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).

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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.

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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.

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Deer Axe Sheath

My sister and brother-in-law have been asking me for a while to make a sheath for their axe. The family was getting together yesterday for dinner to celebrate my sister’s birthday so I told my brother-in-law to bring over his axe so I could take a look at it.

Deer Leather StampThe axe in question is a 3 1/2 pound hardware store model with a 36 inch handle. One look and I could tell that the butt had been abused (apparently by striking it with a hammer). However, the eye was not distorted so it was not a total loss. I gave my siblings a few wood chopping hints so they can avoid damaging the head when trying to get through the large, knotted logs we tend to get in local campgrounds. The grain in the handle is far from ideal, running perpendicular to the orientation of the bit. Well, we can fit a new handle some other time.

I happened to be at Tandy Leather Factory yesterday morning and acquired a few new leather crafting tools and supplies. I decided to use my new 3D deer head stamp and oxblood-coloured dye on this sheath. A light gel antique coat over the dye really brings out the grain of the leather and the detail of the stamp.

While the sheath was drying, I took some time to clean up the axe. I peeled the ugly manufacturer’s sticker* off the handle, cleaned off the sticky residue, filed off the mushrooming edges of the butt, and sharpened the bit. Normally, when doing a full restoration, I like to strip all the paint off the head and sand down the handle, replacing any lacquer finish with linseed oil and beeswax. However, I know my siblings will appreciate something a little lower maintenance, so in this case I opted to simply re-paint the head matte black.

All-in-all the axe looks a lot better now than when it came into my shop. I hope my sister and brother-in-law are pleased with it when they see it.

My wife thought the sheath looked pretty good, but she did ask a funny question when I showed it to her, “Is’t that the axe that Marcus cut his finger with and then had to go to the hospital to get a bunch of stitches?” Yes, indeed.

 

* I was just ranting to my wife the other day about one of my pet peeves: stickers on products. To me, the worst thing a maker of things can do after spending precious resources designing and manufacturing a product is slap a nigh unremovable sticker on the thing before shipping to the consumer. At best, stickers slapped on the finished product are an annoyance to your customer, and what company would purposefully want to annoy its customers? At worst, a crappy sticker symbolizes the lack of pride the maker has in the product they produce and a total lack of respect for me as a consumer and human being. Even if I’m buying a plastic tub from Ikea, I want to think that the people who made it had the goal of creating the best damn tub in the world. If they slap a sticker on it, and I have to scrub, and scratch the surface to get the sticker off, then I think the manufacturer doesn’t care about the product or the fact that I have to live with it everyday.

 

 

Axe, Meet Sheath

I restored this axe a few weeks ago. I cleaned up the bit and attached a new handle. This very sharp and moderately heavy implement has since been leaning against the door of my office — an accident waiting to happen. Last night I started to work on a leather sheath to protect the bit (or perhaps to protect me from the bit). I’ve made a few sheaths for other axes in the past. I borrowed this design from the great sheaths that come with some of the Gränsfors Bruks axes (their axes with larger beards come with a sheath of a different design). Anyway, it was pretty straight forward and I am very happy with the result.

 

Eight Axes And A Knife

I’d previously written about my growing axe collection. I recently re-hung a couple of older axes and acquired two more Gränsfors Bruks axes. I’ve been meaning to document the collection and now seemed like a good time, even though I still anxiously await the arrival of my Base Camp X Artemis. (The Base Camp X Artemis has arrived and been appended to the end of the article. I guess the article title technically is “Nine Axes And A Knife” now.)

The axes (and knife) are presented in chronological order of acquisition. Click the pictures to see larger versions.

Man’s Axe (26″)

This is the first axe I ever acquire. I bought it at Canadian Tire when I was in university and doing a lot of car camping. From the beginning the head was annoyingly loose, though not dangerously so. Last week I finally got fed up and decided to either fix the handle or hang a new one. I drilled out the old wedge (which I think was bottoming out and not providing a tight fit). I managed to knock the handle out of the head. I sanded the black paint from the head and removed the lacquer finish from the handle. I affixed a new wedge and soaked the eye-portion of the handle in boiled linseed oil overnight. Then I covered the rest of the handle in boiled linseed oil and, finally, gave it a wax finish. I filed some nicks out of the bit and honed it to a razor-sharp edge. I haven’t had a chance to split any large pieces of wood with the restored axe yet. Time will tell if the new hang will remain solid.

