Posts Tagged ‘Edged Tools’

The Helle Temagami ~ a Great Bushcraft Blade!

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

 

Bring up the subject of Bushcraft knives and you’ll find general agreement over the characteristics of the type.  But ask which brand or models are best and then the arguments begin.  Knowing full well that I’m dipping a toe into the waters of cutlery conflict, I’ll take the risk and proceed thereto.

While good bushcraft knives can be had with both convex and Scandinavian grinds, most folks agree that Scandinavian ground knives excel at shaping wood.  You don’t have to worry about maintaining your angle, just lay the wide, flat bevel against the wood and go to work.  You’ll quickly be making long, curly shavings without gouging the wood.  Scandinavian knives have a lot of great characteristics, one being that they are exceedingly light for fixed-blade knives.  This is primarily because they are made using traditional “stick-tang” construction, in which the blade, upon entering the handle, is reduced in size from the width of the blade to a narrow “stick” no more than 1/2 inch wide and tapering down to even less than that at the end of the tang.  Some stick-tangs are full-length and some are partial tangs that may only extend half to three quarters the length of the handle.  Now, stick-tangs are not something to be avoided.  They’ve worked for over 1100 years and have proven to be strong enough for the tasks encountered when using a knife, thank you.  However, some folks desire the greater strength of full-tang design, in which the blade width does not narrow at the handle. This method of construction is the strongest of all methods of handle attachment.

A bushcraft knife fitted with a full-tang, Scandinavian ground blade would provide the ideal combination of excellent wood shaping performance with great durability.  Today, Bark River Knives makes the Bushcrafter and the Liten Bror, two American style bushcraft knives with a combination convex/Scandinavian grind.  While these are expensive, wonderful knives, the model that set the bar for the type was the Ray Mears Woodlore knife.  The Woodlore spawned several mimics (most of which are hand-made) and quickly became the standard for what is now known as the “British bushcraft” style.  However, as nice as the Woodlore is, at a retail cost of around $730.00 USD, it is out of reach for most people.  I’ve been on a quest to find an affordable knife with the construction quality, features, and general appearance of the Woodlore for some time when I discovered the Helle Temagami (tim-AG-im-ee), a knife designed with input from another survival series celebrity, Les Stroud.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the current crop of survival reality shows turn me off.  I could only manage to sit through half of a single episode of one of these shows before turn off the TV.  So, while I’ve heard of Les Stroud, I’ve never actually seen one of his TV shows.  I’m also put off by celebrity endorsements.  If some television personality attaches their name to any item, it immediately goes on my “do-not-buy” list.  That said, it might surprise you that I would even buy this knife much less recommend it.   But I did and I am.  It is refreshing to see that Stroud teamed up with Helle to offer a real bushcraft knife.  At an average cost of around $100.00, Helle knives are sold to an entirely different demographic than the Asian-made, mass-produced shelf fodder you’ll find in “big box” stores.  Helle knives are hand-made (albeit by a small production crew using machinery).  Although beautiful to the eye, they are working knives, intended to be used.

The Temagami immediately looked as if it would be a knife that met my criteria – 1) full-tang, 2) Scandinavian ground blade, 3) blade length around 4 inches, and 4) fitted with a wood handle.  The knife was originally offered only in Helle’s exceptional triple-laminated carbon steel, a manufacturing technique that the company has perfected and used for many years in making both carbon and stainless steel blades.  Laminated steels sandwich a thin, hard tempered, high-carbon steel layer between to outer layers of relatively soft steel.  Were the knife to be made only from the steel used in the center, it would be brittle and very difficult to sharpen.  However, that layer is thin, making sharpening easy as very little of the hard steel is removed when honing.  This construction gives Helle blades great durability as the flexible construction is highly resistant to chipping or breakage; yet, they hold an edge as well as the hardest tempered knives and are easy to sharpen to boot.  Note however, that the soft outer steel can be marred by working hard seasoned wood.  It is that soft.

For 2012, Helle added a laminated stainless steel version. Their stainless blades are comprised of a high carbon alloy center layer sandwiched between two outer layers of mild 18/8 stainless steel.  Now, I love carbon steel knives and own several.  The benefits of ordinary carbon steel are that it will produce a spark for firestarting and is easier to sharpen than stainless.  However, these benefits are negated with Helle’s laminated carbon steel.  The outer layer is too soft to create a spark and of course, the material is no different with regard to ease of sharpening.   With no real benefit to choosing carbon, I went with stainless steel to preclude the chance of rust.

Now to the knife –

Like all Helle knives, the Temagami is delivered in an attractive cardboard tube that contains the knife, sheath, a coarse woven cloth that I’d love to know the purpose of,  and the attendant Helle literature.

