Where Have All the Axes Gone?

The treasured woodchopper’s talisman is a guide to an almost-lost way of life, an Object Lesson.

A Wetterlings Backcountry Axe  (Gabriel Amadeus / Flickr)

Last year was, by some accounts, the year of the lumbersexual—big beard, big plaid, big boots. Although not measured by time spent in the woods, the look’s ultimate accessory would have to be an axe. A big one. Happily, a Tribeca graphic designer and axe enthusiast was willing to fulfill the need. Offering both a smaller Hudson Bay and a four-pound Dayton-pattern American felling axe, the Best Made Company adds value with more than a dozen handles with brightly painted color schemes. Although the axes are high quality (made by Council, one of the finest axe manufacturers in America today), the catalog’s many pages amount to differently decorated versions of the same two patterns.


By contrast, the Mann’s Edge Tools company (begun by William Mann in 1833) produced axes in more than 70 patterns—Michigan, Rockaway, Wisconsin, Hoosier, Yankee, Black Raven, Muley, Perfect, and also ice, broad, and carpenter's axes along with adzes and mattocks. Though some are regional, most of the subtle differences are technical, each performing different tasks.

An 1859 Scientific American article on axe manufacture notes with some humor that, “It is true, if not touching, that many choppers think of and cherish their axes as though these were so many children or precious talismans. We are not sure that choppers could not be found who swear by their axes, and take them regularly to bed as a vade mecum." Today a visit to your local home center will turn up perhaps a couple of hatchets and maybe three or four differently labeled but essentially identical tools, which prompts a question: When a once-ubiquitous tool more or less disappears (or becomes an object to collect and display), what knowledge disappears with it?

The story of the modern axe is the story of the American felling axe. Colonists arrived with European patterns—trade axes with narrow polls and bits that curved gracefully from eye to heel. They were effective on much of the timber cut across Europe but were ultimately inadequate for the vast forests and enormous trees the settlers encountered.

Aesthetically, the American axe seems crude at best. Blocky, graceless, it was the product of individual small-town blacksmiths hammering out an adequate substitute for the more elegant European counterparts. Such a depiction is, however, misleading. The innovation of the American axehead was a broad, slightly curving bit extending through an elongated eye to the flattened poll. The wider bit and heavier poll balance the head and focus the force. Nor was it just a hunk of iron. Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, axe heads were formed in a fairly complicated process involving drawing, upsetting, and welding a bar of iron with a steel slug edge. Welding, tempering the edge, grinding, sharpening, and stropping produced an object that was functional, long-lasting, and key to the expansion of European colonists in America.

Traditionally, handles were made of new-growth straight-grained hickory, with the lengths varied in relation to the task. Attaching the handle—“hanging the axe”—was a complicated process involving plumbobs, planing, and wedging, a task usually supervised by the axe’s owner. Those graceful fawn-footed curved handles for single-bit axes did not become popular until the middle of the 19th century with the advent of contour lathes adapted from gun-stock machinery.

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau borrowed an axe and set off to Walden pond, chopping down some second-growth white pines to build the house that made him famous. If we are to believe the Scientific American, no self-respecting owner would lend out an axe even if, as Thoreau claimed, it was returned sharper than the one he received. Given the complexities of hanging the head, one must wonder if the handle Thoreau replaced after he broke the original was an improvement. (Clearly he attached it improperly, as soaking the handle in the pond would tighten the bond temporarily but, as the wood dried, would make for a loose and dangerous head.) Nevertheless, Walden demonstrates the utility of that single tool. Thoreau used it to fell the trees, clear the lot, and hew the timbers to build his small house.

In The Maine Woods, Thoreau offers up further axe adventures, encountering one with a handle a foot longer than is common. It was designed for bucking logs into manageable lengths, a task accomplished by the woodchopper standing on the log and chopping a notch between his feet. He would first chop halfway through, then face the other direction and finish the buck. Even though Thoreau may have been intimidated by that axe, like a large proportion of mid 19th-century citizens, he was both skillful and comfortable wielding one. Axes were an integral part of everyday life. Perhaps that’s why no one in 1892 would have found Lizzie Borden’s murder weapon unusual.

By the late 20th century, the era of the ubiquitous axe had long passed. While living in a wood-heated cabin on a remote Washington island, the nature writer Annie Dillard found herself the unwitting entertainment of her fellow islanders who enjoyed watching her try to split stove wood. She explains, “what I did was less like splitting wood than chipping flints.” The mode of splitting wood was finally revealed to her in a dream: “you aim at the chopping block, not at the wood: then you split the wood instead of chipping it.” She goes on, “you cannot do the job cleanly unless you treat the wood as the transparent means to an end, by aiming past it.”

