A Flash in the Night ~ Vintage Flashlights for Camping

 

The Eveready #2697 Official Boy Scout Flashlight.  Introduced in 1927, it was the first outdoor flashlight sold in the United States.

Although kerosene lanterns and candle lanterns are perfectly adequate for most of my camp needs, there are times when I need a truly bright, focused beam of light.  That’s when a flashlight is indispensable.   I’m not talking about the modern super tech lights but flashlights that were created for genuine field use in the early to mid-20th century.  If you plan to replicate classic camping circa 1880-1920, then a flashlight might not fit in. While they were introduced in the late 19th century, batteries were too short lived and flashlights were not weatherproof enough field use.  Otherwise, having a flashlight in camp can come in handy and it is clear that they were being used in traditional camps during the pre-WWII period.

A short history of the tubular “outdoor” flashlight –

Conrad Hubert, a Russian immigrant (real name Akiba Horowitz) living in New York, owned and operated the American Electrical Novelty & Manufacturing Company, a firm that manufactured various small electrical products such as small portable fans, pocket lanterns and the like. Hubert became interested in the electrical inventions of David Misell, an English expatriate living in New York City.  Misell had invented numerous electrical devices including a small hand held lamp, a bicycle head lamp, a handheld device for lighting natural gas burning equipment and a handheld light, which he patented in 1898.

 

Conrad Hubert introduced the first dependable flashlight in 1898 under the name Ever Ready.

Hubert hired the inventor to improve his company’s existing products and to develop new ones.  When he learned of Misell’s handheld light, Hubert immediately recognized its potential and decided to focus on developing it. Both men, as partners and individually, patented several flashlight designs before Misell sold his patents to Hubert, who introduced the world’s first dependable flashlight in 1899.

David Misell’s first flashlight patent while employed by Conrad Hubert’s American Electrical Novelty & Manufacturing Company (Patent No. 617,592).

 

Of course the flashlight would not have been possible without the invention of the storage battery.  At the time, nearly all product development, manufacturing and marketing of batteries was conducted by the National Carbon Company.  National Carbon marketed the very first dry cell battery (the type we think of as a battery today) for consumer use in 1896 and the first dry cell flashlight battery in 1898.  That battery continues to be produced today in the same form, dimensions and power parameters as the “D-cell” battery.   The firm also supplied the materials required to manufacture batteries to the American Ever-Ready Company, who made batteries under their own label to complement their flashlights.  Ever-Ready battery sales outpaced flashlight production enough that Hubert changed the company name to the Ever Ready Battery Company.  In 1906, National Carbon bought s half interest in the Ever Ready Battery Company.  The business name was changed again to The American Ever Ready Company and the trademark was shortened to simply Eveready.

Most of these early lights featured tubular cases of celluloid fitted with a brass reflector and glass lens on one end and a steel battery cap on the other.  In addition to tubular flashlights, vest pocket lights were also popular.  These were shaped like a Prince Albert tobacco can with a lens mounted at the center of one end.  Flashlight bulbs were made using very thick carbon filaments, which were required to survive the jolting associated with carrying a portable light.  Unfortunately, the batteries of the day did not produce enough power to overcome the resistance of the thick filaments for very long.  If the flashlight was used continuously for even a short length of time it would become uncomfortably hot to hold and the batteries would quickly die. The device was nicknamed flashlight because the only way to maximize battery life and avoid overheating was to turn the light on for a second or two at a time to produce a “flash” of light.

 

 

                                                     Ever-Ready Flashlight Advertisement from 1899

 

The first great leap in flashlight technology was the advent of tungsten bulb filaments in 1910.  The new substance made it possible to produce filaments that were smaller in diameter and far more durable, meaning bulbs burned brighter and batteries lasted longer.  Around the same time, the familiar push button switch appeared.  By 1912, flashlights were cased in tubes of either hard vulcanite rubber tubes or nickel plated brass.

Around 1914, box lanterns entered the market. Box lanterns were small rectangular affairs with a standard tubular style flashlight lens mounted at the top center of one side.  One end featured a bail to allow the user to hang it around the neck or from a nail or branch.  These box lanterns were often shown being used outdoors in product advertising, particularly in Boy’s Life, the official magazine of the BSA. The heyday of the box lantern style light ended around 1921 when this style of light virtually disappeared from the market.

                            Eveready “Box Lantern” Style Flashlight

Beginning in 1921, Eveready introduced a line of new nickel plated tubular flashlights including the Model #2674 3-cell “spotlight” with a 300 ft. range.  The new light was heavily promoted for use outdoors.

                                      “An Eveready is as necessary as a camp axe”!

In 1927, Eveready marketed the first purpose-built outdoor flashlight with the introduction of the Model #2697 Official Boy Scout Flashlight.  The #2697 was very similar to the #2694 industrial flashlight and featured the same right-angle head, the “safety lock” switch and the hanging ring of that model.

The Eveready #2697 Official Boy Scout Flashlight patent.  This model was the first outdoor flashlight on the market.

The new Boy Scout light featured an olive/khaki painted case with elaborate detailing, contrasting with a bright nickel plated lens, battery cap, belt clip and switch.  The angled head, like the battery compartment, was made from brass sheet. The head was essentially hollow, sealed at both ends with brass plates riveted in place. This type of construction resulted in a relatively lightweight light but the hollow head was subject to denting.  The belt clip was attached to the head at the top and the back with rivets.  Like nearly all flashlights of the period, the #2697 used the #14 2.74 volt, 0.741 watt miniature bulb with the E10 screw base.  These bulbs were very dim by today’s standards.  The lens surround featured a screw-adjustable focus to produce a diffused beam or a spotlight beam and everything in between.  Oddly, the glass lens could not be changed if broken as it and the lens surround were permanently connected.  The #2697 was no brighter, more dependable or weatherproof than ordinary household flashlights but the right-angle-head, safety lock switch, adjustable focus lens and belt clip made it ideal for outdoor use.  The #2697 flashlight became the model for what an outdoor flashlight “looked like” for decades thereafter.

                                         My own Model #2697 flashlight

Flashlights join the military –

United States military forces were using flashlights before America’s entrance into World War 1.  At the time, flashlights were the responsibility of the Signal Corp.  Manual No. 3, Technical Equipment of the Signal Corp (1916) listed a 2 cell Ever Ready flashlight as standard equipment.  By the 1920’s the US Army Air Corp procured the Type A-1, 2-cell tubular flashlight.  However, all of the military flashlights used during World War 1 and most of the interwar years were issued for signaling or inspection purposes.  As this article is about outdoor/field flashlights, we are interested in the kind that are built to be rugged enough to withstand daily outdoor use such as Army soldier would carry.  And those did not exist until the late 1930’s when the US Army issued the TL-122 flashlight, a militarized version of the Eveready #2697 Boy Scout light.  The TL-122 was the first in a long line of military angle-head flashlights that continue to this day.

The TL-122 used the same case as the #2697 with the “TL-122” designation stamped into the head instead of the BSA emblem.  The light was painted Army olive drab and the lens, switch and battery caps were finished in black. The innards were unchanged as the TL-122 used the same #14 screw-base bulb.  Because the TL-122 was derived from the #2697 it featured the same screw-adjustable focus and odd lens construction that meant the glass lens could not be changed if broken, not a particularly good attribute for a light that might be subjected to battlefield abuse.  As the TL-122 was issued for a very short period they are relatively rare today.

More Angle-Head Lights –

In 1939 Eveready introduced an updated Boy Scout flashlight, the Model #8257, fitted with the newly developed PR9 2.7 volt, 0.41 watt, flange-base bulb. This bulb was brighter than the older #14 flashlight lamp. The case of the #8257 was less decorative than before and had a more functional appearance.  The head was crafted from cast aluminum instead of thin brass for greater durability.  The new head design was shorter by a half inch over the previous model.  The light was fitted with a more contoured belt clip mounted only at the back of the head.  The case was painted olive/khaki and featured nickel plated lens and battery caps, switch and belt clip.  The switch was also new and now featured a push button signaling switch.  As before, the BSA emblem was stamped on the head.  The lens surround was now redesigned so that a broken lens could be replaced.  The #8257 also eliminated the screw-adjustable focus of the previous model.  Instead, it featured a fixed focus spotlight beam.  At the same time, Eveready introduced the “civilian” #2257 flashlight that was virtually identical to the Boy Scout light.  It was finished in olive green with black lens and battery caps, switch and belt clip.

The #2257 was quickly adopted by the US Army as the revised TL-122A, first issued to troops sometime around 1941. The new TL-122A was the first to place the model designation stamping inside a circle, a feature that was used on all later variants.  The TL-122 was fitted with a large rubber O-ring seal in the battery cap to improve water resistance in that area.  In all other respects it was identical to the #2257.  Once America entered the war, TL-122A production was contracted to additional firms to ensure that demand for the light could be met.  These firms also produced a fair number of Boy Scout flashlights as well.  Although the TL-122A can be seen in many WWII photos, it was no longer is use by 1944 as it was replaced by the plastic cased TL-122 variants.  Good surviving examples of this light are uncommon today.

The TL-122A military flashlight (replica) compared to the Eveready #2697/TL-122.   The  TL-122A was a military version of the second generation Boy Scout flashlight, the #8257, introduced in 1939.

 

The cases of subsequent TL-122 variants (TL-122B, C and D) were made from thick plastic that was much more rugged than the earlier lights.  The later models  featured an extended battery cap to hold spare bulbs.  Because of complaints that the cases of the TL-122B smelled and gave off a waxy residue, it was quickly replaced by the TL-122C, which featured a sealed lens, battery cap and switch for near waterproofness.  The TL-122C is the most commonly found military flashlight from World War II.  The last variant, the TL-122D, added an extended shroud around the lens to hold various lens filters.  That model was never issued during wartime.  Today’s military flashlights are most similar to the TL-122D.

The plastic bodied variants did not go unnoticed by outdoor enthusiasts.  Calvin Rutstrum recommended TL-122B and C style flashlights in his book Way of the Wilderness (1946, Burgess Publishing Company, Minneapolis, MN).  Though the light illustrated in the book is not described as a military model, it is certainly a TL-122B or C model.  Rutstrum even mentioned that he carried spare bulbs in the battery cap and that recent models had the advantage of being waterproof.

A new kind of light –

Aside from the angle head family of lights, no other vintage outdoor flashlights existed (that I am aware of) until the introduction of the Rub-R-Lite, manufactured by William M. Lennan, Inc. of Los Angeles, CA.  The revolutionary feature of the Rub-R-Lite was the seamless rubber casing that made the flashlight virtually waterproof and more damage proof than any light then available.  William Lennan had been interested for years in developing a water resistant flashlight.  He applied for a patent of a rubber encased; water resistant flashlight as early as 1934, with patents granted in 1936 and 1939.  However, no product was produced as Lennan continued to modify and improve the design.  The final design of the Rub-R-Lite was patented on March 18, 1941 (2,234,972) and entered the market in 1943.  On August 3, 1944, the light was approved and certified for use in mines by the US Mine Safety and Health Administration (Approval No. 0C-610).

                            Final Patent for the William Lennan Rub-R-Lite, March 18, 1941

In the lighting department, the Rub-R-Lite was decidedly non-revolutionary as it continued to use the common #14 screw-base bulb. However, it did feature an adjustable focus. This was accomplished by means of an internal focusing wheel.  By turning the wheel clockwise or counterclockwise, the bulb was moved forward or backward in relationship to the reflector, which changed the focus from a diffused to focused spotlight.

