An axe is a heavy tool, relying on the strength of your swing and the weight of the axe head. When outdoors it makes the arduous task of finding and splitting firewood a lot easier, and in a survival situation it makes for speedy shelters. But when on your way to finding the axe that works for you, keep these five critical traits in mind to make sure you get the best value for your money!
1. Material Matters
When it comes to the axe head and the shaft of the axe, material matters! Stainless steel axe heads are resistant to rust and pitting, which is great when you are working outdoors a lot and work with wet wood. It also maintains its edge for a long time, allowing it to go longer with less maintenance.
However, it doesn't hold as sharp an edge as a carbon steel head, which is harder and thus can be honed to a much cleaner edge. Carbon steel is more prone to corrosion, and this means it requires a bit more love and care.
When it comes to the handle, don't go for a full-steel axe which is metal from the head to the handle. This would require you to craft your own handle around it for comfort and insulation (and some people like doing this with paracord) but it also means that once something breaks, it may cost you your entire axe. The benefit of a wooden handle is that it is the weakest part, so if anything breaks under pressure, it will be cheaper and easier to replace the wood.
Hickory wood is an all-time favorite when it comes to the handle. When you go and get your axe, feel the wood to make sure that its protective coating isn't too slick, which could cause you to lose your grip on your axe mid-swing—which is a bad thing to happen!
2. Shape of the Head
There are quite a few shapes of axe head, which are all suited for specific uses. However, for a good all-around camping axe you will want one that has a flat top, and is about a finger wide. Its blade would have a curve downward, and a shallow rise back to the handle. The top of the head should not extend very far beyond the handle, and be flat there as well.
The reason for the flat top is so that it can be used as a hammer—similarly, the flat backside of the axe can be used for this purpose. The downward curve (rather than a straight edge) prevents the axe from getting stuck in wood and allows you to rock it back and forth, for example, to release it from stubborn wood or to force a split.
The shallow upwards curve back from the edge towards the handle means that there is not too much of a point at the bottom end of the edge. Those points can break easily if you miss a strike, and a more straight head allows for the force of your strike to conduct better to the wood.
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3. Shape and Size of the Handle
Handles come in various shapes and sizes. When you are splitting large pieces of wood, a handle as long as your leg allows you to put in a lot of force. A small hatchet (as long a handle as your forearm) allows for better control and is very suited for firewood. When the handle is as long as your entire arm, it features a good balance between the two, and I would suggest this length for your go-to axe.
Should you want to conserve weight and space on your pack, then choose a hatchet size instead. Any axe shorter than this is not very useful—you can always grip an axe closer to the head if you want more control. At that stage, you might consider using your knife instead.
A good axe shaft is either straight wood, or with a very (very!) slight S-curve. This allows you to put in a proper amount of force. There are axes that have a slight C-curve, but those are less suited for woodcraft, and more suited for throwing—avoid them!
4. Sharpness of the Edge
While it may seem strange to mention this almost last, the edge of the axe is actually one of the most important indicators of its quality. As with a knife, you can use a whetstone to sharpen the edge, and people have used axes to shave themselves, just to indicate the sharpness an axe can achieve.
Sharp axes mean cleaner cuts and an easier time getting through wood, especially if there are a lot of knots in it. However, it also means more maintenance, because more accidents happen with a blunt axe than with a sharp one, as you will be trying to compensate for the lack of edge by putting in more force.
This comes with my warm-felt recommendation—try out an axe before taking it out in the woods! Be sure to get used to its weight and handling, so that you are well prepared when it comes down to foraging wood for fire and shelter.
5. Quality of the Sheath
An axe is a sharp tool, and you want to make sure that when you stow it away, it remains safe and secure. For this reason, I would suggest avoiding any nylon sheaths, but going for a leather sheath. It should cover the head of the axe, keeping the edge safe, while being secured around the head with a snap fastener or an eyelet.
This will prevent the sheath from opening and the axe from falling out—with potentially harmful results.
A good sheath should have a sturdy loop for attaching the axe around your belt. If the axe is very long, I would suggest fastening it to your backpack instead, where it will not move around and hinder you. When you do this, keep the axe-head down, so that should it fall, it will go straight down without turning mid-fall, which could cause injuries to you or someone nearby.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.