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Hand Tools – Building Without Power

A Log Cabin Built by One Man Alone in the Wilderness

Hand Tools – Building Without Power
What can you do if the power goes out and your fuel runs out? The author built this log cabin alone using only hand tools in 2017.

In the event of a SHTF situation, one measure of my self reliance is how long can I persist without the need to restock supplies, including tools and equipment and the fuel, spare parts, batteries and power generators required to operate them. Fossil fuels have a limited shelf life, are costly, and will be more expensive and limited in supply in the event of a catastrophe. In the case of renewable energy, the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t consistently blow and batteries and generators fail. Basically, there are natural limits to virtually all forms of power technologies and I do not want their failure to leave me helpless.

I am not suggesting that we abandon modern technology immediately without cause or reason, but I am suggesting that we prepare for the limitations of modernity in favor of simplicity and dependability. It is perfectly fine to use a chainsaw to build a log cabin in the remote wilderness, the ultimate bug-out camp in my opinion, but when that chainsaw fails or gas and oil are unavailable, knowing how to use an axe, handsaw and other primitive tools means the difference between slowly freezing to death in a cold winter snowstorm or sitting inside around a hot fire with a loved one, whittling another spoon or sharpening a tool to pass the time. Those tried and true hand tools of the past may be a lifesaver, or in the least, will make you more self-reliant than one who knows only how to push a button or yank a pull cord.

Essential Tools

The list of time-tested tools is endless so how do you prioritize which ones to acquire first? Budget, intended use, availability, environment, space, lifestyle, culture and other factors will impact your decisions, but start by addressing the four basic principles of survival – shelter, water, fire and food. Once you own the tools considered essential to provide these necessities of life, you will find two things

  1. Many of the tools are multi-functional (another survival principle), such as an axe which can address all four principles.
  2. You will be endlessly tempted to buy more tools. Bigger, stronger, faster, single-purposed and, of course, more expensive and demanding of your time and attention.

When I set out to build a log cabin alone and without gas or electricity, I was not sure exactly what tools I would need for each and every step. There were some obvious ones needed to get started, an axe for example. An axe is quite possibly the single most useful tool ever invented by man.

Hand Tools
The interior of the cabin was handcrafted without power tools by the author and was completed summer 2018.

With a good axe a person can build a shelter, harvest ice and water from a frozen lake, chop firewood, kill an animal for food or protection and, perhaps most importantly, craft any number of other useful tools out of wood, from mallets to animal traps to windmills. Axes are one of the few tools that have not been displaced by modern technology. A chainsaw can cut a tree down more efficiently but it cannot effectively match the ability of an axe to split wood, process fish and game or carve smaller wood pieces for example.

Due to its usefulness, buy the best axe you can find and treat it well. In fact, buy more than one. You will find that while one general-purpose axe is handy, two or more specialty axes are a dream in form and function. You will find great pleasure in using them. I have many, but there are three that I find particularly useful. The first is a felling axe for cutting down trees. Felling axes generally have a 28 to 36-inch handle and a sharp, relatively thin 2 ½-pound head that bites deeply into green wood. While it excels at harvesting trees, it is cumbersome for limbing (removing branches), finer wood processing and wood splitting. That being said, if I could only own one axe, this would be it.

The second most useful axe is a Hudson’s Bay axe or a hatchet. A Hudson’s Bay axe, known by many other names such as a forest axe, is shorter and lighter, usually with a 2-pound head and a 22-28-inch handle. A hatchet is a smaller version yet, but similar in form and function. I use a forest axe and a hatchet for felling smaller trees, removing limbs, splitting small firewood, woodcarving, notching corners on the log cabin and processing game animals.

Another very useful axe is a splitting maul. It has no other purpose than splitting firewood. However, it excels at that task so much that to process any great amount of firewood without it is foolhardy. Felling axes, or any axe for that matter, can be used for splitting wood, but they just are not thick enough to do it efficiently. Wedges can also be used, but why introduce another tool, especially one so prone to escape, hiding as it does amongst the shavings and forest detritus when you need it the most.

Other axe designs are practical, such as the several hewing axes and hatchets that I own for squaring timbers. Traditional American log home were more often fashioned from squared timber rather than round logs. However, unless you have a specific project for them, stick to the three formerly mentioned axes and spend your hard-earned money on some other tools on the list.