Dillard discovered that chopping wood and felling trees are acts we cannot intellectualize nor abstract. The equipment is straightforward: sturdy clothing and boots, a bastard file, round double-grit sharpening stone, wedges or wooden gluts, perhaps a sledge, maybe some rope. It all depends upon the size of the tree, the density of the forest, and the lay of the land. And the axe: American-style, probably three-and-a-half pounds with a 36-inch handle.

Imagine this: After a walk in the woods, marking trees to be felled and perhaps touching up the axe’s edge with the stone, we select a tree and cut a notch halfway through in the direction we hope it will fall, then a second on the opposite side an inch or two higher. At the moment “timber” is shouted, that inch-high hinge directs the tree's fall, keeping it from kicking back onto our laps (an ever-present danger). Then the tree is limbed, bucked, and stacked, becoming Thoreau’s house or Dillard’s stove wood. Only in the event a tool is broken (or woodchopper disabled), does this process become visible for what it is.

Rarely in the presence of subjects or objects, the woodchopper is instead attuned to the tool, the tree, the earth and sky, to the painful awareness that a tree having lived many years is dying to become material for human use. Describing axe practice “objectively” fails to reveal the experience: rocks, sweat, wood chips, joy and sadness, all lived at the same moment, accompanied by unconscious, habitual physical skill and careful, constant deliberation. At the same time, an axe might be transparent in the stroke, but its slowly dulling edge is felt in the elbow and measured in the brain.

Maybe the axe is its own vade mecum, a guide into an almost lost set of practices—the woodchopper who prefers a Dayton rather than a Michigan, or a straight rather than a curved handle, one who understands the nuance of wood (clearing the bark of a hickory with a swamping axe prior to bucking because minerals in the bark dull the bit), is attuned to temperature (extreme cold chills the chopper but also makes the steel edge of the axe brittle) and to wind that can quickly waylay the best plans to drop a tree in a particular direction. Then there is the smell of forest air, the damp rot of fallen trees, and of course the sharpened attention to the sound, smell, and texture of the wood fibers giving way beneath the steel edge. While by no means the only way into such awareness, axe practice is very much being in the world.

Today that practice has all but disappeared. Best Made Company’s “Hushabye Baby” is more likely to be hung on a wall than carried to the woods. There are of course back-to-basics environmentalists and lumberjack competitors, but few everyday people encounter wood and tools in that configuration. At the end of “The Question Concerning Technology,” the philosopher Martin Heidegger borrows a line from the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin to explain technology: “But where danger is, grows / the saving power also.” For Heidegger, technology is a danger when the material world is treated as mere equipment— the trees as just lumber or heat source.

Technological danger is literalized in chopping. An axe is heavy, sharp, and often used on uneven terrain. Woodcraft manuals abound with directions for clearing escape paths, how to hold or drop an axe given the circumstances, and of course, how to fell a tree and split wood safely. Woodchoppers never lose sight of the inherent danger of their actions, of the constant need for deliberation, but it is in that danger that Hölderlin’s "saving power" can be found. For Heidegger, the essence of technology is dangerous because we “may quail at the unconcealed and may misinterpret it.” The “unconcealed” is not simple material and equipment, nor is it transcendent existence. Rather it is an awareness of complex, embodied interactions that unfold in time and exceed or defy subject/object binaries and philosophical or technical abstraction.

Another danger is the one a superficial understanding of Heidegger’s essay invites: nostalgia—the idea that a past practice is a way back to a different, perhaps simpler time. Heidegger kept his own version of Thoreau’s hut, as did Dillard. Best Made Company and the whole lumbersexual phenomenon play on nostalgia in a reaction to an apparently over-mediated existence and as a way to recover a different form of masculinity. But axes teach another lesson. As a practice that is necessarily attentive to skill, context, and materials, woodchopping exemplifies a form of attention often ignored and even denigrated in a world enamored by technology as a transparent, increasingly accelerating means to an end.

When finishing this essay, I found myself in the woods with no wi-fi—only a smartphone and a shaky cell signal. Editing a shared document on an iPhone is not recovering a lost past, but it is a different form of attention nuanced by specific material conditions—the size of the screen and keyboard, the strength of the cell signal, the heat of a cabin in July. We all experience the occasional technical breakdown (what Heidegger called the “broken tool”), which, like swinging an axe, in their own albeit small ways, are different forms of knowledge. This is where the axe has gone, perhaps. Not onto the wall as decoration, but reanimated into new tools that we can use just as deliberately, if we choose.