 

 

Here are the specs:

  • Blade length:            4 inches
  • Blade thickness:      1/8 inch
  • Handle length:         4 5/16 inches
  • Overall length:         9 inches
  • Weight:                     5.5 ounces

 

First look –

The first thing that struck me is the size of the Temagami.  It is noticeably larger than most Scandinavian knives.  The blade is a drop point and lacks the distinctive spear point shape of British bushcraft knives such as the Woodlore.  Nor does it have the handle shape of that type. Except for the blade grind and tang construction* (see below) it shares little else with the Woodlore.  I call the look of this knife “contemporary Scandinavian”, which is common across the entire Helle line.  One notable quality is the absence of Les Stroud’s name anywhere on the knife.  This is so much classier than typical celebrity endorsed products.  In fact, had Stroud’s name been displayed anywhere but on the package, I would not have bought the knife at all (or polished it out if it were an etching).

The Temagami (right) is significantly larger than most Scandinavian knives.
From right: Frost’s Mora #2, Karesuando Raven, Helle Kvernstein and the Temagami

 

Though the Temagami may look similar to other Helle products, the semi-full tang (Helle’s description) that sets it apart from its brethren is easily seen.  In this construction, the tang tapers from nearly full width at the finger guard to half that at the butt.  I’ve seen photos of the knife before the handle has been riveted in place and the tang falls below the rivet holes approximately 1/4 inch until it reaches the last hole where it rapidly tapers upward.  There is no question that the tang of the Temagami makes it stronger than any other model in Helle’s line.

 

The semi-full tang of the Temagami makes this the strongest blade in the Helle line.

 

Another benefit to the semi-full tang is balance.  I do not own another Scandinavian knife of this size but the larger Helle models I’ve handled in the store are a bit blade heavy due to the difference in the amount of metal forward and aft of the finger guard.  The point of balance on the Temagami is about three quarters of an inch behind the finger guard.  This is excellent for a large bladed Scandinavian knife.

The Blade:

My single complaint of the knife is the look of the blade.  You see, most Helle blades are polished to a mirror finish, giving their knives a very refined look.  But who wants to mar that beautiful finish in a knife that will surely be put to rough use?  I would have preferred for Helle to have put a satin finish on the blade.  But who could complain about beauty?  The Helle trademark and model name are the only markings on the blade (etched) and this adds to the Temagami’s subtle beauty.

Helle made a small revision to the blade for 2012.  Three small notches in the spine at mid-blade were eliminated.  These were described as both a firesteel striker and a finger placement for added blade control for skinning and the like.  It was quickly determined that the striker would not work as the laminated steel construction (both carbon and stainless) used by Helle is too soft to make a spark.  Helle also made a slight update to the handle, which they claim allowed for improved control, making the finger notches unnecessary.  Like all Helle knives, and in fact, like all Scandinavian knives, the Temagami was delivered shaving sharp.

The Handle:

I believe Helle handles are some of the most beautiful among Scandinavian makers.  Like nearly all knives in their line, the Temagami handle is turned from Masur (Curly) birch, which I like very much.  The grain on this example was stunning but I’ve seen some examples that were not as nicely grained so if that’s important to you, you should endeavor to pick your knife out in person.  After shaping, the Helle handles are soaked in a tub of raw linseed (flaxseed) oil, then wiped dry and placed in a tumbler filled with beeswax to be polished to a beautiful matte sheen.  Perfect.  On this knife, the tang is inserted into a groove in the handle and fastened with three brass rivets, the last one of which, is hollow, to allow the owner to insert a lanyard.  I have small hands and prefer smaller knives as I’ve found that large knives do not provide a comfortable grip.  To my surprise, the handle on the Temagami fits my hand well and has proven to be very comfortable to use over extended periods.   The handle features a nub of a finger guard that works as it should but does not interfere with using the knife.   I’ve not had a chance to compare this knife to a first generation model so I don’t know exactly how it differs. 

The sheath:

Helle sheaths vary among models from centuries old traditional Scandinavian styles to modern sculpted shapes.  The Temagami’s sheath is very traditional indeed.  Like so many Scandinavian sheaths, it is a pouch, stitched at the back with a center seam.  This is a very old method of construction and was used to protect early Viking knives.  It results in the sheath having a uniform spear point shape that allows the owner to carry the knife on either the right or left side.  The knife sits deep in the sheath, being held very firmly.  Once there, it isn’t coming out until you want it out.  Compared to other traditional Helle sheaths in my collection, this one is made from thicker leather and includes a plastic insert to protect the sheath.  This is the best sheath that has been offered on any of the several Scandinavian knives that I own and far better than the sheath that Helle provided with my Kvernstein.

Considerations:

As it turns out, the Temagami is not a knife in the image of the Woodlore at all.  It blade does not have a spear point like the Woodlore.  The tang is not a full tang like the Woodlore.  It looks nothing like the Woodlore.  Was this purchase in vain then?  Absolutely not!  The Temagami does provide the fundamental benefits of the Woodlore at about 1/4th the cost.  That’s something to think about.  Other Scandinavian knives I own might be better at detail carving.  Several would be more appropriate neck knives.  Nearly all others would be a better choice for beginners requiring the best, sharpest knife for the lowest cost possible.  But none I own are close to being as good a bushcraft knife – on to depend on for working in all conditions without fail.  None.   And none are as beautiful.  Period.  I love this knife.

