Yesterday I snedded up the crown of a fallen oak of 150 years standing. I removed a few limbs with my axe but 90% of it I worked with the chainsaw. Hugely satisfying work none the less. A habitat pile of leafy twigs and branch ends now circles the ground where the canopy lay, left for the creatures of the wood. A modest load of logs for my wood burner In the truck and the tree now tidy so everything that remains is ready for the land owners mill. Tis engaging work, the careful cutting of fibres to release tension and compression from bow and limb mighty enough to swiftly crush a man such as me. How many axemen(persons) would it take I wonder to saw, hew and cleave down an oak into shingles, lathe and firewood by hand? In fact if a weekend only were available how many of us should work the tree? 100 woodsmen maybe? Probably not, but fitting somehow such a number to break down this incredible harvest with only muscles, sweat and steel. One day..whos’s up for it?
Ash vs Hickory
Re-handling and maintaining good tools is a real joy to me. I love working our home grown ash into handles for tools. It cleaves and cuts like a dream, and the grain looks amazing. However today I had desires for hickory. After returning from a day’s felling using the 35” long felling axes I was saddened to find a fracture in the relatively new handle that I crafted only last year. The beast has had only a small amount of use, but it does get used hard. Those long axes have a heck of force when swung and a long leaver for twisting the axe head to pop out the chips after you strike a cut. Also on occasion if the head gets stuck in the tree someone might lever it out sideways. Here is the risk for fracturing. Now it does make a big difference if you are able to get hold of tough, stringy ash for your handles right from the bottom of the tree. This stuff will resist a lot more abuse then clean stuff from further up the tree. Hickory doesn’t grow in the UK as far as I know and I’ve always been a snob for home grown timber. But I am now considering whether to buy in some plank hickory to use as handles or even to buy in some hickory blanks just for my long handled axes as I don’t want to be replacing the handle every year! I’m happy for ash handles in every other tool I use particularly those with shorter or fatter handles.
A good axe handle should be slightly thinner in the shaft than you might imagine so there is a little flex at point of impact to spare your wrists from impact or shudder. This is of course not were the handle breaks if it does. Usually the break will happen right up next to the head at the point where the wood in the metal which is kept straight meets the handle which can bend.
I strode out this morning across field and lane carrying nowt but lunch box and axe. At the woods I joined my work fellows and we struck a fire first thing. Fairly soon wood chips where flying and the thud of axe strikes resounded through the wood, thickening the blanket of silence around us. A timeless quality imbued the scene. The brutal reality of a razor sharp cold lump of steel on a stick. Why is that so appealing? There’s no escaping it, it’s a primal experience to pit your body weight and your sweat against the might of a huge tree towering above you. You huff and puff, grunt and curse but there is a timeless poetry as the axe swings through the air bighting deep into the timber. It’s a giddy sensation when that tree finally yields and starts to move.
Then the chainsaws spluttered and growled into action. This was a workday at Stroud Community Woodland Coop. I’d like to think that those of us axing that day had more fun than those chains awing but it’s probably not true. However we reveled in our less-productive shared adventure. My three cohorts had no idea they might be felling a tree together today as they had no experience, skills or training and assumed that woodland work was for the certified chainsaw users only. As the light started to receded I lifted my axe and ducked out of the wood to stroll home cross-country. Time maybe to explore a new route home, a perfect day from a time gone by.
Tree felling by hand is a humbling experience. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun, requiring some strength, stamina and hand-eye co-ordination. We fell trees this way on our courses: it takes about an hour for 4 people, working as two-person tag teams, to fell a mature oak tree by hand. It’s a shame that on the shoot day camera time was short and we had to finish the felling cut with a chainsaw.
A large tree is about the biggest living organism you are likely to deal with. When this one was a sapling, everyone was felling trees by hand. I do recommend going on a tree-felling course if you are inexperienced as it can be dangerous.
We are pictured here using a 6ft two-man felling saw and medium weight long-handled felling axes. All of these need to be kept razor sharp. Old saws that you find second hand will require a lot of sharpening and probably re-setting before being used.
Books; the axe book – D.Cook
Places to buy tools:see shingle post