Ray Mears has said that, "one of the key skills if you're making a canoe journey is being able to replace a paddle if it gets lost or broken." But what happens when you're in the backcountry and the yoke on your canoe breaks? We found out this past summer. Thankfully Josh was up to the challenge!
By Auntie Shelley
In our last post Josh wrote about what to look for when buying an axe. People are often surprised by the fact that Josh, who just turned 11, has had his own axe for several years now and that he is allowed to use it. Caleb and Noah who are 7 and 5 respectively also have their own axes and have been learning how to use them over the past couple of summers.
I think it’s safe to say that in our current day and age, most kids don’t know how to use an axe and many parents would shudder at the idea of their child wielding one. I certainly had some major reservations when Josh first started using one. Dan and Dave were taught how to use axes when they were boys. Their dad, who had experience working in logging and is a wood carver, taught them and it seemed only natural that they would pass this on to their kids. I think it’s important to point out that before the turn of the last century, chopping wood was a skill that boys learned early on. While teaching a child how to properly use an axe might seem crazy by today’s standards, it’s really not that far fetched if your child has the right amount of motor coordination, the ability to concentrate, and a skilled instructor.
Knowing how to use an axe is an important survival skill if you are going to spend any significant amount of time in the wilderness, however we also fully acknowledge that axes are dangerous tools and not every child should be allowed to use one. As well, the age at which a child should be allowed to start using an axe will vary greatly depending on the child. In the end it is the parents' responsibility to decide if axe skills are something that they want their child to learn and whether or not their child is ready to safely use one. This article is meant to be an explanation of how we assess our children’s readiness to start using an axe and how we ensure that they learn to use one in a safe manner.
Leave the Instruction to the Skilled "Woodsmen"
Among the adults in our family there are some who are skilled with the use of an axe (i.e. Dave, Dan and Grandpa). There are some of us who have some basic know how and others who have never used an axe. Those of us who fall into the last two categories don't teach the kids how to use and axe. Personally, while I could prepare wood for a fire if I needed to, I certainly don't feel confident enough in my abilities to teach the kids. We leave the instruction up to Grandpa, Dan, and Dave.
Appropriate adult supervision is an absolute necessity. None of our children are allowed to use an axe without direct adult supervision and the axes are put away whenever they aren’t in use.
The adult supervising the children must also know how to use an axe; this is not an activity that just any adult will supervise. When a child is working with an axe, the adult supervising them is focused on this task and nothing else. In addition, only one child uses his or her axe at a time. The rest of the kids have to wait their turns.
When our kids are starting out, Dave, Dan, or Grandpa work one-on-one with them, teaching them set-by-step what they should be doing. As their skills develop Dan, Dave, or Grandpa still keep an eye on them to make sure they aren’t doing anything risky and that they are following all the proper safety precautions.
Don’t Start with an Axe
When it comes to preparing wood, none of our kids start out with axes. First they start out by going on trips into the forest to help collect wood and observe their dads and Grandpa working.
Eventually they graduate to using handsaws and bucksaws with direct adult supervision and help. As their skills develop they start using these saws on their own and eventually, when the dads or Grandpa feel that they are ready, they move on to using the axe.
Adequate Motor Coordination
Before we consider letting a child use an axe, we have to be convinced that they have the coordination necessary to handle it without hurting themselves. With some of the kids, by 4 or 5 they were coordinated enough, but with others, at the age of 7 or 8 we’re still holding off because we don’t feel that they are ready.
Ability to Focus on the Task
In general our kids are able to pay attention, focus on a task, and follow directions consistently, however if a child is impulsive or doesn’t follow direction then they aren’t ready to use an axe. We have been on trips where there were other children present who were very impulsive and who we couldn’t trust to follow our instructions. On those trips none of the children were allowed to touch an axe. We just felt that it was too risky to even have the axes out. Furthermore, if our children are tired or cranky, the axes are put away. We save this activity for when they are in a good mood, well rested, and ready to focus on the task at hand. The same goes for the adults supervising the kids. If we are overtired or worn out then we hold off.
