Quote: Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. (Attrib Abraham Lincoln)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sun Feb 9 15:55:16 UTC 2014

The quotation given in the subject line probably was not spoken or
written by Abraham Lincoln, and I have been asked to explore its

Barry Popik has performed excellent work tracing this saying back to
1983. Here is a link:


In my initial search I have found matches for a version of the saying
with time measured in minutes instead of hours starting in the 1950s.
Some of these citations are unverified matches in Google Books
(visible only as snippets). Hence, I may contact individuals off-list
for help in verification.

GB has matches in documents with GB dates of 1953, 1955, and 1956, but
I suspect that the two earlier dates are inaccurate, and all the
matches lead to the same document. Below is my best guess of the
accurate bibliographic data:

Title: Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the New York State
Horticultural Society.
Author: American Pomological Society.
Year: 1956
Volume: 70
Quote Page: 259
(Google Books snippet data may be inaccurate)

[Begin extracted text]
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.
[End extracted text]

Title: Increasing Understanding of Public Problems and Policies
Author: Farm Foundation (Chicago, Ill.), National Committee on
Agricultural Policy
Year: 1956
Quote Page: 12
(Google Books snippet data may be inaccurate)

[Begin extracted text]
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."
[End extracted text]

Here is instance attributed to Abraham Lincoln circa 1960. This
version uses minutes not hours.

Journal: Roads and Streets
Uniform Title: Bituminous roads and streets
Year: 1960
Volume: 103
Quote Page: 363
Publisher: Chicago, Gillette Pub. Co.
(Google Books snippet data may be inaccurate; text not visible in snippet)

[Begin extracted text]
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."
[End extracted text]

Here is an instance from NewspaperArchive in 1962. The words are
attributed to an anonymous lumberjack by the prominent football coach
Darrell Royal.

[ref] 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)[/ref]

[Begin extracted text]
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
[End extracted text]

In 1963 the New York Giants quarterback Y. A. Tittle spoke at an
athletic banquet and employed a version of the saying.

[ref] 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)[/ref]

[Begin extracted text]
"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.
[End extracted text]


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