SI Vault
Arnold Benson
May 10, 1982
For years I was convinced that dry-fly fishermen were in the same nut league as amateur oboe players, that their sanity was suspended on a gossamer thread or tippet. My brother had a dry-fly friend who, as soon as it was warm enough each spring—and sometimes before it was warm enough—submerged his wife in a swimming pool and floated that year's crop of hand-tied beauties over her, in order to quiz her afterward on what she thought they looked like to a trout.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 10, 1982

Heaven Is On The Cutting Edge When This Woodsman Has An Ax To Grind

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

I've searched country hardware stores for good 28-inch or 30-inch hickory ax handles, known technically as "helves." (Finding good helves never has been easy, and it's getting harder as well as more expensive all the time.) I've spent long and laborious hours working on the head ends of the helves with coarse sandpaper, getting them down to the size at which they can be pounded into the cleaned-up ax head for the exact hard fit I want. Into the slitted head ends I drive home triangular soft-pine wedges to set the ax head for good, and then chisel the excess off cleanly. Then I touch up the edge with a Carborundum stone.

After a long time an ax head might show signs of loosening, as the wedges season and shrink, but it's a simple matter to tighten the helve in the head again with the small metal wedges made expressly for that purpose. You find these wedges in country hardware stores in as wide a variety of sizes and shapes as frozen pizzas at your local supermarket.

Once you've restored your axes you can sit back and just look at them or you can lovingly test the edges with your thumb, or you can invite particularly astute and appreciative friends to view your collection.

Or you can go outside in the fresh air and swing one.

Now, I have nothing against exercise for the sake of exercise—for other people. They tell me it makes them feel better afterward. I'm sure that's true. But so, too, do you feel better after you've stopped hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. Exercise for the sake of exercise? Exertion that's its own reward? Not for me. Exercise like that is just exercise, and I say the hell with it. What do you get out of it? Take jogging. You hurt a little, you sweat a lot, you shake up your insides and you get bitten by dogs.

In bicycling, your thighs hurt, your tires go flat and you get hit by cars. Walking, you get mugged. Swimming, you get water in your ears or you get stung by Portuguese men-of-war. Playing softball, you run into second basemen under pop flies.

In touch football you twist your ankle. In basketball it's the knee, to say nothing of dizzy spells and lost contact lenses. In tennis you get blisters and sunstroke, and the elbow, also anger and aggravation, which holds, too, for golf and bowling, along with self-disgust.

And as you engage in those pursuits, people look at you with pity, or loathing. But swinging an ax is an entirely different matter. Cutting wood. There's exercise, and, damn it, there's satisfaction, and fulfillment, and reward.

Naturally, this requires a tree. I use a chain saw to make the big lower notch in a standing dead tree, but I cut the higher, smaller notch on the opposite side of the trunk with an ax. When you make those cuts with an ax you can hear that first almost inaudible warning crack as the tree starts to lean, and you can step back in awed satisfaction as it falls, right where you wanted it to fall. If you use a chain saw all the way through, you can't hear anything. You can't hear yourself think.

I do use a chain saw to cut the limbs and trunk into burnable lengths, because I'm not a total fool, but I use an ax all I can. I lop off the limbs and branches of felled trees with a sharp ax, evenly, cleanly, as close to the trunk as possible, and then split stove lengths to size with a dull ax. Though some people swear by a maul—a sledge with one sharp end—for splitting big logs, I find it cumbersome, uncomfortable for me to use, and even the lighter, six-pound heads give me elbow twinges. So I use wedges and a sledgehammer to break big logs down to ax-splitting size. I really have nothing against the maul. It's just that I love splitting wood with an ax.

Continue Story
1 2 3