Lizzie Borden took an axe-

-and gave the oak 3400 whacks…

That is to say, it takes about that many strokes/cuts/chops of a broad axe to hew a quarter inch from four faces of a 7×8″, 14′ 8″ length of red oak.

I love to count–

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The pile (below) of hewn oak represents roughly 51,000 strokes of a broad axe. Your local box store probably has an economy stack of ’em back by the drywall. Don’t forget to re-stack the pile after you’ve picked through.

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Da Capo

When we begin to make little motorboat sounds with our lips after a long day of hewing (we’re hewing stock for a little bridge) we naturally do things like count to keep our minds sharp, even as our axes begin to dull. It’s an exercise in extrapolation, exertion, and math for dummies. It also gives us a number to put towards the effort required to process timber with hand tools.

Some years ago, in another dimension, we timed and counted the number of pit-saw strokes it took to saw about 8 feet through a similarly dimensioned oak. In that spirit we thought it’d be groovy to do the same thing for hewing. So…I counted the number of strokes it took to hew one face of the oak. One thing led to another and Justin and I thought, why not figure out how many strokes it takes to hew an entire log. Yea, verily, let us use our human reasoning and opposable texting thumbs to reckon the total amount of strokes for ALL of the timbers!

Stoked for strokes

We started by scoring to the line. This takes a measly 50 strokes/face, give or take, using the felling axe. We did not include the number of scoring cuts made in our numbers. The oak is from our friends at Gurneys. None better.

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Scoring this puppy is harder than it looks–you take so little off, it’s wicked easy to go to deep.

Here is the finished face. It’s a little out of wind. Don’t judge me. This one face took 900 strokes of the broad axe to hew:

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Here is the log at approximately 100 strokes-

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300 strokes brought me to about 6 feet-

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Getting there at 700 strokes–

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Don’t forget to count…don’t forget to count…

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So, 900 strokes with the broad axe to hew almost 15 feet of an 8″ face of oak. From this we can determine how many strokes per square foot of hewing.

Contents may settle upon chipping

Ere we continue, the following qualifications must be made:

  • This isn’t hewing from round logs. That count is for another day.

  • The grain of the particular side used for counting was mostly knot-free and had plenty of sapwood. This would presumably require fewer strokes than a knotty, mostly heart-grained face.

  • The count includes swings and misses and near misses.

  • The oak was green, though it was noticeably dryer than had we hewn it from a newly felled, round tree.

  • We hadn’t any obvious signs of scurvy on the day of our reckoning.

  • The hewing and count will be greatly influenced by the hewer’s axe. The axe I’m using is an old style model weighing a little more than 7 lbs. It’s beveled on 2 sides and helved with white oak.

  • I’ve added the letter “e” to the word “axe” so as to make my friends across the pond feel welcome and my stateside neighbors think I’m pretentious.

  • All numbers are rounded up or down and are approximate.

  • Every hewer hews with a unique style. Numbers may vary.

  • My math skills are that of a second grader. When we asked Siri for help, she said, wtf are you talking about?

So many words, so much math. Let’s take a quick break:

OK-thanks for coming back.

Y ahora, los cálculos!

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Here’s a bunch of numbers for ya just in time for taxes. H&R chopping block! This is no stroke of genius. In fact, our figuring may be utterly wrong. We await feedback from you, gentle reader.

All of our calculations are based on this one little equation in my kitchen (thanks Kim):

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90 strokes per square foot. That sounds like a lot, but it proves true in the doing. We multiplied the length in inches by the width of the face being hewn. The resulting number was divided by 144, rounded up and converted to square feet. The face which took 900 strokes to hew was approximately 10 square feet. That convenient number gave us the number of 90 strokes/sq.ft.

From there, it was all scribbles and beard tugging until we came up with the numbers for all of our hewing:

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So, about 51,000 chops with the broad axe to remove a quarter inch from each face of 22 pieces of varying lengths of oak.

Deep thoughts

What does any of this mean? Is there a point? If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

We just can’t know what any of this means. Arms are sore and there are motorboat sounds to make. In the meanwhile, we’ll keep hewin, figurin, and drinkin with Mary Lou.

