Abraham Lincoln? W. H. Alexander? Wood Cutter? Lumberjack? Woodsman? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Rigorous preparation is the key to success for many endeavors. There is a popular saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln about planning and executing tasks. Here are three versions:
If I had four hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first two hours sharpening the axe
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
If I had 8 hours to chop down a tree, I would spend 6 of those hours sharpening my axe.
I thought trees usually required considerably less time to chop down. Also, the wide variation in the number of hours does not inspire confidence in the accuracy of these expressions. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln who died in 1865 made a remark of this type.
The earliest match known to QI occurred in a 1944 speech by Reverend W. H. Alexander who was the pastor of the First Christian Church of Oklahoma City. Alexander was discussing the importance of preparation. He ascribed the saying to an anonymous lumberjack. In addition, the cutting task was measured in minutes and not hours. Boldface has been added to excerpts by QI:1
On preparation he urged his hearers to study and prepare themselves, relating the instance of the lumberjack who said that if his life depended upon his ability to cut down a tree in five minutes he would spend three minutes sharpening his axe.
The first ascription to Lincoln found by QI was printed in 1960. The details are given further below. This 1960 citation also used minutes to measure time, and QI believes that instances using hours evolved from the sayings based on shorter time periods.
This exploration was performed with the help of researchers Barry Popik, Peter Reitan, and Bonnie Taylor-Blake.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Guidance emphasizing the desirability of sharpening an axe has a very long history. In 1856 a sermon titled “The Dull Axe” was published in a periodical of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A.:2
The text presents to the wood cutter the alternative either to spend time in sharpening his axe, or expend his strength in using a dull one. Which shall he do? Wisdom is profitable to direct.
In 1901 an adage about the value of sharpening an axe was printed in “The Times and Young Men” by Josiah Strong:3
He will see that the necessary time spent in preparation for his life-work is better spent than as if he had rushed into it ill prepared. Time spent in sharpening the axe may well be spared from swinging it.
In 1944 Reverend W. H. Alexander employed the saying as mentioned previously in this article:
… the lumberjack who said that if his life depended upon his ability to cut down a tree in five minutes he would spend three minutes sharpening his axe.
Reverend Alexander employed the saying again in 1945 during a speech to students at Southwest Missouri State College in Springfield, Missouri. He ascribed the saying to an anonymous wood cutter:4
… a very fast wood cutter was once asked what he would do if he were told he had only five minutes to cut down a tree, or die if he failed. “Well,” said the wood cutter “I would spend three of the five minutes sharpening my ax.”
In 1956 an instance appeared in an article titled “Objectives and Philosophy of Public Affairs Education” by C. R. Jaccard within a volume about agricultural education:5
A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two and a half minutes sharpening my axe.”
Also in 1956 another instance of the saying appeared in a paper presented at the “Annual Meeting of the New York State Horticultural Society”. The time unit was minutes, and the attribution was anonymous:6
I heard somebody once say that if he were given five minutes to chop down the biggest tree in all of the northwest, or pay with his life, he would spend three of those five minutes sharpening his axe; and I think that that’s the thing to do. Sharpen your axe, so that you get a bigger cut of the food business in the country.
In 1960 the saying was attributed to Abraham Lincoln within an advertisement for drilling equipment printed in a trade publication called “Roads and Streets”. The primary goal of the advertisement was selling goods, and the fidelity of a quotation was probably not a priority. This was the first attribution to Lincoln found by QI, and time was again measured in minutes:7
SHARPEN YOUR AXE!
Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said, “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my axe.”
CONTRACTORS know that the same principle holds true today: proper equipment to do the job is half the battle.
In 1962 a sports columnist in a Texas newspaper reported on a remark made by the prominent football coach Darrell Royal who employed the adage and ascribed it to an anonymous lumberjack:8
Royal recalled “in Washington I met a lumberjack who said that if he were given five minutes to chop down a tree or lose his life if he failed to do so, he’d spend three of the five minutes sharpening his axe.”
In 1963 Y. A. Tittle who was the star quarterback of the New York Giants spoke at an Athletic Club award banquet and presented the advice of an anonymous woodchopper:9
“PREPARATION — If a woodchopper was given just five minutes to chop down a tree or lose his life, he better spend three minutes sharpening his ax.
