Friday, November 13, 2015

A Keen Edge

This photo is just a prop, but for safety reasons, a blade should
be left sunk in the chop block.

The hatchet or small axe is a perfectly appropriate camping tool, but often gets inaccurately blamed for being unsafe.  The only thing unsafe about a hatchet is the user.  We’ll cover a few other safety points here, but the one we’ll concentrate on now is the flying chunk of wood aiming for your face and eyes.  Physics demands that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When we chop down with the hatchet, anything unrestrained will fly up, frequently sending a piece of wood flying into the face to cause injury by breaking eyeglasses, puncturing an eye, or causing a cut or puncture wound of the face.  This is simple to prevent.  If handled properly, it is something that should never happen.

This picture demonstrates a principle, not an actual requirement in the way of essential elements.  How we prevent free-flying wood is the requirement, not how we accomplish it.  We start with a safe chopping surface that avoids chopping into the ground.  Anything in the ground will damage the hatchet or axe blade, whether gravel, rock, or even the sand and dirt itself.  This chopping block is a section of tree trunk I acquired from a neighbor after she had a dead tree cut down.   When chopping, we need to secure both ends, the ends on either side of where we are cutting.  If I am holding one end of the piece of wood, something is needed to secure the other end, or it will fly into the air.  At home, where I have them available, I’ve just stuck the free end through a cinderblock.  At a campsite, I can stick the free end of the wood I am cutting under the fire ring, under a rock, or a log, or anything my imagination can conjure, just so I restrain the free end once cut.

Now, some other points:
1.      Always stand solidly on both feet, not balancing, straddling, or reaching across something.
2.      Chopping motion should always be directly down, vertical, into a cutting block, not in a swinging motion or arc.  Swinging is how hands, legs, and feet get injured.
3.      Always make sure the hatchet head is firmly attached (handle solidly set in the head, wedged, even epoxied in place), but never chop around bystanders.  Even the handle can slip from your hands.
4.      Be sure the blade is sharp, and kept sharp.  The duller a blade is, the more dangerous it is, since more force is needed, and the more likely it is to skip or glance off the wood.
5.      When splitting kindling, don’t try chopping it.  The smaller the pieces being split, the more important this is.  Use the hatchet as a wedge by setting the blade lightly into the wood, and then tapping the wood against the chopping block or driving the hatchet head with another piece of wood or something that won’t damage the hatchet head or handle.  NEVER split a piece of wood being held in your hand or braced with your foot.
6.      Cutting requires full attention.  When you become tired, or muscles are fatigued, it is time for a break.  Wood cutting calls for finesse, not force.  Avoid knots, and look for straight wood grain or cracks in the grain that betray the wood’s weak spot.
7.      Always keep the blade in a sheath or sunk in the chopping block.  If you need to carry the tool a short distance, be sure the blade is turned away from the body in the event that you trip.
8.      Lending a hatchet or axe to someone else is not a good idea unless you are 100% confident of their skill and maturity.  It may be their leg they chop, but it will still be your trip that will be ruined.  If they are someone likely to imagine themselves an Indian brave and the hatchet a tomahawk, keep the tool secured so you don’t suddenly see it flying through the air.  This reminds me of an advertisement I saw for “tactical tomahawks and throwing axes for beginners.”  There’s a scary image.

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