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AXE and WOOD by Joe O'Leary

Fire lighting using an axe

The ability to create fire has been a fundamental human skill for tens of thousands of years. Evidence points to the fact that we had used it prior to this but rather than making it from scratch, harvested embers from wild fires as a result of lightning strikes, like any other naturally occurring resource. Despite the obvious advantages a fire provides (warmth, light, protection and a way to make certain calorie rich foods more digestible) our relationship with it was apparently restricted to time periods and environments where this natural resource was more readily available. It seems that it took hundreds of thousands of years before we learned to conjure it up at will.

My own relationship with the campfire seems to come from deep inside. More than just a survival party trick, those first wisps of smoke seem to trigger an immediate change in my psyche. Like Popeye and his spinach! Whenever I get the chance, I’ll kindle a fire for that wood smoke ‘hit’ even if it’s not entirely essential (although I’d argue that a massive mug of hot chocolate is ALWAYS essential). When a campfire is essential (I teach groups out in the woods in all seasons) I won’t shy away from gadgets such as lighters and scrumpled balls of newspaper to achieve a kettle warming blaze fast but I also feel that it’s essential to regularly practice fire lighting without the gadgets. It can’t always be perfect fire kindling weather and we won’t always have effective ignition tools but we WILL always need that fire. To lose our in depth understanding of how to create fire is I feel, taking an evolutionary step backwards several hundred thousand years! 

Using friction or percussion to ignite your fire along with only stone tools to process the wild fire building materials is a fascinating and useful exercise. In addition to the personal confidence you’ll gain from success, it helps us understand how vitally important the fine detail is when using less than perfect materials in less than perfect conditions. Preparation is key, not just in how your fire is built but also where it’s sited and both the quality and quantity of your tinder, kindling and fuel wood. Prior pre-preparation would be achieved by developing a thorough knowledge base and mind set through practice, giving you the ability to accurately trouble shoot when things inevitably don’t go as planned! These are important fire lighting skills that aren’t immediately obvious but when your ignition efforts are only ever likely to produce a dull orange spark or small, glowing pile of hot wood dust as the ‘heat’ element of your fire triangle, the fuel and oxygen bits need to be bang on!

However, if we’re talking about a genuinely useful fire lighting skill that will be used regularly to dramatically increase your chances of success, then we need to focus on splitting dead wood and processing it into kindling and even tinder! This is a technique that will produce dry and useable fire lighting materials even in prolonged wet and cold conditions.

While we’re on the subject of rugged reliability, whilst a lighter and matches are quick and effective at producing a flame, they’re also susceptible to damp as well as having a shelf life. A good ferrocerium rod whilst only producing extremely hot and prolonged sparks rather than a flame, does so in all weathers and gives you around 12,000 attempts before it runs out. Most outdoors folk carry one as a failsafe fire lighting option.

Finally, the axe! The concept of a chopping tool made more effective by securing it to a long handle is one that is relatively new in evolutionary terms but has catapulted our development forward as a species, allowing us to manage and shape our environment rather than just exist alongside it. In survival kit terms, a small knife in the right hands and a forgiving environment can provide all your essential needs. However, an axe in the right hands is a far more calorie and time efficient tool and less likely to break when you need it most! It’s better suited to processing wild, gnarly materials, giving you the ability to make what you need when you can’t find what you need!

I have an embarrassingly broad range of different axes for different tasks, most are big and heavy and only carried when I know I’m going to need them. An axe that is small enough to be effortlessly carried but heavy and long handled enough to chop and split too is arguably the perfect survival tool for many environments! That said, for it to live up to that lofty title the axe operator must be practiced at using it for fine work too – skinning, butchering and carving. With practice, a small axe is capable of splitting a seasoned log down into longbow staves, roughing out the bow from the stave, trimming down the belly of the bow until it starts to bend, even fine tuning to achieve a full draw! Or you could just get good at throwing the axe….

