Choosing and Axe for Your Camper

Axe is one of those crucial tools you need in your RV, that is easy to forget, but impossible to replace when you need one. So how should you make sure you have the right axe for your camper. First of all it is important to use an axe that’s not too big or too small for the intended user, for reasons of safety and ergonomics.

Because an axe is a lever, the force of the head is magnified by the handle, so the ideal axe for a given user and job will be a combination of head weight and haft length.

Axe User Factors

There are three factors that the user must consider in selecting an axe:

  • Size and frame of the user – a taller person may be more comfortable with a longer handle
  • Strength – a stronger person may be able to handle a combination of heavier head and longer handle
  • Skill – any axe is dangerous, more so in the hands of an unskilled user. While a skilled axeman may adapt to the tool available, for the beginner, careful selection is particularly important.

Weight of the Axe Head

An axe that has too heavy or too light a head will be more work to use, the first because it is uncomfortably heavy and hard to handle, and the second because more swing effort will be required to drive the axe into the work. Both conditions are unsafe and will increase the risk of harm to the user.

  • A light camping hatchet (tomahawk) head might be up to 1.5 lbs (300 to 700 g).
  • A typical forest axe (felling axe) is 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 lbs (1.1 kg to 1.6 kg).
  • A splitting axe is in the same range or a little heavier, up to 4-1/2 lbs (2 kg)
  • A splitting maul might be 5 to 8 lbs (2.5 kg to 3.5 kg).

In the first image, head weights left to right: 3 lb (1.5 kg) Firestone; 2 1/4 lb (1 kg) Collins; 1.5 lb (0.5 kg) Wetterling; 11 oz (300 g) Gransfors mini.

Length of the Axe Handle

Axes come in a range of haft lengths for each type, and within that range the user will find one that “feels right”. This can sometimes be determined before purchase but unfortunately may only come with experience after actual use of the tool.

  • A hatchet may range from 8″ (200 mm) to 14″ (400 mm),
  • A forest axe (felling axe or cutting axe) might range from 28″ to 36″ (700 mm to 900 mm)
  • A “full axe” is considered to have a 36″ (900 mm) haft
  • A typical utility or camping axe will be 20″ to 24″ (500 to 600 mm).
  • A Boy’s axe or 3/4 axe is typically 28″ (3/4 of 36″ is 27″ or about 700 mm); many find that this makes a good camp axe.
  • The Scout axe or 1/2 axe is typically 18″ or 20″ (450 to 500 mm) in haft length with a head weight of 1.25 to 1.5 lbs.

There are those who argue that a longer handle puts the head (and the strike zone) further from the body, an important safety consideration. However, a handle that is too long takes excessive effort to wield. Not only will this be tiring, it will be dangerous in the hands of a small or unskilled user with insufficient strength (who will choke up on the handle, compounding the danger). A handle that is too short cannot apply sufficient force (again, tiring the user by requiring repeated blows to accomplish the job) and may strike at an awkward angle.

While the effect of a heavy head can be reduced by a shorter handle, and a lighter head given more power by a longer handle, these are compromises and do not represent the best solution.

Axe Guards- Home Made or Commercial?

An axe edge guard or axe sheath is intended protect an axe blade and keep it sharp during storage or transport. At the same time, a properly sheathed axe is safer than a naked blade.

Commercial Axe Guards

The typical axe guard consists of a leather sheath or pouch, sewn and riveted, that is slipped over the blade and anchored by a strap of leather or webbing that buckles behind the head.

Guards may also be equipped with a snap for hanging on a workman’s belt or a pair of slots for threading through a utility belt, though this is only of value for smaller axes such as the boys’ axe, scout axe, or hatchet.

These guards are durable and relatively inexpensive (in the $12 to $15 USD range). Unfortunately, they are not always available, or may be lost. Or the axe owner may just prefer to make something from recycled materials rather than buy a purpose-made item.

Home Made Axe Guards

Think “green” – recycle something into an axe guard. This is a chance to be creative. A local Scout troop leader once challenged each patrol to come up with an original axe guard for their axes (the group of five to eight Scouts in each patrol had a 3/4 axe and a 1/2 axe). Here are the results.