Hand Tools
Early American log homes were built with a few simple hand tools, primarily an assortment of axes and saws.

If an axe is the most useful tool ever invented, then the knife is second and it would be easy to argue that the inverse is true. Knives can be used to build shelters, process wood, start fires, harvest food, craft containers to collect and sterilize water and an endless list of other critical and not so critical tasks. It is a finer tool for finer work, and at that it excels. A knife always hangs on my belt, and due to this, a knife is often used where another tool such as an axe may have been a wiser choice. For that reason, it pays to have a very high quality, full-tang, fixed blade knife of at least 8 inches in length. Often, I use it to split and carve wood, such as the hardwood dowels I used to hang floating shelves throughout the cabin, pegging them directly to the log walls in holes drilled with a brace and bit.

To many what I am about to say is sacrilege; I would give up my knife in exchange for a good handsaw (as long as I get to keep my axe). Handsaws are so useful that dozens of power versions have been designed to replace them, including chainsaws, reciprocating saws, jigsaws, band saws and more. It is a good thing too, because there are limitless motivations to saw wood into desired shapes, but it is one of the most physically exhausting chores I have ever done! That being said, I enjoy it.

Power tools take the joy out of woodworking. Power saws in particular are loud and obscene. I appreciate the effectiveness of a chainsaw, the efficiency of a table saw and the convenience of a circular saw. But, given the choice (when I have time and energy), give me three handsaws – a crosscut saw, a ripsaw and a bow saw. The cross-cut saw is used for cutting across the grain on dimensional lumber and softwoods, the rip saw is used for cutting lengthways along the grain and the bow-saw is used for cutting logs to length for firewood and construction materials. Do not underestimate how specific each of these saws is at performing its intended function though. It is very frustrating to use a crosscut saw to rip a board for example.


Hand Tools
Steel chisels and gouges are used for notching corners in the log cabin, timber-frame joinery and finish carpentry.

Several tools are required, in addition to the above mentioned axes, saws and knives to build a log cabin. Here is what I use in their order of importance:

  1. Tape measure: Besides a knife, a tape measure lives on my belt when I am building a cabin. Measure twice, cut once.
  2. Mallet: I carve hardwood mallets in the size and weight required as I go. I use them to pound in wedges, split logs and to hit the butt end of gouges and chisels while carving out notches and other wood joints. When one fails, I make another.
  3. Chisels, gouges: Chisels and curved woodcarving gouges are for precision woodcuts where a saw or axe is not sufficiently accurate. A set of bench chisels, sizes ½ to 1 ½ inches and a log notch gouge are extremely useful.
  4. Draw knife: I use a draw knife for removing bark from logs and to shave wood into shapes more accurately than I can with an axe.
  5. Log dogs: A simple U-shaped iron rod with points on either end, it’s hammered into two round logs to keep them from rolling while carving notches or hewing the logs into square edge timber.
  6. Level: It is difficult to keep log cabins level due to the nature of the logs; they taper so the butt is larger in diameter than the top end. As a result, it’s important to alternate the logs in each course, using a level to maintain as level and plumb a top course as possible.
  7. Hammers: I primarily use two hammers; one 20 ounce framing hammer to drive nails and a heavy sledgehammer to drive 8 to 12-inch spikes.
  8. Log scribe: A log scribe is a large set of dividers used to mark out the contours of the log prior to cutting the saddle notches that lock the two perpendicular logs together.
  9. Planers: I like the look of rough-cut and live-edge lumber, but there are many applications that require straight, clean wood and hand planers are excellent at creating this. I use several of varying widths and lengths.
  10. Hand drills and augers: Power drills and screw-guns are two of the most useful tools on any job site, but a good quality brace with a set of drive-bits, drill bits and a few large hand augers easily replace them. I use the brace to drive Robertson screws and drill holes up to 1 ½ inches with spade bits. The augers are used to drill holes up to 3 inches in diameter and up to 18 inches deep.
Hand Tools
A drawknife and leather gloves are invaluable for carving tenons on the leg of a chair and other furniture.

