Posts Tagged ‘American Axes’

Council Tool Velvicut Hudson Bay Axe Review

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

 

 

 

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  I considered the old Boy Scout manuals, with pages devoted ink to the tools as woefully outdated.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.

An Ax Primer ~ My Thoughts on Choosing an Ax

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

My personal Marble’s No. 10 Camp Axe. Produced between 1914 and 1943, the No. 10 was woodcraft writer and expert Bernard S. Mason’s favorite.

Good axes are the result of the combination of high-quality materials, fine craftsmanship, and good design. Some things to consider when choosing an ax are: 1) the forging method, 2) the steel and any treatment it has undergone, 3) the quality of craftsmanship, and 4) the kind and quality of handle it’s fitted with.

Note that in focusing on the desirable characteristics of good axes, I may give the impression that an ax that does not embody each and every one of these characteristics is an unworthy tool to be avoided.  Please understand that these characteristics are desirable traits to consider when comparing axes or different examples of the same model but that axes will have these characteristics in varying degrees.  Of course, some characteristics such as temper, head profile or head/handle alignment are very important to consider when shopping for an ax.  But remember – axes are not made to the same standards as custom collector knives.  Rarely will you encounter an ax featuring the best in materials, design, tempering and perfection in craftsmanship.  I’ve seen glaring imperfections in even the best, most expensive axes described here.   So don’t become too choosy or no ax will ever satisfy you.

Now let’s get started!

Forging ~

(Revised March, 12, 2013)

Forging refers to a method of shaping metal by means of applying force.  To say an ax is forged, means that an ax has been formed into a particular shape by hammer blows.  Forging is just one step in ax making.  The grinding, tempering, annealing, polishing and honing remain to be done.  Though folks often debate the merits of the different kinds of forging methods, in reality, the shaping process is far less important to the overall quality of an ax than what happens to the head once the general shape has been formed.

Axes have been produced by blacksmithing (human-powered hammer blows against an anvil), triphammer (automated) hammer forging, and drop forging.  Large-scale blacksmithing disappeared from the commercial ax manufactories over 150 years ago.  Only a handful of custom-made axes continue to be made by blacksmithing.  The introduction of the Swedish-made boutique axes in North America were the first to be made in a generation that were described as being “hand forged”.  In truth however, the Swedish axes are forged on a machine.  Some Swedish manufacturers forge their axes on a triphammer (also known as a smith hammer) and some on an open die drop forge (I have heard some are forged by the open die drop forge method but have not been able to confirm this).  Either way, they are forged on a machine.  Automated triphammer forging is nothing new.  Axe manufacturers replaced the blacksmith’s hand wielded hammer with that of the waterwheel-powered triphammer at least by 1828.

According to the Collins & Company records of that year, their new triphammers increased ax production to 10 axes per day for a foreman and striker (American Axes. Henry J. Kaufman, Mastoff Press Publishing, Morgantown, PA 1994).  Triphammers only provided the striking force for shaping the steel ingot.  The smith still had to skillfully move the ingot around on the anvil in order to shape the tool.  Small ax manufacturers used triphammers in the United States up through the 1960’s, long after drop forges were in use, not because they were 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.  Open die drop forging is very similar to triphammer forging.  Instead of a hammer surface striking the ingot, it is struck by a pair (top and bottom) of flat or slightly contoured dies.  Because the two dies are not connected, the material is allowed to expand out the sides.  Just as in using a triphammer, the ingot must be positioned in various ways to shape the ax head.  The skill involved in operating an open die drop forge is the same as that of triphammer forging.

Today, nearly all modern production axes are shaped by impression die drop forging (also known as closed die drop forging).  This method uses 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 and is struck repeatedly by a falling hammer to force the steel into the mold.  Most modern ax makers use the impression die drop forging process and this is what most folks think of when they hear the term “drop forged”.

