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Three old books for the woodsman and his axe

A couple years ago Amy gave me an American Felling Axe from Best Made Co, of NYC for Christmas. This axe was a peculiar gift at the time. I had never hinted at wanting one, neither had I any immediate need for it. However, as I unwrapped it and saw it’s raw steel head and polished hickory handle, I felt no shortage of happiness. There was something about it that connected with me on some primordial level. What a unique and pleasant gift it was. The craftsmanship was superb. The steel is drop-forged 5160 American Steel made in North Carolina, and the handle is pure Appalachian hickory with a design that is most comfortable. It’s just a sheer pleasure to hold this thing. I spent a few of my early teen years growing up in the mountains of Montana and we used to have to go into the wilderness all summer to gather wood for the wood stove during winter. I haven’t swung an axe since then, but this took me back to the smells of the truck, the chainsaw, and the mountain air. I really could have used this thing back then, as the Best Made axe chops and splits better than anything I used in those days.

Inspired by all the time I spent in the White Mountain National Forest this year enjoying its rich natural history and cultural heritage, I became interested in reading about how they used to do it in the old days. How did people wander around the wilderness before North Face, Sea-to-Summit, DEET and portable water filters to protect them from giardia? I found 3 books, all relatively short reads that proved pretty insightful and entertaining. I learned more than a few helpful tricks, especially in regards to making campfires, building shelters and using my axe.

Woodcraft and Camping by Nessmuk

Woodcraft and Camping book cover

“Nessmuk” was the pen name for George W. Sears, an wilderness adventurer, canoeist, and writer for Field and Stream in the late 19th century. He wrote this defining work on the subject of woodcraft in 1884, covering a wide range of wilderness topics including, but not limited to, outdoor gear, trekking, camping, fishing, campfire cooking, and canoeing. I must say of the three books, this one would be of most value to the modern reader.

From this book I gained invaluable insight on structuring a campfire that I’ve put to good use at official campsites and in the backcountry. Also the tips he gives on campfire cooking are pretty good. However, the book is so much more than a old field guide and paints a pretty picture about what life was like for outdoorsmen before urban sprawl and the development of the infrastructure we see today in our national forests. I found it to be fascinating and enriching, especially his chapter detailing an epic bushwack through the Michigan wilderness. You can read this book on just one snowy day, I highly recommend it.

Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties by D. C Beard

Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties cover

Published in 1920, this book is of interest to woodsmen, survivalists, or youngins just looking to build some kind of play house. Written by Daniel Carter Beard, an engineer turned professional illustrator and writer, the book is as much of a history of hand made domiciles in America as it is a DIY construction manual. Beard was also very active in teaching children the art of woodcraft and contributed many articles to a Woman’s Magazine providing mothers out there blueprints and instructions for activities by which to keep their children busy. In 1910, he merged his own youth wilderness association with the Boy Scouts when it was founded that same year.

As a result we have a book full of building designs and careful instructions that is wonderfully illustrated yet incredibly simple to understand so that everyone, no matter what age, could build them. Most of the shelter, shacks, and shanties that populate the book are similar in design, but they’re worth reading as he gives many different types of building tips whether its working with wood poles, mud, bark, browse, thatching, sod, milled lumber, or stone which could be useful knowledge to have when building something custom. Some of the knowledge included is rare, or at least rare in terms of nobody’s ever taught me how to do it. For instance, I can say I now understand how to make a thatched roof, a proper fireplace of stone, clay, brick, or wood, and even how to build a totem pole. You also gain insight on the skills required to accomplish some of these designs with great tips on how to use an axe, a simple method of squaring without a proper square, moving logs, and setting up your workspace.

The book really takes off when you’ve graduated from shelter, shack, and shanty making and move into building and furnishing full on log cabins. That’s where the real juice is. Now when I see a cabin, I can recognize the design, region it’s from, and how it was most likely built. I appreciate that the writing also increased in sophistication by the time you are learning to build cabins, knowing that you are definitely an adult if you are still reading. There’s even a section where he teaches you the French names for all the parts of a log cabin which is great if you are a French Canadian Trapper at heart. All in all, I can say this book is no simple Boy Scout manual, but instead a professional work on the subject of building shelters.

Little Book of Log Cabins by William S. Wicks

Little Book of Log Cabins cover

If you make through both Woodcraft and Camping and Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties, and your axe is still sharp you could follow them up with the Little Book of Log Cabins written by William S. Wicks in 1899. Wicks was a well known architect in Buffalo, NY who was woodsman at heart and had a devout connection to the Adirondacks. At the turn of the 20th century he built numerous cabins, lodges, or camps for the Adirondack League Club who still maintains a wild forest preserve in that region.

The book is a short read, but expands on some of the more advanced concepts illustrated by D.C. Beard in Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties. I enjoyed it because it covered a great deal more about how the interiors were made in these old cabins. As a bonus there are 44 plates with designs and floor plans for various log cabin designs that are made to inspire your own creations. What I like about this book is that it takes a more conceptual approach to log cabin building and encourages you to design your own in harmony with whatever location you might choose.

Historically and culturally, the Little Book of Log Cabins lies between Woodcraft and Camping and Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties; together they make a great trilogy. In the end, after these three books, if you never thought you could build a log cabin, you certainly will change your mind about that. Personally, I suppose I always envisioned building a log cabin with your own two hands was something more of a romantic vision, than a realistic pursuit. However, now every time I look at my felling axe, I think I might be able to pull it off. Only the future will tell, but the gears are definitely turning.


Woodcraft and Camping on Project Gutenberg
Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties on Project Gutenberg

Woodcraft and Camping at Dover Publications
Shelters, Shacks, and Shanties at Dover Publications
Little Book of Log Cabins at Dover Publications

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