One caveat should be noted.  The cost.  As much as I love the Temagami, I’m puzzled by the fact that it retails for nearly twice the price of other Helle models made to the same standards and of the same size.  Yes, the semi-full tang makes this knife stronger and the sheath is made from thicker leather and features the additional plastic insert, which does cost more to produce – but twice the cost at retail?  The price must reflect the cut that goes to Les Stroud.  In my opinion, the Temagami is an honest $150.00 knife.  But I can’t really complain too much about the cost for what is certainly the strongest knife in the Helle catalog and one that has become my favorite Scandinavian knife for bushcraft chores.  The added cost, amortized over the life of the tool which will certainly outlast me, is small indeed.  Of course, the knife, like all Helle products, is guaranteed for life against defects in materials or workmanship.  If anything goes wrong, Helle will repair or replace the knife – you can’t do much better than that.  I’ll evaluate this knife in the field and let you know how it holds up over time.

A Knife for Classic Camping ~ the Bark River 2011 Custom Canoe

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

 

Classic Camping, like Steven Watts and David Wescott do it, requires assembling a camping outfit circa 1900-1930.  You’ll be sleeping under canvas, wearing woolens, using point blankets, and cooking over campfires.  When you camp like this, just any knife won’t do.  You’ll want to carry something that would have been seen in the kits of the day.

Until a just a few years ago, you could buy a Marble’s Ideal or Woodcraft and carry a knife largely unchanged in appearance since these classics were introduced in 1898 and 1916, respectively.  Not only that, both models were among the top three most recommended knives of the period (the other being the Marble’s Expert).  Sadly, Marble’s is now just another formerly-respected brand name, applied to a line of Asian-made knives that have nothing in common with the works of art that came out of Gladstone, Michigan.

In late 2011, I discovered that Bark River Knives had introduced this 2011 Custom Canoe.  It is a perfect re-creation of an original Marble’s model.  For those not familiar with the Marble’s Canoe, it looked much like the Ideal but was offered only with a 4 1/2- inch blade whereas the Ideal was produced in 5, 6, 7 and 8 inch blade lengths.   The Canoe was also made from thinner stock and featured a slightly different fuller groove and clip point.  The differences are so slight that Canoes are often mistakenly identified as Ideals.  The Canoe was produced from 1904 till 1923, smack dab in the middle of the Classic Camping age.

From what I understand, the knife was a custom order, commissioned by Jason Thoune, the owner of DLT Trading.  Jason wanted Bark River to re-create a classic Marble’s-style knife and that’s a good thing as Marble’s no longer makes the knives that built their reputation.  A run of 100 Custom Canoes were produced, with a few going to a select Bark River dealers.  The blade was crafted from traditional 1095 steel that was just under 3/16ths thick, which gives these knives the look, weight and feel of the vintage Canoes. Each and every blade was hand ground and the handles were all hand shaped.  Handle choices included leather, Sambar Stag, buffalo horn and sheep horn and in combinations such as leather/Sambar Stag/leather with Sambar Stag pommel, Sambar Stag with Sambar Stag pommel and leather with Sambar Stag pommel.  Bark River also made some synthetic Micarta handled versions as well (a mistake on such a period style knife in my opinion, but I’m sure some liked them).

The original Bark River announcement for the Custom Canoe stated that they were planning to make “all of the sizes over the next year or so from the 4.5 all the way to the full size 8 inch blade version.”  There was also a lot of discussion about this being the beginning of a new line of traditional knives, giving the impression that Bark River was going to re-create the Woodcraft and perhaps the Expert as well.  Sadly, it appears that the plan didn’t unfold.  By the end of 2011, DLT Trading was discounting the knife as sales were sluggish.  According to Thoune, the decision to use traditional (old-fashioned) 1095 steel instead of the very popular CPM 3V powdered metal “super steel” currently being used by Bark River, was the main reason.   If that’s the case, some folks made a real mistake in not buying one of these beautiful traditional knives.

Here are the specs:

  • Overall Length: 8.775 in
  • Blade Length: 4.250 in
  • Blade Steel:1095
  • Blade Thickness: .175 in
  • Weight: 6 oz.
  • Hardness: @58RC

For those who might discount the Custom Canoe because of its old-fashioned look, don’t be fooled, this knife will perform as well as any knife out there (no, the 1095 won’t hold an edge like some of the modern “super steels” but a quick strop on a piece of cardboard or your jeans will keep it razor sharp).  Like the majority of Bark River’s products and all of the good Marble’s knives, these blades are convex ground.  The convex grind puts more steel behind the edge and makes this more durable than any other knife grind.  This is a knife you can depend on in the toughest situations.