When did American ax manufacturers begin using the method?  Before most of your grandparents were born.  Though I cannot name a date with confidence, the Axe Manual of Peter McLaren (Peter McClaren and Fayette R. Plumb Inc., Philadelphia, PA, 1929), indicates that Plumb axes were all made by impression die drop forging by that time.  And the booklet did not describe the method as being a recent development.  Note that nearly all of the great American axes produced after the turn of the century, were made by impression die drop forging.  The speed and efficiency of the method allowed manufacturers to produce axes in large numbers with a minimum amount of labor, which lowers manufacturing costs and increases profit margins.  I say nearly all because a few ax makers in Maine continued to use triphammers into the 1960’s.  The early triphammers were attached to the end of an arm much like a hammer held in the hand.  These were called helve triphammers.  The modern Swedish axes are forged using a modern “drop” triphammer, which functions in the manner of the drop hammer used in drop forging.

Because the Swedish axes are said to be “hand forged”, many enthusiasts now consider production “hand forging” superior to drop forging, considering the later to be associated with cheap, undesirable axes.  However, that’s like believing that because all cheap automobiles are produced on a production line, all vehicles produced on a production line must therefore be cheap.  A common complaint of inexpensive drop forged axes is that they are too soft to hold an edge but that is due to their being “uniformly hardened”, a fault of the tempering method NOT of the forging method.

Is triphammer (or open die drop forging) better than impression die drop forging?  That’s debatable.  While it does take skill to forge an ax head with those methods, the quality of an ax is determined by what occurs to the head after it has been shaped.  It is true that both triphammer and open die drop forging are occasionally described as “smith forging” or “hand forging”.  However, Kauffman, a noted authority on axes, who held an MA in Industrial Arts and was a blacksmith in addition to serving as Professor of Industrial Arts at Millersville University, made a clear distinction between genuine hand forging and machine forging when he remarked “…because a triphammer functions in a manner very similar to a hand hammer, many axes of the nineteenth century appear to be a product of an earlier era; many are described by “experts” as hand-forged, when, in fact, they were forged on a machine.” (American Axes, Henry J. Kauffman, page 52).  Emphasis is mine.  Kauffman obviously did not consider a triphammer forged ax to be “hand forged”.  In addition, Kauffman makes no mention of any of the forging methods being superior to another.  In fact, in some ways, impression die drop forging is actually superior to triphammer or open die drop forging because it offers improved mechanical properties.

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 that is 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.  For more on forging, see here.

In Sweden, it is customary that a single smith not only forges each ax head, but that he makes the entire ax by performing every step of production, including the grinding, honing, and fitting the handle.  Thus, much more time is taken by an individual smith, to make each ax in Sweden.  While the quality of a Swedish ax head is not necessarily better than one made by impression die drop forging, the overall quality of the ax tends to be higher.  But that is only when comparing a boutique Swedish ax to a utility grade ax.  If the Swedish axes are compared to an ax of good design, and one which the maker sourced the best steel and handle stock, and took the extra time to grind, polish, hone and hang the axes to the same standard, there is absolutely no reason for it to be considered of lower quality.