 

                            The innovative Rub-R-Lite manufactured by William M. Lennan, introduced in 1943

 

The light featured an internal chassis of lightweight steel that contained the lens reflector, bulb, focusing wheel, switch and batteries.  This chassis was encased within a seamless, natural black rubber housing.  The switch could be operated by pressing on the housing, where on/off finger positions were located.  To replace the batteries/bulb, or to adjust the focusing wheel, the lens was removed from the housing by gently prying the rim of the housing away at the edge.  The lens, which was seated in a groove molded into the rubber, popped out of the housing.  The reflector was then removed and the entire chassis was ejected from the housing by sharply shaking the flashlight, bulb end down, until the chassis slid partway out of the rubber where it could be pulled the rest of the way out of the housing.

                                              The Rub-R-Lite internals removed from the rubber casing.

 

While Rub-R-Lite brightness/beam was no match for military flashlights fitted with PR9 bulbs and fixed spotlight focus, it was the first light available to the general public that could be used confidently outdoors in all kinds of weather.

My Choices –

To round out my camp lighting selection I desired an outdoor flashlight produced during the traditional camping era.  Because I happen to be impatient, I didn’t want to wait to find a suitable original.  With that in mind, my first purchase was the replica TL-122A from What Price Glory.  This light is a close copy of a genuine Tl-122A with a few very slight changes. The light lacks the O-ring seal on the battery cap, which is stamped with the letters WPG instead of the original manufacturer’s trademark, the belt clip lacks the oval hole of the original and the rivets attaching the switch to the case are of copper instead of the brass or steel.

The WPG replica is fitted with an incandescent PR9 flashlight bulb just like the original. The fixed focus reflector is superb.  The light throws a sharply defined beam of light, though with the old style bulb, that beam is relatively dim.  The case is made from brass sheet and the head of cast aluminum.  Fit and finish are excellent.  The replica is painted Army olive green with black painted lens surround, battery cap, switch and ring – just like the original.

Because the replica uses a Pr9 bulb it is easily upgraded to the superb KT-LB 3 volt LED bulb rated at 30 lumens.  This bulb is very inexpensive and is widely available.  For long lasting performance, even in cold conditions, I replaced the standard alkaline D-cell batteries with AA-cell Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries.  This was accomplished by using a pair of parallel battery adapters.  These adapters use three AA-cell batteries to match the voltage of one D-cell.  This setup is much lighter than using the original size batteries.  The pre-focused beam of the flashlight, upgraded to the LED bulb, produces a bright, sharply defied beam of light.  Of course, the upgraded flashlight is nowhere near as bright as the tactical LED super lights of today but I didn’t need or want it to be.

Just a couple of years later I happened upon an original Eveready #2697 Official Boy Scout Flashlight in good condition.  It required some cleaning up but now works like new.  Of course, because it is an original, the #2697 was fitted with the very dim #14 screw-base bulb.  Sadly, there are very few LED upgrade lamps for this type. I found the #222 E10 LED bulb (1.5-3v – 6 AA-cell or 2 D-cell batteries, 50 lumens).  This bulb uses a plastic bulb cover that looks somewhat like an original #14 bulb behind the light lens.  Though the bulb does not seem as bright as the TL-122A replica, most likely because of the difference in the reflector, it is much better than the original incandescent bulb.  In terms of old time traditional camp beauty, this flashlight beats them all.

 

 

                                                          Boy Scout Flashlight and TL-122A flashlight.

I recently added another flashlight to my collection – a Lennan Rub-R-Lite.  The example I found was in remarkable condition.  The rubber case is undamaged and looks new. The metal reflector is in very good condition.  The lens, though a bit hazy in the center, is mostly clear and not cracked or broken.  Again, I upgraded the batteries and bulb.  For the bulb upgrade I selected an NL340 lamp (1.5v-9v, 2 – 6 AA-cell or 2 D-cell batteries, 0.5 watts power, 50 lumens) sold by Reflectalite in the UK.   All in all, it is a very rare example of the first American-made waterproof flashlight.

                                                     My Lennan Rub-R-Lite. A near perfect example.

I suspect that folks would like an idea of how the lighting performance of these three lights compare.  Absolutely the brightest, sharpest beam is produced by the What Price Glory TL-122 replica.  That’s because – 1)  the fixed reflector of the Army light is so good, 2) the reflector of this newly produced light is also new and is as polished and reflective as possible, and 3) the bright KT-LB 3 bulb.  This light is the most powerful vintage style flashlight you can buy.  It is too bad than a modified version with vintage Boy Scout markings is not produced.

The original Eveready #2697 Official Boy Scout Flashlight comes in second. The old style screw-adjustable focus never achieves the sharp spotlight beam of the TL-122 replica.  Being a roughly 90 year old light, the reflector just does not compare to the new one used in the replica, even with the brighter LED bulb upgrade.  However, it is certainly an adequate light and is the most beautiful of the lot in my opinion.

The 1940’s era Rub-R-Lite comes in a dismal third.  I thought this light would be GREAT but the lighting performance is far below the other two lights in my collection.  Again, the old reflector does not do its job like a new one.  The 50 lumen bulb is very bright and is not at fault.  The old lens is somewhat hazy and that is certainly a contributor (I plan to polish the haze out at some point).  It seems to me that the real culprit is the focus or lack thereof.  I have attempted to adjust the focusing wheel in both directions and while the bulb does move forward and backward in relation to the reflector, the best the light can do is produce a very diffused beam.  Still, it is a truly unique, rare vintage camp light.

So there you have it.  If you would like to add a vintage flashlight to your kit, you might want to consider one of the models I’ve tested here.  Here’s to brighter nights ahead!

Kamp Kephart 2016 Workshop Schedule

Steven M. Watts, (click his name to see a photo of Steve), the Master of all things related to classic camping, traditional camping and woodcraft, recently released his “Kamp Kephart” workshop schedule for 2016.

 

Sadly, I’m already quite late in posting this notice as I have been informed that the February 27th/28th Workshops –  Nessmuk’s KIt Bag &  The Aleut Pack Harness and the October 2nd Workshop – The Woodsman’s Bag  are already full! 

In addition, the March 13th Workshop – Frontier Fire  has only a few openings left.  Here is the Workshop Schedule ~

 

 

Click here if you would like to download the flyer.  Steve notes that he is still accepting registrations on the other courses.  If you want to develop your classic camping skills, don’t miss this opportunity to take one or more of these workshops!

Notice! Dietz Lanterns Available Again!!!

New Dietz No. 50 Comet lantern from W.T. Kirkman

Here is some great news for traditional campers.   W. T. Kirkman Lanterns, Inc. is now stocking a NEW production Dietz Comet lantern!  If you’ve read my post on types of kerosene lanterns, you know that the Comet is my favorite of all time.  It was the official kerosene lantern of the Boy Scouts of America from the early post WWII period up through the 1960’s.  With an overall height of just 8 1/2 inches and a base diameter of 4 1/2 inches, the Comet is the smallest cold blast kerosene lantern ever produced by Dietz.

I discovered that the Comet was listed in the 2013 Dietz product catalog but I could not find them for sale in North America.  I figured that Woody Kirkman would eventually stock the new Comet.  In July of last year, a reader, Terry, commented that Kirkman’s was again selling the Comet in addition to recommending that anyone interested also purchase the Kirkman replacement globe for the Comet as it was much better than the standard Dietz globe.

These new Comet lanterns are delivered with a holographic sticker emblazoned with the Dietz logo, something not seen on previous Comets.

New holographic Dietz logo sticker.

The really exciting news is that Kirkman’s is offering a tin plated version of the Comet (along with painted versions).  The tin plated model has not been offered since before WWII and is historically correct for a pre-war Comet.   The painted lanterns retail for $10.95 and the deluxe tin plated version sells for just $5.00 more.

Left: New tin plated Comet lantern Right: New red painted Comet lantern.
The holographic sticker has been removed with Goo Gone and elbow grease.
I think the sticker is incongruous with a vintage kerosene lantern.

Though I’m thrilled to see these lanterns available again, in my opinion, the quality of the product has declined over those sold just a few years ago.    For one thing, the globes now offered are not as finely molded nor of the same thickness as the previous version.

Left: New production Comet globe Right: Comet globe offered just a decade ago.
Note how much more precise the molding is on the older globe. The glass is thicker too.

Luckily, Kirkman’s offers a heavy glass replacement globe for the Comet lantern that is very nice (though it still does not approach the quality of the original).  If you purchase a new Comet lantern, do yourself a favor and buy a Kirkman’s replacement globe at the same time.  The difference in globe quality is amazing!

Left to right: 1) New production Comet globe 2) Recent production Comet globe 3) W.T. Kirkman replacement Comet globe 4) Original vintage Comet globe made by Hocking glass

Unfortunately, I have other complaints as well.  The red painted lantern I received was delivered with several paint chips.  I’ve seen little used vintage Comet lanterns over 50 years old that had fewer paint chips than the new Comet I received last week.  While the paint chips are small, it is disappointing to see a chipped finish on a lantern that has not seen a single day of use.

Left: Vintage Dietz Comet manufactured in 1950. Right: New Dietz Comet manufactured in 2013.

Here is a new Comet compared to one sold just a few years ago:

Left: Green Comet with brass trim is from a decade ago. Right: New Comet was manufactured in 2013. The bail and burner are of raw carbon steel like the original and will rust if not protected.

Previous Dietz Comets were delivered in a very nice cardboard box. New Comets are not.

I know it sounds like I am seriously unhappy with the new Comet but I’m not.  Even with my complaints, I would not pass up buying one.  For one thing, it’s a brand new Dietz Comet!  For another, even original Dietz hurricane lanterns were utility barn lanterns.  Those with painted finishes easily chipped in use and all but brass finish models quickly rusted if exposed to moisture.  If you use a kerosene lantern with a painted finish, it will get marred and if you use a tin plated lantern, it will rust if not protected.  As soon as I restore or purchase one of these lanterns, I give it a good coat of car wax.  Everything is waxed – bail, burner, cap, globe wires, chimney (inside and out) and lantern body.  I also wax the plated lanterns.  If you keep your lantern waxed regularly, it will never rust.

A collection of Comets that includes a couple of restored, vintage Comets, a new-old-stock vintage Comet, a new Comet made a decade ago and three new Comets just purchased from W.T. Kirkman (one red painted and two tin plated).

For traditional camping, these new Comet lanterns are just the ticket!  The beautiful tin plated model is a near perfect late 1930’s lantern while the red painted model looks just like much like the Comet of the ’50’s that was adopted as the “Official” lantern of the Boy Scouts of America.  You can’t get more traditional than that!

The Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe – the Woodcrafter’s Winter Warmer

 

The Woods Three Star Arctic Sleeping Robe

 

 

Today, outdoor folk depend on lightweight, efficient mummy shaped sleeping bags for a warm sleep.  Today’s mummy bags are truly a marvel.  Using high fill-power down, ultralight shell fabrics and advanced construction techniques, these light and lofty calorie trappers weigh less than four pounds and compress smaller than your pillow, yet are comfortable to well below 0°.  But what came before the modern mummy bag?  How did campers sleep comfortably in frigid conditions during the woodcraft age?

From the first traders to explore the North American continent until after World War II, outdoor folk used wool blankets, the most desirable being the Hudson’s Bay Company Point blanket.

