Simply put: felling axes chop, while splitting axes split.
Felling axes (chopping axes) have lighter, thinner heads used to chop into the side of trees to cut them down, remove branches, and buck logs on the ground. But, most are also capable of light splitting. Splitting axes have heavier, wider heads designed only to split logs apart along the grain.
There are a variety of different patterns of both chopping and splitting axe. And while the core difference is the design of the head, there are other traits that will make an axe better suited for chopping or splitting.
The Felling & Chopping Axe
Felling axe and chopping axe are two names for the same type of axe. “Felling” refers to the specific task of cutting down a standing tree, while “chopping” is a broader term that could mean cutting into the side of a tree, log, or branch across the grain.
These axes can be specialized for unique rolls, but common uses for most felling axes are:
- Felling a tree: Chopping down a tree.
- Limbing: Removing branches from the trunk or main stem.
- Bucking: Chopping fallen trees / logs into smaller segments on the ground.
- Clearing Brush: Chopping through the undergrowth and small trees to help create pathways, and clear spaces.
- Carving & Shaping: Smaller and light-weight “camp axes” or “forest axes” can also be used for camp-craft and bushcraft tasks. Shaping wood for shelter and improvised tools.
- Light Splitting: Most axes are at least capable of splitting smaller pieces of wood into kindling.
Can you Split with a Felling Axe?
Most chopping or felling axes are capable of light splitting, but many are not well suited to breaking down anything larger than firewood. The thinner blade will stick in larger logs and doesn’t create enough sideways force to split the wood apart.
But, some thicker full-size American patterns (Like old Michigans) or chopping axes with a strong wedge profile can make decent splitters. Historically, lots of people who only had a single axe would use it both chopping and splitting.
The heavier the head and thicker the profile, the better the axe will be for splitting.
Variations of Felling Axe Head
Chopping axes come in different head designs with features that can make them better at specific tasks like limbing or bucking, or even better suited for different types of wood.
While there are lots of names for some of these designs (known as patterns), it’s more important to understand the characteristics:
- Longer, thinner blades dig deeper into hardwoods and large trees as the force is concentrated, which helps in denser wood.
- Thicker wedge-shaped blades pop out larger chunks in softwoods, as the wedge pushes them out.
- Wide, curved blades make clearing branches, brush, and small trees easier as they can be quickly used with less need for accuracy. And the longer cutting edge can catch multiple branches.
- Axes with a flatter top are best for bucking (chopping logs on the ground), as the toe (top corner), is less likely to dig into the dirt and hit damaging debris like rocks.
- Lightweight heads (2lbs and under) are best for camp craft tasks, while still being very efficient choppers for small trees.
- Heavier Heads (3lbs and up) are best for heavy chopping of trees 12+ wide and up, and will also have added splitting capability for an all-around work axe.
Felling Axe Handles
Felling axes usually have curved handles, but they can be straight as well.
Curved handles on an axe are more ergonomic and balanced for horizontal swings (felling) and allow for a little extra rotation and comfort when bucking wood on the ground.
I have a full post that dives into the differences between straight vs curved handles.
Sizes of Felling Axe
There are many different weights and lengths of felling axe, but they can be broadly sorted into 5 buckets:
|Length||Head Weight||Best for logs|
|Full-size||30″ – 36″||3 – 4 lbs||12″ and up|
|Boys axe||27″ – 29″||2.25 – 3 lbs||up to 12″|
|Camp axe / |
|23″ – 26″||2 – 2.5 lbs||up to 10″|
|Small axe||18″ – 22″||1.5 – 2 lbs||up to 8″|
|Hatchet||13″ – 17″||1 – 1.5 lbs||up to 6″|
Most people don’t need full-size chopping axes anymore. Despite being fun to use, the task of felling and breaking down full-grown trees now goes to the chainsaw. So the Boy’s axe has long been a favorite “work axe” for those who need an efficient chopping axe.
The smaller axes offer more portable solutions, that can still offer significant chopping potential.
Understanding The Splitting Axe
Splitting axes are designed specifically for splitting cut logs (rounds) into firewood. They are made to be swung vertically down into the flat top of the log to be split.
Splitting axe heads form a stout wide wedge that penetrate and quickly spread logs apart. The blade is typically shorter to focus the energy outward, forcing the wood apart. The edge also tends to be flatter with fewer curves or flares to reduce the chances of getting pinched in stubborn wood.
Note: a maul is very similar to a splitting axe, but it is a unique tool. Mauls are heavier with a hardened poll and used to support a splitting axe for the toughest rounds. To learn more see Splitting Axes vs Mauls.