Care and Maintenance

Perhaps this should have been said earlier, but now is as good a time as any. Do not acquire a single hand tool until you have bought the best sharpeners you can afford! Chances are, half of the tools you own now, or will procure in the future, will be in dire need of care and maintenance. It doesn’t matter if it is brand new or 100 years old. Many new tools, for example, are too blunt right off the shelf to be useful. This is primarily to cut production costs and secondarily because retailers cannot risk unwary customers cutting themselves while handling the merchandise. Axes for example, especially cheaper ones purchased from a national hardware store, are blunt and only good for casual use. They can still be valuable; they just have to be filed down to a thinner profile so they bite into the wood more efficiently. In this case, money can be saved on the initial purchase of an axe as long as you invest some of the savings into a good axe file and sharpening stone.

Sharpening: Grinding, Honing and Polishing

There are three important steps required to properly sharpen blades, including axes, knives, chisels or planes: grinding, honing and polishing. Before I get into the specifics, the best advice I can give is this: keep your angle precisely the same with every stroke and create a burr that you can feel on the opposing side every time before you flip the blade over to grind or hone the other side. For example, if you are grinding a 20-degree bevel on side A, keep at it until you feel a slight burr all down the edge of the blade on side B. Do not stop until the burr is formed along the entire length of the blade. Once it is, flip the blade over and repeat the process with the same stone. When the burr is back on side A, switch to a finer stone and repeat until you finish the final edge using a leather strop. What stones should you use and what is a leather strop?

Hand Tools
A hand planer smooths and levels the surface of rough sawn lumber.

A basic rule when sharpening any blade is to start coarse and end fine. The end goal is a blade that is as smooth and free of scratches and striations as possible with a mirror finish. A 220 to 800 grit stone may be sufficient for the initial grinding, but when it comes to a poorly designed or badly abused tool, a file is your best friend. In my experience, many people fail at sharpening blades because the initial angle is not uniform, and if it is not, it will take hours to reshape it with an insufficiently coarse stone or file.

If you are inclined to use a grinding wheel, power or manual, keep it slow so that it doesn’t overheat the blade and cause it to lose its temper (hardness). Make sure you stay laser focused, one bad move can create a micro bevel along the edge. If this happens you will have to grind down the entire bevel to straighten it back out, to make it true. Once you have confirmed that the bevel is flat and consistent, repeat the steps cited above starting with the coarsest stone and working down to the finest. A good starter set would consist of a 220-grit water or oilstone, a 1000 grit stone and a 4000 or 6000 grit stone.

When the final burr feels like it has been removed by a light pass of the finest stone, use a leather strop to polish the blade. Use an equal number of strokes on each side, being careful to maintain the exact angle of the bevel. Following this procedure will leave you with razor sharp tools. Be careful. Seriously. Using this method, even your heavy, thick axe will be shaving sharp!

Hand Tools
A set of files, stones and leather strops is essential to keep hand tools razor sharp.

A good habit to get into is to clean and oil your tools every time you use them. In humid environments, including unheated buildings and anywhere outside, steel will rust and wood will rot. Clean your blades with a solvent if necessary to remove sap and apply a thin coating of oil or paste wax. Not only will it prevent rust, it will permit the blade to pass through the material with less friction, particularly when cutting resinous wood such as pine. Do the same for wood handles. A regular application of linseed oil will make them last almost forever. Once the tools are clean and oiled, place them back in their sheath or other protective case. It has been said, if your blade is not in its sheath, it should in your hand, and if it is not in your hand, it should be in its sheath. This practice will help prevent injury as well as minimize damage to your tools.

Why Hand Tools?

Hand Tools
The author and some of the tools he used on this project. Basic hand tools combined with knowledge will aid you through the hard times.

In the event of a SHTF situation you have to ask yourself, how long can you sustain a meaningful, productive and secure way of life for you and your family? Reducing your dependency on power equipment and particularly, fossil fuels, will inherently decrease your exposure to the risks associated with scarce resources and social unrest. Learning traditional construction techniques and becoming proficient with hand tools on top of everything else you do to be prepared may change your answer to; indefinitely.

Hand Tools
This 300 square foot log cabin is proof that one man with little or no experience can build a comfortable home with hand tools.

Shawn James is an outdoorsman from Ontario Canada who is passionate about self-reliance, wilderness living, canoeing, hunting and fishing. Connect with him on his website,, and on social media at and


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