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When the job was nicely done

She gave another 3400 and one.

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27 thoughts on “Lizzie Borden took an axe-

  1. pfollansbee says:

    Lizzie Borden used an Underhill axe. At least that’s what Roy told me…& he wouldn’t lie.

  2. Linda Master says:

    You absolutely amaze me with your precision with just an ax(e) insane comes to mind…..
    Those boards are beautiful 🙂

    • Rick says:

      Practice, a little technique, muscle memory, and good material makes it go, Linda. A broad axe is nothing more than a rank set plane on steroids!

  3. Ron says:

    I love your posts!

  4. Jennifer Durant says:

    I’m sharing this one Rick!! Now, a question, why don’t you use an adz? My Dad used to do that in his “spare time” years ago… Keep up the good work! Both on the blog and on the job!

    • Rick says:

      I love that your dad adzed/hewed in his spare time, Jenn. That is perfect. Someone really needs to make a documentary of Gurney’s Saw Mill (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Gurneys-Saw-Mill-Inc/224333047596021) and your dad.

      My understanding is that an adze is historically better for a house carpenter’s small work (putting a flat on small timbers, leveling joists and floorboards) but it isn’t as efficient as a broad axe for hewing larger stuff, especially when hewing out of the round. A shipwright’s work with an adze is a whole other kettle of fish.

      When we hew with a double-beveled broad axe (rather than one with a flat side), it leaves a “scalloped” surface, wider, but similar to what an adze would leave. Maybe somewhere in history it was common to rough hew with an axe and finish with an adze–I don’t know.

      It’s an excellent question, Jenn and thanks for asking it. I have always wanted to look further into it.

      • Jennifer Durant says:

        I just knew you’d get all historical on me Rick 😉 I always look for adze when I go to flea markets, yardsales and antique stores… Dad had one that he used A LOT. But he let someone borrow it and now we can’t remember who it was. I know that he’s got some serious scars on his shins from a slip or two with that thing. He used to hew at night on our front porch all winter, the chips would be several inches thick at times. I assume a broad axe is a little less dangerous… in the right hands!!

      • Rick says:

        What a great memory, Jenn! Some people settle in, plop on the couch and watch CSI Tampa, and others, like your dad, hew with an adze on the front porch. Awesome. And all those years working next to those big-ass saws and it was the humble adze that bit him! Thanks for sharing that-

    • Rick says:

      saxe, faxe. maxe, taxe, waxe…so many e’s. Perhaps our missing American e’s hang out with the New England dropped r’s and relaxe with a bowle of chowda.

  5. John Wolf says:

    Rick, do you remember being tortured with story problems in grade school? ” If a train leaves Peoria at 12:19 traveling at……”? Turns out that all of life’s long, endurance demanding, monotonous, repetitive, motor boat sound inducing jobs follow the equation I could never remember for the test – D=RT, or distance = rate x time. If I do this enough times, I will finish. and need Motrin. By the way, the photo showing equations on the blackboard should have read “chopping list”.

  6. Richard Law says:

    In the interests of ‘Murican justice, may I be allowed to point out that Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the ax murders by a jury of her peers?

    Although you use the double bevel on thy great axe, dost use one of they bent handles to keep thy knuckles away from t’oak? I cain’t quite see from thy photo.

    Greate poste as evere!

    • Rick says:

      Your honor, I’d like to point out that the chopping tool in question isn’t an axe but rather a hatchet. If it please the court, my client and I request a recess so that we may use said chopping tool to make lathe before dinner.

      Looking at the back of the broad axe, Richard, the handle is swept away slightly to the right from the head. This was from the natural sweep of the grain of the oak (I think I remember using a section of white oak closer to the butt of the tree, giving me that gentle slope). I didn’t bend it at all.

      My personal preference is a slight bent away from the hewing face. I’ve used broad axes with handles which were steam bent and had compound angles coming away from the eye of the tool–too much for me!

      And thanks!

  7. Hello,

    Other than the math, that looks fun.

    Regards,

    E.DB.

