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 I considered the old Boy Scout manuals, with pages devoted ink to the tools as woefully outdated.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.
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.
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
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?
- 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.
Head pattern, grind, edge profile and finishing ~
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.