and positive information. I don't need a dvd but I want you to know I appreciate these mini-lessons. Heading over to the Woodsman website right now. Thanks.

July 30, 2012 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

oh oh pick me, pick me!!
I love using my grandfather's old axe. Very calming and soothing to use. I just wish I used wood for heat so i had more of an excuse to chop!

July 30, 2012 at 1:32 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

I have a question: For those of us with old axes we inherited or happened upon, how can you test it or know if it is worth re-handling and keeping around?

July 30, 2012 at 1:47 PM  
Anonymous Sarah F said...

I need to learn how to sharpen an axe. This looks like an amazing dvd.

July 30, 2012 at 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

The handle is usually where the problems in older axes are. If it's loose, deeply cracked or split, bent, too weathered and dry then the handle should go. I rarely keep the old handle of 2nd hand axes.

Surface rust can be sanded away but rust that has caused major pitting can be a problem. Monster nicks in the blade or chips on the Poll may make the time repairing not really worth it. By monster I mean a 1/4 to 1/2 a dime.

A big problem is if the eye of the ax head is misshapen from pounding on or with steel. Steel on steel crime as I call it. It's an ax killer.

A great visual to answer this question is actually in the free booklet. I rehabbed an ax with significant damage to the handle and ax head. It only took maybe a short afternoon to fix it.

July 30, 2012 at 2:11 PM  
Blogger Rosie said...

Perfect timing! I have been thinking about learning more about heating the house this winter with wood. We have pecan, oak and elm all over the ranch and lots some big trees with the drought There is also Osage Orange but I am not sure those burn well.
I would love to win the DVD. Thanks

July 30, 2012 at 2:37 PM  
Anonymous tjntiledsgnr said...

Just moved to 22 acres of forest. We are in the process of having our forest management plan prepared, and this would be a fantastic resource. We will be looking at all of the references. Thanks!

July 30, 2012 at 3:49 PM  
Blogger BJ Gingles said...

I would LOVE to get the DVD. My husband and I heat quite a bit with wood and would love to eventually increase to 100% wood heat. That means woodlot management and ax work.

July 30, 2012 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger August Johnson said...

I just received the free booklet. I have several old axes I want to refurbish, they look like they have lots of life left in them.

July 30, 2012 at 4:12 PM  
Blogger Peacemom said...

I'm a woodswoman! I'd love this the video, thanks for the contest!

July 30, 2012 at 4:24 PM  
Blogger Kelly said...

Ohhhh! My husband needs this! We have a whole lotta wood that needs to be chopped!!!

July 30, 2012 at 4:45 PM  
Blogger Patterson said...

This is great timing as this is one of the skills my family needs to acquire soon and safely.

July 30, 2012 at 5:23 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I have a bunch of locust and maple to split. Any tips I pick up from the video would be great.

July 30, 2012 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Cold Antler, It would be great to win the DVD. A friend gave me a tree last year cut into "rounds" that need splitting. Your post has helped me think I should get around to that pile.... Thanks, David

July 30, 2012 at 6:32 PM  
Blogger Jason Paris said...

I surveyed awhile when I was fresh out of college. While doing that I did a lot of work with a bush ax. There is just something very rewarding about swinging an ax compared to using a chainsaw.

Oh and Jenna this might help you out:

July 30, 2012 at 6:34 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

So much info, tips and further investigation!!! Thanks Alex - you haven't just taught a single girl here - you've taught my sons, 2 teenage boys, as they have read this as well!! This interview definitely made the cut! (Sorry! couldn't resist the pun :) )

July 30, 2012 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger The 4 Bushel Farmgal said...

I've split a few cords over my years. My favorite tool was my mother's has since been passed down to my son.
Please add me to the drawing.
Thank you!

greenvtr [at] yahoo [dot] com

July 30, 2012 at 7:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jenna -- This would be a great help to me as I try to re-learn how to split wood. My husband just cleared a large space for a new barn, and now we have a MOUNTAIN of rounds that are drying and awaiting splitting. The last time I tried to split wood (over 20 years ago), I recall primarily being frustrated after I had buried a wedge in a piece and couldn't split the wood OR get the wedge out!

