Chop talk

It is good that the new experts on thermal salvation keep us well informed about the uses of arboreal fuels - here's a tip that pine makes good kindlings but will not keep well overnight. Select pine lumber is now retailing at something like two dollars a board foot, and we old-timers at woodpile athletics would certainly call that a good thing to know. If the people will kindly take their seats the symposium will come to order, and we shall have a cultural go at numerous other things that are also good to know:

Bob Armstrong came into my shop last Tuesday - although it might have been Wednesday (it was one day last week anyway) - to inquire about insinuating a new handle in his ax. He said he wanted to start on his woodpile. ''Aha,'' quoth I in merry vein, ''an Armstrong starter!'' Probably Dick Strout is the only one in the store to join me in the tremendous hilarity of this; Bob is a younger man and saw nothing funny in an Armstrong starter. The Armstrong starter ceased with the 1917 Model T Ford; the 1918 version had a self-starter. Not just a starter, but a self-starter. The Armstrong starter was a crank, and after that the American public learned about the Bendix spring. Bob allowed my witticism to lie there on the floor and showed me his broken ax handle. ''How do you put in a new one?'' he asked.

''You don't,'' I said, ''and that has two meanings.''


''Eyah, in the first place, if you need to ask me how to do it, I'd better take over and do it for you. Then, again, nobody puts a handle to an ax - you hang it.''

''Hang it,'' said Bob.

''I shall. And whilst I do I'll lecture knowingly on several aspects of woodpile lore that the experts have ignored. They tell us that hickory logs will last the night when there isn't a stick of hickory to be had, and they say shed-cured red oak tends to soot more than apple and cherry, and they attend to all such nuggets of knowledge without one word on how to hang an ax. It's a wonder all the new-day energy buffs haven't lopped off both legs at the ankles.''

I explained to Robert (Robert is long for Bob) that when the choppers began to let daylight into the swamps of Maine, the ax at hand (pay attention, there!) was the European ax of the day - a fairly heavy tool with a rigid helve that wouldn't yield to the force of a stroke. The old axes didn't bounce. The ''chopper'' worked from kin to kaint six days a week, and the steady throb of his ax against the muscles of his forearms was not to be endured. Kin to kaint means from can-see to can't-see, dawn to dusk. So a lighter ax was called for, and the men began making their own handles to suit their particular strokes.

Working from a piece of seasoned wood - ash, maple,and hornbeam when handy - they would sit about the bunkhouse and cheat the evening by shaving the ''blanks'' with a crooked-knife. The words timberjack and lumberjack were never Maine words, and came into logging lingo after the emphasis moved west to Michigan and Wisconsin and beyond. Even when he used a saw, the man who harvested Maine lumber was a chopper - and he still is. His tool was the pole-ax , single bitted. After he had hung his handle and found the pole-ax to his liking, he would hone it in a long process until he could, indeed, shave with it. This was the chopping ax, used only to scarf and fell trees, and was hardly profaned by ''limbing out,'' or splitting. If a chopper was expected to ''knob-off'' limbs from a felled tree, he had another ax for that. And for splitting, axes came in full-wedge, half-wedge, and wedge - nobody would try to split wood with a chopping ax.

Then came the double-bitted ax. When Hollywood made its musical Heidi, the old Granddaddy in the Swiss Alps was shown splitting firewood with a double-bitted ax, quite some time before Snow & Neally invented the thing. The double-bitted ax had a real whippy handle. It was never a splitting ax; the second blade was a spare should the other get nicked. So I expanded my friend's knowledge of the ax, shaping the while so his new handle fitted closely into the ''eye.'' I drove home the wedge that binds, and I said, ''There, now get the hang of it.'' That's where that expression comes from. Given a new ax, the man takes a few swings to get the hang. The feel. Then he steps up to the job at hand and pits his brawn to prove the everlasting adage - cut your own wood and it'll warm ye twice.

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