Irresponsible axe owner of the day: Me

Axe injury

60 stitches and a scuff-mark on my cheek bone.

August 4th, 2013 is a day that changed my life.  It could have been the day that ended it. It was a fairly typical Sunday evening.  My family and I had spent the evening playing in the yard and pulling some weeds from the garden.  The kiddos, 4 and 2 at that point, had been a handful and I needed to clear my head for a couple of minutes.  I find splitting wood to be immensely cathartic, and asked for 15 minutes before coming in to help with baths.  I had about 3 pickup loads of oak in a long pile out by the shop, and I got to work.

I split about 6 or 8 logs, and stopped to move the resulting firewood to the pile.  After several trips, I though to myself, “Why am I carrying this the extra 20 feet to the pile, when I could start at the other end and only need to move 5 feet or so”. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that seemingly capricious decision would have disastrous consequences.

I propped up another log to use as an anvil.  I placed a log upon it, reared back, and began to swing my splitting axe down.  I recall a brief “this is not right” feeling before I was almost knocked from my feet by an unbelievable impact to my right cheek. Clapping my hand to my cheek, I could feel blood pouring from a large gash.

As it turned out, I had made a mistake by disregarding a rule I had learned way back in Scouts when it comes to setting up an axe yard.  I hadn’t taken the time to check my surroundings for clearance…in this case behind me in the path of my swing.

photo 1

Two anvil logs in their approximate position and the paracord line between the shop and the back porch.

Earlier in the summer I had strung a piece of suspension cord between the porch and the shop, with a tennis ball dangling from it for my daughter to practice batting.  My axe handle had caught the cord like an aircraft tailhook, stretched, and rebounded like a slingshot.  The heel of the axe smashed into my face a fraction of a second later.

photo 3

The handle of the axe caught the cord like an aircraft tailhook.

I hurriedly walked to the door and knocked and called for my wife.  Blood was pouring from between my fingers and splashing on the concrete step.  She asked if she needed to call 911 but I told her to grab a tea towel and ice bag and gather the kids into the car.  In the minute it took me to reach the door I had been able to determine that my vision was intact (albiet blurred with blood) and the pressure of my hand on my cheek told me that I probably hadn’t broken my skull.

I just kept saying “I’m sorry” and “Oh Shit” over and over as she loaded the kids in the car.  We only live a mile or so from the University of Tennessee Medical Center, and we headed to the ER.  She dropped me off at the ambulance bay while she went to park the car. I walked into the triage desk with the bloody towel over my face.

As luck would have it, the ER was not busy, and I was brought to an exam bed before Niki had even made it inside.  In a further stroke of luck, the Doctor on duty was actually a maxilo-facial surgeon, and thus was the perfect person to begin to repair my face. It was less than 20 minutes from the time I had hit myself to when I had an IV (with a wonderful painkiller) and the first stitches were started.

The laceration was completely to the bone.  In fact, the Dr. told me he could actually see a scuff mark on my cheekbone.  Mind you, this was the not very sharp edge of the heel of the axe.  If I had been using a double-bladed axe or if somehow the axe had spun and I had been struck by the bit, my skull would likely have been cleaved in two.  Needless to say, I wouldn’t be here to write about this experience 8 months later.

photo (13)

Day 2: It looked, and felt a whole lot worse.

When all was said and done, the wound required more than 60 stitches and had to be sewn up in 3 layers.  It got a whole lot more gruesome looking (and hurt a lot once the shock and dilauded wore off) over the coming days.  It took a couple of weeks before the swelling subsided, and a few more after that for the bruising to dissipate. Today the scar has shrunk to about 2.5 inches but remains fairly visible.  The only lingering effect is a bit of numbness on the lateral portion of my cheek, and I can feel the scar tissue (if I am trying to) when I smile or move my cheek.

photo (14)

Day 3: Probably the peak of the swelling.