The Steel and its Treatment ~

How an ax retains its edge is largely determined by the use of high quality steel and the treatment(s) employed by the maker. Axes aren’t hardened to the same degree that knife blades as they would be too brittle. Thus, they don’t need to be made from one of the modern “super” steels that knife maker’s use. You can trust that all domestic made and European axes will be of good steel. When most folks speak of “good steel”, they usually mean the ability of an ax to hold an edge well – and with the quality of the steels used today, that is the result of proper tempering NOT the steel. Tempering determines whether the ax is even worth considering. Sadly, as most modern axes are made for casual use, little time or money is spent on tempering. In general, nearly all inexpensive axes (including those of USA origin) are tempered to a single hardness throughout, being either too soft to hold an edge (most often encountered) or too hard to easily sharpen. This uniform hardness is not a good thing. Vintage axes featured a soft iron (or later, steel) head with a hard steel bit forge welded in. This produced an ax with a durable cutting edge but a head that was forgiving and durable. The better ax makers of today can accomplish the same thing by employing edge hardening technology (sometimes referred to as a heat treated cutting edge). If the head’s not painted, it’s often easy to see the “hardening line” that separates the hard edge from the softer steel. The edge hardening step could easily be done when making all axes but is often neglected to reduce costs.  Note that the depth to which ax makers harden the head vary widely.  Some harden the edge less than an inch deep while others go nearly two inches.  As you sharpen the edge you remove steel from this hardened zone.  So, if the zone is shallow, you will be left with no edge faster than if the zone is deep.  Even if you can see the hardening line, and even if it is deep, you do not know if the edge is hard enough to hold an edge or too hard, making it brittle and liable to break.  One way to test proper tempering is to run a file along the edge, as if to sharpen the ax. If the edge is too soft, the file will cause the edge to “roll over” in a thin flake. If the edge is too hard, the file will slide over the surface of the steel rather than “biting” into it.  If the steel begins to sharpen, the tempering is good. If a newly purchased ax fails this test, sell it at a garage sale.

Another steel treatment, somewhat related to tempering, is annealing. After tempering and cooling the ax, the head is placed in a warm oven (about 350-400 degrees) for approximately an hour. This relieves stresses in the steel created by the forging and tempering process and increases the hardness of the ax. Many consider annealing desirable because all vintage axes were annealed. However, annealing was important in the past because the steels of the period were relatively soft and had to be annealed for creating the strength required for a striking tool. Today’s alloys are much harder than what was available just 40 years ago, making annealing less important than it used to be. Still, Scandinavian axes makers continue to anneal their axes and this contributes to their allure.

The Grind ~

As important as tempering is an axe’s grind, which determines if it is suitable for its intended purpose. Most modern users are largely ignorant of the differences between ax grinds and how crucial this is to ax performance. If the ax is viewed from above, the shape of the ax grind can be evaluated. According to wilderness survival expert Mors Kochanski, the following grinds (shape from the eye to the edge of the ax) are associated with these uses:

1. slightly convexed face ~ general purpose ax
2. thick, strongly convexed face ~ splitting ax
3. concave face (may appear nearly hollow ground) ~ limbing ax
4. nearly straight face (tapering to a convexed edge) ~ produces an ax that glances least

Ax Profile Grinds

An ax with a slightly convex face will not bind in the cut, throws chips well and is stronger when using on frozen wood. If the face is too convex, it will not penetrate the wood to the depth required to make an efficient cut and results in a waste of energy. If the face is too concave, it will bind in the cut, resulting in having to always tug on the handle to release the bit. Eventually, this constant tugging will loosen the handle. If the grind is beveled improperly, the ax can dangerously bounce out of the cut, possibly striking the person wielding the ax. Overall thickness of the face-to-edge profile also contributes to ax performance. If this profile is too thick, the edge can never be made truly sharp; if too thin, the edge is likely to chip. Unfortunately, some grind profiles can’t be altered enough to be improved. For example, a profile that is especially concave can’t be fixed, as you can’t add metal back into the face. Even if the profile is good, if it’s too thin, it may not perform well and this can’t be changed. Of course, with time, effort or money (having a professional do it), a too-thick profile can be improved. If the job entails removing a significant amount of steel, it is best left to professionals. At this time, such an ax can be sent to Bark River Knives (6911 County Road 426, Escanaba, MI 49829), who’ll gladly do the work (though the wait may be long as the company doesn’t tackle custom work until orders have been met). The bit can also be properly convexed at the same time.