I used to refer to this axe as a hardware-store special. I recently discovered the convention of marketing 24″+ axes as a Man’s axe versus shorter axes, usually in the 18″ range, which have been marketed as Boy’s axes. Though a bit hokey, I like the sound of these labels. Presumably, I’ll someday be giving my son (or daughter) their first Boy’s axe (or Girl’s axe), and they will know when they’ve come of age when they graduate to the Man’s axe (or Woman’s axe).

Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 1 Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 1 detail

Gränfors Bruks Swedish Carving Axe

My first serious axe and the beginning of an obsession. This single-bevel (right-handed) cuts through knots like butter. Choking up on the handle provides amazing control and thus held this axe can be used much like a knife.

Axe - Gränfors Bruks Swedish Carving Axe Axe - Gränfors Bruks Swedish Carving Axe detail

Iltis (Ox Head) Felling Axe (35″)

Time for some serious tree dropping power. The thin bit profile cuts through trunks and limbs like butter. Hasn’t seen too much action, as the wind does most of the felling for me at the cabin.

Axe - Iltis Felling Axe Axe - Iltis Felling Axe detail

Oeyo Liten Viking Øks

This little axe, measuring in at just 10.5 inches long, is a replica of a Viking axe and was a gift to me from my wife after a recent visit to Geilo, Norway. Honestly, I haven’t used it yet. It’s just too cute and may never touch wood, which would be a shame because it is wonderfully balanced and sharp as heck.

Axe - Oeyo Liten Viking Øks Axe - Oeyo Liten Viking Øks detail

Brusletto of Norway

My wife also brought back this awesome knife from Norway. Amazing steel. Amazing handle. Amazing sheath. This is a great utility knife which I have used mostly for carving.

Knife - Brusletto of Norway Knife - Brusletto of Norway sheath

Gränfors Bruks Hatchet

A few years ago I a bought no-name fiberglass handled hatchet. It works, but it ain’t pretty and the oversized plastic grip is not very comfortable. I didn’t really need this Gränsfors Bruks hatchet, but I wanted it. It sits by the fireplace and cuts all my kindling. It’s also so light it would be a great choice for a backpacking trip.

Axe - Gränfors Bruks Hatchet Axe - Gränfors Bruks Hatchet detail

Gränfors Bruks Forest Axe

This is one of my two most recent axe acquisitions. My frustration with hardware store axes led me to this all-purpose tool. I really debated whether or not to get it (okay, I didn’t debate that hard). It kind of duplicates the Artemis that is on its way, but has a totally different aesthetic. The grain of the handle is practically perfect. Someday I’ll own every one of  Gränfors Bruks’ axe models (see next entry).

Axe - Gränfors Bruks Forest Axe Axe - Gränfors Bruks Forest Axe detail

Gränfors Bruks Splitting Maul

This is the second of my two most recent axe acquisitions. A splitting maul is not a delicate instrument. It uses mass and an aggressive wedge to rip wood fibres apart, violently. We have a fibreglass handled splitting maul at the cabin. It works, but lacks in the aesthetics department, and, shockingly, the epoxy in the eye is cracking and the head is a bit loose.

I debated over the maul and one of Gränfors Bruks’ smaller splitting axes, which are about $50 to $70 cheaper. In the end I decided if you split 12″ diameter logs by hand, you want all the weight you can get. We do have a hydraulic splitter at the cabin, and that’s fine for when we have the whole family out working, fire-line-style, and want to fill the entire wood shed, but we run the hydraulics off the tractor which takes a few minutes to hook up, is loud, and, well, no one likes the smell of diesel exhaust.  When I am out alone I can split a couple of days worth of wood faster with the axe.

Axe - Gränfors Bruks Splitting Maul detail sheath Axe - Gränfors Bruks Splitting Maul detail

Man’s Axe (28″)

This axe belonged to my brother. It lives out at the cabin. He used to just leave it outside on the deck all year-round. It was always within reach when you wanted to split a bit of wood from the stack by the house, but it was also exposed to the elements more than it should have been. The head was horribly loose, and was affixed with a manky, undersized wedge that looked like it might be too small for a carpenter’s hammer. The handle’s lacquer finish was half gone and the handle was starting to split in a few places. The bit was starting to rust. The only thing the axe had going for it was that it was sharp. I decided to show it some love and get it back into shape.

