Felling with an axe

When I first started this website (and The Coppice Plot)  I wrote an article about charcoal making that stated ‘I only use hand tools in my woodland management electing the axe and cross cut saw over the chainsaw’.  I am very pleased to report that this is still the case (though I do now use a chainsaw for crosscutting larger logs for charcoal production).  The hand tools or rather hand tool I use is the axe, a 4lb Elwell which was made in 1963.  Felling with an axe is not seen as an efficient way of managing a coppice, with the vast majority of woodsmen now using a chainsaw for felling (thought the billhook is still often the tool of choice for snedding (taking off the smaller side branches) the tree).

Classic stump after tree felled with axe

Classic stump after tree felled with axe

It is definitely the case that felling medium to large trees is slower with an axe than with a chainsaw.  Though the tree felled in the video took about 4 minutes, so really not long in the scheme of things, and I think the benefits of felling with an axe outweigh the extra time taken.  Further, once the tree is on the deck you then have the ultimate tool in your hand for taking off the larger limbs before switching over to the bill hook to finish off.  I do not believe that the combination of axe and bill hook can be beaten once the tree is on the ground.

The other benefits of felling with an axe?

  • It is sociable.  No engines means no noise so you can yabber away whilst working the coup.  I think this is a really important part of the working day, keeping spirits up and passing knowledge while you work.
  • It uses lots of major muscle groups – which means that you are minimising strain on individual muscles, I think this helps to keep you axeing into your vintage.  In fact I can think of a few examples of older axe workers that will swing an axe for as long and as hard as their younger counter parts.
  • Expense.  Getting yourself equipped with a good felling axe could cost you anything from £5 – £100 depending on whether you choose to resurrect an older axe or buy a new one.  Add a pair of steel toe cap boots and your ready to go.  Cheap compared to getting yourself kitted out to safely operate a chainsaw.

Hopefully the video will show how a skilled axe worker can make short work of a tree.  The axe worker in question here is Nick Barnes, instructor from Coppicewood College.  He and the team at Coppicewood taught me how to swing an axe and if you are interested in learning yourself I can thoroughly recommend their 6 month woodland management course.




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