The Custom Canoe is also a better knife than a vintage Marble’s.  It’s tempered harder and the overall quality, fit, and finish is better than production Marble’s knives.  The handle is also sized to better accommodate today’s hands (vintage knives had very short grips as hands were smaller a century ago).  I also prefer the thinned blade over that of the Ideal.  Note: being thinner than an Ideal’s blade does NOT mean this is a particularly thin blade, the spine is still very stout.  Of course, you may find a particular type of knife to be more appropriate for a specific use (I wouldn’t use this as a fillet knife), but for an all-around outdoor/camp knife, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.  This knife will do the job and then some.

The only thing I was not jumping-for-joy pleased about was the modernized sheath.  Now, vintage sheaths leave A LOT to be desired.  None I’ve encountered secured the knife very well and most Marble’s sheaths were rather thin and flimsy.  So while I would not offer a replica of the original sheath, I wish Bark River would have chosen a style with a more vintage look.  Still, this is a middling complaint and in no way changes my opinion of this being the perfect “Classic Camp” knife.  Does all of that rustic perfection come cheap?  Nope.  Depending on the handle material, the Custom Canoe costs between $235.00 and $250.00.

Luckily, some of these knives are still available if you search on the  Internet.  My feeling is once they are gone; this style of knife will likely not be seen again.  If you are a Classic Camper – get one while you can!

The Wilderness Knife

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

KNIFE SELECTION FOR THE OUTDOORS

I recently taught a wilderness survival clinic at Backwoods, our local outdoor shop, and spent quite some time discussing edged tools.  While teaching the clinic I became aware that most of the folks in attendance knew little of how to choose an outdoor knife, despite most having some experience as campers and backpackers.

I believe that this is an important thing to know!  A knife is the lightest and most compact of the edged tools and is most likely to be carried today.  Although modern campers and backpackers rarely use them, knives continue to be carried because it’s expected.  You will never become knowledgeable about or proficient with knives if you don’t actually use them.  Sadly, I recently had a Scout leader tell me that in seven years of camping he could not remember ever using his knife.  If our outdoor leaders don’t know how to select, use and maintain an outdoor knife, there is no hope for this skill set to be handed down to our children.

However, there are two groups of outdoor enthusiasts who use knives ~ hunters and survivalists.  As hunters use a knife for skinning, they generally look for a particular shape but beyond that it’s all a matter of personal preference. For survivalists however, there is a wide range of opinion over what makes the best knife – in shape, size, blade grind, blade thickness, and overall style. While it is agreed that in a survival situation a knife is indispensable, the type of knife most useful is hotly debated and the choices are now overwhelming. Some survival books recommend nothing more than a small pocket knife while others recommend near-machetes and sadly, most are not functional outdoor knives. The best knife for camp use is an all-purpose type, rather than a hunting or paramilitary “survival” knife. Modern hunting and survival knives feature blades that are too thick and unwieldy for most camp chores. You want something unobtrusive, light and so useful it will never be left at home. The vast majority of campers choose pocketknives for just that reason, but fixed-blade knives are much stronger and more reliable, making them a better choice for survival use. Fixed-blade knives are usually less expensive than a pocketknife of equal size and quality and are safer to use because they cannot fold unexpectedly.

An unobtrusive, utilitarian fixed-blade knife that provides both camp utility and survival dependability is what I call a “wilderness” knife. If you want something similar, look for these general characteristics:

a. A blade thickness of between 3/32” to 1/8” more or less, where the blade enters the handle.

b. A blade length of 3½” to 4.5” or about the width of your open palm. This range offers a good length for general camp use or for any survival tasks that may be encountered. In a survival situation, such a blade is short enough to handle fine detail work such as trap or snare building, yet is long enough to be used to cut down small saplings for shelter building.

c. A traditional blade silhouette. Exotic shapes should be avoided. The blade should be straight and flat for most of its length, so that the knife can be struck with a “baton” (a heavy stick used as a hammer) in order to drive the blade through thick wood.

d. A non- serrated edge. Serrations are typically located on the part of the blade most often used for fine craftwork. Serrations also cannot be resharpened without specialized sharpening devices.

e. A minimum finger guard at most. Although finger guards make a knife safer in the hands of a novice, they interfere with the fine craftwork often required in survival (making snares and triggers, for example). A very small, lower guard is acceptable, but an upper guard will seriously interfere with one’s forefinger and thumb placement on top of the blade for delicate control.

f. A handle that is sized proportionally to the hand, so that it may be securely and comfortably gripped.

Look for High Quality Steel ~

A knife is only as good as the steel that it’s crafted from. The harder the steel, the longer the edge will stay sharp, but the more brittle the blade becomes. The standard measure of steel hardness is the Rockwell Scale. Good blade steels should test in the Rockwell range of between 56-60. Below this, the knife will not hold an edge. Above it, the knife will be difficult to sharpen and may become too brittle to be durable. Because edge holding ability and ease of sharpening are competing properties, a steel that possesses a balance of these two characteristics is considered excellent.