Before heading to the industrial supply shop for a new handle I took a rubbing of the eye for reference. After I took the rubbing I realized how terribly distorted the eye was. The poll had obviously been used to hammer (or been hammered by) something very hard, like a maul. An axe’s poll should never be used to strike hard objects. The poll will start to mushroom (like this one had), steel chips may break loose at high velocity, and eventually, the eye will fail. I debated whether or not the axe was already too far gone, but decided to fix it up anyway, even if only for sentimental reasons. Honestly, I think the head still has quite a few good years left in it.

One whack on the knob of the handle and the wedge fell on the floor. A few whacks with a piece of wood were all that were required to drive the old handle out of the eye. I sanded the rust off the head, and touched up the bit edge (it didn’t need too much work). It took quite a while to shape the handle with a rasp to fit in the distorted eye. Eventually I got it right and hammered the handle home and fixed the wedge. Again, I soaked the handle in boiled linseed oil up to the shoulder over night to swell the wood and get a nice tight fit. The result is practically unrecognizable compared to where it started.

Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2a Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2b

Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2c Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2d

Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2e Axe - Man’s Axe Restoration 2f

Base Camp X Pioneer Artemis

What’s the saying? A dollar short and a day late. Well this axe came a day after I originally posted this article. Other than that I have no complaints.

The Base Camp X Pioneer is a substantial axe, with a 3.5 pound head and 30 inch handle. The handle is full-bodied. The knob is large and offers great control. The finish of the head is very nice, though the edge could have seen a little more care in honing. The black paint on the top and bottom of the head is a nice touch. I like the fact that the rest of the head is not painted. Let steel be steel. The finish on the handle is immaculate, from the metallic knob to the brand and wet-look lacquer clear-coat. A portion of the proceeds from the pink Artemis edition of the Pioneer is being donated to breast cancer research. Kudos to Graeme for a great idea.

Axe - Base Camp X Artemis Axe - Base Camp X Artemis detail

Other Goodies

I have a growing collection of other log building tools (broad axe, adze, draw knives, log dogs, etc.) that I didn’t feel needed to be documented here, but which may be the subject of a separate post in the future.

Gallery

Base Camp X: Artemis Axe Supports Breast Cancer Research

Base Camp X Artemis Pioneer Axe

This week I discovered a new axe company (in the way that Columbus “discovered” the New World, but that’s another story). Base Camp X produces handmade axes with wonderful contemporary designs. They are Canadian. And, right now, they are selling a version of their Pioneer axe and giving $100 for each axe sold to Breast Cancer Research. You heard that right — an axe that is helping to find a cure. Like Gransfors Brüks axes, Base Camp X axes are not cheap. But considering how much they are passing on to a good cause, you can think of your purchase of the lovely pink-handled Artemis as a donation of sorts. At least that’s how you can justify it to your loved one. Right, sweetie?

This will be my first Base Camp X axe. If the quality is what I expect, I imagine I will be ordering more. The Pathfinder and Cruiser axes look divine.

 

Getting Weird

Pipe Pouch 2

I’ve always considered myself a bit of an asocial eccentric. I hate crowds. I like being alone in the woods. And I like objects that are utilitarian but well made: wooden canoe paddles, axes, and now pipes.

Paddles

We don’t have too many lakes in Alberta (where I live). The canoeing in this part of the country consists primarily of whitewater river playing, running, and tripping. As such, the paddles I and my compatriots use most have to be powerful and indestructible, like the Werner Bandit. Beautiful in their own way, Werner paddles do lack something: the simplicity and warmth of wood.

At least once a summer my wife and I try to venture farther afield for an extended canoe trip. The lakes and gentler rivers of Northern Saskatchewan are a common destination. On a lake, nothing beats the feel of a wood paddle. With a pleasing shape, appropriate flex, and a thin profile, a good wood paddle is silent and nearly effortless in use. A graceful engine for a graceful craft.

Mountain Equipment Co-op carries several paddles from Redtail Paddle of Hastings, Ontario. I have several custom laminated Redtails in the “ottertail” shape. The grip of the most recent addition highlights the handcrafted nature of these paddles and the rough hewn surface rests beautifully in my hand.

I recently acquire a Grey Owl Voyageur 7″ (also available at MEC). While they lack some of the handcrafted sophistication of Redtails, Grey Owl paddles also lack some of the price. I intend the Voyageur to be a trusty lightweight spare for lake trips. It will usually only come out in shallower water, or on short river sections between lakes. On our recent 10 days on the MacLennan Lake Big Circle route the Voyageur got lucky and was used every kilometre — I loaned it to a fellow tripper rather than have them suffer the institutional plastic and aluminium rental they’d been stuck with.