A Canadian hunter packs up camp and his Hudson’s Bay point blanket  in Unloaded!”, the cover illustration for the November, 1921 issue of The Beaver, the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine for employees.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet, even the wonderful Hudson’s Bay blanket had its limitations.  The weight and bulk of blankets necessary to sleep comfortably in frigid weather was excessive.  Two blankets were required for camping at around freezing.  Much below that and even more blankets were needed.  As a single 4-pont blanket weighs a bit over six pounds, you can see that a cold weather setup, even when using the best blanket available, the camper had to deal with quite a bit of weight and bulk.  Of course, this problem did not go unnoticed by the old-time experts.  Warren H. Miller in particular, was concerned with how to sleep warm using something other than the blanket, devoting an entire chapter of his book Camp Craft to the problem (Ch. 3: Eliminating the Blanket, 1916).  Miller was more concerned with the great bulk of trying to pack multiple woolen blankets than weight.  He devised a pack bag lined with quilted wool batting that could be laced up into a sleeping bag.  Experimenting with various linings including a caribou skin, he found that he could sleep comfortably below 0° at a weight of just above 4 pounds.  He and others also described sleeping bags that were recommended or denounced depending on the writer’s experience or biases.

All of the early bags were rectangular (like a blanket folded lengthwise) in shape and insulated with layers of blanketing, wool batting or goose feathers.  The fill was encased in an envelope that closed with laced grommets, buttons or clasps.  There were debates about which insulator was best but no matter the fill, all were relatively bulky and heavy.  Nearly all were only moderately successful, most being soon forgotten.  However, one particular model captured the market and soon embodied the characteristics the public came to associate with the term “sleeping bag” – the Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe, manufactured by the Woods Manufacturing Company, LTD, of Ottawa, Canada.

The Woods Company, founded by James W. Woods in 1885, started out as a canvas products supplier but within a few years had evolved into a manufacturer.   Woods produced canvas tents and other canvas goods for prospectors, surveyors, lumbermen, and the military.  Sometime around 1898, the company introduced a new type of sleeping bag designed for extremely cold weather.  Externally, the bag was unremarkable but the insides were a different story.  The bag was revolutionary for being the first to use *duck down plumes for the insulation, stabilized with “Harwood patented” internal compartments.  The use of some kind of internal compartment to prevent the migration of down continues to be employed today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sleeping Robe bag was a 90” x 90” rectangle of tightly woven Egyptian cotton, lined with Kersey wool (later, Junior models with dimensions of 78″ x 84″ and 80″ x 80″ were also offered).  When folded in half lengthwise and secured with snaps, it became a sleeping bag.  A flap of wool was sewn to the open end of the bag to protect the head and shoulders of the sleeper.  The new bag proved to be warmer and more efficient than blanketing, batting or feathers for the weight carried (6 times warmer than wool, 3 times lighter according to Woods Ltd. advertising).   Today, the Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe is generally recognized as the first modern sleeping bag.

*The term “Eiderdown” in the product description referred to down plumes being used as opposed to feathers, which were in common use for pillow and mattress stuffing at the time.  Woods never used the down plumage of the eider duck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                              

The Sleeping Robe in open and closed positions

Interestingly, the Arctic Sleeping Robe was not mentioned in the early camping literature.  Perhaps it was not known to American camping writers as Woods was a Canadian company.  In any event, Americans eventually learned of its existence after the Robe was selected for use by the Amundsen Northwest Passage Expedition (1906) and the Steffansson Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918).

During the 1920’s the Robe was chosen by the American mountaineer and scientist Bradford Washburn for his Yukon Expeditions and was included in the survival equipment carried on the polar flights of U.S. Navy explorer Richard E. Byrd.  It was also chosen by members of the Simpson-Roosevelts Field Museum Expedition to Central Asia and the First Canadian ascent of Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak.

 

Expedition leaders in the 1920’s heaped praise on the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe

With a growing awareness of Woods products in America, Woods opened a factory and sales office in Ogdensburg, NY (most likely to avoid import duty and taxes).  By the 1920’s, the Robe was carried by the best sporting goods stores including Abercrombie and Fitch, Griffin and Howe and Von Lengerke & Detmold (of these, only Griffin and Howe survives).  These shops served a very wealthy clientele that included Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Shackleton, Col. Townsend Whelen, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. The Robe was an ideal product to be carried by these high-end shops.  At an average price of $65.00 ($1,101.69 in 2013 dollars!), it was quite expensive and out of reach for all but the very affluent.

1920’s Woods Sleeping Bag pamphlet from Griffin & Howe, then located at 234 East 39th Street, New York, NY (the shop moved from that location in 1932).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the 1930’s the Robe was firmly ensconced as the image of a modern expedition “sleeping bag” and was finally described in the outdoor literature when it was recommended by Labrador explorer Dillon Wallace (1863-1939) in “The Campers’ Handbook” (Fleming H. Revell Co., New York, London & Edinburgh, 1936).  Wallace noted that the Robe was part of the standard issued equipment carried by the Quebec Forest Rangers.

However, the most famous reference to the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe in literature was in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY, 1940) ~

“He doesn’t know about that robe, Robert Jordan thought. Good old pig-eyes doesn’t know why I paid the Woods boys sixty-five dollars for that robe.”

“It is very beautiful the snow,” Pablo said. “You won’t want to sleep outside with the snow falling.”

So that’s on your mind too is it? Robert Jordan thought. You’ve a lot of troubles, haven’t you, Pablo?

“No?” he said, politely. “No. Very cold,” Pablo said. “Very wet.”

You don’t know why those old eiderdowns cost sixty-five dollars, Robert Jordan thought. I’d like to have a dollar for every time I’ve slept in that thing in the snow. “Then I should sleep in here?” he asked politely.

“Yes.”

“Thanks,” Robert Jordan said. “I’ll be sleeping outside.”

“In the snow?”

“Yes”…“In the snow.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The book also includes a memorable love scene involving the Sleeping Robe but you”ll have to read that for yourself.

Hemingway made numerous references to the Robe in the book.  He was obviously knowledgeable of it.  His familiarity with the Robe was due to his owning one, no doubt purchased from one of the great shops described above.  A review of 1930’s era catalog descriptions and prices make it quite likely that Hemingway owned a “Three Star” Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe.  The Three Star was the most popular model that Woods offered and retailed for an average price of $65.00 in the 1930’s.

The Arctic Sleeping Robe in its duffel bag. WOW! Just look at that logo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Robe remained essentially unchanged from its inception through the 1960’s when it was updated with newer shell materials and a lighter lining than the Kersey wool.  Eventually however,  it was surpassed by a new generation of efficient mummy bags.  A good mummy bag filled with 3 pounds of 550 fill power down, encased in a nylon shell and closed with a nylon tooth zipper, weighed around 5 lbs. and was as warm as the 16 lb. Sleeping Robe.  Mummy bags quickly became the dominant type among serious outdoor folk, relegating the “old-fashioned” rectangular Robe to the “has-been” category.

Yet, the Arctic Sleeping Robe remained popular among a small cadre of enthusiasts and incredibly, remained in production along with other very historic Woods products (the #1 and #200 canoe packs and “Prospector” canvas wall tents) until 2008 when the company folded.  Today, the Woods name has been revived by Infinity Sports Group of Langley, British Columbia, Canada.  The new company brought back the Arctic Sleeping Bag though sadly, the canoe packs and Prospector tents are gone.  The latest iteration of the Arctic sleeping bag appears unchanged and prices are actually down from what they were 75 years ago (the current“5-Star” and ”3-Star” Arctic sleeping bags retail for $899.99 and $699.99, respectively).  Woods does not state the fill power of the down used in these bags and do not say if the bags are produced domestically or imported.  If they are made in Canada, using 600-fill goosedown or better, the price may be about right as the bags are quite large.  The “5-Star” in particular is made with two separate quilts filled with 1 3/4 pounds of down and that adds up to the equivalent of purchasing two sleeping bags and their attendant labor and cost.

Of course my interest is in the vintage Woods Sleeping Robes fitted with snap closures as they were an important part of the traditional winter campers’ kit, owned by some of the greatest explorers and outdoorsmen of the first half of the 20th Century.  And of course, I’ve always wanted to own one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These old Arctic Sleeping Robes go for more than you’d expect.  Being the cheapskate that I am, I was willing to wait until an affordable Robe came along.  And wait I did!  For nearly seven years.  Then one day, a co-worker said he’d found an old sleeping bag among his father’s belongings and as I was a camper, would I want it?  Sure!  No matter what it is or what shape it’s in, I never turn down old camping gear.  To my surprise, the bag turned out to be a genuine Woods Arctic Three Star Sleeping Robe fitted with a snap closure!  This is the same model owned by Hemingway.

My Robe is of ‘50’s or ‘60’s era production, fitted with the poly/cotton canvas shell and closed with rectangular, nickel plated snaps.  It is lined with Kersey wool.  In most respects, it is nearly identical to those models made at the turn of the century.  Sure, I wish it had been made early enough to feature an Egyptian Cotton Shell but considering that it was free, I’m satisfied.

Note: The Robe was photographed on a 60+ year old Hodgman PakLite brand canvas air mattress, another wonderful piece of vintage gear. At my age, an air mattress is a necessity for sleeping on the ground and it would be incongruous to pair the Woods Arctic Sleeping Robe with a modern model.  For cold weather camping I recommend that you spread a Hudson Bay blanket over the air mattress before placing the sleeping bag on it.  The blanket serves to insulate the sleeping bag from heat loss due to conduction.

Hodgman PakLite canvas air mattress, circa 1948
Note: The mattress was greatly overinflated for photography purposes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have the wherewithal to Woodcraft it in winter, then you’d best locate one of these Woods Arctic warmers with haste!

 

 

 

 

 

Kamp Kephart ~ Classic Camping Workshops

Classic camper and woodcraft mentor and friend Steve Watts has released the schedule for the Kamp Kephart series of skill workshops for 2014.

If you live near Gastonia, NC or can make it out there – DO NOT miss the opportunity to learn from a Master woodsman.  As you may know, Steve and David Wescott are working on an up-to-date series of traditional camping “how-to” books.  Called the “Classic Camping” series, the first of seven planned books are currently in the works.  To attend one of these workshops would be akin to attending a workshop conducted by Horace Kephart, Ernest Thompson Seton or Dan Beard a century ago.

The workshops are one-day affairs that are affordable and teach skills that are rarely offered as part of a short course curriculum.  Just look at the skills being offered next year –

Oh – if I lived close enough to attend!

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part Three

Long Lasting Protection for Head and Handle

Good Wood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Step One – Weatherproof the eye of the ax

Before you address ax handle prep in any way, you’ll want to seal the junction between the head and handle, in order to protect it against moisture.  This will prevent the wood from shrinkage and swelling at the eye and keep everything tight.  No matter how snug the fit is here, moisture can enter the unprotected wood.

For this job, you’ll need to dip the ax, head down, in a 50/50 mixture of boiled linseed oil and kerosene.  The kerosene works to thin the oil for improved absorption.  A good layer of this oil inside the crevices between handle and eye makes the head far less likely to come loose due to the swelling and contracting of the wood caused by changes in temperature and humidity.

To begin the process, give the head a heavy coat of petroleum jelly to prevent the boiled linseed oil from coating and discoloring the ax.  Coat the first three inches of the handle (below the head) as well (this will prevent the wood from absorbing the boiled linseed oil).  Take care to not over the gap between head and handle at the top or bottom to allow the boiled linseed oil to soak in.  Now, place the ax head down in a bucket of the oil/kerosene mixture, making sure that it’s deep enough to cover the entire head and about an inch of the handle.  Leave the ax in the bucket overnight, which is long enough for the wood to absorb the oil completely.  Then remove the ax from the bucket, wipe the head  and handle clean and rest the ax head down on a piece of waxed paper or aluminum foil.  A lot of the oil will drain out of the head/handle joint over the next few hours and you don’t want to get it everywhere.  Check the ax occasionally and if you see a puddle, wipe it up.  After an hour or so, wrap the handle in a paper towel and turn the ax right side up to allow any oil to drain out of the bottom of the head.  Once drained, wipe everything dry.  Depending on the humidity, the oil will fully cure in a week or so.