In 1964 an instance was printed in a book about continuing education, and the time to complete the task had increased to ten minutes instead of five:10
They should heed the advice of the woodsman who once said, “If you have to cut down a tree in ten minutes, spend the first two sharpening your ax.”
In 1983 the self-help book “Creating Wealth” by Robert G. Allen was published with a chapter dedicated to inspiring quotations. A Lincoln attributed version of the saying based on hours instead of minutes was included in the chapter:11
If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my ax. — Abraham Lincoln
In 1984 the self-improvement book for salesman titled “Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale” was released, and it included a version of the saying:12
This supports Abraham Lincoln’s statement “If I had nine hours to cut down a tree, I would spend six hours sharpening my axe.”
In conclusion, QI believes Abraham Lincoln should not be ascribed any version of this saying. The earliest known match appeared in 1944 many years after the death of Lincoln. Initially, the saying was based on a tree that could be cut down within minutes, and the wisdom was attributed to an anonymous lumberjack, wood cutter, or woodsman. In recent decades the time period has been lengthened to hours.
Image Notes: “Man using axe” image from Josch13 at Pixabay. Image of 1869 oil painting of Abraham Lincoln via Wikimedia Commons.
Update History: On November 16 and 17, 2023 the citations dated Dec. 2, 1944 and Jan. 2, 1945 were added to the article. On April 3, 2014 the 1986 citation for “Creating Wealth” was replaced by a 1983 citation. Also on April 3, 2014 the 1985 citation for Zig Ziglar’s book was replaced by a 1984 citation.
Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Barry Popik for his excellent work on this topic. Popik found the crucial 1944 citation. Big thanks to Peter Reitan for locating the important 1945 citation. Special thanks to Elaine Nelson and James Callan for tweeting about this saying and querying QI about its provenance. Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for accessing the 1956 citation in the Horticultural Society conference. Thanks to the kind librarian at the John C. Hitt Library of the University of Central Florida for working with QI on the problematic task of locating the saying in the May 1960 issue of “Roads and Streets”. Additional thanks to Dan Goncharoff for his valuable comments. Finally, many thanks to my helpful local librarians in Florida.
- 1944 December 2, Sooner State Press, “Radio Church Ads Poor”, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Norman, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
- 1856 January, The Home and Foreign Record of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Volume 7, Number 1, Sermons for the Times: No. 2: The Dull Axe (from the New York Evangelist), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Publication House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
- 1901, The Times and Young Men by Josiah Strong, Quote Page 123 and 124, The Baker and Taylor Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
- 1945 January 2, Springfield Leader and Press, Jumping Preacher Gives Students Success Ideas, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Springfield, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
- 1956, Increasing Understanding of Public Problems and Policies: A Group Study of Four Topics in the Field of Extension Education, “Objectives and Philosophy of Public Affairs Education” by C. R. Jaccard, Start Page 12, Quote Page 12, Published by Farm Foundation, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
- 1956, Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the New York State Horticultural Society, (Conference held in two locations: Kingston, New York on December 14 to 16, 1955; Rochester, New York on January 17 to 20, 1956), “Expanding Our Markets in an Expanding Economy” by Stanley Arnold of New York City, Start Page 252, Quote Page 259, Column 2, New York State Horticultural Society. (Verified with scans; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Interlibrary Loan, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) ↩︎
- 1960 May, Roads and Streets, Volume 103, (Advertisement for distributor of Williams Equipment for digging), Quote Page 37, Gillette Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans; thanks to librarian at the University of Central Florida) ↩︎
- 1962 February 8, Port Arthur News, Time Out with Corlis Holt (News Sports Editor), Quote Page 16, Column 1, (NArch Page 31), Port Arthur, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩︎
- 1963 February 26, Salt Lake Tribune, Tittle Wows Ute Banquet by John Mooney (Tribune Sports Editor), Quote Page 16, Column 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewspaperArchive) ↩︎
- 1964, Continuing Your Education by Cyril O. Houle (Professor of Education, The University of Chicago), Quote Page 15, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
- 1983, Creating Wealth by Robert G. Allen, Chapter 20: Wealth Is Thoughts Not Things, Item Number 48, Quote Page 295, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
- 1984, Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale by Zig Ziglar, Quote Page 252, Published by Fleming H. Revell Company, Old Tappan, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩︎