When used correctly, an ax can be one of the most useful tools in your repertoire, especially if you live in wooded areas and like to gather around a warm, roaring fire in the wintertime. But how do you choose the right one?
If you are purchasing an ax for the first time, there are a few key things you need to look out for.
Step 1: Shop with experts
First make sure you are going to a store where employees have knowledge of axes, especially if you have never bought one. Not only will the axes be higher quality, but the employees at the store will be better prepared to help you choose an ax that is right for you.
“Most people selling axes don’t know anything about them except that they want to sell many of them,” said Tim Smith, founder of Jack Mountain Bushcraft School.
Look out for shops that offer Maine-made axes like Snow and Nealley, or ones that make axes for themselves, like Brant and Cochran in South Portland. Smith also recommended a store like Pole and Paddle in Hollis, which restores antique axes.
Don’t be deterred by antiques, either. Connor Winn, general manager of The Axe Pit in South Portland, said that refurbished antique ax heads are a great option, even for modern ax users.
“I particularly like refurbishing antiques to put them back to use,” Winn said. “In my opinion, a tool was made to be used and that is what ought to be done. Whatever you like that’s going to be what’s good for you.”
Step 2: Consider the tasks at hand
Once you have found a good place to purchase an ax, consider what you want to use it for. Smith pointed out that if you were to go to a logging museum you’d see at least “30 different types of axes,” each specialized for different tasks.
Your main purpose for the ax will help determine the bevel, or angle, of the head you want. For instance, shallow, fine bevels are great for limbing and felling trees, but less effective at splitting wood.
“Something with a wide bevel will serve you a little bit better because it’s acting as an edge driving the wood fiber apart instead of driving deep into the log where you can get your ax stuck easily,” Winn said.
Step 3: Test the head (or ask about its quality)
If you find a head that seems suitable, you might want to test the quality. Smith said new ax owners will have to rely on salespersons to help evaluate the quality of the head.
One thing you can do if you have experience is to bring a hand file used for sharpening axes with you. You want to be able to run the file along smoothly and cleanly, without either too much give or too much difficulty.
“Run the file along the blade,” Smith said. “That’s going to tell you a lot about the quality of the blade. It’s a tactile thing. [If] you run a file along a crappy ax at Home Depot, it’s going to be really soft or too hard and skip.”
Step 4: Think about weight and length
Then consider the handle, as well as the heft of the head. Handle length and the weight of the head will depend somewhat on your height and strength
“There’s a sweet spot in there,” Smith said. “I’m 6-foot-1 [and] I swung a 29-inch ax for years and years, [which] feels right to me. The shortest ax we let people use is about 25 inches. A lot of 35-inch handles at hardware stores [and] I don’t like that — [a] 29- [to] 30-inch handle feels better. Stay away from anything shorter than a 20-inch handle.”
Step 5: Look at the handle
Many of the other elements of choosing an ax, like handle material, come down to personal preference. In general, Smith said that heavier, slightly longer axes are more safe, but “people like different axes like people like different knives.”
For example, curved handles are generally more ergonomic, but Winn prefers straight handles.
“Glass reinforced nylon is something that has become very popular,” Winn said. “Generally, you will find that the strongest handles are wood handles.”
Smith said that he will even have his students at the Jack Mountain Bushcraft School carve their own handles. In that case, it is much easier for inexperienced whittlers to craft a straight handle. Plus, you can get more handles out of a single log.
Winn said some axes will be “full tang,” which means that the metal that the ax head is made of runs down the length of the ax handle all the way to the bottom. These axes are very sturdy, he said, but they are an acquired taste.
“They generally just coat those in rubber, which some people like some people don’t like,” he explained.
Step 6: Consider the cost
When it comes to cost, Smith said that the “fanciest axes” in his estimation come from a Swedish company called Gransfors Bruk — the design of which, he insisted, is based on an old Emerson & Stevens ax from Maine — that sell for more than $300.
‘That’s the high end of the scale,” Smith said. “The low end for a good quality [is] maybe $75 to $80, but you can definitely go cheaper.”
Winn said to expect to shell out $45 for a decent tool.
“I myself have spent $75 on a real decent splitting ax before,” Winn said. “If it’s something that you’re going to use once, twice a year in the summertime, don’t pay more than $50.”
While shopping for axes, Winn said to practice with a few to see what you like.
“There’s no shame in asking questions, trying different things and figuring it out for yourself,” Winn said. “The safest ax is the one you are comfortable using.”
Smith said that whatever ax you learn to use first is the one you will likely prefer.
“Whatever ax you cut your teeth with — weight of handle, straight or curved, head weight — that will feel right because you spent so many hours with it,” Smith said.