 

Head protection: Left to right: 1) Ballistol Sportsman’s Oil spray, 2) boiled linseed oil/kerosene mixture, 3) Petroleum Jelly, 4) raw linseed oil (food-grade flaxseed oil) and beeswax compound, 5) Ballistol liquid (either version can be used)

 

 

 

 

Step Two – prep and protect the handle –

Time spent prepping and sealing the handle will make a real difference in how long the handle lasts and how comfortable it is to swing.  No ax brand I know of delivers their products with this job done completely (or at least to my satisfaction).  Let’s look at the handles provided by the manufacturers of modern axes.

Most “hardware grade” axes are delivered with varnished or polyurethane coated handles.    These hard, slick coatings must be removed as they make for a blister causing ax.  Some makers, such as Council Tool, offer their axes with lightly waxed handles.  This is a far better finish than the slick, sealed finishes.  However, most factory waxed finishes are too light to offer much in the way of real water resistance and even if the wax were heavily applied, it does little to prevent the wood from drying out.  The ideal finish should offer good long-term water resistance and condition the wood.  The only finishes I know of that do that are oil finishes.  Oil keeps handles in top shape, resists moisture and allows you to feel the texture of the wood without causing blisters as you swing the ax.  Though oil finishes offer good protection most of the time, if you carry your ax in predominantly wet regions, you may want to apply an  oil/beeswax mixture to the wood.  The wax offers better water resistance than oil alone.

Gransfors Bruks stands out for being the first modern company to fit their axes with linseed oiled handles.  From the beginning, company owner Gabriel Branby made a commitment to provide his axes with straight-grained, hand-rubbed, oil finished handles.  The result of Branby’s raising the bar on ax handle selection and finishing is that it forced competitors to improve their products as well.  Today, all of the boutique ax makers provide markedly better handles than they did a decade ago.  Still, even the boutique axes, including Gransfors Bruks, require additional weatherproofing work on their handles.  Here is what I do –

a) Smooth out the Grain

If the handle has been coated with any sort of hard or gloss finish, it must be stripped.  Use 80-grit emery paper (wood sandpaper).  This sanding will also remove any surface finish left by the boiled linseed oil.  (If you are working with a boutique ax, you won’t need to sand anything so your job will be much easier just go straight to the section on “Handle Finish”.)

When done, wet the handle thoroughly with water and let dry.  This will raise the grain of the wood.  Sand the handle again, using 100-grit sandpaper, to smooth the raised grain.  Repeat this wetting and sanding until the grain can no longer be felt after the handle has dried.   These steps will ensure that if the ax is wetted in prolonged rain, the handle will remain smooth and not produce blisters.

b) Give the handle some purchase

Give the bottom six inches (or up to the bend of the handle if it’s curved), a final sanding with 60-grit paper to provide a slightly coarse texture for the grip hand.

c) Burnish the cut ends

Finally, sand the cut ends of the handle (the eye and the handle bottom) up through 220-grit abrasive until polished smooth.  Now the handle is ready to accept a  new finish.

d) Apply a finish to the handle

Even if I plan to use an oil/beeswax finish, I start by giving the handles several coats of raw linseed oil (food-grade flaxseed oil).  Warm about four or five tablespoons of the oil in an iron vessel until it just begins to smoke, then rub it into the handle with a rag.   Do not immediately wipe off the excess oil.  Allow at least an hour for the oil to fully soak into the wood.  Before applying the next coat, wipe the handle down.  At least three or four coats should be rubbed into the handle, repeating the applications over the next couple of days.  Once the handle begins to take on a soft sheen, you’ll know that it has been fully saturated with the oil.

e) Protect the cut ends

Handle treatment is not done until you’ve sealed the cut ends of the handle. This step is important.  On many old axes, you’ll discover that the ends are often checked and cracked.  That’s due to water penetrating the fibers of the wood over time.  No amount of oil or wax will do the trick here.  You’ll want to completely seal the ends with an impenetrable finish.  For this purpose, I use Tried and True Varnish Oil.  This product is a completely natural linseed oil and pine resin varnish.  In Europe it’s known as hard oil.  The formula is actually coachmaker’s varnish, a product dating from the 1850’s.  Varnish Oil produces a highly durable finish that soaks deep into the grain of the wood to seal completely, leaving a flexible, semi-gloss sheen.   The maker claims that Varnish Oil is for indoor use only but I’ve found that it works fine for this purpose.  The stuff is expensive ($18.00/pint) but is applied in very thin coats, so a little goes a long way.  At the eye, I use a foam brush to apply a coat thick enough to fill the spaces between the eye and the head.  On the bottom, I apply a thin coat.  Allow the oil to absorb for an hour before wiping completely dry and buffing with a soft cloth.  Let this cure for at least 24 hours, then burnish with #0000 steel wool.  Repeat at least three or four times for full, long-term protection.

Handle Protection: Left to right: food-grade flaxseed oil (raw linseed oil), Tried and True Varnish Oil (Coachmaker’s Varnish) and Howard’s Butcher Block Conditioner (a semi-soft, food-grade mineral oil and wax blend).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oil and Beeswax – the magical mixture

After the handle has been completely protected with an oiled finish and the ends sealed with varnish, you may want to protect it further for use in very wet weather.  This is where an oil and beeswax treatment comes in.  I use this wonderful mixture for so many things.  It is valuable for protecting ax heads and carbon steel knife blades from rust and for treating leather knife and ax sheaths in addition to using on wood handles.  To make the compound, place a beeswax disc (the kind sold for lubricating wooden drawer glides) in a half pint, wide-mouth Mason jar and add raw linseed oil to cover by more than double.  Heat the mixture in a microwave oven on medium power until liquefied and stir well.  Let cool until the compound hardens to a paste that is softer than the consistency of shoe polish.  It should glisten with the oil when your finger is rubbed over the surface.  However, it should not be so soft as to be more oily than waxy.  If you don’t like the consistency after hardening, just reheat, add more wax or oil as needed, microwave on medium, blend and cool again.  Oil and beeswax paste can be stored indefinitely.

To apply to wood handles, I reheat the compound until liquefied and rub the hot mixture into the wood.  This insures complete absorption.  For subsequent coats, just apply it in the solidified state to the handle and rub it in.  Just one or two coats do the trick.

Note: I’ve experimented with Howard brand Butcher Block Conditioner on handles in place of my homemade compound with good results though the product doesn’t have as much body.  It soaks into the wood readily and is easy to apply.

Handle maintenance

After this initial prep and treatment, wood handles should be oiled at least twice a year or more if you live in an arid climate.  If the ax has been carried for long periods in rainy or wet snowy conditions, allow the handle to dry for several days before re-oiling.  To clean a dirty handle, sponge it with a mixture of Murphy’s Oil Soap and water, allow to dry, then reapply the raw linseed oil.  Reapply a coat of varnish to the top and end of the handle occasionally.

Step Three – Protect the ax head –

The chief enemy of an ax head is rust.  Protect it by applying a coat of the magical mixture.  First, rub the ax head with a light machine oil (I use Ballistol), then heat the linseed oil/beeswax compound to soften it and apply a coating to the head.  Upon cooling, the wax will harden a bit, leaving a protective coating on the steel.

Storage

After you’ve worked so hard to get your ax in shape, you’ll most likely want to hang it above the fireplace like a trophy fish.  And no doubt it would look great there, especially in a log cabin.  However, you DO NOT want to store your axes indoors in a dry location.  The constant lack of humidity will cause the handle to shrink enough to become loose.  It’s best to keep axes in a shed or garage, protected from moisture but still subjected to humidity and changes in temperature.

In closing

There will be some who won’t go to all this work for an ax.  Axes are not valuable to our daily existence like they once were and do not merit the same kind of care they were given in the past.  Yet, there still exists a small cadre of serious ax users that use and depend on their wilderness ax.  And there are the cabin builders and other craftsmen who use fine axes to shape wood.  These folks always take the time to properly prep and care for their axes.  If prepped correctly and cared for, a fine ax can be passed down for generations. Yours could too.

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part Two

Re-profiling the Head, Convexing the Bit & Edge Honing

File marks on a vintage Plumb ax head, circa 1950. This old ax was found in new, unused condition.

 

Before putting an edge on an ax, you should always check to see if re-profiling is necessary.  Re-profiling means to change the shape of primarily the cheeks, that part of the head, just forward of the eye, down to within a half-inch of the bit., when viewing the head from above.  In my poorly drawn example below, you can see that some axes can have a very thick profile while other are quite thin.  Some may be very convexed and some may be ground nearly straight.  The profile of the head makes all the difference in how an ax performs. The most common issue you will encounter is that the cheeks of the ax are too thick, even if the general shape is good.

 

Ax Profile Grinds

 

Sharpening an ax without first thinning down the cheeks makes for a dangerous, inefficient ax because the resulting edge will be stunted, making it likely for the ax to bounce out of the cut when chopping.  If any thinning needs to be done, you should endeavor to create a proper ax profile.  This is one part of the re-profiling task.  The other is to convex the bit into the edge.  For now, we’ll look at getting the profile in order.

Does your ax even need re-profiling?

Today’s boutique axes are carefully ground for a specific use and usually do not need much in the way of re-profiling.  True, their edges may be delivered less than sharp but the profiles are generally good.  So, if you go the route of purchasing a boutique model, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy.

However, if you are dealing with a utility grade or vintage ax you may find that the profile will need some work.  Vintages axes in particular were often left quite thick as it was assumed that the new owner would grind the ax according to its intended use.  I’ve found a number of old axes that were never ground before the edge was sharpened.  These are problems can only be corrected by re-profiling.  What if the ax has been ground too thin?  An ax that’s too thin doesn’t throw chips well and sticks with every chop, requiring a tug to free it.  This is not only tiresome but will eventually result in loosening the handle.  Such an ax may be used for limbing but it will never be a good splitting or chopping ax.  Remember – you can always take steel off the head but you can’t add it back on!

To determine if an ax needs to be re-profiled and how much work needs to be done, you’ll need an ax gauge.  Bernard Mason included a full-size template for an ax gauge in his book Woodsmanship (A. S. Barnes and Company, New York, NY, 1954.  The illustration was also reproduced in the USFS Manual An Ax to Grind by Bernie Weisgerber (document No. 9923-2823P-MTDC, July 1999) on page 35.  I’ve included the illustration here but note that it has not been reproduced in the size to be used as a template.

 

Illustration by Frederick S. Kock, from Woodsmanship by Barnard S. Mason, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, 195

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ax Gauge in use. While the cheeks of this ax have already been thinned down considerably, further work needs to be done according to the ax gauge. The bit should fit into the gauge, up to the point of the opening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cut my gauge out of chipboard, a thick, sturdy cardboard found at any hobby or scrapbooking store.

When checking an ax at this point, you simply want to determine if the bit will fit entirely into the gauge.  If the cheeks are too thick and prevent the ax from fitting entirely into the gauge, re-profiling is needed.  If the cheeks are so thin that the ax does not “fill out” the cutout of the gauge, it has been ground too thin.  If the difference is slight, don’t worry, the ax will likely be a good one.  If the difference is significant, well – you can always find another ax!

