Beauty is in the Eye of the (ax) Holder ~ Types for Wilderness Use

It’s unlikely that you’ll find any ax, contemporary or vintage, having all of the desirable characteristics listed in my last post but there are some real jewels to be had out there if you know where to look.  In the past, you could choose from dozens of ax models from many different ax makers.  And nearly every maker offered at least one line of truly fine axes.  Today, the number of high-end makers can be counted on one hand.  And that’s considering the global market, not just the United States.

Or, you can restore a vintage axe.  Many folks consider them to be better made than what can be purchased today.  And while it’s true that a lot of inexpensive old ax heads can be found at flea markets or garage sales, note that unless you have the skill to do all or most of the work yourself, a vintage ax, ground properly and restored, will cost you nearly as much as a good new one.  Also note that a NOS (new old stock) vintage ax would still require proper grinding and shouldn’t be considered usable until that work is done.  After grinding, convexing, and honing, you can easily maintain the edge but it’s difficult to significantly alter the profile of an ax without the proper equipment.  If you want to go this route, check out the Tools section of Pole and Paddle Canoe, Owner Don Merchant often has a few old axes on hand for sale and he is very knowledgeable.  He won’t sell a bad one.

Old or new, I generally send my axes to Bark River Knives for the grinding and initial convexing and any head clean up (I always ask that they give the head a satin finish).  The price will vary on how much work they need to do but figure around $40.00.  So, if you find an old ax head for $10.00, it’ll end up costing you around $70.00 for all the work and purchasing a good handle, assuming you’ll hang it yourself.

If you want to buy new, you should know that it’s easier than ever to buy a good ax.  Seven or eight years ago, there was only one or two ax brands I would have recommended, today there are at least a large handful.  And many more dealers than in the past.  Currently, Swedish-made boutique axes dominate the sporting ax field.  The first of these to gain prominence was Gransfors Bruks (pronounced brewks).  A bruk is a historic Swedish business model.  It was mostly applied to small iron working plants, such as a smithy or foundry but other manufacturers dealing in natural materials such as forest products etc were occasionally established as a bruk.  The companies operated as a self-sustaining community.  The bruk provided worker’s residences and was supported by company owned farms.  A bruk was established with the charge of managing and conserving the resources consumed as part of doing business.  Many bruks have been swallowed up by larger companies and may or may not exist in the original sense.  However, Gransfors is still a true Bruk).  Gransfors axes are beautifully made, are razor sharp and quite expensive.  Another Swedish company, S. A. Wetterlings makes a line of very similar axes.  Gabriel Branby, the man who purchased and revived Gransfors Bruks bought Wetterlings a few years ago and quickly got to work improving the fit and finish of the Wetterlings brand.  Although the head profile of the Wetterlings axes are different, they are now very close to Gransfors in fit and finish.  Wetterlings axes are more affordable but still are considered an expensive axe.  Two recently imported Swedish ax lines are Hults Bruk and HusqvarnaThe Hults Bruk name is used on axes produced by Hultafors AB, a Swedish conglomerate.  The company was a manufacturer of rulers for over 100 years before beginning to acquire various too brands in the late 19802’s.  In 1992, the company purchased Hults Bruk, a manufacturer of hammers and axes.  Everywhere else, these axes are trademarked Hultafors but in the United States the old name Hults Bruk is used, perhaps to take advantage of the name recognition of Gransfors Bruk.  Hults axes are forged at the historic Hults Bruk foundry, the oldest continually operating foundry in the world, established in 1697.  Their history of axe making is much more recent however, beginning after a company representative visited the United States in the late 1800’s to see how the greatest axe makers in the world differed from those makers in Europe.  Hults Bruk produces two lines of hickory handled axes, a premium line that is very similar to those axes made by Gransfors and Wetterlings and a slightly less well finished and less expensive line (though these are generally far better than anything found in the United States).  Hults Bruk also produces hickory handled axes under the Husqvarna name.  The Husqvarna axes are said to be factory seconds but I’ve found them to be very high quality axes.  In my opinion, they represent a real bargain.  While you won’t confuse a Husqvarna with a Hults Bruk or Wetterlings or Gransfors, note that the Husqvara hatchet ($41.00) is essentially the same as a Hults Bruk Tarnaby, which sells for around $100.00.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Still, as much as I love Swedish axes are not American pattern tools – and I do like the performance and look of an American ax.  While American axes have not traditionally matched the level of quality of Swedish models, the new Council Tool Velvicut Premium Axe line has changed all that ~

 

The Council Tool Velvicut Premium American Felling Axe (Item # JP40DV36C – 4 Lb Felling Axe with 36” Curved Handle – $170.00) was introduced in 2011 as the first model in an entirely new line of high-end axes. The Velvicut name has been resurrected from Council Tool’s best axe line of half a century ago. The Velvicut line was originally introduced to compete with the top of the line Plumb and TrueTemper axes of the day (the Plumb “Dreadnaught”, Kelly “Perfect” and “Flint Edge” axes most likely).  The Felling Axe model was followed up by the Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe (Item # JP20HB24C – 2 Lb. Hudson Bay Axe with 24” Handle – $130.00) in October of the same year.

