Next to the rifle, a backwoodsman's main reliance is on his axe. With these two instruments, and little else, our pioneers attacked the forest wilderness that once covered all eastern America, and won it for civilization.
In the clearing and in lumber works the favorite axe is a double-bitt with 4 1/2 to 5-pound head. One blade is ground thin and kept whetted keen, for chopping in clear timber. The other is left with more bevel, as that is advantageous in splitting, and the edge, although sharp, is rather stunt, so that it will not shiver against a knot, or nick badly when driven through into the earth, as may happen when cutting through roots. A professional chopper, who works only at felling trees and cutting off "lops" (the branching tops) will grind both blades thin. For him, too, the double-bitt is best, since most of its weight is back in line with the cutting edge, and ~o it bites deep, although driven with little force. The helve of such an axe, of course, is straight, and one bought at a store should be shaved considerably thinner on both sides; then it is not so clumsy, lies in the hands more compactly, does not cramp the fingers and will not jar the hands, as it has some spring.
A double-bitted axe is dangerous in any but expert hands—more so than a loaded gun—and would be a menace lying around in camp, for, even when stuck in a tree or chopping-block, one edge is always exposed. I have given elsewhere (Vol. I., pp. 113-114) other reasons why a light single-bitt is the best axe for a camper, and have told how to select such a tool and care for it.
A new axe must be ground before it is fit for use. Do this on a grindstone (or have it done where they have a power grindstone) using water freely so the steel will not overheat. The average "cutler and grinder" in a city would make a quick job of it on an emery wheel, and ruin the temper. Since you will do much more chopping than splitting, you want the blade thin. Start grinding well back on the blade, and work out to the edge until most of the bevel has been ground oft", but leave a little of it between the center and the outside corner; that is, the blade should be thickest at a point a little beyond the center, so it will not "bind" (stick fast in wood) and so that it will spring a chip loose. Then whet off the wire edge with a stone. Make or buy a leather sheath for the axe-head, riveted to prevent cutting through (see illustrations in outfitters' catalogues).
A broken axe-helve is not an uncommon accident in the woods, and it is a very serious one until a new helve is made and fitted. Now it sometimes happens that the stub of the old handle cannot be removed by ordinary means: it must be burnt out. To do this without drawing the temper of the steel might seem impracticable; but the thing is as simple as rolling off a log, when you see it done. Pick out a spot where the earth is free from pebbles, and drive the blade of the axe into the ground up to the eye. Then build a fire around the axe-head—that is all. If the axe is double-bitted, dig a little trench about six inches deep and the width of the axe-eye, or a little more. Lay the axe flat over it, cover both blades with two inches of earth, and build a small fire on top.
In making a new axe-helve, do not bother to make a crooked one like the store pattern. Thousands of expert: axemen use, from preference, straight handles in their axes—single-bitted axes at that I have seen such handles full four feet long, to be used chiefly in logging-up big trees. Two feet eight inches is long enough for ordinary chopping. To smooth any article made of wood, when you have no sandpaper, use loose sand in a piece of leather or buckskin.
To be expert with the axe, one must have been trained to it from boyhood. A novice, however, can learn to do much better than bungle if he observes a few simple directions, watches a good chopper, and uses his wits in trying to "catch on".
Practice until you can hit the same spot repeatedly. Precision, rhythmical strokes, good judgment as. to where a cut will do the most good; these are the main points to strive after.
Beginners invariably over-exert themselves in chopping, and are soon blown. An accurate stroke counts for much more than a heavy but blundering one. A good chopper lands one blow exactly on top of the other with the precision and regularity of a machine; he chops slowly but rhythmically, and puts little more effort into striking than he does into lifting his axe for the blow. Trying to sink the axe deeply at every stroke is about the hardest work that a man can do, and it spoils accuracy.
Try your axe first on saplings up to six inches in diameter. A little one is downed with two strokes. Bend it over so its fiber is strained on one side, hit it a clip with the axe in one hand, then similarly on the other side. A larger one is notched on each side, like a tree (see below) but does not need to tiave the large notch blocked out.
When cutting saplings that are to be dragged to camp, throw them with tops in the opposite direction from camp, so they can easily be dragged out by the butts; otherwise you will have to slew them around so the branches will not catch in everything.
Before starting to fell a tree, clear away all underbrush and vines that are within reach of the extended axe, overhead as well as around you. Neglect of this precaution may cripple a man for life.
Before starting to chop down a tree, decide in which direction you wish it to fall. This will be governed partly by the lay of the ground and the obstacles on it. The tree should fall where it will be easy to log up. Most trees lean more or less out of plumb, or have a heavier growth of branches on one side than on the other. If there is nothing to interfere, drop it on the side toward which it is naturally inclined to fall. In a thick forest, throw it in such direction that it will not lodge on some other tree in falling. It is both difficult and dangerous for anyone but an expert to bring down a lodged tree. Don't try to throw a tree against the wind, if there is a strong breeze blowing.