The proper ax grind

The goal of re-profiling is to produce the classic fan grind illustrated here:

On a full-sized ax, the top of the fan grind begins at a point approximately 3-inches back from the cutting edge down to within a half-inch of the edge.  This is to allow for properly convexing the grind into the edge.  As the 3-inch depth is relative to a full-sized ax, it is of course, proportionally smaller if the head is smaller.

Re-profiling – 

There are a number of ways to re-profile an ax.  The time-honored, traditional method is to use an old-fashioned pedal grindstone like the one pictured below.

 

Illustration by Frederick S. Kock, from Woodsmanship by Barnard S. Mason,   A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, 1954

Good luck finding one of these nowadays (and having the room to store and use it)!  Let’s look at other options –

The  modern, fast and efficient way to do the job is to use a belt sander.  The Edge Master’s Pro Knife Sharpening System and the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener are two examples of belt sander sharpeners.  The belt cassette of the Work Sharp device can be rotated into “grinder” position to be used hand-held, with the ax placed in a vice, making it very handy for this kind of work.

When sharpening with a belt sander, be sure to keep the ax moving so that you do not risk ruining the temper.  Just don’t let it rest in one spot for too long and always remember to use light pressure.  While you generally do not want to apply enough pressure with a belt sander to create a shower of sparks, note that with the Work Sharp Knife and Tool Sharpener, sparks will always be generated when using the coarse and medium grit belts on carbon steel.   No matter the brand of belt sander, when you are re-profiling, check the edge frequently with your bare hand to see if the edge feels warm.  If it does, stop and let the blade cool down before making another pass.  You do not want to generate enough heat to risk ruining the temper.  It is best to have a can of cold water handy to dip the head into when it begins to feel warm to the touch.  To lessen the chances of ruining the temper, it’s best to do most of the re-profiling with the single-cut mill file and only refine the profile with a belt sander.

Of course, you can use hand tools only.  This will certainly take a lot longer but will never endanger the temper.  Keep in mind that hand work can be quite a job if the ax is tempered quite hard.  A vintage Plumb ax I own proved soft enough to easily re-profile with just sandpaper.  I started with 80-grit and worked up through 600 grit in just over half an hour and was done (I ran a file over the vintage Plumb ax shown at the top of this post to see if the temper was like that of the other I own and it was just the same).  Based on my experience with these two Plumbs I am of the opinion that the company tempered their axes rather soft.  By comparison, the vintage Harrold ax I restored is one of the hardest I’ve worked on.  A file slid right off the bit leaving hardly a mark.  To speed up the process I had to use a coarse diamond hone to thin down the edge.  Yet, as hard as it was, I still managed to refine the convex with sandpaper – so it can be done.  Let’s look at the tools I use for the job:

Re-profiling Tools: Top to bottom and left to right: 1) sanding block with mouse pad glued to the surface with Barge Cement. This one is used with sandpaper of various grits, 2) sanding block used with leather for stropping, 3) set of flexible diamond hones (coarse, medium and fine), 4) single-cut mill (ax) file (the filing grooves are only in one direction).  The file is resting on a 5) file cleaning brush, 6) Gransfors Bruks diamond file, and 7) Gransfors Bruks standard ax file.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best tutorial over re-profiling using these tools and method can be found here.

Though the video is about sharpening, the methods described can be modified just a bit for re-profiling.  NOTE: I just cannot get an ax sharp enough for my liking by using this method.  I think that perhaps I put too much pressure on the sanding block or something.  As a result, I use a different method to hone the edge (I’ll get into that later).

To begin, modify the tutorial by making straight strokes with the mill file, from the bit towards the poll, rather than at an angle. Keep the strokes flat at this point and DO NOT follow the curve of the convexed edge (if the ax has one).  Tilt the handle of the file up and off of the bit while making the stroke, filing the flat of the blade using the coarse side of the file.  Begin at at the center of the head, at the top of the convex “roll” (1/2 inch forward of the bit).  Push the file toward the poll, ending your stroke at a point 2 1/2 inches back, to create the apex of the fan.  You will immediately see the high spots that must be thinned down in just a few strokes.  Do not file the flat of the blade farther back than the top of the fan or the ax will stick in the wood and will be weakened due to being too thin.  The shiny, newly filed metal will serve as your guide, marking the boundary of the grind.

Once the outer edge of the grind has been established at top center, move to the outside edges to work on the rest of the fan.  I find it easier to switch at this point, from straight strokes to filing at an angle.  Remember to tilt the tail of the file up and off the bit.  File in opposing directions, starting with the coarse side of the file.  Then follow with up with the fine side.

Ax Re-profiling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the Gransfors Bruks ax files are much more expensive than a mill file, I prefer to use them for this purpose.  The short length of these files limits waste removal to a distance of three inches, which is just right for the job.

I find it easiest to clamp the ax to the edge of a work table to keep it steady using one bar clamp on the back of the ax head and two on the handle.  After working on both sides of the head, check the bit in the ax gauge to see if more filing is required.  Once the ax snugly fits the gauge, the filing is done.

Smooth everything out –

Once the fan grind has been created, clean up the rest of the head if it is significantly scarred, battered or pitted.  Ignoring the bit (you’ll work on it later), use both sides of the mill file to smooth everything out, taking care to preserve the makers stamp.  Your goal here is to reduce the appearance of pitting and other damage and square up the poll if need be.  Do not attempt to file deep scars completely out as you could easily alter the shape or weight of the ax!

When satisfied, go over the filed surface (including the fan grind) with 80-grit abrasive paper, followed by 100-grit paper and a 100-grit foam pad.  The paper will quickly smooth out any offending rugosities while the foam conforms better to minor indentations.  Now, return to the fan grind and use the sanding block as in the tutorial, working through the grits until you end up with a satin finish on every part of the head except the bit.  NOTE:  If the ax is not significantly scarred, battered or pitted, you can limit the filing and sanding to the area of the fan grind.  Now you’re ready to start on the bit and edge.

Take care of any chips –

If the edge has suffered a chip or two, these need to be removed before you try to convex anything.  Start by filing each chip out with the mill file.  Just file the spot flat.  When the edge is sharpened, any small flat spots will have been curved into the bit and will be unnoticeable.  If the chips are larger, you do the same thing but beware!  If you file away too much metal you can go beyond the hardened bit and end up with an ax that won’t hold an edge (I would pass up any vintage ax that is found with a deep chip).  Once any chips have been filed out you are ready to convex the bit.

Convexing and blending the bit into the cheeks –

All axes should have a convex profile.  But what about the bit and how it is shaped?  Some, like the Swedish boutique axes, terminate in a convex.  Most others terminate in a “V “bevel.

A beveled edge.

A convexed edge. This ax was never ground so the cheeks have not been thinned. You can see that the resulting edge is much too thick and needs some work.

To create the right profile and edge, the goal is to blend the bit into the newly thinned cheeks in a smooth, uninterrupted convex profile and then work on whatever edge you desire as a last step.  For this task, I use the plastic backed diamond hones.  The thin plastic backing makes it possible to flex the hones slightly, which helps to develop a curved bit profile.  Work through the hones from coarse to fine, following the instructions in the tutorial.  You should end up with an unpolished convexed surface, from the cutting edge to the beginning of the fan grind.  The convex is not done yet though!  It requires further refining and to do that, I use a different method, requiring another set of tools.

Refining the bit and edge honing – 

I use the following tools for this job:

Bit Refining/Edge Honing Tools: Top to bottom and left to right: 1) Paddle hone, 2) Stropping compound, 3) mouse pad, 4) sandpaper and abrasive foam pads in various grits, 5) Ceramic hone (mine is from a Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker), 6) Gransfors Bruks double-sided ax stone, 7) Eze-Lap diamond “stone”.  All tools are resting on 8) a large piece of leather, about 3/32 inch thick that I use in place of a mouse pad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tools are used in this order:

  1. Sandpaper.  In grits varying from 80 grit through 600 grit paper (you can go further, with 600 grit or above bur remember, it’s an ax not a surgical scalpel).  The sandpaper is laid upon either a mouse pad or if like me you use too much pressure, a leather pad.
  2. Eze-Lap diamond “stone”.  The purpose of the stone is to create a small “V” grind at the edge.  This results in less sharpness but makes the edge far more durable.
  3. Ceramic hone.  Diamond sharpeners do not polish the surface of the edge and that is important to achieving maximum sharpness.  The very hard ceramic serves to finish and polish the edge.  (The Gransfors Bruks stone is used for field sharpening.  In use, you start with the coarse side of the stone, followed by fine side).
  4. Leather paddle strop loaded with polishing compound.  Even a highly polished edge must be stropped to remove the tiny burr that is the result of sharpening.

A great tutorial over refining the bit can be found here (the ax tutorial begins two minutes, twelve seconds into the video).  In order to establish a convex grind, I modify the tutorial by starting with 80 grit sandpaper to quickly develop the convex profile.  The key to the system is using some sort of resilient backing for the sandpaper so that it conforms to the curvature of the edge and creates a convex profile.  Usually, the backing is a thick foam computer mouse pad.  Note that if you apply too much pressure to the tool being sharpened you can quickly dull the edge.  This is because the resilient mouse pad allows the sandpaper to rise up over the edge which will quickly dull it.  If like me you find that you use too much pressure, switch to a smooth square of leather about 1/8 to 3/32 inch thick.  Leather is far less resilient than a mouse pad but will still do the trick.  Once the ax fits into the gauge move on to finer and finer grits of abrasive paper to polish the surface of your work.  I usually work up through 600 grit paper and then finish by stropping the edge (see below).

The micro bevel, field sharpening and stropping – 

The main reason that some like the terminal convex edge is because it’s sharper than one that is beveled.   I generally prefer a convexed edge modified by terminating the convex with a  small “V” bevel as it improves durability.  Note that if you field sharpen an ax with a purely convexed edge, you’ll actually create some sort of bevel in the process.   This video shows how field sharpening is done.  Note that the instructor is using a properly thinned and convexed ax so is nothing more needs to be done.  That’s the beauty of purchasing a fine boutique ax to begin with.

The profile of the vintage Harrold ax I’ve been restoring is good according to the ax gauge.  The edge has been given a small “”V” bevel for maximum edge retention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stropping –

Finally, I polish the edge further by stropping it with a paddle strop loaded with polishing compound.

When  the edge of a cutting tool is sharpened, a burr is created along the very edge.  This burr is like a very thin, flexible flap of steel,  When you sharpen one side of the blade the burr flexes to curve over to the opposite side.  When you sharpen the opposite side, it curves back to the side you are not working on and so on.     The video above is about honing the edge using only sandpaper and it generally works well.  However, this method produces a very long burr which I do not like.

Holding the ax in one hand, edge away, I start by pushing the paddle across the curved surface of the convex, avoiding the very edge.  The surface of the convex will quickly develop a high polish.  As soon as the surface begins to really shine, begin to strop the edge.  Stropping will remove the burr created by sharpening and will polish the edge smooth.  Now, wipe the head down with light machine oil to remove the filing and sanding dust and you’re done!

You should end up with a properly thinned and convexed ax that is quite sharp. NOTE:  you often hear folks speak of an ax being razor sharp.  I’ve done it as well.  And of course, some axes such as the Gransfors Bruks models do come razor sharp.  But shaving sharpness depends on the thinness of the bit and hardness of the steel.  The Plumb ax pictured at top is just not hard enough to develop such a degree of sharpness.  And while the Gransfors axes are indeed razor sharp, they accomplish that by being too thinly profiled to be a good all-around ax.  Also – axes do not have to be shaving sharp in order to do the work they are intended for.  They are chopping tools.  If you run your fingernail over the edge, it should bite into the nail and not slip off.  That’s sharp enough for ax work.