These axes are entirely American made – forging, heat treatment, finishing, honing and hanging are all done by Council Tool in their factory in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. The “A” grade American hickory handles and stout leather sheaths are also sourced in the USA.   The felling axe was originally delivered in a commemorative box though I don’t know if Council Tool continues to do that.  While Council Tool’s standard axe line are crafted of excellent materials and are properly tempered, the Velvicut line is superior in every respect. According to Council Tool:

Premium axes are drop forged from alloy steel for strength and toughness. Heads are rough ground and profiled in a robotic work cell. Bits are quenched and tempered for superior edge holding. Bit sharpening is by hand – and an experienced one at that – with increasingly fine grit abrasives and finished with leather…Custom handles, selected for grain orientation and density, are grade “A” American hickory, white sapwood, or red hardwood. Axe heads are lightly oiled and left unpainted to showcase the natural steel beauty…This top-of-the-line, world class axe is made for the serious user, collector, outdoorsman, or tool aficionado. It is not for everyone but rather for those who seek the best.” (from the Council Tool Velvicut announcement)

I was a bit surprised and a might disappointed to learn that the first model out of the gate was a felling ax.  With a four pound head and 36” handle, it is nota sporting ax and should not even be discussed among camping axes here. However, Council’s effort to produce a very fine American made ax was a start and I was buoyed by the idea that it might be followed up by a model more appropriate to camping and wilderness use (at the time I did not know when the Hudson Bay model was going to be produced and actually expected it to be a year or more later).  I was very pleasantly surprised to get a call from Council Tool saying that the Hudson Bay axes were boxed and ready to ship in late 2011.

 

Above: Velvicut ax heads are compared to the competition. Three Velvicut heads were sectioned and analyzed by an independent lab for depth of hardness against that of a competitor. Heads marked B1, B2 and C are Velvicut heads. The head marked D is 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.  Photo used with permission of Council Tool.

Council Tool graciously sent me a pre-production Velvicut Felling Axe for evaluation.  The version I was sent was a very early example and while I found the head profile to be excellent (the ax threw chips like a dream), all was not perfection.  I had a few minor to moderate criticisms of the ax.  The head was not ground symmetrically, being thicker on one side of the eye than the other.  It was also slightly misaligned on the handle.  And while I loved the shape, diameter and finish of the hickory handle, though the graining was acceptable, it was not straight.

Though the type was not what I wished for, my experience using the ax  left me very impressed with its look, feel and performance.  To be sure I had quibbles but it was also superior to the standard grade Council Tool axes I own or have seen.  It also had very good temper.  A hardness test (running a file over the edge, toward the poll as if sharpening, showed that the steel was hard enough to hold an edge while not being as difficult to sharpen as some Swedish axes I own.  I found the balance to be excellent as well.

I submitted my critique to Council Tool and to their credit, all of my criticisms were corrected in production.  In fact, the ax eventually produced was so improved and so different than the example I was sent, it is not fair to provide an evaluation of the felling axe here.  I plan to purchase a production model in the future to give the model a proper test.

In addition, Council Tool provided me with one of their Velvicut 2 Lb. Premium Hudson Bay Axes for evaluation just prior to delivery and found it to be superb.

Until I post an evaluation, just watch this video of how the Hudson Bay axe is crafted and see it in action here.   More will be posted about this wonderful axe in the near future!

Other American brands include Vaughan and Bushnell and Barco Industries (now owners of the venerable Kelly name and makers of the Kelly “Perfect” and “Woodslasher” axes but sadly, i hear that the Kelly name is being retired).  That’s it.  Snow and Nealley axes are now assembled in the US but are no longer forged here (more about this brand below).  Everything else is made offshore or in Mexico to my knowledge.

 Types of Camping Axes ~

From Woodcraft (1939) by Bernard S. Mason

Each type of ax has its aficionados and detractors and every author or expert will recommend one size or the other as being the most useful. In his book Woodcraft (1939, the current edition is titled Boys Book of Camping and Woodcraft), Bernard S. Mason provided readers with descriptions and photographs of the ax patterns commonly used in outdoor recreation activities and which were best for particular situations. Using his list as a rough guide, plus some advice from Nessmuk and Horace Kephart, a good selection of axes for the outdoors would include the following:

 “POCKET” AX ~   

 

Two Pocket Axes: The Gransfors Bruks Mini Hatchet and the now discontinued Bark River Knife and Tool Mini Axe, a modified Vaughan hatchet. A Karesuando Raven Scandi blade knife is in the center. 

The very lightest ax.  If you want an ax for backpacking this is the type to consider.  These miniature hatchets can be taken on any or all trips, to be there by your side, always at the ready.  Here is what noted woodcraft author, Horace Kephart, had to say about the pocket ax ~

 “Among my most valued possessions is a tiny Colclesser tomahawk, of 8-ounce head and 2 ½ inch bitt, which, with hickory handle and home-made sheath, weighs only three-quarters of a pound…It is all that is needed to put up a satisfactory shelter…I use it oftener than I do my jackknife.