The Child’s Interest
Josh, Caleb, and Noah all expressed an interest in using an axe very early one (i.e. age 4). In Luke’s case, it wasn’t until he was about 5. Anna, on the other hand, has never shown any real interest in chopping wood. If our kids meet our requirements for coordination and focus, and they show an interest in learning axe skills, then we will teach them, but it’s not something that we force on them if they aren’t interested or don’t feel that they are ready to do.
Axe Selection and Safety Tips when Chopping
In general, a longer handled axe is safer, however with kids, longer axes are usually too heavy so we start our kids off with light, shorter handled axes like the ones Josh recommended. These axes are easier for the kids to grip and they don’t fatigue too quickly when using them.
As part of learning to use an axe, the kids are expected to learn how to care for and sharpen their axes. Our axes are maintained appropriately and kept sharp. A dull axe is a dangerous axe.
In this video, Ray Mears does a fantastic job of demonstrating some basic safety precautions that everyone should take when chopping wood.
We highly recommend following all the safety tips that he lists off (they start at 1:34). One of my major concerns early on was leg or foot injuries, however as Ray demonstrates, if you assume a kneeling posture when chopping wood, you alleviate this potential danger. This is especially important with the kids since they will typically be using shorter handles axes. I also like his recommendations for placing the axe onto the wood and then bringing them down simultaneously (at 2:20). His recommendations about choosing a chopping block that is the right height in relation to your axe and placing the wood at the back of the block will also prevent potential injuries.
My kids love to watch this video and we let them watch it over and over because Ray does such a great job of demonstrating the safe use of an axe, but also because his demeanor is so calm and controlled. This is the type of behaviour we want our children to emulate when they are using an axe. Which leads to my final point.
Lead By Example
Kids mimic what they see. We make sure that we lead by example. As adults, we never use an axe in a manner that we would not want our children to use it. This means our actions are calm and controlled and the environment in which we are working is orderly, tidy, and controlled.
An axe can be an extremely dangerous tool if not used appropriately and must be respected. It’s not for every child or adult. As parents it is something that we have felt is important for some of our children to learn, but as I mentioned, we have also not taught these skills to some of our children because we are not convinced that they are ready for it. In the end it is your responsibility as a parent to decide if axe skills are something that you want your child to have and whether or not your child is ready to safely use one, but we hope this article has given you some insight into how we go about deciding whether or not our kids are ready to pick up an axe.
by Cousin Josh - 10 years old
An axe is an essential piece of gear for anyone who is going to spend time in the backcountry. A proper axe is an investment. If well cared for it will last for many years.
A good axe should have a solid steel head. A solid steel head will hold up to years of heavy use. The axe head should be secured into the handle through the axe eye with a steel wedge.
There are now some axes where the fibreglass handle is moulded around the head (see below). These axes tend to be a bit less expensive and the head should not loosen over time. A drawback with these axes is if they break in the wilderness you can't really fix them.
The axe handle should fit comfortably in your hand. Make sure you can grip the handle firmly and that the end knob is large enough to keep the handle from slipping out of your hand. The handle can be made of fibreglass or wood. An axe with a fibreglass handle will often be lighter than one with a wooden handle. A wooden handle is easier to replace and is more environmentally friendly. If the handle is made out of wood make sure that the wood was dried before it was turned. This way the handle won't shrink and come loose from the head.
While a good axe might be expensive, it is worth the money because it will last longer. My favourite axe is my Gränsfors Bruk Small Forest Axe. It costs about $129 CAD and can be purchased at Lee Valley Tools or Canadian Outdoor Equipment.
If you are looking for a less expensive option, my younger cousins and Uncle Dave tested out the Fiskars X7 14" Hatchet this summer and it performed well. It's under $40 and you can get it at Home Depot. Or you could get the Gerber Sport Axe II which has a more compact cover. These axes are made by the same company and are pretty much the same except for the colour, cover, and logo. These are good axes for kids (and adults) because the bright colours make them easy to find if they get left on the ground and they are lightweight (the handle is hollow).
To find out more about different types of axes and how to use them you can check out the Gränsfors Bruk Axe Book.