Once the re-profiling is done, only the edge of the ax will need to be touched up using the mouse pad/sandpaper method and the stone and strop.  In just a few minutes your ax will be ready to use again.

Ax Prep, Sharpening & Care – Part One

Vintage ax head in the process of being restored.  This ax was found in an abandoned house.  It was quite rusted and moderately pitted.  The ax had never been ground requiring significant re-profiling.  Due to the work involved, there was no way to preserve the patina.  The re-profiling was nowhere near finished when this photo was taken.

This is the first installment of a series of posts on my methods of prepping, weatherizing and caring for axes.  You may do things differently but I’ve found this system to work well for me.  I’ve organized the tasks involved in order of what to do as soon as you get your new (or old) ax home.  No matter how well made it is, no matter what has been done for you by the manufacturer, no ax is delivered in a weatherproofed state.  If you want an ax to depend on, for days, weeks, or months in wilderness, under all conditions, the head and handle should be properly prepped and treated to protect everything from water damage.  Water is the enemy of the steel head and the wooden handle.  You’ll have to prepare the ax for serious wilderness use.  In addition, most axes are not delivered as sharp as they should be.  If you own an ax, you should know how to sharpen it and how to keep in sharp – at home and in the field.  You should also know how to store your ax and protect it against rust and developing a loose handle.  Eventually however, a wood handle will work loose.  In that event, you should know how to rehang your ax.  So let’s begin with the tasks of ax prep.

To prepare an ax is a joy.  It’s not something that you do in a day.  It takes time and work, spread out over a couple of days or more.  Your reward is a tool that will serve you for decades without fail.  Folks today are often surprised and disappointed to find out that they have to invest time and sweat before using an ax but this is nothing new.  Until the introduction of the Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings hand forged axes, no ax was ready to be used as purchased.  It wasn’t until the late 1920’s that one could even buy an ax in the store with a handle.  Until then, when you bought an ax, you selected a head out of a box and proceeded to have it properly ground and honed and then hung it, often with a handle made from a pattern handed down through generations.  The introduction of the “store-bought” ax occurred with the emergence of an urban population ignorant of ax use and care.

Where to start

The tasks involved in head prep will vary greatly depending on the condition of the ax.  It is new or vintage?  Utility or premium grade?  Well maintained or neglected for years? Let’s start with a moderately difficult scenario – a scarred, moderately pitted old ax with a lot of surface rust.   The head was never properly ground by the owner and while the poll is scarred, luckily, it is not mushroomed (I generally avoid old axes that have a mushroomed poll).

Your first step is to clean up the head.  Many old axes and most modern utility grade axes feature a painted head.  I don’t like a painted head at all.  The paint is going to get marred with use and will eventually wear off, leaving little to no rust protection.  Because of this, I always remove any paint as a first step in preparing an ax. It is assumed that this is to be an ax to use, so the old handle, regardless of outward appearance is cut off and removed prior to restoration.  An old handle should never be trusted on an old ax as they are often dry rotted inside the eye.

Handle removal

DO NOT follow the recommendation, often found in the old camping books, to bury the bit of an ax in the ground and build a small fire over the ax head to burn the remaining handle out.  There is simply too great a chance to heat the head enough to destroy the temper.  Instead, saw the handle off close to the head, put the head in a vice and drill several holes through the handle to relieve the wedge.  Next, turn the head upside down to knock the handle out as the eye is usually tapered at the bottom.  I like to rest the ends of the head on two wood blocks to suspend the eye off the work table.  If you cut a groove in one block a half inch deep, to accept the bit end of the head and a channel wide enough to accept the pole end of the head, and of the same depth, it will not move while you are doing the work.  The handle can now be driven out.  Experts typically use an ax drift for the job.  As I don’t have a drift, I use a length of steel rod about six inches long.  Pound the end of the rod with a hand sledge to drive the handle out of the eye and you are ready for the next step.

Head prep

In the case of a vintage ax that was properly ground and well maintained, having surface rust but no significant pitting, you’ll want to remove the offending crud, rust and paint, yet preserve the patina that has developed over decades.  To do this, use the Soda Ash and Battery Charger Method. 

NOTE – This procedure creates Hydrogen and should only be done in a well-ventilated area!  Make certain that it is not done near a flame or anything that could produce a spark!

You will need:

  • 12-volt battery charger with adjustable amperage.  Best would be a charger with a 5-10 amp setting.  
  • Soda Ash (Arm and Hammer Washing Soda is one brand)
  • A large plastic bucket or similar container (large enough to suspend the ax head into the center of the container without being near any of the sides and not resting on the bottom).
  • Six to eight 1/2 x 8 inch steel concrete anchor bolts
  • Steel wire
  • A large diameter stick, long enough to span the width of the plastic container
  • Duct tape

 

 

Instructions:

  1. Fill the container with warm to hot water up to just below the lip.
  2. Add 1/4 cup of the soda ash and mix well with a stick or large spoon.
  3. Arrange the anchor bolts around the edge of the plastic container, long ends down, hanging the “L” over the edge of the container, facing out.  IT IS IMPORTANT TO USE ENOUGH ANCHOR BOLTS TO COMPLETELY SURROUND THE AX HEAD.  This process is similar to the reverse of plating.  The crud being removed from the head is attracted to the anchor bolts, which work as a set of anodes.  Anodes work in line of site.  If you use one or two anodes, they will only remove the crud from the surface directly in front of them.  The more anodes the better the crud removal.
  4. Wrap wire tightly around the inside corner of the “L” bend of one of the bolts, twisting it tightly to make good contact. Run the wire to the next bolt and do the same.  Continue until all of the bolts are connected by the same length of wire, all evenly spaced around the edge of the plastic container.  After the last bolt has been wrapped with wire, leave a length of wire long enough to attach it to a lead on the battery charger.
  5. Use U-shaped loops of duct tape from the outside surface of the container, around the bolt, and back to the outside of the container, to hold each bolt in place.  Run a long length of wire through the eye of the head, looping around the axe.  Twist the wire around itself tightly to make a good contact.  Do this so that the wire ends up coming out the top of the head.
  6. Wrap the wire a couple of time around the center of the stick, adjusting as necessary so the head is suspended halfway down in the water when the stick is resting on the container.  Make sure that a very long length of the wire extends beyond the stick to attach to a lead on the battery charger.
  7. Connect the positive (+) lead clamp of a 12 volt battery charger to the wire that is attached to the connected anchor bolts.  These bolts work as a set of anodes, to attract the particles you want to remove from the ax head.
  8. Connect the negative (black,) lead of the 12 volt battery charger to the length of wire that is attached to the ax head and looped around the stick.
  9. Before turning on the battery charger, make certain that your connections are attached to the correct poles and that the ax head does not touch any of the anodes.
  10. Turn on the battery charger and set it on a 5-10 amp charge for 24 hours.
  11. Check the ax head after the 24 hour period.  To do so, TURN OF THE BATTERY CHARGER and lift the head by the wire looped around the stick.
  12. At this point, any paint on the head should be mostly removed.  If no paint is on the head, most of the dirt or grease should be gone.  What has been removed can now be seen on the anodes.  To remove stubborn paint, lightly scour with a scrub sponge or Brillo pad.
  13. Lower the ax head back into the water and turn on the battery charger again.  Repeat the process and check again in another 24 hours.
  14. Once most of the crud is cleaned, pour the water out and refill the container with fresh water and soda ash.  Scrub the bolts clean of the crud with a Brillo pad and replace in the container.  Reattach the wire to the ax head, making sure it covers a different spot on the head than before. Lower the ax head back into the container and repeat the process one last time to make sure everything is really clean.
  15. Remove the ax head from the container and immediately dry it with a towel, followed by an application of light machine oil to prevent the formation of rust.

 

You should end up with a perfectly clean, paint free and rust free ax head, with the patina of the old steel intact.

If the head is badly pitted, significantly marred, has not been properly ground or requires re-profiling, the work to be done will remove much if not all of the patina so don’t worry about trying to preserve it.  Don’t sharpen the ax at this point as you do not want to be working on a sharp ax if you can help it.  In the case of a painted head, start by sanding it off using 80-grit wet or dry abrasive sheet for fast removal.  I like to start with paper backed abrasive sheets because you can put more pressure behind the stroke.   What can’t be sanded off with the paper can be removed with a 60-grit foam sheet as foam conforms to the surface of the steel better than paper.  Continue to sand the head with progressively finer grits of foam sheet to remove the marks made by the previous sanding, up through 100-grit abrasive.  This sounds tedious but it goes fast.  Then rub the head down with a light coat of oil to remove all of the sanding dust and wipe everything dry.

The next post will cover re-profiling the head and convexing the bit.

Coleman 242c Pressure Lantern Made in 1948

I’ve always wanted a Coleman 242 series “Junior” lantern.  These were the small-sized, single-mantle lanterns produced by Coleman beginning in 1933 (Model 242) through 1970 or so (242E).  Of these, I am most attracted to the early models, 242 through the 242C lanterns with the nickel plated founts (fuel tanks).  After WWII, the 242C lanterns were also produced with painted tanks, which I do not care for at all.

I found this Model 242C lantern (manufactured March, 1948) at a garage sale last week and paid one dollar ($1.00) for it!!!  What a find!

Being that the lantern is now 65 years old, I did not immediately try to light it.  First, the insides needed a good cleaning as fuel that had been left in the tank had turned to varnish.  To begin the process, I ran a few ounces of Berryman’s B-12 Chemtool through the system under pressure, followed by the same amount of lacquer thinner, swished around the tank and left for an overnight soak.  Deep in the bowels of the tank, Coleman pressure lanterns (and stoves) are fitted with a “check valve”.  This valve employs a small ball bearing that works to create a vacuum inside the pump housing on the up-stroke of the pump.  This causes air to enter the pump housing to fill the vacuum.  On the down-stroke, this air forces the ball bearing forward, allowing the air to enter and pressurize the tank.  If the check valve fails while the tank is pressurized and the mantle is burning, air is released back up the pump housing instead of fuel – a great safety feature.  Often, old fuel that has turned to varnish “gums up” the little ball bearing making the check valve inoperable.  In my experience, a long soak in lacquer thinner has always worked to free a gummed up check valve.  After the thinner was drained, the tank was filled with the same amount of new, clean white gas.  This was swished around, drained, emptied and the tank refilled and the process repeated until water-clear fuel was observed coming from the tank.

Next, for safety’s sake, I installed a new valve packing and fuel cap gasket.   The packing prevents fuel from leaking at the on/of valve and of course, the gasket seals the fuel cap.  If these seals fail, you could have a serious fire on or in your hands!  Remember the “O” ring failure on the Challenger Space Shuttle?  After installing the seal and valve packing, the stove was filled with fresh Coleman fuel (white gas) to which one ounce of the Berryman’s B-12 had been added.  Then I fired the thing up.   The photos are from this first ignition.  The $1.00 lantern works like a charm!

Close-up of fount. The inscription reads “The Sunshine of the Night – Coleman“.

The little beauty did not require much external cleaning up.  The nickel plating still looks decent and the porcelain vent (the dark green part) is not too nicked up.  All in all, a great, functional lantern for a very, very low price.   Now, I just need to build a small cabin to light with it!