Although pocket axes are currently very popular, their usefulness is limited by their light weight.  These aren’t chopping axes. They’re primarily used to split kindling from small-diameter logs by striking the poll with a log baton.  In this manner these toy-like tools will produce kindling faster and more efficiently than a knife.  Currently there are two pocket axes on the market: the Vaughan “Supersportsman Sub-Zero Axe (8 oz. head, 2 ¼ inch bit, 10-inch handle, 11.5 oz. total wgt, $17.00-$30.00) and the Gransfors Bruks Mini Belt Hatchet (8 oz. head, 2 ½ inch bit, 10 ¼ inch length, 12.01 oz. wgt. $145.00).  The Gransfors Brukshatchet is abeautifully crafted ax that’s delivered razor sharp and is tempered to really hold an edge.  The 2 oz. weight increase over the Vaughan gives the Gransfors ax more heft and puts it in the same weight class as Kephart’s original Colclesser hatchet.  The extra head width also provides for a larger eye allowing a larger diameter handle to be used.  This makes the Mini Belt Hatchet a stronger tool than its competitor.  Older Vaughan hatchets featured thicker profiles than today, which made them possible to reprofile.  That was done by Bark River Knives, who modified the Vaughan to create their Mini-Axe a few years ago.  Here is a discussion of pocket axes, including a review of the Vaughan hatchet and the modifications made by Reid Hyken, which later became the Bark River Mini-Axe.  When Vaughan changed their die and thinned out the head profile, Bark River could no longer modify the ax and dropped that model.  I own an unmodified, old style Vaughan hatchet and the now discontinued Bark River Mini-Axe.  No question but that the Mini-Axe dramatically outperforms the regular Vaughan hatchet.  Though I like the Vaughan and Bark River Mini-Axe I’ve come to use the Gransfors Mini Hatchet more often because of the greater head weight.  It’s too bad that there aren’t more pocket axes made in a similar weight but with profiles like the Bark River Mini Hatchet.  Both Gransfors Bruks and Wetterlings also offer a small hatchet of around 11-inches in length with a 1 lb head.  The Wetterlings was the first with one of these on the market and it has become quite popular.  However, no ax with a head weight of one pound can be considered a true pocket ax.

Here are some comparisons of three modern pocket axes to the Colclesser tomahawk described by Horace Kephart ~ 

Kephart’s Colclesser Ax:       8 oz. Head         2 ½ inch Bit         12 oz. Wgt 

Gransfors Mini Hatchet:       8 oz. Head         2 ½ inch Bit         12.01 oz. Wgt

Vaughan Hatchet:                   8 oz. Head         2 ¼ inch Bit         10.01 oz. Wgt

HAND AX (or Belt Ax or Scout Ax or Hatchet) ~

 Left: Sears Craftsman Model 48101 Center: Wetterlings Wildlife Axe #SAW13H Right: Snow & Nealley #014S Young Camper’s Belt Axe

Heavier but far more efficient than a pocket ax.  Hand axes (approx. 5 1/2″ head, 2 3/4″ bit, 1¼ to 1 ½ lb. total wgt.) are often called Scout axes due to this type’s long association with the Boy Scout program.  Axes in this size are stocked in far greater numbers than other types and are typically the least expensive of axes.  This is a great size of ax to start with and most folks will never need anything more.  The Boy Scout catalog continues to list hand axes, the Swedish companies make hand axes, and domestic companies such as Council Tool (Hunter’s Axe #125HU), 1 ¼ lb. head wgt., 14″ total length, $34.00) continue to make them in America.

Gransfors Bruks crafts the very nice  Wildlife Hatchet Model #415 and Wetterlings, the Wildlife Hatchet #106.   Husqvarna makes the wonderful Hatchet, described in a previous post, which sells for only 41.00.  It makes me sad to report that while the Snow & Nealley company of Brewer, Maine has been a long respected ax manufacturer, reccent reports indicate that their quality control has declined and they are now having their heads forged in China.  My experience with their “Young Camper’s Belt Axe” #o14S was not entirely positive.   The ax was tempered too soft to hold an edge and the quality was not up to par for as much the ax cost.  For an ax that retails in the same range as some of the Swedish axes, they are not as well finished or as well tempered and the slick varnish on their handles must be removed.  Mine also had a large gap between handle and eye that was filled with wood putty.  This was painted over with paint (also applied to the head) which served to disguise the defect.  Because of their quality control issues and their exceedingly soft temper, I cannot recommend a Snow & Nealley ax at this time.  I honestly have not tried the Council Tool #125HU but know that it is a made-in-USA tool of good temper.  A couple of years ago I discovered the inexpensive Sears Craftsman Model 48101 1 ¼ lb. Camp Axe ($16.99) at my local Sears store.  Frankly, I was amazed at how nice this little ax looked.  In size, weight and appearance it was much like the Snow & Nealley but of higher quality.  My example is an earlier version of the current Sears Camp Ax.  Mine has the brand name, model number, head weight and “made in the USA” stamped in the head.  Current models feature just the brand name and model number laser etched on the head with no mention of where the ax is made.  I was immediately struck with the Craftsman’s high quality features and appearance.  The head was clear lacquered raw steel with satin finished faces (the top and bottom are left roughly ground).  The handle was of white hickory (sapwood).  Of several on display, all featured perfectly mounted heads fitted with a wood wedge, showing no gaps whatsoever.  This was in marked contrast to the Snow & Nealley I own.  Handles were stained dark reddish brown and finished with a slick, clear coating (which must be sanded off and refinished with raw linseed oil).  Of the six examples I examined, two had perfect graining and edge-to-handle alignment.  They were the best grained and aligned hardware grade axes I’ve seen, bar none.  The remaining four (all etched versions) had near perfect graining but two of those had heads that were very slightly misaligned.  The profiles seemed good but edges were not particularly sharp.  Sharpening proved that these are well tempered and would keep an edge but after testing I discovered that profile is too thick overall and must be really thinned down to improve performance.  This thickness is throughout the cheeks and into the edge and so, would be too much work to alter with hand tools.  The ax needs to be professionally reprofiled.  I’ve put the Craftsman away until I can send it to BRKT for some serious work.   Unfortunately, that means the Craftsman ax is not the bargain I thought it would be.  After the reprofiling it would approach Swedish ax prices.  Too bad.

