Winter is the busiest and most abusive time of the year for axes. They get a solid workout in the fall when we split the majority of our firewood, but all winter long they are used for making kindling as well splitting the rest of the wood.
For some reason we have gotten into the habit of leaving the axe outside either stuck in the chopping block or leaning against the wall in the wood-shed. Either way the axe stays frozen making the handle brittle.
The very dry winter air can dry out the handle causing it to shrink and the head becomes loose.This can lead to the head separating from the handle during mid-swing. Injuries from a flying axe-head can be severe and often require hospitalization or at least stitches to close the laceration. Don’t let anyone stand out in front of the direction of the swing.
A brittle wooden handle – or even one of the newer fiberglass handles – can shatter hitting the frozen piece you are trying split.
If you swing an axe like I do you will have the occasional over-reach on the swing and the head is beyond the piece being split with the handle right under the head, making contact with the firewood piece. This impact on the handle is especially serious with a frozen, brittle axe handle and can actually shatter a fiberglass handle.
Two ways to minimize damage to the axe include keeping the axe inside the house where it stays in an unfrozen state and wrapping the top 4” of the handle (up against the bottom of the head) with cardboard or foam about ½” thick and taping over it with duct, hockey or adhesive tape. Neither will prevent the occasional over-reach on the swing, but it cushions the blow and saves damaging the handle.
If you do find the head is loose due to drying, just put the axe head-down in a bucket with enough water to completely immerse the head. Leave it for a few days and the wood will rehydrate and swell to a tight fit in the head. The head will have powdery rust on it after the water immersion and if that bothers you, this can be removed with a wire brush. Ideally, the axe-head should be wiped with an oily rag on occasion to remove and prevent rust.
The edge on an axe-head is sharpened with an axe-file to deal with normal wear and tear and the dulling effect of all that chopping. A seriously damaged axe-head with larger than usual nicks can also be filed enough to remove the nicks and be sharp again.
The axe is held in a vice or laid across your knee with the edge facing away from you and the file is moved outward on the head from the thicker part out to the edge. Axe-files work very well and it does not take very long to get the axe back into shape for the next splitting session.
Use a sheath (even home-made) to protect the edge on any axe that travels with you in your truck, boat or ATV.