Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Humble Hatchet

I’d like to say a few words in defense of the humble hatchet. The hatchet gets a lot of bad press because of the number of people that manage to injure themselves with one. But, look at the number of people that kill and injure themselves with cars every year, and they don’t even have any sharp edges. I’m sure if you wanted to be clumsy enough, you could trip and cut your throat on the edge of a graphite canoe paddle. Yes, in the untrained hands of an uninitiated newbie or Boy Scout, a saw is safer. A folding saw can also be lighter and more compact. Most experienced wilderness canoeists utilize a hatchet, and in his article “Ten Essentials for Wilderness Camping,“ Cliff Jacobson recommends either a hatchet or three-quarter axe in addition to a folding saw. A hatchet is a great tool that will serve you well if you educate yourself in and practice rudimentary safety precautions. To paraphrase the gun lobby slogan, hatchets don’t cut people, people cut people.

1. A sharp tool is a safer tool. In that regard a hatchet is no different from a chisel, knife, mower blade, or any other edge designed to cut or chop.
2. What makes a hatchet potentially dangerous is failing to think about what you’re doing with the other body parts. Never chop into anything being held with a hand or foot. Also, your stance should be perpendicular to the motion of the blade. Ankles, legs, knees should never be in line with the blade.
3. Even if sheathed, get in the habit of always carrying the hatchet with the blade turned away from you. As Mommy says, never run with a sharp object.
4. Make sure no one is in line with the cutting motion of the blade in case the head comes off or it slips out of our hand. As with any tool, maintenance is the issue. There should never be the possibility of a head coming off a well-maintained axe or hatchet, but you act as though it could. The further you keep other people away, the better. (Chuckle!) My wife and I heated exclusively with wood for about 20 years before it became fashionable. I never had much of a problem with people getting too close. It wasn’t because of concerns over safety that kept them away, it was for fear of being asked to carry wood.
5. Hand any sharp object to another person handle-first.
6. If you are limbing (cutting branches off a log or trunk), always stand on the other side of the log. Cut in line with the log. If you miss, you’ll hit only the log.
7. A hatchet is not an axe or maul. A hatchet is used with skill and finesse , not force.
8. If splitting, try to get in the habit of cutting as vertically as possible toward the stump or block you are splitting on. The more you swing a hatchet, or the more its motion is an arc, the more dangerous it will be.
9. Be sure of your footing and that the working area is free of anything like rocks or branches that may be a tripping or rolling hazard.
10. Fatigue causes mistakes. If you’re getting tired, stop for awhile.
11. If cutting branches into shorter pieces, the free end will fly in the air, often toward your face. Prevent this by jamming the free end under a rock, log, or the fire ring so the end is not free to flip up. If cutting pieces long enough, another option is to hold the branch by the cut end.
12. Always cut into wood (stump, log, block), and never into the ground.
13. If out with kids (adults should know better), make sure they understand that hatchets and axes are not meant to be thrown at trees. It’s not good for the tree, the blade, the handle, or anything it may ricochet towards.
The key to using any tool safely is being smarter than the tool.

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