Double-bit Hand Ax ~

Nessmuck style hatchet by Lee Reeves of Shattuck, Oklahoma. A superb ax.

Another choice in hand axes is a double-bit pattern.  The double-bit hatchet, as described by Nessmuk in Woodcraft (1881), has intrigued generations of outdoorsmen since he first touted its utility nearly 130 years ago.  Because the weight of the head is equalized by the two bits, balance is superb, making it an absolute joy to use.  Double-bits also make good winter axes because if one bit breaks due to the cold, you still have a back-up.  Those benefits however, are negated by the fact that you lose the poll, so valuable for pounding stakes etc.  Double-bit hatchets are a distinct rarity today.  You’ll never see one in a hardware store as they are sporting axes, and you’ll never see one in a sporting goods store as they are only known to the cognoscenti.

Certainly, the most popular of the modern Nessmuk style belt axes is the handmade double-bit made by Lee Reeves of Shattuck, Oklahoma.  His hand forged axes are made in the traditional manner, with hardened steel bits forge welded into a softer steel ax head.  Reeves forges his axes using both a trip hammer and hammer and anvil.  The axes are made like Nessmuk’s, with one bit ground thin for cutting clear timber and the other thick and stunted for cutting deer bones, knotty wood etc.  Lee provides handles of ash, walnut, Osage orange, or curly maple at various costs.  Head weight of the ax is about 1 lb., head dimensions are approximately 5½” long, handle length is 15-inches long.  Wait time for one of these fine axes is running one year. Lee’s website has changed considerably since the last time I looked at it.  He used to show both single bit and the Nessmuk axes and showed the prices of every kind of ax/handle combination (the Nessmuk axes ranged in price from $165.00 to $205.00).  Now he only shows a photo of the Nessmuk axes but no prices whatsoever.  Contact him to determine current prices.  If you desire a Nessmuk style hand axe, the Lee Reeves double bit is a beautifully made, perfectly balanced choice. 

CAMP AX 

 

 

College professor, author and woodcraft expert Bernard Mason considered it the most useful for camping.  A camp ax has roughly a 1 to 1 ½ lb. head and an overall length of 18-20 inches.  Here is what Mason had to say about the type:

“My vote goes to the…camp-ax…Note the long, slender handle – eighteen inches overall (two inches of the 20” handle is inside the head).  Light, fast, perfectly balanced, the ease and speed with which chopping can be done with it is remarkable…It is at once a one-handed and a two-handed ax, as light as the average one-handed hatchet, yet with a handle long enough for two-handed swinging in felling small timber.  No larger ax is really needed to supplement it on a camping trip in the bush” ~ Woodcraft (1939)

Although Mason loved this type, others disagree about its versatility.  Critics note that the weight and size of these axes make them too large and heavy for convenient carrying, yet they also lack the cutting efficiency of the larger “Boy’s” ax.  It’s all a matter of preference.  The primary reason for Mason’s high opinion of the camp ax was his experience with a particular model ~ the Marble’s No. 10 Camp Ax fitted with a 20-inch handle (18-inch overall length after mounting).  The Number 10 was produced from 1906 to 1914 with a 1½ lb. head and from 1915 to 1943 with the 1¾ lb. head.  A choice of 16, 20 or 24-inch handle lengths were offered for all years of production.  Properly convexed and honed, the No. 10 will outperform any camp ax made today.  Its only design flaw was the small-diameter handle.  Number 10 Camp Axes are extremely difficult to come by, and when found, the handle is usually broken.  In good shape, they are a collector’s item, commanding very high prices.  Too bad no manufacturer produces a modern version of this ax with a slightly wider head/eye and thicker handle.  It would be the perfect camp ax.  The modern axes in the same general size and weight range are the Gransfors Bruks Small Forest Ax (1 ½ lb. wgt, 3 ¼” bit, 19″ handle) and the Wetterlings Outdoor Axe #118 (1 3/4 lb. wgt, 3” bit, 19″ handle)  At this time, Husqvarna produces no similar model.

HUDSON BAY AX ~

 

The ax of explorers, voyageurs, trappers, and traders.  The Hudson’s Bay pattern descended from the trade ax/tomahawk of the 18th century and is the traditional ax of the North Woods and Canadian Shield.  Highly popular among native tribes and those who work, live and travel in remote wilderness, the pattern has both devotees and detractors.  Critics complain that the corners of the axe’s prominent beard are prone to breakage, particularly in cold weather, and that the design isn’t an efficient chopping ax.  Enthusiasts counter that it was never intended to be a woodlot ax but rather, a wilderness ax made for light, fast travel.  They also point out that it excels at shaping wood, a common task of remote wilderness living.  Bear in mind that because “Hudson Bay” refers to an ax pattern rather than a size, a wide range of weights and lengths exists.  While hatchet-sized versions are often found, the ax typically considered a Hudson Bay is one fitted with a 24” to 28” handle.

