I'm Gonna Cut Down Me A Tree

{Posted   21 March 2013}

  I think that I'll take my broad ax and head out into the forest to cut down a tree.

  Oops! There's something wrong in that sentence above. Could it be that I probably would not want to exert the energy necessary to cut down a tree? Could it be that my sciatica would prevent me from heading too far from home - that my right leg would be aching too much before I got very far into "the forest". ~ No, the thing that's wrong with the sentence at the head of this post is that in order to cut down a tree, I would not use a broad ax; everyone knows (I'm sure that, at least, you did) that a felling ax is needed to cut down a tree, and that a broad ax would be used to dress the logs after the tree was felled.

  The idyllic image of the ax-wielding homesteader, as created and spread by early-American historians who didn't know what they were writing about, was that he used a broad ax for his every wood-cutting need. Indeed, if the myth is believed, the homesteader carried his broad ax everywhere he went, setting it aside only when he ate his supper. Unfortunately, that myth, like the one about hanging your musket on the fireplace mantle above the raging fire, came into being during the first half of the 20th Century. There was a Colonial Revival movement in the United States during the 1920s, and certain objects, including the broad ax, spinning wheel and musket with powder horn, became mythologized. The advocates of the Colonial Revival style were fond of the art form of the tableau, in which they arranged properly dressed 'colonists' in their idea of 'realistic' situations. This means that one of their tableaus was bound to show a man, dressed in knee breeches and black leather shoes with giant brass buckles, standing beside a tree that has been just recently cut down, holding a broad ax with its big, massive iron head. Despite the fact that that image was wrong, it was made that way because the diminutive sized head of the felling ax wasn't as impressive as the broad ax.

  The broad ax (shown in the photo above) was used primarily for dressing (i.e. finishing) a log to remove the bark and flatten the sides. The dressing of a log made it more useful in home construction. The broad ax was constructed with a single beveled edge (i.e. beveled just on one face, as seen in the photo to the left) to enable it to shave pieces of wood off the log with ease.

  On the other hand, the felling ax had a double beveled edge (i.e. beveled on both faces) which made it ideal for deep-cutting slashes into a standing tree. A photo of a pre-1750s felling ax is shown below.

  The broad ax is notable for its curved handle. More than likely, most people who see a broad ax for the first time probably think that the handle has just bent into a curve over time. But they were produced that way to accommodate how they were used. The broad ax would be held by the user as he stood on top of the log, facing at a right angle to the log, with the handle forming a concave curve when held parallel to the side of the log. The curve in the handle allowed the user to stand with both feet on the log and not have to bend and twist uncomfortably to bring the ax's face in contact with the log. The felling ax, on the other hand, was held by the user, standing on the ground, striking the tree at right angle, and therefore did not require any curve in the handle.