Carbon or Stainless? ~

Both are good. Stainless (non-rusting) steels are now the most popular and widely available but those alloys with a high-carbon content are hard enough to hold an edge. Good stainless alloys include 440C, AUS-8, 154CM, ATS34, VG-10, S30V, and Sandvik 12c27. Note that the tradeoff for rust resistance is difficulty in sharpening due to their hardness. Carbon steel continues to be popular because it can be quickly sharpened in the field, has good edge holding ability and can be struck with a flint to create a fire igniting spark ~ something that cannot be done with stainless. Although carbon steel can rust if not cared for, you can easily avoid rust if you learn how. An occasional oil and wax treatment will protect the blade (note that carbon steels will darken and discolor with use).

Select the Right Blade Grind ~

Blade grind is the single most important characteristic that determines whether a knife can be considered a wilderness blade or not. The grind is the shape of the knife blade seen in profile. Any good knife will work as a general camp knife for tasks such as cutting cord, food prep or spreading peanut butter. However, in order to be considered a survival tool, a knife must be capable of shaving wood (for making fuzz sticks or carving snare triggers and the like). And this ability is dependent upon the grind. Some blade grinds will gouge wood unless care is taken to maintain the proper angle throughout the cut while others effortlessly lift the wood being removed up and away from the surface, creating curly shavings.

Characteristics of the Various Blade Grinds ~

Hollow: Was originally used for making straight razors but now is the most common grind used on sporting knives. Pros: Produces an exceedingly sharp edge, ideal for dressing game. The concave profile of the blade produces very light blades because of the metal removed from the sides of the blade. Cons: Even the best are not good for food prep because this grind doesn’t penetrate the food very far before becoming too thick to slice well. The concave profile results in a blade that’s not as strong as other grinds. Can gouge wood if the user does not take care to maintain the correct angle.

Flat: The type of grind used on kitchen knives. Pros: Is superb for food prep, slices very well. Makes for very good mass-produced knives. Is easy to sharpen. Is strong because the blade retains most of its thickness all the way to the edge. Cons: Can gouge wood if the user does not take care to maintain the correct angle.

Scandinavian: The Scandinavian Grind is easy to identify because of wide (¼” – ½”) single bevel. Turn the blade on its side and you’ll see that it looks like a wood plane and in fact, it works just like a wood plane. Because of this, the grind outperforms all others for wood work. One reason is because the width of the bevel can be used to control the depth of a cut. For example, when carving a feather stick to ignite a fire, you simply hold the bevel flat against the wood and push in (holding other knives consistently at the proper bevel to make super thin shavings is virtually impossible). Unlike most knives, the Scandinavian grind usually lacks a secondary bevel (“V” grind edge bevel). An exception is Finnish knives. A Scandinavian grind with no secondary bevel is sharper than one without but has a less durable edge. A secondary bevel not only strengthens the edge but produces an edge that requires sharpening less often. Still, some folks prefer a Scandinavian grind with no secondary bevel because it’s sharper. Pros: Produces a very keen edge. Can be found on astonishingly inexpensive knives. The Scandinavian grind excels at shaving wood without gouging. Moderately good for food prep. Cons: Sharpening is easy but takes longer than any other type. You cannot sharpen such a knife without scratching the surface of the blade and it takes time to remove these scratches.

Convex: The way most knives were made until mass-production was introduced in the early 20th Century. Requires skilled craftsmen to produce. The entire edge of a knife may be convexed (known as a full convex grind or an “apple seed” grind) or the edge of a flat, hollow, or Scandinavian ground blade may be convexed. Pros: Good for food prep. Very easy to sharpen. Maintains its edge longer than any other grind. Over the life of the knife, as the blade is repeatedly sharpened, metal is removed from the sides of the blade as well as the edge. This maintains the same relationship of the edge to the thickness of the blade, and ensures that the edge will cut as well after decades of use, as it did when new. Actually, a convex ground blade may NEVER need resharpening if it’s touched up regularly by stropping on a piece of leather, cardboard or the leg of your jeans. A full convexed blade is the strongest of all grinds because of its thickness. This grind makes a relatively thick blade slice and cut as well as a thin blade – provided the edge geometry is good. Cons: Relatively hard to find unless you buy from specialty firms. A fully convexed blade is heavier than the other grinds. The handcrafted nature of this grind means that only relatively expensive knives feature it. Good for shaving wood without gouging. The convex grind splits wood apart like an axe rather than lift wood like a wood plane. The grind doesn’t quite match the performance of a Scandinavian grind but the difference between the two is slight.

“V” grind: In addition to a primary grind (flat or hollow for example); knives often feature a “V” grind edge bevel or a secondary bevel at the very edge. This “V” grind is what does the cutting, and what must be recreated when sharpening. When someone says that a knife should be sharpened with a 20° bevel, they’re referring to the “V” grind. As the “V” grind is repeatedly sharpened, and more metal is removed from the edge of the blade, the edge becomes wider and more stunted, meaning that the blade does not cut as well after sharpening as it did when new. This will happen with both flat and hollow grind knives given enough time.

If all this is overwhelming, just remember that the Scandinavian grind and the convex grind are the best types for outdoor/survival use.