Craftsmanship ~

Most anyone can recognize inferior craftsmanship in an ax. The fit of the handle to the eye is poor with gaps showing, the head is crudely finished, the grind uneven, the edge dull and the handle is uncomfortable and/or poorly designed. Most makers of low-quality axes often paint the head and handle to hide defects. High quality axes may occasionally feature a painted head but always include a clear finished or stained handle so that the grain may be easily seen. With a good ax, the grind is good, the edge sharp. The head is nicely finished. The handles are correctly shaped and well balanced. Still, while fit and finish are important clues to how good an ax is, the highest grade of finishing makes little difference if the handle alignment of the ax is imperfect.

If you were to hold the head of the ax with the edge up and the handle away from you and sight down the length of the handle to its end, the eye, edge and handle should be in perfect alignment. If the alignment is off, the ax will be inaccurate. Typically, an ax is misaligned due to a malformed eye; a defect in forging that cannot be fixed. Sadly, many more misaligned axes pass inspection today than in the past, and you may have to search to find one with good alignment. While even the best brands of axes may be found to have an off-center eye, it is thankfully uncommon. The only advantage to a misaligned ax is if the user consistently strikes the log on one side or the other of their intended target. If they do, then using an ax with a handle that is off-center can improve their accuracy provided the handle is misaligned on the correct side of the head.

The “Hang” of an Ax ~

The hang refers to the tilt (if any) of the ax head up or down in relation to the handle.  After checking the alignment, place the ax on a table with both the cutting edge and end of handle touching the tabletop.  If the hang is good the cutting edge will touch the table at a point one third from the bottom of the cutting edge (the heel).

Correct Ax Hang, from Woodsmanship (1954), The Barnes Sports Library, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, NY.

The Handle ~

A fine ax should be fitted with a proper handle. One that’s comfortable and suits you. When I say proper, I refer to the material, the shape, the graining and the finish of the handle.

Material ~ It has become increasingly common for manufacturers to offer axes with handles of fiberglass or another synthetic material. Such handles are maintenance free and very durable. They lend a high-tech appearance to an otherwise ancient tool. However, just as no classic English roadster should be painted metal flake purple or vintage bamboo fly rod paired with an automatic reel, no fine ax should be hung with anything but a proper hardwood handle. Hardwood offers the best combination of strength, shock absorption, and grip comfort. With synthetic materials, you have no choice but to live with the handle the ax came with. It cannot be altered. Not thinned in diameter or otherwise shaped, or even be swapped, as nearly all are permanently mounted. A wood handle can be subtly or significantly modified if need be. In addition, if you desire a longer handle or different handle (straight or curved) on a particular ax, there are many different types of hardwood handles available to choose from. Not so with fiberglass.

Wood ax handles are most often made from American Hickory, the favored species used for striking tools. Other woods such as ash, maple and bois d’ arc are also used, but hickory is best. When a cut hickory log is viewed on end, the center of the log contains a dark, reddish wood known as the heartwood. Between the heartwood and the outer bark, a narrow band of light, cream-colored sapwood is found. This makes up a very small portion of the tree. More heartwood is available to the handle maker than the sapwood and this makes it less expensive by comparison. Many sources state that the clear sapwood is stronger and more shock resistant but numerous tests have shown that no difference exists in strength or shock resistance between the two types. Sapwood, heartwood or a mix of the two are all acceptable in an ax handle.

Shape ~ Ax handles are made curved and straight. Of course, a double-bit ax handle must be straight for both bits to be used. While single-bit axes with curved handles are only seen today, straight handles were the norm up through the mid-nineteenth century. Although the curved handle appears graceful, it’s less accurate and more likely to break. Accuracy suffers because the gentle 10° curve at the end of the handle, acts to effectively extend the bit 4 ½” forward of where it should be. As the bit of a straight-handled ax should ideally lie 4 ½” from the axis of lateral pivot of the ax (this is known as the foresection), an added 4 ½” works to extend the foresection to 9”. The further the bit is from the axis, the less accuracy. This doubling of the foresection increases deviation by double over that of a straight handled ax (meaning that an ax with a curved bit is twice as inaccurate as one with a straight handle). And that’s assuming no more than a 5° movement of the wrist when chopping. More than that and deviation increases exponentially. A curved handle is more likely to break because the grain does not run entirely straight from end to end but instead, cuts through the bend of the handle. To offset this inherent weakness, curved handles are generally made thicker than straight handles with the result being reduced flexibility and increased transmission of shock to the user. Still, the benefits of a straight handle would only be recognized in the hands of a professional. Outdoor recreation users will not wield an ax enough for the difference to matter.