It’s a widely shared opinion among knowledgeable users, that the finest American Hudson Bay axes ever produced were made by the O. A. Norlund Company.  Sadly, Norlund axes disappeared sometime between the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s.   As they were made up until relatively recently, it’s not uncommon to see new old stock examples still in the package turn up on eBay.  These now go for up to $200.00.  Luckily, nice used Norlund heads can be had for $50.00 or less, making it possible to have a very nice Hudson Bay ax at a reasonable cost.

A popular American-made Hudson Bay axe, currently in production, is the Council Tool  #17HB18 (1 ¾ lb. head, 4-1/8″ bit, 18-inch handle) and the #175HB28 (1 ¾ lb. head, 4-1/8″ bit, 28-inch handle).  Council Tool advertises the length of the handle before hanging, thus the 18″ model has a handle of 16 inches and the 28″ model has a handle that actually measures 26 inches.  The Council Tool axes are well tempered and are fitted with lightly waxed handles.  However, they are a utility grade tool and suffer from the occasional misaligned head and/or poor graining.  Yet, with careful selection they make good wilderness axes.  I own one that Bark River worked their magic on and it is an excellent Hudson Bay ax.  Of course, the recently introduced Council Tool Velvicut Premium Hudson Bay Axe, model # JP20HB24C   has eclipsed all other Hudson Bay axes on the market (See my review of ths axe).

BOY’S AX  (or “three-quarter” or “pulpwood” ax) ~

  

Bahco Model HUS-1.0-650.  Left: As delivered Right: After some prep work

A favorite of the old timers.  The “boy’s” or ¾ ax features an American pattern head that weighs between 2 ¼ to 2 ½ lbs. and is fitted with a 26” to 28” handle.  Such axes chop and split wood nearly as well as a full sized felling ax (for which there is little use in outdoor recreation), yet, are lighter, more compact and easier to swing.  Their head weight makes them the best non-full-sized single-bit ax for winter use as they have the heft to cut wood resting on snow.  Boy’s axes were recommended by most of the old experts, albeit, with a measure of caution.  Their single reservation was due to the fact that this kind of ax was dangerous in the hands of a novice (as are all short axes).  Outdoor expert and writer Calvin Rutstrum warned:

“The axe commonly used on canoe trips is the three-quarter size, often referred to as a “boy’s axe” or small pole ax.  It is the source of more accidents in the woods than all other mishaps… The difficulty is not very apparent, but lies in the fact that a miss while chopping does not allow this axe to swing clear of the body and usually lodges it in an ankle or a foot. A full-handled axe will either wind up in the chopping block in the event of a miss stroke or it will swing clear of the body… Organized camps should not permit the use of the so-called “boys” axe or pole axe.  The hazard is too great.  However, no matter what I say here about safety, the pole axe is a very handy instrument in the hands of an experienced axeman, and I confess to using one myself.   But for the beginner such an axe is almost certain to result in an accident.  To determine the right length of an axe handle, have the user stand erect and place the blade on the ground with the handle alongside his leg. The end of the handle should touch approximately at the lower prominent part of the hip bone.”

I have to agree with Cal that this size and weight of ax is dangerous and should not be recommended to a beginner as a first ax.  Yet, in modern outdoor recreation, no full sized ax is useful.  All of the axes that would be carried for outdoor activities are short and thus, should be used with the same caution.  Remember, you can produce a much more powerful swing with these than a small camp or hand ax – but you can easily strike yourself with a miss – so learn your onions and spend some time practicing.

As for recommended models, the most popular ax in this size is the Gransfors Bruks No. 430 Scandinavian Forest Axe (2 lb. wgt, 3 ½” bit, 25″ handle, $118.98).  Wetterlings makes a very similar axe (Scandinavian Forest Axe #121), 1.9 lb. wgt, 3 ½” bit, 26″ handle, $79.98).  Another ax to consider is the Bahco HUS-1.0-650, a super value for the money.  Bahco (now owned by Snap-On Tool), a Swedish company established in 1886, produces a large selection of drop forged, German-made axes.  The company regrettably switched the handles used on their “Top Range” axes from select hickory to a choice of fiberglass or ash.  The ash handled models feature fully polished heads and a soft-grip orange elastomer coating on the bottom of the handle.  Their “Standard Range” axes feature painted heads and come fitted with ash handles that are coated with thick textured paint on the bottom.  In my opinion, the ash handles are a reasonable tradeoff for an otherwise very high quality product.  Their Standard Range ax: Model HUS-1.0-650 and Top Range ax: Model HUS-1.0-650SGfeature a 2 ¼ lb. head, fitted with a 26-inch ash handle.  As delivered, the HUS-1.0-650 features a painted head, a handle garishly marked with the Bahco logo, application pictogram, product code, and a barcode, applied over a gloss coating, with the thick paint applied to the bottom fourth of the grip.  The wedge is made of carbon fiber that features an integral hanging loop.  The profile is good but the factory edge is not fully convexed.  However, craftsmanship is excellent and of the examples I’ve seen, nearly 50% are straight grained and all had aligned heads.  While it would be nice to have someone grind the head a bit and properly convex and hone the edge, at an average retail price of between $28.00 and $39.00, the added cost for the improvements would add up to more than the ax is worth.  However, if you desire a relatively inexpensive ax that works, then look no further.  With the bit convexed, the edge honed, the hanging loop sawed off and the head and handle refinished, the HUS-1.0-650 makes a very good wilderness ax.  Husqvarna recently introduced their Forest Axe (approx. 2.25 lb head, 26″ handle) and it looks very nice indeed.  At only $63.00, it may soon be my Bahco replacement.

