It’s easy to become bewildered when looking to buy an axe for splitting firewood, as there are so many choices today it can be overwhelming. We’ll look through the different variables you need to consider when making your selection, and I’ll recommend a selection of six splitting axes, one of which will meet your specific requirements and budget. I’ll also give you a bonus by suggesting two splitting mauls.
I must warn you, however, my father was a tree feller, and I was using an axe and a chainsaw before I was in long trousers, so if you feel that I get overly excited about some of these axes, it’s because I do. I think that a properly made and balanced axe is genuinely a thing of beauty. Some are designed to be heirlooms.
Now let’s look at the different types of axes and better understand the choices you need to consider.
Splitting or Felling?
The first choice you must be aware of is the end-use of the axe. You’re either splitting rounds of firewood already cut from a tree or you intend to use your axe to cut down a tree or remove its limbs. So your first choice in axe selection is knowing your end-use.
Why is this important? It’s because the design of the axe head is shaped differently depending on whether you are splitting or felling. A felling axe has a thinner blade, a less convex grind, and is designed to cut wood fibers tangentially. A splitting axe has a more convex grind and is designed to split the wood by axially parting the fibers.
Choose a felling axe for a splitting job, and you’ll manage, but the axe will tend to get stuck in the wood more often while being less effective. Similarly, a splitting axe used to fell a tree will be less effective and require a lot more muscle than using a felling axe.
This article is about splitting axes, so we’ll exclude felling axes from further discussion.
Where Will You Use It?
Your next decision is the sort of splitting you’ll be doing. All axes will do every job, yet some are designed to be more effective at a job than others. If you want to cut kindling, those slim slivers of wood with which to start a fire, you might find an axe with a five-pound head and a 36-inch handle a touch unwieldy and a bit of overkill.
So let’s use three categories for this article to represent the type of use.
- Category one we’ll call light, single-handed splitting.
- Category two we’ll call portable, or light two-handed splitting, while
- Category three is the heavy iron, used for hardcore two-handed use.
Category One splitting axes are commonly called hatchets, tomahawks, or camping axes. With a handle of between 10 to 18-inches, the blades, or heads, on these axes weigh between 1 and 1.5 pounds. Designed for single-handed use, they are excellent where cut accuracy is needed, such as splitting kindling.
Category Two axes have longer handles of around 24-inches, and slightly heavier heads weighing between 2 and 3 pounds. Designed to be used for one or two-handed splitting, these are ideal when you are out in the wilds, and portability is important. They’re also a tremendous general-purpose axe to have around the house, especially when you’re new to splitting firewood or don’t have the size, musculature, or need for a heavy axe. If you’re blessed with light, straight-grained, well-seasoned firewood, an axe from this category is ideal.
Category Three axes are the heavy hitters. With handles of around 36-inches and head-weights of 3 to 7 pounds, they take some handling. You’ll need good muscles if you’re doing a lot of splitting, but that weight carries a lot of kinetic energy, get it moving in the right direction, and it’ll take some stopping. Great for people with experience in splitting firewood with the muscles to go with it. Used on knotty, gnarly, or wet rounds of timber.
You’ll generally find axes come with two types of handles, wood or fiberglass. You will find some with metal, but I suggest giving them a miss unless you have a specific need. They tire you quickly as the jars from the blows transfer directly to your hands, arms, and body, whereas the wood and fiberglass handles absorb more.
My preference is for wood as it’s natural, has an excellent feel, and is easily repaired or replaced if damaged. If you’re out in the woods and break the handle, crafting a new one is possible. Fiberglass benefits from lightness and sturdiness but damages easily and is less easily repaired. Overstrike a log with a fiberglass handle, and it’ll shatter.
Whatever you do, avoid axes with shiny, polyurethaned, or slippery handles. The handle needs to be rough enough to get a firm grip and smooth enough to allow your non-dominant hand to slide up and down the handle.
If the handle is shiny, once it gets wet from sweat or rain, you have an unguided missile that is almost uncontrollable. I’ve seen a 5-pound axe slip from someone’s hand as kinetic energy pulled it from their grip due to a shiny handle and sweaty palms. Luckily, I was standing to the side. If your handle is slippery, sand it until it’s not.
Which To Choose?