  8. What is the semi-seasoned timber conversion factor for white oak? I’d say at least X1.5 plus a couple of titanium shoulder upgrades.

  9. Tim Berube says:

    You hew like Michael! Is that a Plymouth thing? Until I watched Michael hew I’d never seen anyone hew that way, though, the way Jack taught me was close, minus the leg up on the beam. Back breaking was how I would describe it. Then we discovered standing up straight! Though I will say that I think Michael is the best hewer I’ve ever encountered. Fast and good.

    A note on Adzing. Early on, before some charcoal rubbings convinced him otherwise, Jack was convinced that hewing was done with the adze, and so I and a number of others learned to hew with the adze! Then when he was shown the errors of his ways, I would not listen to him and so we raced. I was good with the adze, but his time was well under half what mine was, and produced a better finish. Tough love. That was the beginning of my own axe work. It is hard to argue when you can’t keep up.

    As I write this, and since I discovered your blog, I am remembering a love of wood, and the axe and the adze that I haven’t felt for some years. It doesn’t help that the weldment that I am working on is basically a timber frame done in aluminum and stainless steel, and, God willing, I’ll be working on it for the next four months.

    It really looks like you guys are having fun. So nice to see hand tools, and axes, and hands that cherish them.

    • Rick says:

      Thanks for the note, Tim–I’ll let Pret know that you said Howdy when I see him. We want to hear more stories!

      The whole hewing posture-thing: It’s the way most of the folks hew out this way. I worked for a time in upstate NY and the fellows out there also hewed in that upright manner. One guy thought it was more of a Germanic/continental tradition. I really don’t know. I always found upright hewing to be awkward–I couldn’t get any of my lower body into it. I suppose it’s what you know and what you get used to. I know in the course of a log, I’ll alternate between leg up on log, straddling, two legs on one side, etc. It depends on whether there are baulks in the way, if I’m working down toward the end, etc.Burrey is a sick hewer, isn’t he?

      That’s such a great adze story, Tim. I love that you and Jack put it to a test and raced. It’s that whole double bevel-thing leaving what can easily be mistaken for adze marks, I think. What kind of axes did you and Jack hew with?

      When your 4-month weldment is done, I think you need to take a break and hew with us.

      Good to hear from you Tim–

  10. Tim Berube says:

    I would love to hew with you guys! It would be a very nice excuse for a vacation, and my wife has never seen the east coast.

    I used what I have always thought of as a Wisconsin pattern axe, but I don’t think it really is, it just got stuck in my head and that’s what I always called it. Its about 12 pounds, with a 12″ face, can be handled right or left, and has three beautiful curves, one on the bit, one along the back, and one from bit to eye (which helps to kick it out from the timber). It produces a fairly smooth finish, and is single beveled.

    Craig Boynton used a much smaller axe. Maybe an 8 inch face, about 9 pounds. If you googled “plumb” broad axe, that is pretty much what it would look like. It also had the same three curves, and was single beveled as well.

    I don’t recall what axes Dave Bowman used, something more like mine than Craig’s, though a bit lighter, and a bit thinner, if I recall, again, it had similar curves. These were all pretty much capable of producing the same finish, and, could leave a timber with that scalloped pattern folks first thought was done with an Adze.

    Jack had lots of axes. He had some so flat you pretty much had to leave scoring behind, otherwise the axe would tear the wood in its passing. He also had one that was so light we joked, repeatedly, about how it was akin to hewing with a balloon! Since then I have to say it must have been very similar to hewing with a Gransfors axe. The first time I picked one of theirs up it brought me right back to Jack’s shop.

    I have not often hewn with double beveled axes. One of the first times I did so was hewing for Ed Shure and Bryan Heighthold of Timmerhus. They are big axe people to! and have a good assortment.

    There really is something about axes, isn’t there? I won’t leave adzes out, as they were a first love, and truly have a wonderful place in wood traditions.

    I would love to come and visit you guys, and have the chance to swing an axe alongside you, but I am definitely going to build something this spring, and hew it from the round.

    Thanks so much Rick for helping rekindle this!

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