Pauline in Ithaca

July 30, 2012 at 9:23 PM  
Blogger Gelfling said...

We're heading into year #2 of heating our 1500 sq. ft. home in PA with only our rockin' little woodstove. We have lots of dead/dying wood on the property that needs to be turned into fuel, and I'd love to become more efficient with my ax!

July 30, 2012 at 10:37 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

I had no idea there was so much technique involved. My son is fascinated with axes and a little safety and how-to training is a great idea. Thanks Jenna, love your blog!

July 31, 2012 at 5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son is only 13 but is really interested in axes and hatchets; any old hand tools it seems. He would like this. Been reading the blog for some time now and I really enjoy it. Just wish we lived closer so I could take advantage of workshops and such. Thanks Jenna.
Ann in KY

July 31, 2012 at 6:27 AM  
Blogger English sheep gal said...

Thanks this is interesting stuff - especially after we spent the weekend in a Jenna style barter - a neighbor/friend who is a tree surgeon asked for help, as he urgently needed to move/clear logs he'd been saving for firewood, in prep for some driveway grading work. So he chainsawed the tree trunks into rounds, we split and loaded onto the conveyor up into the truck. For 2 people, 7 hours work, we were 'paid' approx 20 cords of firewood for the next few cold Buffalo winters, he delivered it, and it's piled on the lawn waiting to be stacked! That saying about firewood heating you several times - during the prep stage and when you actually burn it is definitely true! I still refer to a great book we got when we first moved here and got our wood burner, it's called 'The Backyard Lumberjack by Frank & Stephen Philbrick' published by Storey. It has great color photos and graphics on almost every page. Includes info about equipment, felling, splitting, storage, burning etc. I would love to win the DVD, always something new to learn thanks, Hannah!

July 31, 2012 at 6:39 AM  
Blogger Coco said...

We´re planning on having a wood stove, so the DVD would be great! I´ll pay the postage.

Anyone got recommendations for European axes?

July 31, 2012 at 7:05 AM  
Anonymous Walter said...

August is time to put up wood. There are several dead trees to be felled here. While I'll use a chain saw as long as there is gas, I have a 2 man crosscut saw, four different axes, a Peavey and a bark spud. I'm also pretty good with a pickhead axe, but that's for a different kind of firewood. I'll trade my Porter recipe for the DVD.

July 31, 2012 at 8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK!!!

July 31, 2012 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Cary said...

Love his chopping style. Love his tip for making kindling while keeping fingers clear of blade. Would like to see the complete DVD to learn more. Thanks for offering here.

July 31, 2012 at 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would love to win the dvd..... more skills always come in handy!

July 31, 2012 at 11:21 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Gransfors Bruks is a really great European ax maker. They can be a bit pricey, though. But if you really take care of it it's worth it.

July 31, 2012 at 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Kim M said...

We had a hatchet vs hand injury while camping this weekend so I think some safety and usage tutorials may be in order for this household. Crossing my fingers to win the DVD draw.

July 31, 2012 at 9:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have lost count of how many times I have nearly lost a finger or toe while fooling with axes. A great tip from personnel experience would be to make sure you cut your timber in the daylight before you sit down to eat and have a few drinks. That way you can easily keep your fire going while you enjoy yourself.

July 31, 2012 at 10:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Alex,

Have you ever used one of the gransfor brux axes? My son would really like to have one or more of them.

July 31, 2012 at 11:11 PM  
Blogger Jamie Leigh Martin said...

Alex, is that photo of you out here in Portland? If so, where?! I live just off the 205, and am so tired of the city!

July 31, 2012 at 11:37 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I'm not the hugest fan of hatchets. I always think that when you're holding a hatchet in one hand, the other hand is in danger.

I've never used a gransfors ax but they're supposed to be nice.

Yes, that photo is near Portland at the Sandy River. I'm in St Johns.

August 1, 2012 at 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Tree Pruning Brooklyn said...

Good interview and info, I honestly prefer hatchet.

-Carlos Hernandez

August 27, 2012 at 3:27 PM  

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