So, with all of the above in mind, I set off one morning armed with my hatchet sized axe in a haversack, a ferrocerium rod and the knowledge and inclination to create fire using only those two valued items of equipment. Here’s how it went down:

The woods I use is an old hazel coppice, a ‘natural’ woodland of native trees and flowers although strictly speaking, a managed environment despite it’s overgrown, unmanaged appearance. All the same, this woodland provides green, renewable tree species as well as plenty of dead wood, some still standing. Although the weather on this particular day was pleasant, my intention was to practice fire lighting assuming all the suitable tinder and kindling to be found in the woods would be too damp to use. Therefore, in addition to choosing a safe site to practice (clear of combustible undergrowth and a dry but non-combustible ground to build the fire on) and searching out natural shelter (natural cover overhead is always a bonus but a natural wind break is handy too) I broke off any well-seasoned standing dead wood I could find on the walk in to process for materials. Standing dead wood, relatively thick (wrist ish..) can be split to reveal the dry wood inside even if the outside (along with all other kindling sized fuel in the woods) is wet from the rain!

Before I go any further I need to point out that although this training exercise was focussed on using a bare minimum of kit, therefore maximising a use of natural resources, safety is always a primary concern and I also had squirreled away in my haversack, a comprehensive first aid kit, a map of the area and working phone, plus somebody responsible back home who knew exactly where I’d be and when I was supposed to be back. Axes are effective cutters of wood but they’ll do the same to flesh and bone and they rarely give you a second chance if you make a mistake! If using an axe in a remote location, you must carry enough first aid gear to deal with an accidental slice or chop and know how to use it. I also had enough water with me to properly extinguish the fire and permission to use the woods for such antics!

Additionally, I had my standard sharpening kit, a metal mug and a celebratory brew kit!

With a good site chosen and some standing dead wood harvested, my first job was to ‘tickle up’ the edge of my axe. The sharpening stone I use away from the workshop is quite literally pocket sized. You hold the axe head still and secure and rotate the stone on the cutting edge, paying close attention to the angle of the grind by feel and observation, equally on both sides of the axe head. First the medium side of the stone followed by the fine ceramic side and finishing with a few polishing wipes using the leather carry case. While the axe is being prepared for use, inspect the head, the handle and the join between the two to make sure nothing is loose, wobbly or obviously damaged.

The dead wood gathered was mostly hazel with a few straight branch sections from a downed pine. My main criteria was firstly that the dead wood was firm and well-seasoned, not rotten but also clean and straight grained ie; no obvious knots or twisty, swirly grain. This would help greatly when splitting. Additionally, the dead pine would have a certain amount of resin in the wood making it more flammable than your average kindling!

The hazel lengths were quite long (around 400mm) potentially giving me more wood to work with when shaving them down into tinder so I started there. When looking for a safe and sheltered site I also kept a keen eye open for a suitable ‘work bench’ and an old, moss covered oak stump nearby ticked that particular box. Obviously, trying to stand up a 400mm length of wrist thick hazel on a stump and split it in the traditional axe swinging, lumberjack fashion would be incredibly unsafe so instead, the axe’s cutting edge is placed at the furthest end of the horizontal log and both axe and log are lifted together as a single unit then both bought down sharply together against the work bench stump. This safely splits the wood and if it doesn’t work first time, readjust and try again. If the axe is your only cutting tool, use it to carve a splitting wedge (like a chubby hard wood chisel) first before you potentially get it stuck in a gnarly log! The halved log can then be quartered in the same way and if the log is thick enough and the grain behaving itself, those quarters can be split again into eighths. Only bring the axe and wood to be split down onto the work bench stump whilst gripping the lower section of the handle and think through every single chop before you do it, considering where the blade will go if it bounces or skims off to one side. My work bench was only around 300mm off the ground so all this work was done whilst kneeling, with the cutting edge coming into contact with the furthest away section of the chopping block. If the axe slipped or bounced off the block it would bury itself safely in the ground. When standing or using a higher block, a short axe handle means that a misplaced chop can bring the axe head swinging back towards you! Working closer to the ground with a short axe is safer!

As it turned out, the hazel lengths I’d collected were a bit ‘punky’ in places (rotten but dry) meaning the split lengths would be fine for kindling and fuel wood in the early stages of the fire but no good for carving into tinder. With more robust, straight grained dead wood it’s possible to leave the axe head buried in the chopping block with half of the cutting edge exposed, then carefully run the thinner sections against the fixed blade to cleave them into long thin splints. The safe way to do this is to start off the split against the blade with the stump edge as a safety stop, but reach over past the axe head and pull the thin wood against the cutting edge as soon as you’re able, with either hand safely beyond the sharp blade in the event of a slip.

