The best axe
If you asked 100 experienced survivalists to name their must-have tools, it's a safe bet that an axe would be on that list. A standard axe performs a surprising number of tasks around a campsite or in the yard. It can cut down small trees, trim off branches for kindling, split logs for a fire, hammer stakes into the ground, and so much more. A good axe is the utility player of the camping world, and it doesn't require batteries or fuel.
Choosing the right axe may be more complicated than it appears, however. The length and design of the handle, for instance, can affect how a person uses the tool. The weight of the head helps determine the power and efficiency of each stroke. The blade needs to maintain a sharp edge to cut through thick timber and split logs. To find the ideal combination, it can take some trial and error.
If you are in the market for a new axe, this shopping guide should be very helpful. At the top of our list is the Husqvarna 26" Wooden Multipurpose Axe, a well-crafted and balanced model from one of the most recognized names in the industry.
Considerations when choosing axes
The term "axe" covers a broad range of handheld wood-cutting tools, so it is important to determine the intended purpose before investing in a new axe. Some axes are designed to fell small trees or remove branches, while others are better at splitting logs or carving. Though a survival axe can perform many of the same tasks as a wood-splitting model, there can be a significant difference in retail price and overall quality.
Axe head design
The difference between axe heads is more than cosmetic. An axe designed for tree-felling will have a thinner blade than an axe intended for log splitting, although they may be the same length and weight. An axe head with a broader blade is often better for splitting, since the thinner blade can penetrate the fibers more easily. Many axe heads have a hammer-like end that can be struck with a sledgehammer in case the blade becomes stuck.
The length of an axe handle can be a significant consideration when it comes to ease of use and efficiency. Longer handles generally provide more power per stroke, but shorter handles offer more control. The length and weight of a handle also affects its portability, which makes some models better suited for camping and hiking use and others better for dedicated wood splitting or shopping. A hatchet's handle length can be as little as 10", while some tree-felling or splitting axes can have handles up to 38" long. Axe handles in the 24" to 28" range are ideal for most general purposes.
Axe heads tend to be made from heavy-duty steel, but some models do hold an edge better than others because of their composition. Some manufacturers apply a coating of nonstick PTFE to the blade (or bit) to reduce friction, but the difference in performance is negligible. Axe handles are traditionally constructed from a solid hardwood, such as hickory, but there are also fiberglass, carbon composite, and steel handles available.
Balance and weight
The ideal axe should feel balanced in the user's hands, meaning that the axe head and blade are always under control and the handle absorbs most of the shock. Most commercial axes pass this particular criteria, although there are a few that can feel wobbly during a stroke. A higher weight generally means more splitting or cutting power, but some users may find that a lighter-weight axe is easier to use for longer periods of time.
The retail price of a standard axe can vary widely, largely based on the quality of the construction and the brand's reputation. A basic chopping or splitting axe can cost as little as $35, while high-end models designed for multiple purposes can cost $85 or more.
Q. I saw an axe head in the hardware store that appeared to be coated in plastic. Is this a better kind to use for chopping wood?
A. Some axe heads are indeed coated with a layer of PTFE, a durable coating also used in nonstick cookware. In theory, a PTFE-coated axe head should be more efficient because of the reduced friction, but in practice the benefits appear to be negligible.
Q. Do I need to treat my axe with anything between uses?
A. While many metal tools do benefit from an application of mineral oil between uses, this is not strictly necessary. Cleaning off any sap or other residue with a liquid detergent and warm water should be sufficient.
Axes we recommend
Best of the best: Husqvarna's 26" Wooden Multipurpose Axe
Our take: This versatile axe from a leader in the industry features a lot of craftsmanship and attention to detail. We like the balanced feel during multiple tasks.
What we like: Handle is cut with the grain for added strength. Blade holds edge well, easy to sharpen. Weight is balanced, offers good swing control.
What we dislike: Handle has durability issues. Some reports of broken axe heads on arrival.
Best bang for your buck: Cold Steel's 27" Trail Boss Axe
Our take: Durability may be an issue, but this lightweight and affordable axe will make short work out of chopping small trees for kindling and firewood.
What we like: Blade is well-designed for felling and trimming small trees. Affordable price point for occasional users. Lightweight and compact.
What we dislike: Arrives with a factory coating that must be removed. Handle can shatter without warning.
Choice 3: Fiskars' Super 36" Splitting Axe
Our take: Ideal for more experienced users seeking to split larger logs for firewood. We like its sturdiness and balance.
What we like: Handle provides solid grip. Extended length and heavier axe head means more power per stroke. Beveled blade releases head from wood easier.
What we dislike: Handle may be too long and heavy for some users. Blade can lose edge quickly.
Michael Pollick is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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