Hewing is the process of transforming a round log into flat-surfaced lumber. In the United States, hand-hewing with an axe was common until the 1950s. Chainsaws made the job much easier and quicker.
Although no longer necessary, the ability to hand hew beams with an axe is a handy skill to have. While it’s not overly complicated, you’ll need strength and mental stamina to hew a lot of timber.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to hew a log with an axe the right way. You’re about to learn the art of shaping wood, a skill that goes back thousands of years. Let’s get started.
Safety warning: Hewing logs by hand is a high-risk job that can easily cause an injury. Use extreme caution and always wear safety equipment like steel-capped boots.
Tools to hew a log with an axe
To hew a log by hand, you’ll need an axe and suitable wood along with log dogs, measuring tape, chalk, and a chainsaw or crosscut saw. You’ll also find a cant hook useful for turning larger logs.
Felling axe for scoring: A sharp felling axe is excellent for felling trees, but it’s also great for the initial stage of scoring a log.
Hewing axe for finishing: To hand hew a log you’ll need an axe that’s fit for purpose. A double-bevel axe will work, but you’re better to use a hewing axe or broad axe. They have a blade that’s only sharp on one side, perfect for shaving off the edge of a log without it biting in. This is a risk of using regular axes, which can easily take a chunk out of the wood you’re working with. Whatever axe you use, make sure it’s as sharp as possible.
Wood: The type of wood you choose to work with will have a big impact on the final look of the timber and how easy the job is. Harder wood will require more work to hew. Wood types like hemlock, white pine, white oak, and Douglas fir are all good options. You’ll also find green wood is easier to work with than a dry tree trunk.
Log dogs: If you’re on an uneven surface then it’s important to keep the log in position. Log dogs are your best option, otherwise, bang a couple of 2×4 into the ground and nail them to the log.
Measuring tape and chalk: Keep a tape and chalk or a carpenter’s pencil on hand for marking out where to cut.
Crosscut saw: To get neat ends, use a crosscut saw. Although not a traditional tool, you could use a chainsaw if you’re in a pinch.
How to hew a log with an axe
1. Log preparation
Start by securing the log so that it stays in position while you work. Any rolling will reduce the quality of the end result, and injuries are more likely.
Log dogs are inexpensive gadgets that have two sharp points. One end is driven into the log while the other is stuck into the ground or a smaller log, known as a cribbing log.
During prep, you’ll also want to cut off each end of the log with a saw of your choice.
Decide what size timber you want and then begin measuring and marking where to cut. This step will help produce lumber that’s straight on all sides.
Most timber ranges from 4-8”, but you’ll decide based on what you want to use it for. You should use the tree rings as a guide for the center of the tree. Measure from the top of the trunk and work towards the base as there’s more space to work with at the lower end.
Tap in a nail at one end of the log then run a chalk line to the other corresponding end and snap it. A visible chalk line will be left which provides a guide for hewing a straight edge.
3. Scoring the log
Take a felling axe and stand on the log, feet widespread, away from the axe blade. For smaller logs, stand on the ground and swing the axe on the other side of the log.
Begin scoring the log by chopping at a 30° angle, 2-3 inches apart. As the chunks of wood begin getting chipped off, take care not to cut out notches too aggressively. You don’t want to cut past the chalk line; instead, try to score to about half an inch from the line.
Using a broad axe, the next final step is hewing the log. Right-handers should begin by positioning themselves to the right of the tree. Place the right foot away from the log and forward. The left foot should be placed on top of the log or braced against it.
Hold the axe close to the head for best control. Hewing requires a very controlled slicing motion, using the forearms, rather than a full swing. Carefully begin cutting off the edge of the log so that it’s in line with the chalk and as straight as possible.
Take your time and check that the hewn part of the log is plumb. As the bottom of the log is usually wider, you’ll usually have more to remove in that area.
After you’ve passed over the entire length, review and fix up rough areas. Only the best hewing masters can hew a side in one go.
Once you’re happy with the side, begin work on the opposite side, repeating the process.
What is juggling a log?
Jogging or juggling is a method of log hewing that cuts 45° v-shape notches along the log. The wood bits that remain after removing the notches are called joggles. These can then be removed with a broad axe.
Why use a broad axe for hewing?
The flat back of a broad axe’s blade is ideal for swinging along the side of a log without biting in. The front side of the bit has a sharp single-bevel for easily removing layers of wood from a tree trunk. Broad axes often have a curved handle to protect the user’s knuckles from injury.
Reasons to hew a log
- Makes uniform, straight pieces of timber that are all the same width.
- Removes the outer sap layer that often has decay and insects.
- Makes the timber lighter and easier to work with by removing around 30% of the weight.
Hewing a log the old-fashioned way is great exercise and very rewarding. It also provides timber that’s got a unique look you wouldn’t get from a timber mill.
A range of different axes will work, but a combination of felling axe for scoring and broad axe for hewing is a useful combination. Keeping each axe razor-sharp will make life much easier, so avoid using blunt blades.