Scandinavian Knives ~

A furore normannorum libera nos domine, Skona oss herre från nordmännens raseri” (“Oh Lord, save us from the fury of the Northmen”) ~ French prayer of the 9th century

Scandinavian knives are descended from the blades of Vikings, and though they were first developed over 1000 years ago, most modern examples differ little from their ancestors. Scandinavia, that region consisting of the countries Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden and the Provincial and cultural areas of Swedish and Finnish Lapland, make knives that are distinct and unique from edged tools found anywhere else in the world. All Scandinavian knives share notable characteristics such as the unusual grind, relatively short blades, minimal finger guards (if any at all), high quality steels and a razor edge. Sweden is known for producing well made but inexpensive knives “Mora” knives. The town of Mora has been home to knifemaking for centuries. K. J. Eriksson and Erik Frost, the last two Mora knifemakers, were combined a couple of years ago and now make knives under the “Mora of Sweden” name.  Since the merger, the firm has since introduced several bushcraft models that are better than either company produced before.   There are a handful of small Swedish companies that also make similar knives but these are a notch more expensive, falling in the $50.00 to $80.00 range. Finnish factories make knives in all ranges up to some that sell for over $300.00. Norway is home to two companies that make superb mid-priced knives ($75.00-$150.00). There are no knife factories in Denmark but a number of custom makers produce beautiful, expensive knives.

Scandinavians use their knives, and recognize that the most important feature of a knife is the blade ~ its quality of steel, its design, its edge-holding ability, and its sharpness out of the box. Everything else ~ overall design; handle materials, fancy embellishments, are all secondary to the blade. This demand for truly fine blades, in both inexpensive and costly knives, means that you’ll find very high blade quality among all Nordic knife brands and makers. Most Scandinavian makers offer a line of unadorned, utilitarian knives with a blade as hard and sharp as their most expensive models, meaning that you can own a superb blade for an astonishingly low price.

 

These markedly similar Nordic knives span 1100 years! Top: Replica Viking knife circa 850 A.D. produced for the Univ. of Oslo, Museum of National Antiquities by Helle (A/S Helle Fabrikker).  Bottom: Modern knife made by Karesuando Kniven AB. This model is the Raven (Fox) Special.

Scandinavian Knife Recommendations ~

Ahti(utility models) and Karesuando Kniven; Kellam (“S” series utility models are inexpensive and very good), J. Marttiini and Mora of Sweden all make very good “working” knives.   Mora of Sweden stands out as offering the widest selection of high-quality, inexpensive utility knives appropriate for wilderness use.  Since the merger that created Mora of Sweden, the firm has introduced several bushcraft models that are better than either Frost’s or Eriksson’s produced before.   The new models can be found in their Adventure line and are part of the Bushcraft series of knives.  The various models include the Bushcraft, Survival, Forestand Forest Camo.  Helle is another maker of beautiful, functional outdoor knives but their craftsmanship and finishing make them more expensive than the utility models.  If you asked me to provide an example of the high performance/low cost knives produced in the region, I would show you the excellent J. Marttiini M-571 utility/work knife.  The M-571 features a razor sharp, forged, 3½ inch carbon steel blade mounted in a red plastic handle.  It is an exceedingly sharp and dependable knife that retails for only $20.00!  Note: a recent web search (November 2012) for the M-571 indicates that it may no longer be availalable.  Still, I am leaving the comments here as an example of this kind of knife.

 

The Marttiini Model M-571. A great survival knife.

Examples of inexpensive Scandinavian knives suitable for wilderness use.

Two reputable online suppliers specializing in Nordic knives are Ragnar’s Ragweed Forge and Kellam Knives. Also note that the Backwoods chain of outdoor shops recently began stocking the Helle line of knives. The brand is NOT listed on the company website but the shops have had them for several months. I can report that the line has already sold through at least once at my local shop and customers have been impressed with the look and quality of the knives. It remains to be seen if modern backpackers will choose a fixed-blade knife as a regular item in their kit. Let’s hope so! Helle is perhaps the best brand to appeal to a customer base unfamiliar with Scandinavian fixed-blade knives. Helle knives feature fine craftsmanship, are the most beautiful knives in the Backwoods knife cabinet, are surprisingly light compared to other fixed-blade knives (as are most Scandinavian knives) and many models feature stainless steel blades, something that appeals to folks fearful of purchasing a knife that may rust in outdoor use (not a worry at all if you know how to care for edged tools).

Convex Ground Knives ~

Knives with convex ground blades also make excellent wilderness knives. They don’t quite match the wood shaving ability of Scandinavian knives but in other respects are superior. Their edge is easier to sharpen, the blade is stronger, and the edge more durable, lasting longer between sharpenings. The downside is that because the convex grind can only be made by hand, they are more expensive and they’re heavier because less metal is removed from the blade. For those interested in owning a traditional American sporting knife, only a convexed knife will do.