Grain Orientation ~ All wood-handled striking tools should have as good grain orientation (usually described as being straight grained) as you can find, in order to be as strong as possible. This means that the grain runs parallel to the eye of the head. If the grain runs side-to-side, then using the ax contributes to fatigue and ultimately results in handle breakage. Of course, it would be expensive and wasteful to ensure that every handle was perfectly aligned and no manufacturer intends to use handles with a perpendicular grain, so you’ll find most handles with the grain being around 25° off parallel though it’s not uncommon to see some far worse. I’ve heard it said that a dozen axes might have to be inspected before finding one with good grain orientation. That’s an understatement. In reality, unless you happen to live in timber country, with access to a large forestry supply that stocks enough axes to provide a large selection, finding an ax with a straight-grained handle can be very difficult. While you can find many ax models online, you’ll rarely find someone willing to comb through their stock to find a straight grained example. Considering the difficulty in finding an ax with decent grain orientation, its best to pick the best example you can find and if you happen upon a handle with perfect grain orientation, BUY IT!

Ax Graining – What to look for

Oiled Finish ~ The wood handles of any striking tool should have an oiled finish. Varnished, lacquered or polyurethane coated handles create a smooth, impenetrable surface that causes blisters.  An ax handle with a penetrating oil finish allows you to grasp the wood itself, resulting in a more comfortable and secure grip.  Some manufacturers offer wax finished handles, which are far superior to a varnished or lacquered helve and which I rate a slight second to oil.  Of course, if you are considering an ax that meets all of the other criteria but for having a varnished or lacquered handle, that can be remedied by sanding off the finish and oiling the handle yourself.  The most recommended oil for tool handles is raw linseed (food grade flaxseed) oil.

Now you’ve been armed with all the knowledge you need to select an great camp ax or hatchet.   In my next post I’ll discuss some of the ax types most appropriate for camping.  Hope this helps!

The Woodsman and His Hatchet

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Woodcrafters build kitchen and night fires and as a result, must learn to select, use and care for the axes and saws required to buck and split wood into the lengths and thickness to burn properly.  Of all of the traditional camping tools, the ax is the most valuable and sadly, the tool with which modern man is least familiar (I’ll cover saw use in the future).  Countless turn-of-the-Century experts said if they were limited to just one tool it would be the ax over all others.  Luckily there are a number of new(ish) and vintage books to get you up to speed on this subject.  Best of all, a number of superb ax pamphlets, manuals, and books are available free online!  Here are the best of the best:

A great selection of ax books

American Axes(1972), Henry J. Kauffman, Masthof Press & Bookstore, Morgantown, PA.  A history of American axe patterns and manufacturers.  It was the ax that built American settlements in the Colonies and the frontier.  In fact, the “American” pattern ax, designed and perfected in the Colonies, was recognized overseas as being the finest ax ever produced.   Kaufman traces the evolution of the ax in North America, from the relatively inefficient early European types to the supberb American pattern felling axes that reached their peak of perfection in the last half of the nineteeth century.

An Ax to Grind: A Practical Ax Manual, United States Dept. of Agriculture, U.S.F.S. Technology & Development Program, 2300 Recreation, Manual 9923-2823P-MTDC (1999), Bernie Weisgerber.  Weisgerber is America’s recognized ax expert.   This is one of the best works on ax use and luckily, a free online copy can be downloaded at this URL: http://scoutmaster.typepad.com/axegrind.pdf.