I consider my injury to be the best bit of bad luck I have ever had.  By that I mean that not only did the injury not kill me (if my head had turned I could have hit my temple with the heel, and that could have been a fatal strike as well), I did not lose my eye, I did not smash my mouth or jaw, and there is no significant nerve damage.  If one is going to hit oneself in the head with an axe, I picked a pretty good place to do it.

photo (16)

My daughter’s pre-k classmates still ask what happened to my face.

I have probably split 100 cords of wood in my life.  I enjoy it.  Like shooting, it provides me with a seemingly paradoxical sense of relaxation and catharsis.  But it was exceptionally hard to get back up on the horse and finish splitting the pile.

It took me a couple of months before I was ready.  I approached the pile with a sense of dread.  I went back to my typical splitting spot, checked my surroundings this time, and prepared to split my first log in months.  I literally became nauseous as I raised the axe into the air. In the brief pause that occurs when the axe reaches its peak before slamming down, my stomach tightened into a knot.  The axe fell, the wood parted, and the bit buried itself in the anvil log.  I had done it.  I kept working, and while the nausea became bearable, it never completely subsided.  To this day it is still there, though it manifests itself more as a “check, re-check, and check again” compulsion, rather than outright fear.


If I had only remembered this simple lesson from my Scouting days…

I did invest in a hydraulic splitter to speed up the process going forward. I go through 3 cords or so of wood in a winter, there are always knotty, crotchy pieces that are physically impossible to split by hand, and frankly I am not that far from 40 years old and my back is not quite as stout as it used to be.  However, I have hand-split a couple of ricks since then, and I still grab the axe rather than drag out the slitter for times when I want to relax or only have a small pile of wood to split.

I don’t want to get all sappy or philosophical about the whole ordeal.  My wife says I have changed as a result of my accident.  I did rearrange my financial affairs a bit, I try to avoid parental frustration (to mixed success), and I try to sneak in an extra hug for the kids in particular- just in case.  Mostly I just notice that I have a harder time concentrating than I used to. I was really scrambled for a couple of months. I am quite certain I had a concussion, though it was never formally diagnosed.  Basically today, I have leveled off at a level of scatter-brainedness that is slightly higher than it was beforehand.

photo 2

It is not a fancy axe, but I have logged scores of hours with it. It didn’t hurt me…it is a tool with which I hurt myself.

I still love axes.  My Hultafors Bushcraft axe is as finely crafted of a tool as I own.  I just bought the axe sharpening jig for my Tormek system which I can’t wait to try out and write about.  I will shortly be starting to build up next year’s woodpile, and while much of the wood will be done with the hydraulic splitter, much will also be done by hand.

I can’t swing that axe in particular without remembering the accident.  But I understand that the axe did not hurt me.  The axe is a tool with which I hurt myself.  Big difference, but an important point that the hoplophobes ignore.   To assign intent to an inanimate object is the ultimate in logical fallacy. It is important not to be complacent – whether you are shooting a gun, swinging an axe, or even simply driving. I got complacent, and I paid the price.

Stay safe everyone.


  1. jwm says:

    Sounds like ptsd. It’s good to have not only respect, but a little fear. for objects that can maim and kill. Not mind numbing terror, but a little tingle that puts you on your guard.

    I used to split the firewood for my family. In WV we used wood and coal. Stuff was everywhere. I enlisted when I was 17. Came home on my first leave about a year later and dad and my uncle had a new log splitter.

    Asked the old man why we didn’t buy that years before. He just grinned and said he didn’t need it then. He had me.

    A lot of my splitting was done with a hammer and steel wedge setup. Hammer doubled for busting up large chunks of coal.

    1. My great-uncle used to have me run his splitter when I was a teenager. He would buy me something and I would work it off. That is how I got my first fly tying kit.

      I understand PTSD from a firefighter’s perspective. And God Bless those brave folks who have not been able to leave the sandbox completely behind. The psychological blips I am experiencing in front of a woodpile don’t warrant mention.

  2. David says:

    I’m thinking a scar contest would make for some good content.