Council Tool makes the #22BR Council Pro Boy’s Axe (2 ½ lb. head, 28″ handle), which also appears to be a high quality tool but will take some careful selection and work to get it into proper shape.  Still, it only costs around $35.00 and would be worth the work if you can find one with good graining and alignment.  Hopefully, Council Tool will produce a Velvicut version of this model in the near future.

There you have it – a list of several ax models from various makers that are perfect for woodcraft camp use.  Now go find yourself an ax to grind!

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15 Responses to “Beauty is in the Eye of the (ax) Holder ~ Types for Wilderness Use”

  1. John G10 Says:

    I went to the local dealer, and was dismayed that the Wetterlings hatchets (13″ & 15″) were ground very unevenly (left side vs right side). I was also suprised that the bit size was advertised to be 3.25″, but turned out to be 2.75″. In the end, I decided I couldn’t live with the imperfections & smaller size, and really wanted a Yankee pattern hand axe…

    I also checked out the Collins and Sears Craftsman hatchets. The Craftsman hatchet’s were all ground evenly, and significantly thinner than the Collins hatchets – but balanced so that the bit was about 1″ lower than the poll. (The Collins balanced about 1/4″ low). Some Craftmans were 1/3 as thick as the Collins near the bit, and the thickest ones were 3/4 as thick as the Collins. All had nicely sloped sides with no abrupt transitions, or unevenness – plus good handles (14″ overall length including the head), and eye’s that lined up the handle with the blade edge correctly.

    The Craftsman head is lazer engraved with “Made in USA”. The handle is thinner, taller, and has more of a point at one end of the eye than the Collins. It’s also held in with a wood wedge + 2 steel cross-wedges, rather than the wood wedge + round cross wedge that the Collins used. Does this indicate the Craftsman hatchet is a Vaughn ?

    Do you know how the Craftsman (Vaughn ?) hardness compares to the current version Snow & Nealley, Council, Collins or Bahco hatchets ? Are the Council or Bahco hatchets ground significantly thinner than the Collins ? The Snow & Nealley hand axes at my local Scout shop appeared to have good grinds and fit & finish, but I’m a bit wary due to the reports they are now being made soft. Are they any softer than the other non-Scandanavian hatchets ?

    I’m essentially looking for a Yankee pattern hand axe with a felling grind that will stay sharp for about 4-5 hours of limbing / bucking 5″ limbs, and some splitting. I’d prefer a 16″ overall length. (I found 19″ too long for 1 hand use).

    Thanks.

  2. Woodser Says:

    I have two Wetterlings axes and did not find them unevenly ground or that the bit was smaller than advertised. My examples were of excellent quality but of course, they are not Yankee pattern axes. I do not like modern Collins axes at all. They are exceedingly thick and not particularly well made. I don’t know who makes the Sears ax. My example is of earlier manufacture and features a deep trademark and “made in USA” stamp instead of engraving. Balance was the same as you describe but it would dramatically improve if the head were ground properly.

    Although the Craftsman is much thinner than the Collins, it is not ground thin enough through the cheeks IMHO, and would need some serious profiling. By sharpening the Craftsman with a file it seems well tempered but I have no idea what the actual Rockwell hardness is. As Snow and Nealley axes are now tempered very soft (25-35 Rc), I’m sure that the Sears ax is harder. Bahco axes have a good temper and are also MUCH harder than Snow and Nealley axes but about the same as the Craftsman ax.

    The Craftsman ax looks very impressive but would need to be reprofiled. I would send it to BRKT for the work which would really bump up the cost – and the length is shorter than you want. Council Tool axes are of good temper and are well made but they do not offer an ax in the size you desire. You could purchase the Council Tool 1.25 lb hand ax and rehang it with a longer handle. It’s a Dayton pattern so is a Yankee ax. I hope Council Tool produces a boy’s ax and a hand ax in their Velvicut premium ax line – that would be great.

    Ben’s Backwoods now carried Bahco axes and they are very nice. He sells a 19″ model. If you wanted something shorter you would have to rehang it. It’s a better splitting ax than the Swedish models – at least mine is. The model I own is no longer made and I have not seen the new ones. The head/profile may be the same or may not.

  3. John G10 Says:

    Thanks. How do you think the grind / shape, hardness, and overall quality of the Council tool and Bahco axes compare ? Would one make a better felling and limbing axe than the other ?

  4. Woodser Says:

    Lets see: Hardness – The standard Council Tool axes are tempered in the 48-55 Rc range but they average about 50 Rc. THe Bahco seems a bit harder but not by much. Then there is the new Council Tool Velvicut ax – hardness is targeted at 52-56 Rc. That doesn’t sound much different than their standard line but note that any head in the standard line that tests between 48 – 55 is acceptable but only those axes that test between 52-56 are acceptable in the premium line. I would put the premium axes on par with the Bahco axes. However, you’ll have a wait for them to introduce a smaller ax.

