How to choose an Axe

35,500 years ago an ingenious primitive man fastened a wedge to a stick and made an axe, one of the first simple machines. This simple machine became one of the most useful tools and meanest weapons known. Fast forward to modern day and we are still using the same idea just different materials.

General Information 
In order to pick a good quality axe that is the right fit for you there are two parts you need to be able to recognize; the head and the handle.
The head- The head is the steel part of the axe that actually contacts the work. Good axes have a solid one piece forged steel head. The head should be securely attached to the handle with absolutely no play. The cutting edge of the blade is called the bit. Axe heads can be dual or single bit meaning a single edge or dual edge. Most axes will hold an edge for a long time because they are made from very hard steel.
The handle- The handle is the part you grip. Most axe handles are made from metal, composite, fiberglass, or straight grained hickory. An axe's handle is designed to direct the force of your chop to the work. Keep in mind the longer the handle the easier it is to use. If the axe you choose has a wood handle make sure you look at the grain, it should run lengthwise with the handle. There are also some axes like the ones from estwing that are made from one solid piece of forged steel for the head and handle.
Buying an axe- Before you buy an axe do a lot of research and only buy from reputable companies. If at all possible test the feel of the axe before you buy it to make sure it has a good comfortable grip and swing. If the axe doesn't come with a sheath you need to buy one separately.

Questions to ask yourself before you decide

  • If you plan to carry the axe in your pack do you want the extra weight?
  • What are you planning on using it for? Building a cabin, cutting or chopping wood, limbing trees, splitting logs, emergency shelter building, felling trees, clearing brush?
  • What kind of terrain will you encounter?
  • Is there another tool that might be better in my situation like a machete?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
The four main types of axes

Axes are sorted into four main categories based on weight, size, and intended use.


A hatchet has a 1 to 1 1/2 pound head and a handle length of 10-14". Hatchets are small and will easily fit in your pack. They are good for building shelter, limbing, splitting kindling, and other small camp chores.  If you plan to do a lot of wood processing a bigger axe would be better. 

Forest Axe

A forest axe has a 2 to 2 3/4 pound head and a handle length of 18-26". Forest axes are considered to be one of the most useful types of axes. The are lightweight but big enough to handle most of the chores you will encounter at basecamp.

Felling axe

A felling axe is a bit bigger than a forest axe with a 3 to 4 pound head and longer handle. The head is thin and lightweight. This axe is designed to quickly cut into the side of a tree.  If you have a lot of trees to cut down such as for log cabin building a felling axe might be a good choice.

Splitting Maul

The biggest type of axe with a fat round head that weighs between 5 and 12 pounds. These axes are designed to split firewood and that's about it.

Sharpening an axe
If you buy a cheap axe plan on sharpening it before you use it. Good quality axes will already be sharp but will need to be touched up from time to time. Here's a brief overview of how to sharpen an axe.
  1. First wear gloves and do not use grinders or heat the blade. Heating the blade can ruin the temper. Use a single cut mill bastard file that is at least 10" long. Remember files should only be pushed away from you and never pulled toward you.
  2. Run the file from toe to heel at a 15-20 degree angle to make a secondary bevel
  3. File one side until a burr forms then flip the blade and work on the other side.
  4. Next file a primary 10 degree bevel
  5. Finish the blade off with a whetstone
Here's a few better articles on sharpening axes.

And here's some more info on axes and choosing one for your pack

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