  3. htom says:

    A gut-wrenching tale, well told. Thank you for writing and posting this, Mr. Aalders. It was close to fifty years ago that I had a fight with a bench saw. I still get a touch of the shakes when I turn one on (or any other such power tool.) I doubt I’ll ever really be over that. Like you, I was lucky. I kept all of my fingers, the one that was chewed still aches when the weather changes. Best wishes, sir.

    1. I have a Sawstop saw. Wouldn’t trade it for the world.

      My uncle, who has had work displayed in the back of Fine Woodworking magazine, lost the end of a finger to a kickback.

      He got one, and convinced me to do the same.
      Tremendous piece of mind.

    2. Sam says:

      I guess I’m glad that I already have a healthy fear of power saws and axes. Knives don’t bother me, yet. I had no fear of saws when I was a teenager, and was very proud of fearlessly using them. I’m probably lucky my career in construction was interrupted, or I probably would have learned a painful lesson (I was never STUPID with them, but I don’t feel I was reasonably prepared for the inevitable problems or mistakes). When I started using them again after ten years, I found myself very nervous around those spinning blades. I’ll use them, but I can never forget what that blade would do to me if I wasn’t very carefully constantly. To me, that’s a good mindset to use power tools in. Never forget the consequences of a momentary lapse, it’s never “just routine”. In fact, people ought to approach driving the same way, but they don’t (and neither do I, unfortunately). As for axes, I don’t know as they scare me, not like power saws do, but I am very conscious of the heavy, sharp object I’m flinging around, and all the potential ways I can maim myself with it. With knives at least you aren’t likely to do yourself serious harm barring tripping and falling on the blade (if you are using them as intended, anyway), but axes are another matter.
      Guns of course, everyone ought to treat with great and serious respect, but many don’t. And many find out the hard way that they should have, and that a moment of carelessness cost them a limb, or killed someone. But again, the very same is true of cars, and no-one seems to care, not even those who are shrillest about the death toll from guns.

  4. Duncan Idaho says:

    Jesus Christ, that must have hurt like hell. I think that if you handle weapons/tools long enough, you’ll eventually have one of those “come to Jesus” type moments.

    Once upon a time, I knocked myself in the face with a brand-new sabre. I was dicking around with it, didn’t have my contacts in my eyes, and I ended up planting the clipped point right between my eyes with considerable force. It left a small but deep cut, right to the bone. A centimeter to either side and I have no doubt that I would have lost one of my eyes.

    I had a new respect for all things edged after that. Glad to hear that you’re OK.

  5. GC says:

    Looking back it’s always amazing how fast these kinds of accidents happen. Last year while trimming a tall shrub with a machete, I whacked myself over the head pretty hard with the spine. After a trip to the ER, a lot of ridicule from my coworkers and being used as a safety moment at several office meetings, I now wear a hard hat any time I’m doing work in the yard that requires me to swing a tool overhead. It looks dorky but it’s a heck of a lot better than going through that again.

  6. I_Like_Pie says:

    As I mentioned in the earlier post….The short time between the Whack/flash and finally coming to the conclusion that you still have vision despite the blood is one of the most horrifying things you can experience.

    You immediately assume that your life is over.

    My experience was pulling a fence and the other side let loose -hitting me right in the eye socket. Man that is a scary. Thanks for sharing.
    Moral of the story – It only takes a split second of careless action to ruin your day.

