The Joy of Handtools

Resting place for a small axe

There are really just two seasons of work in a broadleaved woodland – the dark half of year, when most of the tree work takes place, and the light half, when it stops. Ironically the woodland floor experiences these in reverse given that leaves will soon filter the sunlight; hawthorn is already bursting open, catkins are falling to the ground, and it will soon be time for us to stop any tree felling and switch to other work.

As I reflect back on our first Winter, I see the difference we have made to one small area. It already feels more natural and lighter in energy, though there is some way to go yet before it becomes ‘woodland’ rather than ‘plantation’.

We recently made a decision not to use chainsaws, even in the future, as we are loving to use hand saws and axes. To begin with that is all we had, but we have come to really appreciate what you can do by hand.

The benefits as I see them:

  • Quiet. We can hear the birds singing as we work.
  • Time. To think about what we are doing, connect with each tree, ensure that we are in harmony with the nature of the woodland and cutting appropriately.
  • Simplicity. My usual safety protection is a hat, which provides adequate protection for me against the odd twig. I do not need special trousers, goggles, ear defenders etc.
  • Human powered, getting me fit rather than using polluting fuel. And if I am tired, I go slower rather than rush and risk a mistake.
  • Reliable. A handsaw always starts first time. An axe won’t get stuck, and a tree felled by axe falls remarkably slowly and gently.
  • Protection for the woodland against damage, as no heavy equipment is churning up the mud. I’m not sure it would even be an option to drive around the woodland in its current soggy state.
  • Light weight to carry, given there is no parking at the woodland yet. (I don’t take all the possible tools each time I go – just the two or three I plan to use that day to suit the job.)
  • I feel connected to my ancestors. Relatively recent ones lived in log cabins cut by axe and shaped by saw very similar to what we are using. Neolithic ancestors in this country used stone axes to cut down trees of a similar size to ours, up to about eight inches across.

Strangely I don’t think it takes a lot longer to fell and limb a small tree by hand compared to using a chainsaw, although chainsaw carving is very much quicker than using a chisel and mallet. There is one particular stump that I really want to do something interesting with… but then just using hand tools will force me to consider any design very carefully before I begin!