    Grind – My only experience with Council Tool axes are their standard Hudson Bay ax and their new Velvicut ax. Those have very good profiles and are thin through the cheeks. I love the shape of both Council axes. The Falling ax is perfect the Hudson Bay is very good but has too short a poll, which negatively alters balance. Still – both are better than the Bahco as delivered.

    Sharpness – The Bahco is not delivered particularly sharp and needs some work to get it into shape. The Hudson Bay is not particularly sharp either but takes less time to sharpen and the resulting edge/profile is very better.

    Overall quality fit and finish – the Bahcos come with ash handles that are have a thick rubbery coating on the handle end and bold decals, both of which should be removed. Council Tool axes come with hickory handles that are lightly waxed – much better than Bahco axes. Graining – both may be fitted with poor grained handles and I’ve seen examples of both with misaligned heads. Selecting from several examples is important with both brands.

    Don’t kid yourself – both will need work to perform well but you’ll end up with a fine ax. Personally, I’m waiting for a new Velvicut Boys ax and Hand ax to be introduced by Council Tool.

  5. John G10 Says:

    Thanks for all the info. I think I’ll be buying a Velicut hand ax too, when they come out.

    For a slightly larger axe, how do you think the Wetterlings Large Hunting Axe compares to the Council Tool Hudson Bay ax ?

    It sounds like the Wetterlings is 1″ longer, has a 7/8″ smaller bit, and 1/4 lb less head weight. How do the grinds compare ? Does one tend to work better than the other ?

    Also, I hear the Wetterlings are hardened to 57 Rc. Does the LHA need sharpening a lot less often than the Council HB Axe ?

    Thanks.

  6. Woodser Says:

    First – if you are considering a Hudson Bay ax at all, wait for the new Council Tool premium version. It will be the next model produced. I suspect it will be out before the end of the year. If it’s all that I hope it will be, I would rather have that instead of a Wetterlings or any other ax in that size range.

    Now, if you are choosing between a Wetterlings and a standard Council Tool ax, the Wetterlings will be sharper as delivered, have better balance, is tempered harder and will most likely have perfect alignment. The standard Council Hudson Bay is a great ax after you spend some time and sweat on it but to find examples that have good alignment and good graining will take some looking. With the Wetterlings you have a better chance of getting a good one without much effort. I would ask Ben at Bens Backwoods to hand select his best example and you’ll do alright.

    As far as hardness goes – the Wetterlings may stay sharper than the standard Council Tool axes but you never know, if you lucked out and got a Council with 55 hardness the difference would be very little. If yours was in the 48-50 Rc range the difference would be much greater. If you get the Council Tool premium Hudson Bay I don’t think you’d be able to tell the difference.

    Note that after I spent time refinishing the handle, and had BRKT reprofile my Council Tool standard Hudson Bay ax, I found that I use it MUCH more than either of my Wetterlings axes. I just like it better and it performs at least as well as the Swedish axes. A premium version would be incredible!

  7. John G10 Says:

    Thanks for all the advice. It’s going to be loooooong summer waiting for the new Velicut HB.

  8. Matt Says:

    You may have mentioned this, but a hint from the Conovers’ Snow Walker’s Companion that I have used with good success is: when using short axes and hatchets, is to kneel down. You are then much more likely to sink a glancing blow into the snow or dirt, rather than your shin or knee. I usually put some boughs down to keep my knees dry.

    Great blog post as usual. Please keep up the good work.

    After you get done with axes, do you have any practical bedroll advice?

  9. Woodser Says:

    WOW! Matt – that is a GREAT suggestion! I own the Snow Walker’s Companion. I’ve read the Snow Walker’s Companion. And I forgot all about that tip. You are right-on there. Kneel down and you’ve nipped most of the possibility to injure yourself in the bud. I guess you could always drop the ax on yourself but unlikely.

  10. Allen Says:

    Hi,
    I just found this site. There is a lot of good info. Thank you for putting it up. I am new to axes and am wondering what are the pros and cons to a couple. I am looking to buy a small axe/hatchet for use in the woods. You mentioned in the earlier article that fiberglass handles were not good. I can see that would be especially true if the head goes through the handle as opposed to the handle going through the head. If the head goes through the handle the chopping force is directly loosening the head. But what about the all-one-piece metal hatchets like the Estwing? What are the pros and cons of that type? Also have you seen the Roselli hatchet on the Ragweed Forge site? What is your opinion on that one?

    Thank you very much

  11. Woodser Says:

    Allen,

    Sorry I’ve taken so long to respond but I’ve been quite busy with work. I think a large part of the popularity of Estwing axes is their durability because of the integral steel handle and head. If absolute durability is the most important criteria you want in an axe, you need look no further. The Estwing has no handle to break, no head to loosen or come off, no wood to care for, and no worries about water damage beyond rust. It is as impervious an axe to damage as you’ll ever find.

    However, durability is just one of many criteria to be considered in choosing an ax. Durability must be balanced along with other characteristics like performance (which is largely a matter of grind), temper (a Rockwell Hardness of between 50 and 57), a properly convexed bit, balance, comfort in use (shock absorption, handle provides good grip yet is smooth in the hand when swinging), etc. I would rank these characteristics in the following order:
    Axes with integral heads:

    1. Grind
    2. Temper
    3. Properly convexed bit
    4. Comfort in use
    5. Balance
    (Some assumptions: durability is a given with a steel handle and the ax is delivered with proper alignment.)