Council Tool Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe Review

 

 

 

Spending much of my youth and early professional life as a backpacker and teaching backpacking, I not only rejected carrying an axe or hatchet, I used to snicker at the idea of anyone outdoors thinking they needed one outside of a hunting camp.  I considered the old Boy Scout manuals, with pages devoted ink to the tools as woefully outdated.  As a Leave No Trace instructor, I preached against carrying axes or hatchets, believing them to be not only useless in the modern outdoors but the source of some of the most egregious environmental damage found in popular campsites.

My opinion regarding axes and hatchets has changed over the years.  The evolution occurred after I started down the path of traditional camping.  And believe me; once you start down that path, you quickly realize just how important a wilderness tool the axe can be.  To begin with, I realized that it is not the axe that is to blame for environmental damage but rather, how it is wielded.  Folks who routinely show disregard for the environment will do so in most everything they do in camp.  Removing the axe or hatchet from their kit may lessen their impact but only by a little.  Sadly, there will always be duffers and chumps to spoil things.  Second, I’ve realized that for most camping, having an axe or hatchet can be quite useful.  In fact, given what I now know, I would say the axe or hatchet is the single most important edged tool you can carry in wilderness, particularly if you are camping in the old style.  But even if you are backpacking using modern gear, the hand axe (hatchet) can come in quite handy.  With an axe, you can quickly process the wood required to build a fire and shelter if you have to spend an unexpected night out.  Splitting your fuel wood to get to the dry center will often be the only way to successfully start a warming fire after the woods have been soaked with rain.  Sure, you could probably to these tasks with a knife but with MUCH more time and effort than with an axe or hatchet.

Soon after my traditional camping interest was sparked, I began searching for the one axe that would meet any task encountered on a wilderness trip, on foot or canoe.  Would it be possible to find a model that would work in all situations if I were limited to just one axe?  It would have to be light and compact but one that could meet the challenge of any of the numerous tasks of wilderness camping.  In my quest, I accumulated a LOT of axes and discovered that I really like them.  Over the years I’ve collected vintage and modern American axes, hand-crafted, custom-made American axes and a number of Swedish boutique axes in all sizes, weights and patterns.  Some were astonishingly inexpensive and some cost more than I ever thought I would spend on an axe or hatchet.  Some have proven to be very good axes and some have been a disappointment.  I considered some to be the perfect axe for a bit, only to later change my mind.  Some proved to be too light for certain tasks and others, too large and unwieldy.  Many of the axes I’ve collected have been good at chopping but none were outstanding splitting axes.  Oh, they could split kindling better than a knife, and certainly, some were better splitters than others, but none were good enough at both tasks for me to consider them the perfect camp axe.

One of my acquisitions a few years ago was the Council Tool Hudson Bay axe with 28-inch handle (Council Tool #175HB28).   If you are not familiar with the company, you should be.  Council Tool has been making striking tools since 1886 in their factory in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina.  Remarkably, the company is still owned and operated by the Council family.  Council Tool is one of the last remaining manufacturers of American-made axes and other striking tools.  Their products are supplied to the National Forest Service and the military and as such, are made to be “users” rather than boutique axes.   I found the Hudson Bay axe to be well made and to have good temper but like nearly all modern production axes, the finishing and craftsmanship was below that of the Swedish boutique axes.  Yet, I found that the ax to be far better than the finishing led me to believe.

I soon corresponded with the folks at Council Tool, urging them to produce a line of premium axes to compete with the Swedish brands that have come to dominate the market.  I included my ideas on the features I’d like to see in the axes and a list of what patterns and sizes they should offer.  No doubt others were making the same request because their response was that Council Tool had already been considering such a move.  The company decided to enter the boutique axe market in the spring of 2011 with the introduction of their Velvicut Premium Felling Axe, followed by the model I’m reviewing here.

The Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe ~

In late September of 2011, two Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axes (Model #JP20HB24C) arrived at my door.  One was graciously provided by Council Tool for my review and analysis.  The other I’d purchased in order to compare a hand-picked example with one that had been randomly selected to fill an order.  Unfortunately, just days after the axes arrived, my blog went down and I could not post a review until now, so this review is quite late and should have been done long ago.

 

TWO Velvicut Hudson Bay Axes!
The sheath on the bottom has been photographed from the opposite side to show the “D” ring used to lash the axe to something.

 

Initial Impressions ~ 

The axe provided by Council Tool was fitted with a clear, “white” hickory sapwood handle.  The axe I ordered was mounted on a warm, rich, red-brown hickory heartwood handle.   Note: most of the old-timers insisted that only second-growth, clear hickory sapwood be selected for axe handles. I have seen this admonishment in nearly all of the old books that discussed axe selection.  However, according to numerous tests conducted by the United States Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, no discernible differences between the two types of hickory could be found with regard to strength or shock absorption properties, which are the most important properties of wood selected for handle stock.  In fact. I’ve seen a number of the Swedish boutique axes hung with heartwood handles.

The axes have the appearance of a finely crafted heirloom tool (which they are).  The Velvicut models come with a high quality, thick leather sheath that fully encloses the head. The sheath is modeled somewhat after a Maine guide sheath, with a “D” ring riveted to the back side in order to lash the ax inside a canoe so that it cannot be lost.  There are differing opinions as to what kind of sheath is best – one that encloses the head or one that simply covers the bit.  I personally prefer the type delivered with the Velvicut axes.  In terms of quality, this is the nicest sheath I have ever seen on a production axe, bar none.  In the tradition of the Swedish boutique axes, the Premium Hudson Bay is delivered with a beautifully designed, sturdy “booklet” attached to the handle by a length of jute (natural) twine.  The booklet provides a lot of information to the owner about the company, their products, the Velvicut line and how to care for the axe.  All in all, the presentation is very impressive.

The sheath and booklet that comes with the axe.

 

SPECIFICATIONS ~

Head Weight:   As stated by manufacturer: 2 pounds. (I asked Council Tool to weigh a completed and polished axe head before mounting on the handle to determine the exact weight of the head – it came to 2 pounds exactly)

Handle Length:   Stated by manufacturer: 24 inches.   Actual length, measured from where the handle enters the head to the bottom of the handle: 22.5 inches (Council Tool handle lengths always describe the length of the handle before hanging)

Axe Head Material:   5160 steel

Temper:   The bit is hardened to RC 50-54

Handle Material:   Hickory sapwood or heartwood or a mix of the two

MSRP:   $129.99

 

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS  

Head Construction ~ 

Here is where we find what could be considered by some to be the most significant difference between this axe and the Swedish boutique axes.  All of the Swedish makers describe their axes as being hand forged while the Velvicut line, like all Council Tool axes, are drop forged.  For some, the fact that the Council Tool axe is not hand forged is a deal breaker.  In truth however, Swedish boutique axes are also forged on a machine.  Some Swedish manufacturers forge their axes on a triphammer (also known as a smith hammer) and others on an open die drop forge (I have heard some are produced by the open die drop forge method but have not been able to confirm this).  Either way, both methods employ machine forging.

Council Tool shapes their axe heads by impression die drop forging.  This is how the overwhelming majority of axe manufacturers have made axes since the 1920’s.  This type of forging employs a die or set of dies, shaped into a mold of the intended finished product.  A steel ingot is heated and placed on the  lower die which is struck repeatedly by a falling hammer to force the steel into every crevice of the mold.  This is exactly the  same method by which nearly all of the great American axes were produced after the turn of the century.  I say nearly all because a few axe makers in Maine were using triphammers into the 1960’s.  Small ax manufacturers used triphammers in the United States long after drop forges were in use, not because the method was  inherently superior but because the small firms that used them could not afford to purchase a drop hammer in what was by then, a declining market.  Why then, do the Swedish manufacturers choose to make axes by triphammer and/or open die drop forging?  The main reason is likely cost.  Impression die drop forging requires the added expense of tooling the die molds for every size and shape of ax offered in the line.  If a maker produces small numbers of axes or wants to change or add models frequently, then triphammer or open die drop forging are the most cost effective ways to do that.  Another, not insignificant reason, is to offer the added allure of a “hand forged” stamp on the head.

The reason for this discussion about forging in what should be an axe review, is because I have seen so many axe enthusiasts look down their noses at a drop forged axe and I believe that is a mistake.  I own several Swedish boutique axes and will readily admit that they are very finely crafted.  However, the idea that the Swedish axes are superior because of the forging method is erroneous.  Shaping the head is just one step in creating an axe.  More important to making a good axe is what is done after the head has been forged (For more on forging, see  here).

One unique aspect of the Velvicut Hudson Bay axe’s head construction cannot be seen because it lies within the eye.  Because Hudson Bay patterns have a short eye length compared to other axe patterns, they do not offer the same degree of surface contact between the head and handle.  The result can be a loosening of the head after only moderate use.  Council Tool solves this problem by piercing the eye with a special punch that creates horizontal and vertical ribs on the inside surface of the eye.  The ribs make more contact area between the head to handle, ensuring a snug fit for years to come. 

The Alloy Steel/Temper ~ 

Nearly all production axe heads are made from 1050 or 1055 grade carbon steel and the Swedish boutique axes are no different.  Swedish axes get their strength and hardness from proper tempering and annealing.  The Velvicut line departs from this by being made with 5160 grade steel, which is most often used to make leaf springs.  5160 steel is a significantly harder steel than the standard grades.  According to Council Tool, 1050 or 1055 grade steels require approximately 6 to 8 blows of a 3500 lb. falling hammer to produce an axe head.  The 5160 alloy requires nearly twice as many strikes to accomplish the same thing.  Council Tool tempers their Velvicut axes to an Rc of 50 to 54.  Swedish axes are tempered to approximately Rc 57.  What does all this mean?

5160 Steel 

  • A very hard steel alloy
  • Natural hardness makes heads very tough.  Tempering hardens the bit for edge holding ability
  • Bits are hard enough to hold an edge without being brittle and are less likely to suffer damage when using in cold weather
  • The edge is easier to sharpen than harder tempered axes

1050 or 1055 Carbon Tool Steel  

  • Steel is roughly half as hard
  • The Swedish makers temper their edges harder than Velvicut axes, offering greater edge holding ability
  • Edges are more brittle due to being tempered so hard and are (slightly) more likely to chip in use
  • The very hard edges are more difficult to sharpen

The Velvicut axes are produced in such a way as to make them very tough but resilient.  They may need to be sharpened a bit more often, but I would gladly trade the slightly softer temper for greater edge durability (resistance to chipping) and ease of sharpening.  Because of how they are made, I believe the Velvicut axes would be a better choice for using in very cold conditions as they would be less likely to chip in use.

Another attribute of the Velvicut line is the depth of the edge hardening, which is markedly greater than other brands.  In some instances, the Velvicut edge hardening has been measured to be twice that of the competition.  Because the hardened edge extends deep into the head, the life of the bit will be longer than other brands.  I tested the hardness of both Hudson Bay axes by running a file over the edge and they proved to be very hard.  Note: To their credit, once they developed the die for the Velvicut version, Council Tool decided to use it to make the heads for the standard grade model as well (produced in carbon tool steel instead of 5160 steel).  That means that the standard grade axe is a much better tool that before.  Also note: Council Tool has NOT changed the product description or model number to reflect the new 2 pound head weight of the standard grade axe and you will still see it described as having a 1.75 pound head.  That weight is no longer correct.