    1. Sam says:

      I had my dog on a retractable leash one night, walking. She was wearing a cheap collar. She suddenly ran after something in the yard we were passing. Thinking instantly she was after a skunk (very commonly encountered while walking after dark around here), I braked the leash to bring her to a stop. This normally puts a great strain on the semi-elastic nylon leash line, and I absorb her momentum in my arms. In this case, the cheap metal ring on the collar wasn’t up to the strain, and it let go, releasing the metal leash clip. It was totally dark, and so I saw nothing until suddenly a sharp impact struck me right on my left cheek, right beside my nose and about an inch under my eye. It knocked my glasses off in the dark, and it felt like i had broken my cheekbone or my nose. It instantly began to bleed from a cut on my cheek. I have no idea what the dog was even jumping at, maybe just a smell, and her sudden motion startled me, but she didn’t take off, luckily, so I groped for her collar and took my belt off (I think I remember that) and used that to bring her home, which was luckily nearby. It took me a while to find my glasses, since I’m all but blind without them it seems like. To this day I’m not sure if the glasses saved my eye and the rim of the glasses cut my cheek, or the metal leash clip struck my cheek and also knocked the glasses off. But that’s why they include those safety restraining straps with those leashes. And that’s why it’s important to buy decent collars when you’ve got an 85 lb dog.

  7. Tom in Oregon says:

    My gut hurts just looking at those photos.

  8. billdeserthills says:

    If scars build character You should be quite the character by now

  9. Bill says:

    Wow, that’s a very good visual warning on always following the safety rules we learned in scouts. I know it sucked and probably still sucks, but your scar is very cool looking, all things aside. I have a scar from scoping myself with a 30-06, it sucked, went to the bone and needed 5 stitches, but now I look at it and it reminds me of a very valuable lesson, plus it looks tough 😉

  10. Roy says:

    I dunno, half inch up and to the left and you would have had an excuse to wear a pretty bitchin’ eye patch.
    That said, as a youngster I ran my hand through a bandsaw. Nearly lost a finger in the process. Even now I get a couple butterflies in the stomach when I first turn that saw on.

  11. bo tudela says:

    I met someone at my town dump – people dump wood there – splitting wood. He heats with a wood burning stove. He had a very similar story. Caught the ax on a clothes line. Knocked himself cold and pealed back a big chunk of scalp that had to be sowed up. Perhaps he got it worse then you.

  12. Daniel Fraser says:

    Buddy get yourself checked for ptsd. It is real and not just for military. It can be a bugger down the road just ask your dr about it.

  13. Roo Bar says:

    I was removing the concrete footings of a long gone chaff cutter one day, digging around each one with a crowbar till I could work it out of the ground. Moved to a new one, hoisted up the crowbar and speared it into the ground as hard as I could. There was an 18″ long bolt, 3/8″ thick, complete with the nut still threaded on the end, lying in the dirt by the concrete, and completely invisible. The bar caught it right on the end and it flew, spinning and ringing aloud, about thirty yards, and just flicked the top of my right ear as it passed my head.
    Ever since I have a good scratch around before I break ground. Anything that applies force can get you.

  14. Bernard says:

    Exodus 35:2 “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.”

    1. Samuel says:

      What, are you suggesting that God was punishing him for working on the Sabbath? First, he said he was doing it because he enjoys doing it, which makes it pleasure, not work. Second, if God went around killing and maiming everyone who worked on Sundays, there would be a lot of killing and maiming going on which isn’t happening. Why would he punish some and not others? What about the ones who cut their fingers off using a power saw on Tuesday? Third, that commandment applies to SATURDAY, not Sunday. Ask any Jewish person, they will tell you that the Sabbath is a Saturday, and always has been. For some reason the early Christian church decided to start holding it on Sunday, to be different. But God didn’t say “just so long as you don’t work one day out of seven, that’s fine”, he said “This is The Sabbath”, and I don’t see how it was meant to be optional which day we held it on.
      Anyway, God isn’t so likely to punish transgressors in this world than the next, and when they wrote “the punishment is Death” they either meant that they would personally execute anyone who they caught working on the Sabbath Day, or they meant spiritual death…i.e. you loose your chance of heaven.

  15. Dennis says:

    Did the same stupid thing. Brought some wood to my sister-in-laws and was going to split it there with my maul. Grabbed the clothes line and knocked myself on my butt when the flat end of the maul hit me in the forehead. I was also lucky in that a very accomplished plastic surgeon was at the hospital and as a result almost no scar.

    1. Nice to know I am not alone…

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Irresponsible axe owner of the day: Me

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