Last year, I bought a guide to making wooden paddles. I didn’t get around to making my own paddle(s) last winter and my spokeshaves still long to shape raw wood into beautiful objects. This winter, I swear.

Pipes

For many years I’ve had to keep myself from buying a pipe. I have strong memories of the smell of my fathers pipe tobacco and smoke. I remember visiting the tobacconist with him as a child and watching the proprietor make a custom blend. And when I’m in the wilds on a trip, on warm calm evenings, or watching leaves turn colour and fall, I always think the world would be a better place if I had a pipe in hand. A pipe, in theory, is a simple object. But with skill and imagination, pipemakers create pipes of near infinite variety.

So, last week, I bought my first pipe. I did a bit of research on-line before hand. I knew the style of pipe I wanted: a curved briar with a rough finish in or around the $50 mark. At Epicure (formerly Cavendish in Moore), the shopkeeper showed me several pipes of this style from Brigham, a Canadian pipemaker based in Toronto. The style I chose is called the Voyageur 136 (appropriate, as the aforementioned recent canoe trip in Northern Saskatchewan help me make up my mind to finally purchase a pipe). (Coincidentally, the Grey Owl Voyageur paddle is exactly $50 dollars too.) I’m still in the process of breaking in my pipe and resolve to use it only occasionally (less than once a month, and preferably on trips).

The appeal of pipe-smoking is that it is a personal affair — a unique form of expression. As a video blogger on YouTube put it, “It’s your pipe — smoke it how you want.” What will my pipe taste like on a dark winter’s eve, with large snowflakes falling and the crisp sound of snow crunching underfoot? Probably just fine.

Axes

I’ll wager not too many city-folk give much thought to axes as aesthetic objects. Even people living in the country, or in the bush, likely think of axes simply as utilitarian devices made for a rough purpose: chopping wood. They are, but to me that makes them beautiful works of art as well. Like a canoe, the more stripped down an axe is in form and material, the better it does its job and the greater joy it brings the user.

Unfortunately, axes have fallen on hard times in this modern world. Most axes are mass produced eyesores that don’t really do their job (effortless cut wood). Lee Valley hardware carries a line of axes produced by the Swedish firm Gransfors Bruks. Gransfors Bruks specialize in creating hand-forged heirloom axes in traditional shapes and sizes. Heads receive no cosmetic treatment after being shaped by the forging hammers. Slight imperfections do not detract form their utility and are evidence of the skill of the maker. In fact, each smith stamps his or her initials in every axe head as a commitment to quality. The axe heads are mated to rough hewn handles soaked in linseed oil. These are not mass-produced, anonymous factory axes. Gransfors Bruks axes are infused with the soul and art of the individual craftspersons involved in their production, and are a joy to hold and use.

I recently added several more axes to my growing collection. As August draws to a close, and my mind starts to sense the not-too-distant cooling of autumn and the changing colours of the leaves, my intuition tells me that I should go into the woods to chop firewood. The ring of the axe, the sweat on my brow, the straining of muscles: precursors to the cold snows of winter and the chill of night fended off with a crackling flame in the fireplace.

Leather

Gransfors Bruks axes are supplied with handsome covers made of quality leather, but most hardware store axes come with no cover, or worse (because of the wasted material) a poor quality cover that provides no real protection (to axe or user) or which wears out after a season. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point-of-view), axes come in a myriad of shapes and sizes and it is nearly impossible to find a mass-produced axe cover that will work with your axe.

Needing to upgrade several of my axe covers, I recently manufactured my own. In the process I discovered Tandy Leather Factory. There are a lot of ways to work, shape, assemble, and use leather and this shop supports a lot of weird sub-cultures: bikers, cowboys, hippies, crafty moms, and self-styled lumberjacks.

In the coarse of several days, as many trips to the shop, and hours spent researching leathercraft on-line, I got hooked. My first axe cover turned out better than expected. But the desire to improve at the craft required learning new skills, and acquiring more specialized tools. Cutting, dyeing, and riveting, led to stamping, tooling, edging, and stitching.

In a short time I’ve time acquired the skills and tools necessary to make just about anything I could desire (anything made from leather anyway). A second axe cover led to a wonderfully simple and effective tobacco pouch and pipe case. (Remember the pipe? And yes, that is a cat smoking a pipe stamped on the pipe case.)  After the pipe case I made a nifty case for attaching a pen and pencil to my Moleskine notebook (another brand imbued with utility, simplicity, and purpose). I’ve got a long list of leather projects to undertake. Some I’ll save for those cold winter nights, cooped up by the fire.