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How to hand hew logs.

My first attempt at hand hewing timbers was in the spring of '78. My brother Den and I felled a few pines on land I had recently purchased. Accompanied with a few illustrations on how to hew and a couple of axes, neither of which was a broadax, we attempted to create timbers. It was not too long before we realized this was not going to be easy work.

Not only was it difficult physically as our ax skills were rather limited, but we could not keep the round log from rolling as we scored or hewed it.

But we were persistent, and we became proficient. My house is a log/post and beam combination. Every floor joist, rafter, wall log, sill, plate and post is handhewn. I also hewed every timber for a neighbor's 25' x 36' barn. I hewed wherever the trees were felled. A few even straddled a creek gully and had to be scored and hewed while standing on the log, the closest footing being the creek 8-10 feet below. We counted over 135 timbers in that barn, four of which were 25-foot-long 10 x 10s. Den and I hewed the timbers and cut the joinery for his 24' x 36' post and beam house. But the largest timbers I have hewn were fitted into a conventional stud frame house. They were 28' long 10" x 12" hemlock beams.

I have hewn pine, poplar, fir, oak, spruce and hemlock. And although I now hew with a broadax, all that I have described above was done with a Kent ax, which has a cutting bit no different than a felling ax.

That is the amazing thing about hewing: so few tools are required. The only tool you cannot do without is an ax. All others, including the broadax, become aids in the process but they're not essential for doing the task.

In perfecting my hewing style I have developed techniques that appear to run contrary to those currently being written about. Hewing is a personal matter. Each person wishing to hew must experiment with the suggestions of others and then personalize it into a style that meets the individual's needs. What I wish to share is my method and how and why I developed it.

The first place where I differ is where to hew. Many books currently being printed on hewing show the log at a site, usually out of the woods, usually on trestles a couple of feet off the ground and secured with iron dogs. I do not own a skidder, tractor, nor horses to pull these heavy logs from the forest. A considerable amount of log will be removed in the hewing process. If following the hewing the log has whatever bark remains removed, and if the log is elevated by propping each end with a block of firewood or a rock, the timber dries out quickly and when it is needed it is amazingly lighter. Balanced across the top of a Garden Way cart, two people can easily walk the finished, partially dried timber out of the woods.

Another reason for hewing in the woods is that this is the easiest place to stabilize a log. Being round, logs have a tendency to want to roll while they are worked. The repeated striking while scoring the log or the continued slashing while hewing only increases this tendency to roll.

To eliminate this rolling motion, people set the log into log cribs, hammer in iron log dogs, or spike on boards to stabilize it. I have tried these techniques, but was never satisfied with them. The logs still had a tendency to roll and nothing I could do would completely eliminate it.

Until one day, following felling a tree, it struck me that if I left the crown attached there would be no way the log could roll. This, more than any other, is the reason to hew in the woods.

Once two sides are hewn the timber can be cut free. If all four sides are to be hewn, stabilizing the timber for the remaining two sides is not so much of a problem because now a flat hewn surface faces down and has no tendency to roll.

Another major difference in my hewing style is my stance. I do not stand to the right of the log, hewing to my left. Rather I stand with my left foot on the log, my right foot on the ground, with the ax work directly in front of me, almost between my feet. Perhaps this is because I learned to hew with a standard bit ax rather than the broadax, but ironically, I now own and use two broadaxes and have found my stance unchanged when using them.

The hewing process begins once the tree is dropped. Cut the butt of the tree off square. Measure up the tree the desired length and mark the bark with the ax. Limb up the trunk a few feet beyond this mark. Go back to the butt end and look up the trunk to see if the log is bowed. If it is, it is sometimes necessary to mark where the center of the timber will be to the right or left of the actual center of the log. (See illustration.)

Once the center of the timber is marked on the butt end of the log, measure half the diameter of the log and draw a line using a level. For example, if the finished timber is to be eight inches, draw vertical lines four inches to the right and four inches to the left of this line. Use a level to keep these lines plumb.

At the top end we mark through the bark. Again find the center by eye, then mark with a knife. Measure to the left and right as was done with the butt end, and mark by slashing through the bark.

Drive a 6d nail into the slash and hook a chalk line to it. Walk back to the butt, pull the line taut, lining it up with the pencil mark, and snap it. Care must be taken that the line is pulled straight up and down, keeping the line in the same plane we want to hew.

With the line snapped right and left, the chalk line can be put away and the scoring process begun.

The scoring process

Scoring is the process of cutting and chopping into the log up to the line. Much of the waste wood is removed in the process and this prepares the log for hewing. I use two methods of scoring. Both work, and the one you choose depends on personal preference and skill.