  • Rubber hose – a 6″ (15 cm) length of old rubber garden hose was split down one side and slipped over the blade. The hose was held in place with an “elastic band” cut from a section of motorcycle tire tube (are those still available?) slipped over the heel of the head. This was a successful design except that the motorcycle tube eventually stretched out, and had to be replaced (using the design of another patrol, #2 below)
  • Bike handlebar grip – In a remarkably similar approach, a second group used a bicycle handgrip in place of garden hose. One set of handlebar grips served to do both axes. They cut their rubber holder from a truck inner tube. This one also worked well, The first rubber retainer did not have the stopper holes (put in with a leather punch) and split, but the second version lasted for years.
  • Wood Block – The patrol that came up with this one used first a 1″ dowel (which split when the axe was dropped into a storage box) and later a piece of 1×2. Each piece of wood was about 1″ (2.5 cm) longer than the axe blade. One of the boys’ fathers used a table saw to put a saw kerf into the wood. The blade was then slipped into the kerf. A piece of parachute cord stapled to the wood was used to tie the guard to the axe (good knot practice!)

Axe Guards for Many Purposes

All of these axe guards were useful and served their many purposes in the Scout troop:

  • A creative challenge for the Scouts
  • Raise awareness of axe safety
  • Encourage an attitude of caring for tools
  • Safe storage and transport of patrol axes
  • Reduce equipment costs for the troop

The home-made axe edge guards – all made from recycled or inexpensive materials – proved every bit as effective as commercial sheaths at a fraction of the cost.

Commercial Axe Guards and Axe Sheaths

The purpose of an axe guard or sheath is to protect the axe blade during storage or transportation. The bit is protected from dings and chips, while anything the blade may strike is also protected from being cut or notched.

Some people distinguish between an axe guard, which just covers the bit, and an axe sheath which covers the entire head.

The device in either form consists of a sheath or pouch, made of a tough fabric, sewn and riveted into a suitable shape, that is slipped over the blade or head and held in place by any of various means. The sheath also protects the sides of the head from being scuffed or scratched (important for highly polished axe heads).

Although there are generic replacement axe sheaths and axe guards, the best are specifically designed to fit the shape and size of the blades they are intended to protect. Most suppliers of good-quality axes include a custom guard or sheath with each unit.

Axe Edge Guard Construction

Common materials used for axe blade sheaths and guards are

  • leather (often embossed and highly decorated)
  • vinyl fabric (synthetic leather)
  • heavy canvas
  • ballistic nylon (typical of “military” style blade guards and sheaths)
  • molded plastic

A recent trend, especially for the newer “high tech” axes with polyamide handles, is custom-shaped guards made of thermoformed plastic that clip over the head.

How Axe Blade Guards and Sheaths are Held in Place

The anchor is usually a strap or flap, made of leather or webbing, that passes behind, around, or over the head in some manner and is fastened in place. In the case of plastic guards, moulded clips snap onto the head to retain the guard.

  • One common design, especially for guards, is a single strap that passes behind the heel or butt of the head and fastens on the side of the head with a buckle or snap. If this strap is not fastened securely, it may be possible for the strap – and thus the guard – to slip off.
  • When this design is used for a sheath, the strap lies in the angle between heel and haft for a secure anchor. This type cannot slip off.
  • A common design for sheaths has a through-hole for the haft; this type is held in place by a flap that folds over the top of the head and is fastened with a snap.
  • A wrap-around strap that criss-crosses around the head and on either side of the haft is less common and is perhaps an older style. It is also a secure covering.
  • Other edge guards are of thermoformed plastic which snap over the head and are retained by a friction fit or by molded clips

Regardless of material type, construction, or fastening method, an axe guard or sheath will protect the bit (blade) and surroundings from damage.

Carrying and Safety

There may also be carrying considerations. Walking along poor trails or without a trail – a full size axe has to be carried by hand as it snags everything if strapped to a pack, and sticking up above head height. Backpacking or canoeing may dictate a shorter, lighter axe, for example, than one packed on a horse or carried in the camper or trailer as a utility camp axe.

For most efficient cutting and greatest safety, choose an axe that is right for the job, with a head weight and handle length that suits the strength, frame, and skill of the user.