On The Weight of An Axe (1885)

Originally published in:
The Canada Lumberman – November 2, 1885

I well remember my first axe and my early experience with it. It weighed 4½ pounds, being the heaviest one I could find at the time. I was fresh from school—fresh from a class in natural philosophy, one of my favorite studies.

I knew all about inertia and had learned something of the force of gravity and the laws of falling bodies; had rightly guessed that chopping wood might be hard work, and determined that my knowledge of physics should help me out. I would have a heavy axe, a long handle would move slowly, and take strokes that would count when they fell. My axe handle was 34 inches in length, the longest one in the store.

I had hired a tough little French Canadian, weighing about 120 pounds, to help me at this work. When he came, he brought an axe — I think it weighed 2½ pounds, with a handle only 26 inches long. I told him I had a fair-sized job for him, and thought it would pay him to buy a full-grown axe. He smiled and said he guessed his would do.

I tried to explain to him the beauties of a heavy axe and the wonderful advantage of a long handle. But it was all in vain: I was simply wasting time; he could not escape through ignorance, and be unwilling to listen to the voice of wisdom.

We went to the wood lot and began work. I had decided that we would work separately during the first day or two, in order that I might show him what I could do.

As I began to swing my axe, I felt proud of its ponderous blows that rang through the woods and rather pitied the poor fellow who was drumming away with his little axe, taking about two blows to my one.

Presently I had to stop to rest, and then again, and still again; but Joe, my man, kept pecking away quietly, steadily, and easily. Every few minutes, I would stop to take a breath; but Joe seemed perfectly able to do all necessary breathing without stopping his work for the purpose.

When night came, we piled up our wood and measured it. Joe’s pile measured 1½ cords; mine ½ of a cord.

During the early part of the day, I had planned giving Joe another lesson in the evening, to see if I could not make him understand the philosophical requirements of an axe.

But when night came, I decided that perhaps it would be as well to let him go on in ignorance, and thereafter remained silent on the subject.

The next day I felt lame and stayed at home. Joe put his cord and a half as usual.

When I went to the woods again, Joe and I worked together. Not many days passed before I found an excuse for buying a lighter axe and a shorter handle. And every axe and handle that I have bought since then has been lighter and shorter than its predecessor.

Whenever I use an axe now, I select one very much like Joe’s, both in weight and length of handle. I can use this without getting at all out of breath and can hit twice in the same place. The result is, I can do more and better work and save a vast amount of strength.


  1. Thomas Fischer Rare Book Library, University of Toronto
    – The Canada Lumberman, Vol. 5, No. 21 – November 1885