    Traditional axes:

    1. Grind
    2. Temper
    3. Properly convexed bit
    4. Comfort in use
    5. Alignment
    6. Balance
    7. Durability (though not an issue with fiberglass handles, with wood, durability is largely the result of having a straight-grained handle of the right species)
    8. Potential for customizing the handle i.e. – making it smaller to fit your hand, reshaping the handle, changing the handle – this is impossible with a fiberglass or integral handle.

    So – for me durability ranks much lower than performance, grind, temper etc. Of course, if the Estwing axes are properly ground and are of good temper then the durability offered by the steel handle should be a real bonus. However, I do not think they are properly ground.

    One problem encountered in an ax with separate head and handle is that in order to make the joint between the two strong enough to withstand repeated striking, the eye must be large enough to permit the use of a thick handle yet, the ax face must also be thin and a bit hollow through the cheeks. This transition from thick to thin can be too abrupt. Examples are the Fiskars and Gerber axes, a design that I am not impressed with. An ax with an integral head and handle should not have this issue and in fact, the Estwing head is very thin compared to the competition and is thin through the cheeks – something you rarely see in today’s mass-produced low and mid-priced axes. As the ax face transitions from the cheeks to the bit, it should flare to thicker steel that’s convexed to the edge. This gives the ax a strong edge, resistant to damage while being thin enough in the cheeks to let chips fly away from the ax as they are released from the wood. The disappointing thing about the Estwing design is that this flare is far too thick! Everything from the poll to that flare is thin but then the thick, stunted edge reduces performance dramatically. To thin this flare down by hand, even with a diamond hone or file, would take some serious work that I don’t think is worth it. You could send the ax to Bark River Knife and Tool for the job but the cost would be prohibitive for a relatively inexpensive ax.

    For me, that single issue takes the Estwing out of the running for a good wilderness ax. Yet, they have another serious problem that cannot be overcome – very poor shock absorption as compared to a wood handled model. This has been the problem with all steel handled axes. For me, even if the bit were perfectly ground and thinned, this would make me pass up an Estwing. I do think they’re attractive with the traditional stacked leather handle – the mark of Estwing axes for decades, but the leather just does not absorb shock like wood. Sadly, most Estwing models now feature a blue rubber grip instead of the leather handle. This change was made to absorb shock better than their old handles. And while it’s an improvement, I think they are unattractive and still do not match wood.

    I spent a day with an Estwing a couple of years ago when a friend asked me to sharpen one. He had never used it so I got to see what they come like from the factory. The edge was not dull like a lot of cheap axes are but it was nowhere near as sharp as a Gransfors Bruks axe or even a Wetterlings. This was the day I discovered the thick edge. I found that all the sharpening in the world could not thin the edge enough to improve the ax.

    As for the Roselli, I have no experience with one. I like traditional tools and the look of the Roselli puts me off. However, I remember reading a comparison of the Roselli and a Gransfors Bruks ax a number of years ago. The gist of it was that the Roselli was not quite up to par on powerful chopping tasks as the Gransfors but split wood better, was superior at shaping wood and delicate tasks, was the ax the author would take for a survival tool but was also one that he sold in favor or the traditional model. I also remember that he said the Roselli was much harder than the Gransfors, requiring sharpening far less often. I have owned two Roselli knives and they are very hard indeed.

  12. Allen Says:

    Thank you very much for the detailed reply. I will pass on the Estwing. There are still a lot of choices however. The Husqvarna is not very expensive. I have an inexpensive Hultafors knife so I expect their hand axe would be good quality, then there are Wetterlings and GB, and the Roselli. I have to consider this choice a bit.

    It is great that you take the time to share your knowledge to those of us learning about these tools. I may ask another question when I read some of the other posts.

  13. Woodser Says:

    Of the traditionally sized, affordable production hatchets I’ve seen (approximately 1 lb. head); I am most impressed with the Wetterlings products. I have not actually handled a Hultafors axe or the smallest Husqvarna models but they look to be very good as well. Of course, the Gransfors axes are delivered razor sharp, beautifully finished and usually with perfect edge/handle alignment and good graining but they are very expensive – and I actually like the profiles of the Wetterlings axes better.

    I know you’ve mentioned looking for a hatchet but if you’ve ever considered a two-handed, small ax like the Wetterlings Long Hunter’s Axe or the Gransfors Bruks Scandinavian Forest Axe, you should seriously look at the new Council Tool “Velvicut” Heirloom Hudson Bay Axe # JP20HB24C. I am currently testing one for feedback to Council Tool and ordered a second example to see if they are of consistently high quality – they are. Though I just received them late last week, I’m already very impressed. This new Hudson Bay may just well be the finest American made ax ever produced. I plan to do a write up on this new ax in a couple of weeks after I’ve spent some time with them.

  14. Michael Sparks Says:

    Great article, I mainly own council tool, but had several growing up on the farm. As far as the camp axes or the shorter Hudson Bay goes, I feel like it’s too short for any two handed and too heavy for single handed.

    I do have a boys ax on order and think that will be a great compromise between a full size ax and a smaller camp axes.

  15. Earnest Wassink Says:

    Have you ever thought about publishing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog centered on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my subscribers would enjoy your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e mail.

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