A Guide to the 5 Different Types of Axes

The first thing that comes to mind for a lot of people when thinking about an axe is a big burly lumber jack that’s capable of making short work of the tallest tree. We all like to think we could chop a tree down as easily as these professionals, but the reality is that’s not normally the case.

Cutting a full growth tree down is hard work and requires the right tool for the job. Of course not all axes are used for chopping trees down – in fact there are many different axes that serve a variety of purposes.

In this article we’ll take a look at the different types of axe heads in common use today and what type of work each one is appropriate for. You might be surprised by the variety of different axes out there.

It’s important to find the right implement for the type of work you’re performing or a relatively straightforward chore can turn into an epic time consuming adventure.

There are 5 different types of axes that you’ll find people using just about anywhere in the world on any given day. These are: the splitting maul, the hatchet, the broad axe, the felling axe, and the carpenter’s axe.

You might have a good idea of what some of these are used for just from their names, but we’ll go over them in some depth so don’t worry if you’re not quite sure how each one is used at this point.

Working with wood can be an exhilarating experience and great exercise if you’re properly equipped. Our goal is to make sure you know which axe to use and when.

While on a trip a few years back some friends and I were forced to chop down a tree with a small hatchet for firewood and believe me it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Hopefully this article will provide you with the information you need to find the right tool for the job so you don’t have to live through something similar.

Splitting Mauls

A splitting maul is characterized by a long handle, a sharp axe blade on one side of the head, and a sledge hammer style blunt edge on the other. These are powerful axes that can cut through large pieces of firewood with very little bother.

They generally weigh between 8 and 12 pounds and that’s why some people aren’t very comfortable using them – that’s a lot of weight to be constantly lifting and swinging over your head.

Having used one of these types of axes before I can attest to the fact that swinging one is hard work and it really doesn’t matter how big you are either.

I’ve seen some pretty big guys tire considerably after only about 15 minutes of using one of these axes. That’s why it’s probably best not to put all your force into every blow. It’s better to pace yourself when working with a heavy axe like this. 

If you’re wondering why you would need the blunt sledge hammer face on the opposite end of the blade you’re probably not alone. Intuitively you wouldn’t think you’d have a great need for something like that while chopping wood.

It can come in handy though for other chores like driving wooden stakes into the ground, making fence repairs, and other similar activities. A versatile tool is always a good thing to have around.

Other than the unique blade with a sledge hammer on one side, the most unique characteristic of a splitting maul is its long handle.

When you’re swinging that much weight it’s important to have enough arc in your swing to make the most impact and that’s easily achievable with a nice long handle. They normally vary in length between 22 and 28 inches. That’s an ideal length range for a tool like this.

Hatchets

One of the most popular types of axes people use is the hatchet and this is for good reason. When I’m heading out on a week-long camping or hiking trip one of the first things I pack is a small hatchet.

The reason a hatchet is one of the first things I attach to my backpack is because it’s one of the most versatile tools you can take with you when spending some time outdoors. They’re a lightweight axe with a sharp edge on one side and a flat edge on the other that can be used as a hammer when necessary.

If you’re heading out on a long hike you’ll want to keep your pack as light as possible and that means taking as few tools with you as you can. A versatile tool like a hatchet that can perform multiple tasks is an ideal compromise.

What can you use a hatchet for? A better question may be what can’t you use it for? A hatchet can be used for cutting firewood, for hammering your tent pegs in the ground, for simple carvings, and I’ve even seen one used for fileting fish (although I wouldn’t recommend it). There are many uses for a hatchet and it’s definitely something you should take with you on any camping trip.

One other thing to consider about a hatchet is that it’s light enough to use with one hand so it is the perfect survival tool. Not that you’re likely to be faced with too many situations where you need a weapon on a hunting, fishing, or hiking trip, but it can be used as one in an emergency as well if you need protection from wild animals.

Broad Axes

The broad axe has a long and storied history. In ancient times they were used for various purposes from woodworking to weapons of war.

If you’ve ever watched a movie set in the Viking era you’ll know exactly what a broad axe is. They have a distinctive broad blade (hence the name) with a nice sharp edge that’s perfect for working wood.