 

A comparison of depth of hardness. Velvicut ax heads are compared to the competition. Three Velvicut heads were cut into sections and analyzed by an independent lab and compared to a competitor’s ax. Heads marked B1, B2 and C are Velvicut. The head marked D was made by a  competitor. The Council axes are through hardened from 1.75” to 2.00” back from the bit. The competitor’s ax is hardened only about .75” deep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Head pattern, grind, edge profile and finishing ~ 

Overall shape

When French explorers arrived in North America, they carried an axe of a pattern said to have originated in the “Biscayan” region of Northern Spain.  The Hudson Bay pattern is descended from this French trade axe.  Highly popular among native tribes in the North Woods and Canadian Shield, it has become the choice of those who work, live and travel in remote wilderness.  The Hudson Bay pattern was never intended as a woodlot axe but rather, a wilderness axe made for light, fast travel.  The pattern excels at shaping wood, a common task of wilderness living.

Two negative characteristics of the pattern are caused by the prominent beard that can break in use, particularly in cold weather and poor balance relative to other designs due to the added weight of the beard.  These characteristics have been addressed by Council Tool with the choice of using a harder steel and by tempering the ax to be resilient.

Profile

Compared to the standard grade version, the Velvicut axe profile is thicker overall.  When first inspecting it, I thought this would negatively affect performance but in fact, the new axe design significantly outperformed my old one.  While the greater head weight likely contributes to this, it is apparent that the new profile makes a big difference.  I know that I like the feel of this axe a lot better.  The head, around the eye, is thick but transitions smoothly down through the cheeks and tapers less dramatically than what you see on Swedish axes, particularly on the Gransfors Bruks models.  When looking down from above, the profile appears to be nearly straight, with slightly hollowed cheeks, terminating in a convexed bit silhouette.  This profile makes for an ax good for general purpose use (chopping and splitting) and one that does not glance out of the cut.  The cheeks are hollowed just enough to throw chips well.  The profile also allows the axe to cut deeply but it never requires tugging at the end of a stroke to free it.  The new profile makes this an axe that works equally well at chopping, splitting and shaping wood (cutting tent stakes and wedges).

 

Head profile is excellent. Grind symmetry is very good.

 

Edge profile and sharpness ~ 

Again, the edge looks too thick if you are used to the Swedish axes. However, it outperformed all of my Swedish axes in splitting and that thickness is what does it.  The edge profile works and that’s what matters.  Both axes were delivered significantly sharper than the standard grade model I own, but more importantly, feature a properly convexed edge ending in a “V” bevel.  This is in marked contrast to the pronounced beveled edge of my standard version.   I found the sharpness to be similar to the three Wetterlings axes I own (all of which predate Wetterlings acquisition by Gransfors Bruks) but it does not come close to the sharpness of a Gransfors Bruks edge.  Though both axes were delivered very sharp, the moderately angled  “V” bevel is too blunt and thick.  If the “V”  was more acute and the bit  thinned down, the edge would be better at both chopping and splitting.  As it is, some time will have to be spent by the owner to improve the edge for chopping.  Council Tool should strive to improve their edge but in all honestly, I’d gladly take an axe with a good profile but needing a bit more edge work over one with a poor profile, delivered razor sharp.

Surface finish ~

Here is another area where the differences between this axe and the Swedish models are most apparent.  All of the Swedish boutique axes sold in the United States are delivered with the forging scale remaining on the head.  This practice is entirely unlike any of the great vintages axes made in America.  A lot of folks like this rustic look.  I’ll admit to liking that finish as well.  However, it was never used on production American axes, many of which, featured smoothly polished, painted heads.   The Velvicut Hudson Bay axes are given a smooth satin finish and the bare metal is treated with a coating of light machine oil (I applied a coating of my own compound of raw linseed oil and beeswax immediately upon receiving them).   Personally, I like how Council Tool finishes the Velvicut heads.  I think a North American pattern axe, made by an American company, should be finished like American axes have historically been finished.

Alignment ~ 

It’s a good thing that I received two examples of the axe as it allowed me to determine to a small degree, if the craftsmanship and quality of materials were consistent.  The alignment was found to be the best I’ve seen on an American manufactured axe.  One example had perfect alignment.  The other was only very slightly misaligned.  This is also in marked contrast to my “user” grade Council Tool ax that was delivered with  poor alignment.

Grind Symmetry~

The heads on both axes were much more symmetrically ground than the standard grade model I own.  Both were delivered with an equal thickness of steel on both sides of the eye and the poll was ground straight, square and flat.  The symmetry was not absolutely perfect however, as the taper toward the poll, just behind the eye, was ground a smidgen steeper on one side than the other on both axes.

Balance ~  

The balance of a Hudson Bay pattern axe will never be perfect but this ax is as good as you’ll find.  Council Tool significantly improved the balance by lengthening the poll enough to compensate for the heavy bit without adding unnecessarily to the overall weight.  In a balance test, the edge dropped 7/8” below the centerline, which I consider to be excellent for this type.

 

Balance is excellent for this type.

 

The handle  

 

Material ~ 

The Velvicut axes are mounted on handles of American hickory, the favored species used for striking tools.  The handle blanks sourced for the Velvicut line are made from specially cut quartersawn hickory sapwood or heartwood or a mixture of both. 

Shape ~  

The handles are patterned after those found on vintage American axes.  They are smaller in diameter than the handles of Swedish axes and that slender profile gives them a bit of flex in use.  I find the Velvicut handles to be very comfortable in my smaller hands.  The look, feel and grip of the handle is superb.  I prefer the diameter and shape of the handles used by Council Tool over those of any other axe maker.

Length ~

This ax differs from most competitors because the head weight runs about 6 to 8 ounces heavier.  Most axes with a handle length between 18 and 24 inches usually have a head weight of around 1 ½ to 1 ¾ pounds.  Some may like the length to weight ratio and others may wish for a longer handle.  If you find that you want a longer handle, this is the same axe head fitted with a 26 ½ inch helve.  Personally, I love the size and weight of the Council Tool version.  It is compact for carrying in a pack or ax pocket but has the head weight to accomplish real work.

Grain Orientation ~  

In the old days, axe makers had their own saw mill and cut their own handle stock.  The lumber was cut in such a way as to obtain the largest percentage of straight-grained material possible.  As axe use declined, manufacturers began sourcing the stock from suppliers.  Cutting the lumber as in the old days is relatively expenisve because of waste.  The retail cost of a standard handle runs between $10.00 and $14.00 dollars but  to offer a handle cut to produce straight graining would be more like $25.00 or even more.  As most modern axe buyers are homeowners as opposed to professional wood cutters, to keep costs down, suppliers began cutting the lumber into planks and then cuttting the planks into the handle blanks.  Cutting lumber this way results in very few handles being straight grained.  Council Tool’s decision to specially source the handle stock for the Velvicut line has really paid off as the graining of both examples I received is excellent.  This is the result of the stock being quartersawn.  I think the added cost is worth it as you can see the difference immediately.  One axe has nearly perfect graining, while the other is off by less than about 5°.  Any modern axe that can consistently deliver a grain orientation in the range of 0° – 15° is as good as any you’ll find.   I have not seen enough of these axes to say that they meet this standard but time will tell.

 

 

Alignment is excellent on both examples

 

Helve to head fit ~ 

The fit of the helve to the head was excellent, with no gaps to be seen anywhere around the eye when viewed from the top or bottom.   In this respect, I found both axes to be every bit as good as any Gransfors or Wetterlings ax I’ve seen.

Wedge ~ 

The Velvicut axes are wedged with wood with a steel wedge driven across the wood wedge at an angle.  Some folks do not like the addition of a steel wedge and some do.  I personally think this is just how a larger sized axe should be wedged.  With the hydraulic handle mounting that Council Tool uses, plus the added security of the ribs inside the eye, this head will stay tight for many years.  Like the Swedish axes, the top end of the handle protrudes out of the top of the eye. 

 

  

Beautiful wedges on both examples.

Finish ~  

The Velvicut axe handles are sanded enough be offer a comfortable, secure grip and are then given a hand-rubbed raw linseed oil finish.  You can swing this axe all day and never get sore hands or a blister.  All in all, I believe this to be the finest handle ever used on an American axe and equals the quality and finish of any of the Swedish axes.

Performance ~ 

I’ve used these axes quite a bit at home and in camp, chopping wood, splitting kindling, cutting tent stakes and the like.   I did not improve the edge for chopping for testing as I wanted to see how both axes performed as delivered.  As I suspected, splitting performance was superb.  On a recent camping trip, I made a believer out of both of my camping partners.  One who has always been satisfied with the performance of his Fiskars axes (and who also harbors a deep mistrust of wood handled axes, as he believes they will soon loosen) used one of these axes to split kindling and became a convert.  Chopping performance did not match that of my Wetterlings.  Still, the more I’ve used these axes, the more I like them.  I plan to thin down the edges of both and see if performance improves.  My feeling is that a thinner edge and the outstanding profile of the Council Tool Hudson Bay axe will make it a great all-around axe.

 

The Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe is a superb tool and is MADE IN THE USA!

 

Now, my love for the beautiful Swedish axes has not diminished.  I believe them to be superb tools.  I also know that there are folks who would not own anything but a Swedish boutique axe.  However, their popularity has given rise to a lot of mistaken beliefs about the modern Swedish axe.  The fine Swedish axes we see today are not ancient patterns, handed down over generations but in reality, are a product of the 20th century.  And though the Swedish firms making the axes have been forging steel since at least the 19th Century (and in the case of Hults Bruk, the makers of the Hultafors and Husqvarna axes, since the 17th Century), none of these companies began making axes even close to what they produce today until they learned how to do so by visiting axe factories in the United States.  That’s right, the Swedes learned their axe making from Americans.   The United States was recognized around the globe for being the greatest axe makers in the world.  European axes were designed for hewing and shaping but were inefficient for cutting the very large hardwoods found in North America.  It was in the United States, during the 18th Century, that the greatest wood cutting axes were developed.  By the late 19th Century, European axe makers were visiting American factories to see how these superb axes were produced.   Sadly however, a peculiar characteristic of Americans is the high value they tend to place on all things new and their general rejection of anything that came before.  Once the chainsaw was developed, axe use in America steeply declined and with it, so did axe quality.

Manufacturers could not justify the cost of producing dozens of axe patterns, specially cutting their handle stock or spending the man hours finishing axes that were eseentially for homeowner use instead of being wielded by professional wood cutters.  In truth, most of the American axes sold today work fine for the homeowner who will likely use the tool very occasionally and who probably doesn’t know how to care for the tool anyway.  The better American-made axes that Council Tool produces in their standard-grade line are significantly better than most axes you’ll find in a hardware store and are very capable tools.  However, in order to keep the costs down, they are finished to be “users” and do not meet the bar that was raised by Gransfors Bruks and the other Swedish axe makers who have followed suite.

I’ve wanted to see some friendly rivalry develop among American and Swedish axe makers.  I’ve wanted, in some small way, to reclaim our nation’s recognition for producing a great axe.  I’d like to show the Swedes that we have not forgotten the craft.  For most folks who’ve wanted an American axe, until now that largely meant a vintage American axe.  This axe has changed all that.  With the introduction of the Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay model, Council Tool has crafted the best sporting axe ever produced in America.  This is an axe in pattern, size and weight that will meet the needs of guides, trappers, hunters, campers, canoeists, wilderness survival enthusiasts – most anyone in outdoor work or recreation.

Though the Velvicut Hudson Bay axe has only been on the market a little over a year, it has already recieved quite a bit of attention.  It was named a runner-up in Garden & Gun Magazine’s 2012 Best of the South awards for the outdoor category and was also also selected as one of the “Coolest Tools of 2012” by the DIY Network television show Cool Tools.   And yes, it’s the one I would choose if I were limited to just one axe.