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There are many helpful videos and essays about how to swing an axe when splitting wood, but they give very contradictory advice.

In particular:

  • Place the dominant hand near the knob (end of handle).
  • Place the non-dominant hand near the the knob.

And:

  • Swing with both hands close together.
  • Swing with the upper hand starting near the head and sliding down to meet the other hand.

There are other differences, but these are the two most blatant.

Another question on this site, What are the steps you would go through to teach someone how to split logs? illustrates the difference:

One answer says:

  • As you lift the axe, your dominant hand holds the bottom of the axe, your other hand raises the axe by holding the handle near the axe head
  • As the axe is lifted to its apex, slide your non-dominant hand down to above where your dominant hand is holding

Another answer says:

Then you take your preferred hand and place it near the top, close to the head. … sliding your preferred hand down during the swing.

Are they really just a matter of opinion and one should use whichever method feels most comfortable, or is there really a difference?

  • If there really is a difference, please indicate why; everything I've read or watched simply states it as an obvious truth that their method is how to do it.
  • If it really is a personal preference, please do not post descriptions of why you use the method you do; I'm looking for facts, not opinions.
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2 Answers 2

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The axe head weighs around 2-3 pounds.

It is a fact that it is harder to lift a weight when both hands are at the opposite end of the handle from the head. To stretch the point, consider a 14 pound sledge-hammer. It makes no sense at all (and is difficult) to lift that up with the head away from your body.

As with lifting any weight, the closer to your body it is, the less strain it puts on your back. So lifting with one hand starting at the head, the majority weight goes upward in almost a straight line. Even if you do extend the dominant arm as you lift, in preparation for the swing, the head weight at arm's length is still only half the distance from your body as when you hold the 'near' end of the shaft.

As for which hand: the dominant hand/arm would be the one lifting the weight, and as the tool reaches its maximum height, you allow the weight of the head to carry it down and away from you, while the hand slides up the shaft. That dominant arm can also add additional swing force if needed.

As ever, you let the tool do the work as far as possible, and as little work from yourself as needed.

I speak as someone who once chopped firewood daily, and swung a lot of sledge-hammers on building sites. If I saw someone struggling with both hands at one end, I would think they don't have much experience. It is a fact too, that with your hands apart, you have much more control of the tool path than if they are close together.

To summarize:

  • keep the heavy part close to your body while lifting

  • use your dominant arm to lift, drop and control the weight

  • the other arm acts as a stay, or pivot point for the tool

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Handedness is not a binary category -- most people have a natural tendency to perform certain actions with a certain hand, but that does not always have to be their "dominant" hand. There is a psychological test for this, the Edinburgh Handedness Scale, with some later extensions. You can try it here. It contains 10-15 questions such as, "Which hand do you prefer to use when using a toothbrush?", paired with an option "Do you ever use the other hand?". Most people do have a naturally preferred hand for each type of activity, and an overall tencency which then is their "dominant" hand. (I, for example, simply cannot force my brain to use a toothbrush with my left hand. I will just stab my cheeks.)

So, I dare say that "use whichever hand you are most comfortable with" is the safest default option, as this will be what is most natural for your brain and motor control.

Yet, for large tools such as axes, which require less fine grained control, consciously switching hands is not out of the question, and may have advantages if you train yourself to do it. For example, I remember from somewhere that blacksmiths will use sledgehammers with their dominant hand in front, counter to the natural grip of most people, to achieve more precise control over their blows (the only reference I can find on this is the German Wikipedia article on slegdehammers). But then, in blacksmith work, you rarely use full over-your-head swings as when using an axe, but rather "tap" the metal at precise points to deform it.

The "inversed" hold seems to be what @Weather Vane's post recommends, if I understand correctly, although I would caution against using an "unnatural" position if you are a beginner at this type of work. When I taught wood chopping to scouts as young as 10, they often started with unnatural and cluncy movements, but improved after I recommended switching such that the non-dominant hand is near the head.

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  • I agree with this answer, the way most people use an axe or sledge to split wood is with the dominant hand at the bottom of the shaft. I'd recommend everyone to start out this way, and only switch when one feels a need for it.
    – fgysin
    Jan 5 at 7:13

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