The first method is to use an ax. I stand on the log and swing down, chopping between my feet. Axes work best when struck at an acute angle, never square to the work surface. The log must be struck every few inches and, if done properly, big chunks of wood should fly off.

It is important not to score deeper than the chalk line, but generally the problem with novice hewers is that they do not score deep enough. If the scoring is not done deep enough, the hewer will have difficulty following the chalk line. It may be necessary to repeat the scoring and hewing process. But as long as the scoring and hewing do not drift beyond the chalk line, the timber will remain true.

At one time I did all my scoring this way. Now I tend to use this method on smaller timbers.

I also score with a chainsaw. I stand on the log, lean over, and cut between my feet to the chalk line. I have also found on some logs it is possible to stand on the ground, hold the saw to my right, bar pointing down as plumb as possible, and in this posture cut to the chalk line. Again, the cuts must be made every few inches.

Be extremely careful not to score too deep with the chainsaw. Saw marks on the finished beam do nothing for the appearance of a hewn timber.

Once done with the saw, I pick up the ax, stand on the log, and pop out the chunks between the cuts. This quickly removes most of the wood. The surface must now be rescored lightly with the ax. The log is now ready to be hewn.

You don't need a broadax

Again I repeat it is not necessary to use a broadax to hew. Any ax will do. Here in New England broadaxes in any usable shape are hard to come by. They are scarce and they are expensive. I fortunately got hold of one, unhandled, for the incredible price of $25. I was thrilled. With a little work I fashioned a bent handle and now have a wonderful tool. But usually we are looking at prices of $100 or more for broadaxes in reasonable shape.

However, used tool outlets in New England always seem to have Kent axes in reasonable shape selling for $5 to $20. I don't know why there were so many axes of this pattern around. They don't look like they would have been good for felling. I can only assume they were used for hewing. Perhaps they were used for hewing railroad ties.

The advantage of the Kent ax is that the same tool could be used for both scoring and hewing. A heavy double bit ax would also make a good hewing tool: it likewise has a blade that is not too thick. Ideally, find an ax with a thin blade, wide bit and a heavy head. If you can't find one, use whatever ax you have. Of course, if you have a good broadax, use that.

The ax must be sharp. Axes are easily sharpened using a #12 bastard mill file, but in some cases where they have been pitted, blunted or chipped, it may be necessary to sharpen on an electric wheel. When sharpening an ax on an electric wheel care must be taken to not overheat the edge. If I use a wheel I repeatedly wet the edge, keeping it cool throughout the sharpening process.

Hewing

To hew, I place my left foot on the log and my right foot on the ground about a foot and a half behind my left foot. With the right hand I hold the heel of the ax handle; with the left hand I hold eight to ten inches from the ax head.

This is not a normal handhold for ax work and it may feel unnatural, but hewing is not chopping.

Pivot your trunk and thrust your left shoulder forward, aligning the ax bit with the chalk line. In this position, with your hands approximately 20 inches apart and your trunk turned, the area being worked is even with your left foot.

Hewing uses short, controlled swings, the ax's momentum carrying most of the force.

To properly hew with any ax you need to get a feel for the ax's bevel. The intent is to remove the wood and create a flush surface. That is why the traditional broadax has no bevel on its inner surface but is flat like a chisel. If a felling ax is used, the head must be pivoted slightly so that the ax's beveled surface becomes the flush chiseling surface.

This sounds difficult but in practice it becomes obvious. If the angle is too great the ax chops instead of hews; if too slight, it glances off. If correct, the scored chips just peel away, leaving the flush bare wood surface. The point of contact of the bit and wood should be, as near as comfortable, directly even with the left foot.

Work the log from front to back, hewing along the chalk line. As the scored pieces pull back a natural kerf is formed, almost guiding the ax. Any knots encountered will require additional force if they were not sufficiently scored. But if all was done properly, the hewing process itself will be a joy.

For light controlled strokes slide your left hand further up the handle; for less controlled, more forceful strokes, slide it down the handle.

To keep the surface being worked plumb, periodic checking with a pocket level helps.

Hew up one side then down the other. If only two sides need be hewn, simply cut the beam free, peel it, and it's done. If the timber needs to be squared on all four sides, flip it so that the hewn surfaces are now facing up and down. Level and secure it. This is quickly and easily done by nailing scrap wood both to the timber and to another log parallel to the beam. Two boards should be nailed. Measure, score and hew the two remaining surfaces. Pull the nailers and it's done.

Sometimes, due to poor scoring, hewing, or a badly snapped chalk line, a surface may have to be redone. Simply resnap the line, rescore and hew.