Because the hazel wood was a bit punky and crumbly in places, this technique wouldn’t work so instead I used a length of already split wood to hold the thinner pieces down on the chopping block from a safe distance, like a long wooden sacrificial finger whilst I chopped small chops in line with the grain to leave thin splints as stage 1 kindling.

The dead pine lengths split much more cleanly in comparison leaving me with some good clean sections to carve into shavings for tinder. Shaving split, dead wood into tinder is referred to as ‘feathering’ the wood, thereby creating ‘feather sticks’; thin splints of wood with a mass of fine, curly wood shavings still attached at the base. Dry tinder attached to a kindling thin stick – the ultimate fire starter, even in the rain! Traditionally, this is a job for a small, sharp knife and the quality of your feather sticks, entirely dependent on your skill as a feather stick carver along with good wood selection (straight grained, no knots or bends). If your axe is sharp enough, it’s perfectly possible to carve thin shavings of wood with it so with some practice there’s no reason why you can’t create feather sticks too. I tend to push the stick against my low workbench with one hand and firmly holding the axe head with my strongest hand, tilting the blade in towards the wood until it bites, then carefully running the cutting edge down the wood to create a thin, curly wood shaving. Maintain a constant angle of cut and work on a narrow edge or ridge with each pass so the resultant shaving is thin. Again, think about where that axe edge is headed if you slip, the wood snaps or slips. If any part of you is under or near the cutting edge, change position. Only hold the wood behind the cutting edge, never in front. Never take risks! Don’t worry if shavings come away from the wood, they can still be used as tinder, just let them pile up and keep them in a hat until you need them!

Admittedly, the feathering job is definitely easier with a small, sharp knife but you’ll have saved a fair few calories earlier on, using the axe to do all your splitting and chopping (much harder with a small knife and requiring the use of a wooden ‘batten’ used against the spine of the knife). Again, as an alternative technique (useful with larger axes) the axe head can be buried in the stump with a small amount of blade exposed. The cutting edge this time is facing away from you and you pull the split wood against the fixed blade to create your feathery wood curls. Always hold the wood behind the axes cutting edge, never pull towards it with your hands in front of the sharp blade in case you slip (you’ll definitely slip…)

With a couple of good pine feather sticks and a hat full of shavings and thin splints good to go, I set about arranging the fire place. The worst split hazel served as a base to build the fire on top of, providing a dry platform against the cold, damp earth as well as allowing increased air flow underneath. Protecting the fire from the wind is important in it’s early stages but on some occasions, a slight breeze can help. I arranged the split hazel in a V formation, two stacks of kindling, alternately overlapping in the centre, orientated so the breezy airflow would be channelled into the centre of the V. Some of the thinnest splints and loose wood shavings were stacked up above the centre of the V also, leaving a gap underneath for the best tinder.

My ferrocerium rod on this occasion wasn’t quite as ‘ferocious’ as it could be, being the smallest version available but I clamped it against the stem of my best feather stick, feathery part facing down so any sparks struck would fall into the mass of wood shavings below. This technique allows you to hold ferrocerium rod and feather stick with the same hand and strike sparks off it with the other. The wood shavings were dry, fine and feathery so only a few strikes later, a tiny flame appeared amongst the curls. When a flame shows itself you must immediately rotate the feather stick to allow it to grow upwards into the fuzz of wood shavings. Once properly alight, the burning feather stick was placed amongst the tinder in the centre of the stacked kindling V. This was joined by all the remaining thin splints, shavings and some longer split wood stacked up on top. The slight breeze allowed the tinder and kindling to flare up with a strong flame, igniting the fuel above it. With the breeze assisting I was able to prevent bursting a lung trying to achieve the same effect by blowing hard at the base of the fledgling fire!

Mission accomplished, I filled my metal mug, shuffled it into the edge of the fire and proudly declared myself as officially human to anyone who cared. Steaming hot chocolate was just a few minutes away…