The brand historically associated with the convex grind is Marble’s Arms of Gladstone, Michigan. Webster Marble (1854-1930) introduced America’s first outdoor sporting knife when he created the Ideal hunting knife in 1898. Before its development, outdoorsmen usually carried kitchen knives or homemade knives. The Ideal was entirely new and different. The spine of its stout blade was just over 3/16” thick and featured a fuller (a wide, shallow groove running the length of the blade) designed to lower the weight of the knife without losing blade strength. The Ideal’s appearance ~ the blade shape, brass guard, handle of stacked leather rings, terminating in a pommel of stag or aluminum, was widely copied and influenced the look of American outdoor knives for decades after. The handle design continues to be used today by the Randall Knife Company, makers of expensive semi-custom knives. The Ideal was almost directly copied in beefier form, by the Union Cutlery Company to produce the famous Ka-bar U.S.M.C. Fighting/Utility Knife of World War II (a lower grade knife than the Ideal). Responding to complaints that the Ideal was too thick and stout for some tastes, Marble introduced a thin bladed, lightweight version of the Ideal in 1906. He named it the Expert as he personally believed that it was too delicate to be trusted except in the hands of an expert! In 1915, the company unveiled the Woodcraft, another thin bladed knife that became the bestselling model in the firm’s history. The Woodcraft was copied by nearly every competitor, including a number of European makers, wanting to cash in on its popularity. It was also adopted as the official knife of the Boy and Girl Scouts.

Outdoor writers and experts of the day endorsed the Expert and Woodcraft more than any model or brand of cutlery. The Expert was first recommended by E. H. Kreps in 1910 and last, by Calvin Rutstrum in 1968. The Woodcraft was even more popular. Horace Kephart was the first to recommend it in “Camping and Woodcraft” (1917). The knife section of Bernard S. Mason’s “Junior Book of Camping and Woodcraft” (1943) illustrated all three models of Marble’s knives, noting that the Expert was what “wise old campers” recommended and that the Woodcraft was both thin and sturdy, making it an excellent camp knife.

 

Marble’s sporting knives (top to bottom): The Ideal (1898), Expert (1906), and Woodcraft (1915) ~ The most recommended outdoor knives of the first half of the twentieth century.

Sadly, the Marble’s cutlery division was acquired by a new owner a few years ago and was recently forced into bankruptcy due to decisions such as subcontracting much of the manufacturing to other companies and introducing a line of cheap Asian-made knives, choices that tarnished the brand’s reputation. Note that the Marble’s knives produced between 1994 through 2001 are perhaps the best the company has ever produced and knives made up through 2005 are good as well.

Today, the firm producing the most extensive line of convex ground knives is Bark River Knives of Escanaba, Michigan. Bark River is owned and operated by Mike Stewart, the former director of Marble’s cutlery division. Bark River’s popularity stems in part from the fact that Stewart is willing to make specialty models requested by collectors and for producing updated versions of historic knife patterns not found anywhere else. They are also willing to restore old knives and axes made by other companies (when time allows). Bark River makes a number of survival/bushcraft models: the Aurora and Northstar models. Interestingly, Bark River has added the Bushcrafter and Liten Bror models that feature Scandinavian grinds. All of these make excellent wilderness knives.  Bark River will often produce a models for only one or two production runs and then drop it from the line.  One of my favorite wilderness knives, the Kephart, was such a knife.  The Kephart replicated an old knife made by the Colclesser Brothers and designed by famed woodcrafter Horace Kephart.  Two makers continue to offer the Kephart – Gossman Knives and ML Knives.  Although the Kephart never gained the popularity of the Marble’s Woodcraft, it was actually a far better survival and woodcraft knife.

 

Top: Original “Kephart” knife (circa 1908-1920) by the Colclesser Bros. Cutlery Company of Eldorado, Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Designed and recommended by famous outdoor writer Horace Kephart. Bottom: The “Kephart” by Bark River Knives. This version, no longer produced, featured a 4 3/8″ convexed blade of 12C27 Sandvik stainless steel.

Pocket Knives ~

Pocket knives are great for delicate cutting chores. The most popular types today are lightweight folding lockbacks, multi-tools, and Swiss Army knives. However, I prefer traditional slip joint pocket knives, the kind your grandfather carried. The best slip joints are those made for the collector market. These are of domestic construction, are limited to low production runs where much more time is taken in their manufacture, and typically use expensive handle materials. Collector knives start at around $60.00 but can go for well over $100.00. Only four or five American factories now produce collector quality pocket knives (under their own and other companies’ brand names). As with other American-made products, slip joint makers are facing increasing competition from Asian-made products, a situation that claimed Schrade Cutlery (1904-2004), Camillus Cutlery (1902-2007) and Canal Street Cutlery (2006-2015).  The Schrade and Camillus brands are back on the market but are now made in China and have no relation to the original firms.  I prefer American-made knives and don’t like to see the decline of a brand, whether in image or quality, when made offshore.  Yet, as in most things, there are always exceptions.

