Hilltown Axe Camp: Learning a New Skill Outdoors and Having Fun!

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Participants learned valuable skills during Axe Camp. - All images in this blog: Copyright Sarah B. Gilliam

Hilltown Axe Camp: Learning a New Skill Outdoors and Having Fun!

Have you ever heard of an Axe Camp? When I first heard the name, it intrigued me. Axe Camp is Patrick Gilliam’s brainchild, an expression of his genuine passion for axes and making firewood, pursuits he has enjoyed since his youth as he grew up on a farm.

After Patrick married his wife Sarah, who was raised on a horse farm, the couple moved away, but recently they decided to return with their children to a more simple lifestyle. They ended up buying an 11-1/2-acre farm in the heart of Tennessee, outside of Santa Fe and about an hour south of Nashville.


Patrick Gilliam shares his passion for axes with the campers.

The Gilliams are enjoying country life. They built a small house that they are heating with wood as a move toward simpler living.  As part of their new lifestyle, Patrick and Sarah have decided to share some their ideas and activities through their new brand, “Hilltown.” A photographer for many years, Sarah now enjoys teaching photography classes. She also operates a small flower stand in their hometown and has started keeping bees and plans to sell honey. 

As they became more excited about what they are doing, the Gilliams started thinking about offering lifestyle-type classes and workshops to the public to share their passions. That’s when Patrick came up with the Axe Camp idea. He works as a Geographic Information Systems Engineer at a power utility company, but he can’t wait until he’s out cutting wood.

“I grew up on a farm and cut firewood,” said Patrick. “I’ve been around axes and these types of tools since I was a teenager.”

There’s nothing like hands on experience.

An Outdoor Learning Experience

The idea behind Axe Camp was to give people an opportunity to learn something new, expand their skills and have some great fellowship. The camp is geared towards the urban guy or gal that works at a desk, didn’t grow up on a farm, and has little or no experience with axes and cutting wood. It’s a good experience to release some of the built-up office tension.

Patrick had 12 campers, including one woman, in his first Axe Camp in October. Most were local residents, but one couple drove about an hour to the campsite. Campers came from all walks of life: a professional fiddle player, a lawyer, some from the tech industry, a construction worker, and service people.

Axe Camp began with campers introducing themselves as they enjoyed locally cured country ham and biscuits, along with Sarah’s honey, and drank coffee provided by a local roaster in town.  Next, Patrick introduced the campers to axes, explaining basic safety, the dos and don’ts of axe use, and facts he has learned through research and experience.


Patrick Gilliam instructs Axe Camp participants.

All You Need to Know About an Axe

“On the outside looking in, the axe is pretty simple,” commented Patrick. “You swing it at the tree, and you either bring it down or knock the wood into pieces.”

However, Patrick said there is so much more to learn, from who makes axes and how they make them to the different styles that range from the hatchet all the way up to a splitting maul or broad axe and what axes are used for.

“I wanted to show them how the different ways of using an axe can be useful, whether it’s for heating your house with wood, taking your family camping or just enjoying your backyard fire pit,” explained Patrick. “I also taught them how to build a fire.”

Campers learned how to split with mauls and axes, how to make kindling, and even had the opportunity to chop down some invasive species trees and learn to limb them the proper way. Patrick also covered axe safety, maintenance and how to safely split and stack wood.


Just a few of Patrick’s collection of axes and hatchets.

Axes from Around the World

The campers got to see Patrick’s collection of about 30 different styles of axes from countries around the world, including Japan, Latvia, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, and the US.

One of Patrick’s axes – a Japanese Carpenter’s Axe – was donated by Japan Woodworker for his camp. It is similar to a western broad axe and is designed to hew round logs into square beams. It can also be held in your hand close to the axe head, a technique often used for carving. Because the Axe Camp is geared more toward forestry, Patrick used the Carpenter’s Axe primarily to demonstrate notching and hewing to the campers.

Patrick loves Japanese tools and said the Carpenter’s Axe is well made. He’s planning a couple of timber frame buildings for the farm and said the Japanese Carpenter’s Axe will come in handy.

After all the axes were swung for the day, Axe Camp concluded with campers cooking a meal using local ingredients on an open fire they built – a great way to top the day.

The day concluded with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire.

Success and What’s Next

Patrick said that when he first came up with the Axe Camp idea, he was excited, but then wondered if anyone would want to do it.

“I’ve come to find out that there are a lot of people who crave to get outside for a day and get away from their desk or the city,” said Patrick. “There’s something to learn and an excuse to sweat for an objective and not in the gym. We’re going to keep doing them!” 

He said there’s been an interest in doing some Axe Camps as company “team building” outings.

Patrick also offers dendrology classes where he treks with groups over his land to identify the 40+ different types of trees at Hilltown. It’s a two-part series. In January, participants hike the woods and identify trees by bark and shape, and in the spring another walk focuses on identifying trees by leaves and buds. These are great classes for adults, children and groups such as Girl Scouts.

Making kindling and splitting wood are valuable skills to have.


Patrick’s possible future plans include a sawmill class or event with a portable sawmill and maybe an axe throwing class as well.

Eventually, he wants to build a woodshop and build things using mostly hand tools – humble and basic well-made products that he can sell online or to local retailers.

Patrick has made some furniture in the past and would like to do more. He recently built his kitchen table out of 200-year-old Beech wood and a bar out of some Walnut and Poplar.

“My favorite is to knock together some rustic cutting boards for friends and family,” Patrick said. “I like getting out a piece of sawmill wood, putting it on a bench and planing it smooth, cutting the ends off and putting some oil on it. I also like green woodcarving, like carving out spoons and bowls. I love doing that out by the campfire.”

If you’re up to getting away from your desk, getting outside and learning about axes and firewood, eating delicious food, having a great time and you’re near Tennessee, you might want to check into Hilltown’s Axe Camp. To learn more about Hilltown and what it has to offer, visit hilltowntn.com.

Axe Camp ... a good time, good food and new skills learned.


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