How-to Hew Wooden Beams By Hand

I spent several days this week at the cabin collecting logs and hewing timber for a wood shed. I did most of the hewing by hand, though I used a chain saw on one very large timber for the first step. The process of creating a square beam from a round log, by hand, is quite simple though labour intensive. As my technique improved, the work got easier. But after three days in the forest, my body knew it had done some work.

Quite often when I am working on a project I think, “Oh, this will be a good opportunity to document the process with a series of photographs.” Inevitably though, I get so involved in the work that I forget to take pictures. This week was different. The work was hard and I had to stop every hour or so for a break, drink some tea, and enjoy the surroundings. And take some pictures. So here you go, a step-by-step guide to hewing wood, if you are ever so inclined.

I’ll assume you’ve already selected a straight clear log to work on. Green wood is easier to shape than dry wood. Steady the log on a raised platform using wedges of log dogs.

Take your time and enjoy the work. As Dick Proenneke said about building his cabin in Alaska, “you can’t rush it.”

1. Layout the beam dimensions

On one end of the log, layout the beam dimensions. You want the beam end centred on the tree rings. Start by marking one face plane with a level, then measure out the remainder of the faces. Repeat at the other end of the log, also making sure you start with a level reference line. Use a chalk line to mark a line from one end of the log to the other. This line shows you how much material to remove, and will be your reference in the next steps.

In the following photo, the blue chalk line is marking the plane of the right hand face of the beam. The material to the right of the line will be removed.

Hewing Wood - marking the beam dimensions

2. Score the log along one face, loosening or removing most of the waste

You will flatten each face of the beam in two steps: bulk material removal, and then fine shaping. For the bulk material removal you can use several methods.

The first method is to use a large axe and chop down to within about 1/8 of an inch your chalk line. You start at the larger end of the log and, making strokes angled forty-five degrees towards the smaller end, cut a series of notches 2 to 4 inches apart. In reality, you may need to make several passes to get the depth required. You can do the scoring while standing on the log, the face you are working perpendicular to the ground, or you can do the scoring while standing on the ground, the face you are working parallel to the ground and pointing up. The former method is less work (the axe swing is longer), but the latter method requires less balance.

The second scoring method is to use a chainsaw for the first pass. Again, make a series of cuts to almost the depth of your chalk like every 2 to 4 inches down the length of the log. After scoring with the chainsaw, chop out the material between the saw kerfs using an axe, starting at the large end of the log.

I used the chainsaw-method on this 18 inch diameter log. I did not want accidental chainsaw marks on the finished beam so I was conservative in the depth I cut, and made a second pass with the axe method once the majority of the material was removed. (Click on the pictures to see larger versions. The chalk line is visible in the larger versions).

img_3282 img_3284

Hewing Wood - material removal with an axe img_3291

You may notice that I broke of one corner of the beam by accident. This is not a problem as the raw beam has some extra length. I did find however, that the corners are the fragile part, both in bulk removal step and in the next step, so take a little extra care when working these areas.

3. Finish the face with a broad axe

A broad axe is a large faced, short handled, single bevel axe. The handle should be angled towards the bevel (to the right if you are right handed) to provide clearance for your knuckles. The thumb of your forward hand should be held along the top of the handle (not wrapped around) for added clearance.

For this step, you want the face you are working on perpendicular to the ground. Ideally the log should be positioned at about waist height. (In the forest it was hard to raise the logs this high, so I worked sitting on the log and had to position the face at a slight angle as a result, as seen in the next photo.) Stand beside the log and look down the face. Start at the smaller end of the log. Use the broad axe to shave the face down to the depth of the chalk line. Keep the portion you have already smoothed in front of you, using it as a reference as you progress backwards along the log. Occasionally step back and check alignment of the face using the chalk line and end dimension marks as sighting guides.

If the scoring in step two was down to a reasonable depth, it will be quite easy to remove the remaining waste. Knots will give you the most trouble. I had to chop out a few larger ones with a felling axe.


4. Move on to the next face

Once you have one face complete, make the chalk line for the next face and repeat until you your round log is a rectangular beam.

Once the beam is complete, you can further smooth the surface with an adze. This will give you a gently undulating surface and remove the majority of the axe marks. For an even smoother finish, you can plane all the faces that will be visible in your final project.