These days logs are converted to commercial wood planks using large cutting machines, but in the 19th century broad axes would have been at the center of the production process. That’s because they have the perfect design for chiselling or hewing wood.

In those days it took a great deal of expertise to work with a broad axe to produce wood that could be used for commercial purposes and it would have required many hours of long hard work.

If you’ve ever spent any time in a national park in North America, and many other parts of the world, you might have had the opportunity to visit remote campsites.

Something you often see at these campsites is outdoor furniture that’s been roughly fashioned out of wood. This is the type of thing that you would typically use a broad axe for.

They’re larger than a hatchet which makes the process a lot quicker, but they’re not too large to make them overly difficult to work with. Many outdoors types simply love any opportunity they get to craft a piece of wood into their own personal creation with a broad axe.

You won’t find broad axes being used as main production tool anymore, but for the traditionalist that likes to create or restore old furniture they’re an essential tool.

In countries were modern production methods are not readily available they are often still used for manufacturing products for the home. They really are a great tool to have around.

Felling Axes

One of my favorite type of shows in my youth was the ones that featured the world’s strongest men, or real live lumber jacks. These were big powerful men that made short work of any piece of wood put in front of them and it was always fun to imagine having a go at it yourself.

In one particular episode I remember these huge men being timed with how fast they could chop down a pair of massive trees. The axes they were using on that show were felling axes. Like any other axe we’ve talked about so far they have a distinctive appearance – a long handle and a short sort of stubby head.

Felling axes are extremely sharp and they have to be if they’re going to take down trees that are still planted in the ground. The handle on a felling axe is about 28 to 36 inches in length and the head weighs between 2 and 4 pounds. That’s fairly heavy, but nothing like the splitting mauls we discussed earlier.

The reason for this is simple. When you’re felling a tree you need a tool that is heavy enough to be effective, but not so heavy that it will tire you out quickly.

The felling axe is the perfect weight for someone that’s in good shape to use for hours chopping down trees. It’s a great axe to have if you happen to own your own mountain retreat surround by acres of trees as well. We can dream right?

As is the case with broad axes, felling axes are no longer commonly used for commercial purposes. Real lumber jacks these days use industrial chainsaws that can cut through some of the largest trees on the planet in a matter of minutes.

Felling axes are still quite popular for backwoods enthusiasts though, and some lumberjacks that prefer to stick with traditional methods.

Carpenter Axes

This kind of axe isn’t the most used in the outdoors/survival community, but if you’re thinking about trying your hand at a little amateur carpentry it might be a good idea to find yourself a good carpenter’s axe. These may look a bit like a hatchet, but there are some important distinctions you should be aware of.

For one thing the head on a carpenters axe is a little heavier than a hatchet at about 1.5 pounds on average and the handle is a bit longer as well – typically between 10 and 14 inches. It’s still small enough to use in one hand though, which is important if you’re going to use it for fine carpentry work.

These axes have been used for a diverse range of carpentry tasks over the years and are still being used by many carpenters today. It’s amazing what a good carpenter can create with an axe. They are great for general woodworking, carvings, and joinery work.

Modern furniture is not typically made with traditional tools such as a carpenters axe, but there has been a real renaissance in demand in recent years for traditional carpentry methods.

Many people prefer the quality of furniture and other woodworking projects made by traditional carpentry methods and they are willing to pay extra for it.

Axe Materials

Axes these days are actually made from a couple of different types of materials. The blades are still typically steel, although in most cases carbon steel is used which is much stronger than traditional materials and a lot more durable.

The handles may be made from traditional wood or fibreglass. Wood is great as a natural shock absorber, but if not properly taken care of can rot over time.

Fibre glass is extremely durable, but it’s not as good at absorbing shock that’s why you’ll often see some modern axes with a rubber grip to compensate for that. Choosing between traditional wood or fibreglass handles really comes down to individual choice.

Some Closing Comments

The axe has been an important part of the history of every major civilization in recorded history. It’s a versatile tool that people have found many uses for and that has a lot to do with its longevity.

All of the types talked about in this article are still in wide use today, although their use as a major part of the manufacturing process is a part of the past in most countries. For any outdoors enthusiast an axe should be an essential part of their gear.

If I had to pick one tool that I could take on a month long trek into the backwoods an axe would be the clear choice every time.