Now we understand the choices to make, I’m going to suggest two axes for each category. One will be the best budget ax, and the other will be the best value. What do those terms mean? The best budget gives you an adequate axe for the best price, while the best value provides a good quality, well-designed axe that, if cared for, will last your lifetime.
Category One – Light Single-Handed Use
Best Budget Small axe – Fiskars 378501-1002 X7 Hatchet
This hatchet is a great low-maintenance axe for infrequent users, day-campers, or those wishing to cut some kindling. With a 16-inch fiberglass composite handle, weighing 1.4 pounds total, it’s a nice little axe at a genuinely nice price from a well-known and respected brand.
Best Value Small axe – Prandi Style German Hatchet PRA0306TH
Top-end hatchets of this type sell for upwards of $150. Yet, the Prandi Style German Hatchet comes in at less than half that while providing excellent quality. With a hickory handle from the USA and the head made in Italy, this hatchet has a 15-3/4 inch handle, with a blade weight of 600 grams. If you want a slightly heavier head, opt for the PRA0308TH, at 800 grams. Look after this one; it’ll be a collector’s piece in years to come!
Category Two – Light Double-Handed Use
Best Budget Light Double-Handed axe – GEDORE OX 20 H-1257 Universal Forestry Axe
This axe is made in Germany, and frankly, while you can’t go past German or Swedish axes for quality, style, and usability, you do pay a bit more. However, for such a premium brand, this axe is cheap so while it may be budget regarding price, it’s not budget regarding quality. That said, the edge-protecting blade sheath that comes with the axe is basic, and if you like to pamper your axes, you should buy a better one. Personally, mine are too busy working to be cosseted. The handle on this axe is quite long for this head weight, at 27.6 inches, while the head weighs 2.75 pounds. A reliable and sturdy axe that will do everything you need it to, and more, and at this price, you should grab two!
Best Value Light Double-Handed axe – Council Tool 2# Wood-Craft Pack Axe
Many of our US readers are very interested in where their products are made, so here’s one for them. Made in the US, with a 24-inch hickory handle and a 2-pound head, this is a nicely made and balanced axe at a reasonable price. If you want better quality, you’ll need to go Swedish and open your wallet a little wider, so great value for a lovely-looking axe. It comes with a half sheath edge protector.
Category Three – Heavy Splitting Tasks
Best Budget Heavy Double-Handed Axe- GEDORE-1591320 OX20 H-1608 Forestry Axe
Another great bargain for a very nice axe. With a hickory handle of 32 inches and a polished head of 5 pounds, this axe sits nicely in our range for category three axes. For my liking, the handle is slightly short for a 5 pound head but that’s personal preference and certainly doesn’t detract from a formidable tool that will more than meet your splitting needs. German quality at a very good price.
Best Value Heavy Double-Handed axe – 1844 Helko Werk Nordic Splitting Axe
Now we’re getting serious. While this may look like a maul, it’s not and shouldn’t be used as such as it doesn’t have a hardened poll for driving wedges. It’s a classic Nordic splitting axe weighing in at 7-1/2 pounds total with a 5-1/2 pound head and a 31 inch long handle. Sporting a German hand-forged head and American hickory handle, sanded and finished in linseed oil, this axe wouldn’t look out of place on your wall. It’s a piece of art, but one that’s designed for the heavy-duty splitting of timber. It comes with a sheath and some protective oil. Treat yourself; you deserve it.
Before we finish, I’d be remiss not to discuss splitting mauls. These devices are a cross between an axe and a hammer. They’re usually heavy, from 6 to 12 pounds, with a splitting edge on one side and a hammer for driving splitting wedges on the other.
Here are two to consider:
Best Budget Maul – INTERTOOL 36-inch Steel Splitting Maul
With a 6 pound head and a fiberglass handle, this is a good budget maul for those who couldn’t consider swinging something heavier. It’ll never be an heirloom, and it may need a quick sharpen once you take it from the box but at this price, what’s not to like?
Best Value Maul – Gransfors Bruk Splitting Maul
Not overly heavy for a maul at 5-1/2 pounds, and with a 31-1/2 inch handle, nonetheless, this is a nice tool with metal overstrike protection included. The head geometry on this is well thought through, and owners rave about them. With the quality of this tool, you won’t need another, and your splitting axe may be retired.