Splitting Axe Head Designs
The wedge shape can be formed by a simple triangular profile, or by flared/ramped cheeks, or even by spines running along the cheeks. All of these methods are meant to reduce the overall friction as the head passes through the wood.
Splitting Axes are Heavier
A similar-sized splitting axe will almost always be heavier than the chopping axe. The extra weight delivers more splitting force. The table below shows the average weight ranges of the axes’ head.
|Full-size||30″ – 36″||3 – 4 lbs||4 – 6 lbs|
|Boys axe||26″ – 28″||2 – 2.75 lbs||2.5 – 4 lbs|
|Camp axe||22″-26″||2 – 2.5 lbs||2.5 – 3 lbs|
|Small axe||18″ – 22″||1.5 – 2 lbs||2 – 2.5 lbs|
|Hatchet||13″ – 17″||1 – 1.5 lbs||1.5 – 2 lbs|
Chopping axes need weight, but they also need to be swung horizontally, and too much weight can make it hard for the user.
Splitting Axes have Straight Handles
Splitting axes usually have straight handles as they are easier to swing consistently and rotate the axe head less when splitting with downward swings.
It’s safest to have a full-size (36″) straight handle on a splitting axe, as it’s near impossible to accidentally hit your own foot. Whereas if a shorter-handled axe is swung poorly, the head can pass right through the wood and keep moving towards you. Ouch.
Can you Chop with a Splitting Axe?
The flared splitting axe designs like that start thin and could chop in a pinch (Fiskars or Gransfors Bruk), but they’re not good at it. They only dig into the wood an inch or two before the blade thickens too much. But, they can clear small branches.
The heavier wedge-style axes don’t really work for this at all, and the extra weight of the head also makes it much harder to swing horizontally when chopping.
High-Value Felling & Splitting Axe Brands
Luckily you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a quality axe. The shortlist below is the more affordable axe brands that I have been most impressed with over the years. I own multiple axes by every maker on the list.
This isn’t a “deep dive”, but a starting point to find the right axe for your needs. But, I have lots more info on the site, and I am adding more all the time.
This is just a hobby, so if you use Amazon – clicking my links supports the site.
1. Council Tool American-Made Felling & Splitting Axes
If you are in the USA it is hard to beat the value and quality of Council Tool axes.
They have a wide range of patterns and sizes, and their baseline is well-made and incredibly affordable.
The blades are well-shaped and come sharper than most out of the box. The wood handles come thin and waxed and are by far the best shaped/made for the price.
The Council Tool Boy’s axe is a very popular chopper (see on Amazon) – I have been very happy with mine. But they have larger and smaller options as well.
They also released a 5lb Splitting Axe not too long ago which has been a big success and is likely the best-value wood-handled splitting axe on the market.
2. Fiskars Makes Great Splitting Axes
Fiskars splitting axes may be the best value splitting axes on the market – and what I suggest for most people often. They are also what I typically use most. It may seem blasphemous for an axe nerd to recommend a “plastic” axe – but they’ve earned it.
They are durable, efficient, and low maintenance, and there are 8 different splitting axes to choose from. I have many posts about Fiskars on the site, including how to choose which Fiskars splitting axe you need.
The X27 is the “standard” full-size splitting axe, and a good starting point (see Amazon).
3. Agdor / Hultafors are Quality Choppers
Agdor and Hultafors Standard axes are the same axes under different names. They are made by Hults Bruk, a famous Swedish axe maker that has been operating for over 300 years. With a wide range of really excellent small, mid-size, and full-size felling/chopping axes.
They are hand-forged and made with excellent materials. But to keep the cost down, the blades are only roughly sharpened, and the handles come a little thick from the factory. But with a little quick tuning on your end, you get a really high-quality axe (see Amazon).
Note: I don’t like their splitting axes very much, they are best suited for mid-size softwoods only
4. Big German-Made Splitters (Adler, Ochsenkopf)
The Germans seem to know how to make really good BIG splitters, and I am going to lump a few brands in this one bucket.
These axes have large 5.5 – 6 lbs heads that blow through everything – but that can also be a little cumbersome around the wood pile as the pieces get smaller with each split.
Ochsenkopf Spalt Fix (shown above), a hard-hitting wedge on a 31″ handle – some models also have a protective metal band under the head (see Amazon).
The Adler Super Splitter is a very practical design that has a pick on the heel of the blade to let the user move and position logs with the axe and save their back (see on Amazon).
If I missed something or you have any questions, feel free to leave me a comment below. I do my best to respond to everyone.
About the author:
I’m just a guy who likes axes – as a tool, the craft of restoring them, and the history. I got tired of only finding crap websites, so I set out to build a reliable one myself.
Jim B. – Owner, Creator