Swinging an axe may seem like it’s all about strength. The harder you drive that blade into wood, the better the result. But an experienced lumberjack will tell you it’s all about technique and taking advantage of axe leverage. We created this guide to show you how to swing an axe correctly, whether you’re felling trees or wood splitting.
You can also check out this explainer video below which demonstrates good axe technique.
How to split wood with an axe
An effective vertical axe swing requires correct stance and hand grip, good technique, accuracy, and a sharp blade. While strength helps, it isn’t the most important factor.
Stand in a comfortable position with feet wide apart, and knees slightly bent. You may prefer to have one foot a little in front of the other. It’s essential to feel well-grounded and balanced.
Before you get started, make sure there is no foliage or other impediments that could affect your swing. Hold out your axe at arm’s length and ensure you have a clear space above and around you. Clear any branches that you think could be a problem. This step is important for safety and making sure your swing is as accurate as possible, without impediments.
Finally, check the ground to ensure it is free from rocks, roots, and anything else that may cause loss of balance. Remove the debris or chop somewhere else if necessary.
If you’re right-handed, use your left hand to grasp the helve (handle) close to the knob. Use your forward hand to hold the top of the handle near the shoulder. You can check out our article on the axe parts if these names don’t sound familiar.
Holding your hands apart is the best way to lift the axe over your head. It requires less energy to lift and provides a more accurate backswing.
Before taking a swing back, check your hand positioning. With the blade facing the target, hold the handle with your left palm pointing towards you and your right palm away. Lefthanders can reverse this advice. Maintain a firm, tight grip but not too tense.
A good axeman knows that the weight of an axe head will do most of the work. Once you’re comfortable and have your hands positioned correctly, begin to swing.
Start by bringing the axe directly back over the head. Next, allow the axe to swing back down towards the point of impact. As the axe descends, slide the top hand down so both hands touch.
Bring the axe down in a whipping motion rather than a perfect arc. Keep the wrists flexible, not locked.
Forget obsessing about power as you start chopping. Try focusing on accuracy, hitting the same spot repeatedly. From the start of the swing, it helps to keep your eyes fixed on the area you want the axe to strike. You may also want to take a practice swing, like golfers and baseball batters do.
Once your swing is accurate with proper technique, you can start to add more speed and power. But remember that gravity and a heavy axe will do most of the work.
Developing an accurate swing has other benefits. You’ll avoid overstrike, where you strike too far to the heel and damage the handle. Striking too far to the toe is worse, potentially damaging the axe bit or chopping into your foot. Although everyone should wear protective boots, it’s especially important for first-time axe users.
Check out this guide for some useful firewood splitting tips.
Even the best chopping technique won’t get results if the axe is blunt. A sharp edge bites into the wood, transferring all the energy into the wedge. A dull edge will cause this energy to transfer into the ground, wasted. Be sure to check out our handy guide to sharpening an axe blade.
Different types of axe swings
A skillful axe user can confidently swing laterally and vertically. Let’s take a look at how they differ.
How to fell a tree with lateral swings
Rather than being horizontal, lateral swings are usually downward and diagonal. This technique is mainly used for felling trees and is one of the most dangerous uses for an axe. Unlike a chainsaw that provides precise cuts, an axe is unpredictable. We strongly suggest calling on the expertise of an experienced tree feller as there’s a lot that can go wrong.
If you must fell a tree, follow the same cutting principles as using a chainsaw. Start by chopping a 45° face cut into the tree on the side where you want it to fall. You’ll then make another 45° cut on the opposite side of the trunk, about 2” higher than the previous cut. The two cuts form a hinge, resulting in the tree falling towards the first cut.
Check out our in-depth guide to chopping down a tree with an axe for more information.
We’ve already outlined a technique for chopping up wood using vertical swings. Want to know how to cut a fallen tree with an axe? You can also use this up and down method for limbing and bucking, the steps required for cleaning up a felled tree.
Limbing: After felling a tree, it needs to have all the branches removed. The process of cleaning up a tree so that it’s a branchless log is called limbing.
Bucking: The process of chopping a tree that’s been limbed into manageable pieces. Chainsaws are a safer, quicker, less-wasteful way to buck a log.
Fast fact: Double-bit axes are great for limbing and bucking trees; a thicker blade can lop off the knotted bases of the branches, while a sharper edge is great for bucking.
Tips for using an axe
- Always take extreme care when swinging an axe, especially towards the end of the day when fatigue sets in.
- Keep a wide stance so that if the axe misses, it is less likely to hit your legs.
- Keep your axe sharp – it makes the job easier and safer because the blade is less likely to glance off the wood.
- If you’re chopping wood in one area frequently, consider fencing off a designated area just for this job.
- Always use a stump to chop wood on so that if you miss the target, you’ve got extra surface area for the axe to hit.
- When swinging an axe, don’t raise it over the shoulder as the swing will be on an angle. Instead, raise it directly above the head.
- Focus intently on where you want the axe to land for more accurate chopping.
- Make sure spectators are well clear in case of unexpected events like the axe head flying off the handle.
Swinging an axe correctly takes some practice. It’s natural to want to use every bit of energy to brute force your way through a tree. Even if you do have some success, you’ll run out of power fast.
It’s better to use the laws of physics, taking advantage of gravity and leverage. Let the axe’s weight do most of the work and focus on landing precise blows in the same spot.
Now it’s time to practice using your axe. Work on developing a proper axe technique, then expand your knowledge by learning how to swing a pickaxe or how to hew a log.