The Chinese-made Rough Rider brand (an import of the Smoky Mountain Knife Works company), has impressed a fair number of knowledgeable American knife buyers who’ve grudgingly had to admit that their fit and finish and overall quality is in many ways, as good or better that some American-made knives. I’ve heard some reports that some examples have had weak backsprings and were not delivered particularly sharp but I own two Rough Rider knives and both had “nail breaker” backsprings and were delivered exceedingly sharp.

The fit and finish of the Rough Rider line is not equal to the best American-made knives, but the cost tradeoff is something to consider. A Queen two-blade trapper with jigged “Stag” bone handle runs around $55.00, the same pattern by Case averages $45.00 while a Rough Rider sells for about $16.00! American manufacturers can hardly compete with these prices. What to do? If you want the best knife, buy an American-made Queen, Great Eastern Cutlery, or Case, but if you want a user you’d not be worried about losing, consider a Rough Rider.

Slip joint knives are made in many different patterns ~ Scout/camp/utility; trapper; swell-end; canoe; muskrat; moose; whittler; and jack; and any of these will do though I prefer the pattern most associated with the outdoors ~ the Scout/camp knife. The utility pattern knife is now commonly called a “Scout” or “camp” pattern because of its long association with the Boy Scouts of America. The BSA first sold an “officially approved” Scout/camp pattern knife in 1911 and has included one or more versions in their catalog until Camillus, their primary maker, closed their doors. New models are now being listed, maker unknown. W. R. Case & Sons produces a line of officially licensed BSA collector quality slip joints that includes a small Scout knife (Jr. Scout) in addition to other standard patterns.  In 2009, Remington began a five year program of reproducing a historic Boy Scouts of America scout pattern knife every year.  The 2009 knife was a reproduction of the Remington model RS3333, first introduced in 1923.  A new model has been introduced ever since.  Remington has not actually produced knives in decades.  Until their demise, the Remington Bullet Knife line of collector knives were made by Camillus.  These new Boy Scout knives are made in the USA by Bear and Son Cutlery of Jacksonville, Alabama.  In addition to these, there are a number of high quality Scout/camp pattern knives (without BSA markings) produced occasionally by Case, Queen Cutlery (their Schatt and Morgan brand) and Rough Rider. The Rough Rider Camp knife sells for an average price of just $12.00 (I’ve seen them as low as $8.00) but looks as good as knives costing three times as much. The pattern is a copy of an old Case #6645R Scout knife. Like the Case, it features a spear point mainblade, a short, studded Wharncliff secondary blade, a long screwdriver/cap lifter, and an awl. The scales are of nicely jigged bone in either amber (Model RR533) or red (Model RR573). The mainblade, awl, and screwdriver/cap lifter feature decorative matchstrike nail marks. The single-beveled, double-edged awl is remarkably sharp and is the best I’ve seen on any Scout knife. Construction quality is very good, with no significant gaps observed between the liners or spacers. All blades are very tight, with no lateral play. This is not a knife for a youngster as it is far too sharp to be used by a beginner.

Left: Remington Silver Bullet “Camp” knife, #R4243SB, a 1994 reproduction of a model produced in the 1920’s.  Right: Rough Rider “Camp Knife” #RR533.

The only issue I’ve had with Rough Rider Camp knives is that the blades on my two examples were nearly impossible to open. One reason of course is Rough Rider’s use of stout backsprings (a good characteristic in a slip joint). Another, is that the factory does not take the time to entirely clean the polishing grit from the joints and spaces. When this grit dries, it works to “cement” things together. I flushed this grit out with WD-40 oil. To do this, partially open all blades and squirt the oil on the inner and outer surfaces of the joints and the inside bottom of the knife. Work the blades back and forth several times to loosen everything up, spraying the joints again if need be. Because WD-40 doesn’t leave enough of a film to provide long lasting lubrication, oil everything again with a product such as Balistol. Then, wipe the knife down and leave it for several hours on a thickness of paper towels to allow the oil to drain out.

Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, I’ll carry a folder with the blade length to do most things well ~ my Remington Silver Bullet “Camp” knife, model R4243SB, a 1994 reproduction of a model produced by the company in the 1920’s. With a closed length of 4 7/8 inches, it has the distinction of being one of the largest, if not the largest, Scout knife ever made. The “Camp” is fitted with 3 ½ inch and 2 ¼ inch, hollow ground clip point and sheepsfoot blades, a 3 inch awl, and a screwdriver/cap lifter. Blades are of 440 stainless, the bolsters of nickel silver, the bullet shield of sterling silver and the handle scales of jigged bone. Only 4000 of these knives were made. All knives feature a serial number engraved on one of the bolsters. Today, these can only be found on eBay or specialty knife websites. They have become highly collectible and correspondingly expensive, often selling for over $100.00. A regular production version (Bullet Camp knife, #R4243) is the same but features a nickel silver bullet shield and handle scales of jigged Delrin plastic. These are less expensive and are easily found on eBay (but aren’t nearly as nice).

Well, that’s my take on outdoor knives. Good Luck and Great Camping!

 

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

Friday, March 25th, 2011

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!

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!