Axe Manual of Peter McLaren, America’s Champion Chopper, (1929), Peter McLaren, An 85 page, 7″ x 4.5″ pamphlet, published by Fayette R. Plumb Inc., Philadelphia, PA.  Australian competitive chopper Peter McLaren was recruited by Fayette Plumb ax company in the 1920’s to promote their products.  This wonderful little pamphlet was published by Plumb ax to do just that.  In his day, McLaren was a popular attraction for exhibiting his chopping prowess.  In this manual, he shares in knowledge and secrets of chopping success.  Very informative but very rare.  My copy is in like-new condiiton.  Lucky for you, a free online version is available here: http://scoutmaster.typepad.com/AxeManual/mclarenmanual.pdf (the PDF opens on its side so you’ll have to right click on the first page and select “rotate clockwise” to read it like a book).

The Ax Book: The Lore and Science of the Woodcutter(2005), Dudley Cook.  Originally published in 1981 as “Keeping Warm with an Ax”, Alan C. Hood, & Company, Inc., Chambersburg, PA.  Little is known about Dudley Cook other than he was a lifelong woodcutter.  The Ax Book is a very detailed, profusely illustrated, nearly encyclopedic book on axemanship.

Bushcraft: Outdoor Skills & Wilderness Survival (1998), Mors Kochanski, Lone Pine Publishing, Auburn, WA and Edmonton, AB, Canada and the DVD – Blades: Sharpening and Safe Use, Producer: Mors Kochanski & Karamat Wilderness Ways,Box 483, Wildwood, Alberta, Canada, T0E 2M0

Mors Kochanski: Bushcraft book and DVD – Blades: Sharpening and Safe Use

Kochanski is a respected wilderness survival educator and Physical Education faculty member at the University of Alberta, Canada.  Rather than offer a broad view of the survival subject, Kochanski’s excellent book deals with the six major survival “crafts” ~ firecraft; axecraft; knifecraft; sawcraft; bindcraft (cordage); and sheltercraft, in astonishing detail.  The author doesn’t spend time on subjects other these topics, which admittedly, are crucial skills to learn in order to be a competent outdoors person.  Bush Craft is an essential survival book because it covers subjects that are generally only briefly discussed, and are rarely explained well enough to entirely master.  His video Blades: Sharpening and Safe Usewas personally produced in association with Karamat Wilderness Ways survival school.  Though not a particularly polished effort, the video provides superb edged tool information.

The Woodsman And His Hatchet, (1996), Bud Cheff Sr., Stoneydale Press Publishing Co., Stevensville, MT.  Eighty-one year old Bud Cheff Sr., a hunting guide in Montana, wrote this common sense guide to wilderness survival.  Short and to-the-point, The Woodsman And His Hatchet is a refreshing take on this subject.  Cheff discusses first the importance of the ax (hatchet) and knife to survival in addition to subjects such as fire making, shelter building, navigation, outdoor dangers, survival food procurement, shooting game and packing meat.

Woodsmanship (1954), Bernard S. Mason, The Barnes Sports Library, A.S. Barnes and Co., New York, NY.  Though not as detailed regarding axes as The Ax Book, Woodsmanship is an excellent book that covers all of the tools and techniques of the woodcutter.  It describes tools and skills that have virtually disappeared from public consciousness over the past fifty years.  In a single page more or less, Mason describes the art of bucking, splitting, hewing, moving logs, and felling trees with the axe and saw.  He describes in detail, the tools of the woodsman ~ the peavey, the cant-hook, the pulphook, pike poles, beetles, wedges, gluts, adzes, and come-alongs.  Sadly, copies of Woodsmanship in any condition are now exceedingly rare (I got my very fine copy from New Zealand) but happily, a free online copy can be downloaded at this URL:  http://www.bushcraftuk.com/downloads/pdf/woodsmanship.pdf.

These books and the DVD are great resources for learning about the ax.  I know you’ll find them as interesting and valuable as I have.

Good reading!