I’ve started Gene Wolfe’s Peace (recommended by Christopher Culver in this thread), and on the very first page he used a phrase unfamiliar to me: “I took the cruiser ax and went out…” (It’s not at all unusual to have to look things up when reading Wolfe; he has an extensive vocabulary and is not reluctant to deploy it.) There is definitely such a thing (here’s one for sale: “2 1/2 lb. Double bit axe head 28″ Hickory handle. Overall length approximately 28″. Weight 3.63 lbs.”), but it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries, and I wanted to know where the name came from. Google Books told me it was sometimes called a cruiser’s ax (“And don’t forget to bring a light ax—a cruiser’s ax. Where you’re going, you could freeze to death without an ax and matches”—John Dalmas, The Reality Matrix, 1986), but that didn’t help much, since no definition of “cruiser” seemed appropriate… until I heaved my ancient and well-used Webster’s Third New International up from its honored place on my dictionary shelf and found definition 4a, “one who estimates the volume and value of marketable timber on a tract of land and maps it out for logging.” I’d still be interested to know exactly why and how that particular job description got matched with that particular ax, but the general idea is clear, and I am satisfied.


  1. If I may make a wild-ass guess: maybe a cruiser would use his (or her) axe to make markings/notches on trees (e.g., to mark the edge of the area to be felled)?

  2. Ran’s guess sounds good. A cruiser would only need to be able to blaze trees to mark them for felling (or to delineate boundaries), and to cut up firewood for his own use. He wouldn’t need a heavy felling axe.

  3. Makes sense to me.

  4. I agree with the speculation. I’m more interested in why that person is called a cruiser.

  5. My father worked briefly for the Forest Service in the late 50s and talked about ‘cruising timber’. I don’t know precisely what that entailed. He also had humorous stories about trying to learn to ride a horse by reading a manual. He said a mean horse taught him much more than the book.

  6. John Emerson says

    Once when I was camping I met a retired timber cruiser. He said that in the old days he’d be out in the woods for weeks at a time and quickly got tired of it.

  7. I see the OED says “cruiser” is also used for footwear: “A long-legged boot such as timber-cruisers often wear. U.S.
    1902 S. E. White Blazed Trail xvii. 125 Dressed in broad hats, flannel shirts, coarse trousers tucked in high-laced ‘cruisers’.
    1946 Sat. Evening Post 11 May 41/1 He was wearing Tillamook light cruisers.”
    I was going to suggest that if a “cruiser” was a light axe, it might have something to do with the sense of “cruiser” as a naval ship smaller than a battleship but larger than a destroyer, which itself looks to have been transferred to boxing, where “cruiserweight” means “light heavyweight”, but clearly it comes from “cruiser”, “A peculiar class of people variously known as woodsmen, cruisers, landlookers, whose business it is to give information as to the existence of pine timber, its location, amount, value.” (OED again, from 1900). I’d guess if you’re “cruising” on foot through the woods, you’d want a lighter axe rather than a big, heavy one.

  8. The log of a timber cruiser, from the early days of USFS, at
    “An axeman was needed to.. blaze the line, set stations for cruisers and cut out brush or small trees when this was necessary to give Wallace a better sight on the stadia.”
    So a small double-headed axe would be the right tool. Blazes now of course are done by spraypaint, but the brush-clearing aspect would still be useful. See also yesteryears’ tools which lists more kinds of axes than I knew existed, including
    “blazer’s axe: a small double bit axe used for marking trees while engaged in determining a route or path.”
    which suggests the original cruiser’s axe was double-bitted for the blazing function. Recent timber cruisers say they used a “boy’s axe“, or a single-bit axe of much the same size and weight as the cruiser, possibly because the blazing cuts are no longer needed.
    I just love rambling about the internets..

  9. Thanks, Doug K, that yesteryears’ tools site is as distracting as any dictionary ought to be, and foresters seem to be an unusually articulate and poetic bunch. For example:
    barber’s chair: a slang term used to describe the sliver or elongated section of rough wood that is pulled from the inner portion of the trunk as the tree falls over.
    fawn foot: the end of an axe and/or hatchet handle shaped in a form representative of a deer’s foot. (also: fawn paw, deer foot, end knob, swell knob)
    log dog: 1. a heavy staple-like holding device made of forged metal with tapered ends bent at right angles to the main shaft. They are driven into logs to hold them from shifting while one or more of the logs is being scribed, squared notched or otherwise worked on.
    There are lots & lots more. I was also interested to learn Norway iron: high quality iron obtained from Norway during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and used in the manufacture of more highly refined goods.

  10. By the way does anyone still say “ax” for ask? I haven’t heard anyone complain about it for years now. I suspect it was all done to tease the middle class.

  11. the original cruiser’s axe was double-bitted for the blazing function.
    So why do you need a double-bitted ax to cut blaze marks?
       –Ignorant in Hadley

  12. Obviously you never need a double-bitted ax for anything; it’s a question of whether it makes the job more convenient. The obvious advantage of a double-bitted ax is that you don’t have to sharpen it as often, which matters when you are cutting blazes in hundreds of trees.
    It’s usual in other contexts to keep one blade pristine and use it for normal work, and use the other blade for things like knot splitting and root chopping, which inevitably produce nicks in the blade.

  13. Ah!
       –Enlightened in Hadley

  14. I learned that term recently, and the usage for timber scouting is what I found. It seems to be a popular item for camping, and I originally thought it was a reference to canoeing.
    Google n-grams shows “timber cruiser” first appearing in volume at the beginning of the 20th century when North American forests were being clearcut. It’s apparently a highly technical job marking out plots and measuring tree heights and diameters, and applying various sampling and extrapolation techniques. My guess is that “cruising” may refer to blazing boundary lines or making cross-sectional surveys along lines.

  15. The double bit is a puzzle in itself, but it may relate to using the two bits for different things, such as a rough side and a sharp side. A utility axe would be used for more different tasks than a single-bitted felling axe, for example.

  16. How come you people are such axe experts? I thought you all lived in cities, except for Language, which makes your interest a bit worrying.

  17. Axmann: Summer camp in my case, brought up to date with a bit of Wikipedia and other online pages.

  18. Trond Engen says


  19. AJP Mad-As-Hell, here in Washington, DC, some local politicians (not to be confused with the various non-local scoundrels the rest of the country sends here) practice code-switching between “ax” and “ask” depending on their audience. “Ax” is common in African-American English.

  20. “Ax” is common in African-American English.
    I’m glad to hear it’s still going.

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