The bark should be removed as soon as a timber is done. Bark slows the drying and creates a home for insects. Summer cut wood peels easily. The bark can usually be loosened with the ax and then simply pulled off as a single sheet.

In autumn or winter it's a different story. There is little sap under the bark at these times and the bark clings tightly to the wood. The best tool for removing the bark when it clings is the drawknife. Simply sit on the log, straddling it, and pull the knife towards yourself, removing strips of bark with each stroke.

Timber hewing does not necessarily imply flattening all four sides of a log. In many cases we simply flatten two sides, and some cases only one. A traditional Southern hewn log home had logs flattened to a uniform thickness of 6" to 8", these flattened surfaces forming the inside and outside walls, while the tops and bottoms of the log were left round and the spaces between them were chinked. This gives the house plumb walls inside and out. Using smaller poles, the top and bottom of the log can be flattened, leaving the inside and outside walls in the round. If every course is hewn to an even thickness, this leaves very straight running logs, easily notched at the corners, and if adequate weather stripping is fitted between the courses, a structure that needs no chinking.

Floor joists for a barn, outbuilding or for a first floor need not be hewn square. All that is really needed is to have the top surface flattened so that flooring can be laid down. The same holds true for barn rafters, etc.

But if one is building a post and beam structure, the posts, beams, plates, sills, braces, and possibly the rafters and joists may have to be squared. There is simply so much measuring, cutting and fitting in the joinery of post and beam work that it is much easier working with squared timbers.

The other consideration is aesthetics. What do you find pleasing? A pattern I find pleasing is to hew joists down to 4" x 6" or 6" x 8", but leaving the bottom surface unhewn. This little bit of roundness facing down into the room adds a nice touch.

And then there is that odd timber that requires special attention. While I was hewing timbers for an individual's house, he requested an 8" x 12" timber that also fit the roof peak. This required creating a five-sided timber. To accomplish this I first hewed the log down to an even thickness of 8", Following this I hewed the bottom flat. Doing the last two surfaces required a square, a level, a peavey to turn the monster beam, several wooden shims, and boards with nails to secure the log in the odd position so that I could still hew a plumb surface. I felt I was working by the seat of my pants, but I felt pretty proud when I saw the timber fitted.

If one is serious about hewing timbers for a structure, before tromping off to the woods it's necessary to plan out the structure. Anything beyond a few timbers requires the development of some sort of list. This list should specify the length, width, thickness, and quantity of each of the timbers needed and a space should be left to keep a running tally of how many are completed. There is a strong tendency to believe a mental record can be kept, dispensing with the need for a written list. But speaking from experience, any such mental account soon becomes lost amidst downed trees, logs, and hewn timbers about the woodlot. Without a written record one is repeatedly gong back, re-measuring, re-counting, and losing a good deal of time that could be spent converting logs into timbers.

Along with such a list I recommend a lumber crayon be carried in your pocket and some sort of code system be used one the butt of each timber. All joists could have "j" written on the butt. "CP" could be used for corner post, and "P" for line post. Sills could be specified with the initials and the footage. An 18" sill might read "S18". This system of coding really proves its value the day the timbers are moved from woodlot to houselot, enabling one to stack by purpose, again saving considerable time when actual construction begins.

 A sample cutting list


Purpose Length Size Qty needed Completed
Joist 12' 6x8 12 ///
Corner post 8' 8x8 4 //
Line post 8' 6x6 4 ////
Sills 16' 10x6 2 /
Sills 8' 10x8 2
Sills 12' 10x8 2 /


Making a broadax handle

If you do acquire an old broadax and you wish to make a curved handle, here is essentially how to do it.

Cut out a three-foot section of oak, hickory or ash. This should be roughly 8" in diameter. Split out a wedge and remove the heartwood. Trace a felling ax handle onto the wood. Roughly shape with a hatchet to the drawn lines.

Now, with the hatchet, start removing the square corners. Find some way to secure the handle and shape it round and smooth with a drawknife. Keep checking and matching the thickness and feel against the handle used for the pattern.

When the handle feels right, clamp the ax head end of the handle down. Do not clamp tightly. Fit a splitting wedge under the handle, approximately one-third of the way down the handle. Using a large glue clamp (this clamp needs to be able to open wide) grab the bottom of the handle. Do not tighten.

Pour boiling water over the whole handle. Clamp the handle head very tight. This section of the handle must sit flush on the table. The rest of the handle now curves away from the table.

The clamp in the back is tightened just enough to bring the back of the handle parallel with the table. Leave it to dry like this for a few weeks. After removing the clamps the handle will have the desired shape. Season it for a couple of months and it is ready to be fitted.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Beaudry, Mike
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Words:3209
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