A GUIDE TO AXES
If you've been by our shop, one thing you'll notice around our counter is a collection of hand-crafted and restored knives, hatchets, and axes. It goes with the name - Woodsman. These tools have helped pioneers and frontiersmen, hunters and trappers, loggers and farmers, and much for for centuries. There's something special about having an ax that holds history. Whether the axe head has been passed down, or after a good sharpening realizing the difference it can make for splitting wood - there's something about the tool that makes us mesmerized.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” -Abraham Lincoln
Today we want to share some of our research into how to pick and axe, sharpen and care for it, use it, and then go over some firewood basics. If you're like us, you either have or grew up with a wood burning stove. Gaylon has both a wood burning fireplace and stove in his house - so the research comes from years of perfecting that art for his own family.
First thing to note about axes is that axes have been pretty much uniform in make for centuries. Different materials from stone to cooper, iron and now to steel have changed - but what really differentiates an axe is the shape of its axe-head. Each geographic region has different uses for the axe, so therefore the shape of it evolves to fit the needs of the area. You can see the Rafting Axe Head was made in areas where lumber was sent down rivers towards lumberyards. Additionally, the trees of the area also affect the shape and make of the axe head.
During the early periods of American history, axes were imported from Europe. But as the United States expanded west, blacksmiths went with them. The peak of axes being handcrafted in the United States was the early 19th century, but it only took a few decades before saws overran the lumber industry. Now, chainsaws and machinery have taken its place. But, axes are still used by the Forest Service in areas were machinery is legally not allowed. Additionally, there's a growing movement of woodsmen who prefer the sounds of axes splitting wood to chainsaws.
The position of the axe head on the handle is referred to as the hang. There's no correct way to adjust the hang, it's all personal preference. But the main two trains of thought is either when you're resting an axe on the table to either have the head hit the table at the 1/3 from bottom of the edge, or right at the halfway point. This affects the swing and cut of the axe. With modern manufacturing, it's rare to adjust the hang. But professional and competitive lumberjacks and woodsman tweak their hang to give them the perfect balance and swing.
Next is selecting a handle. Hickory is universally the material of choice for axes, however selecting the right one is just as important. The highest grade axe handles do not have more than 17 rings in the wood per inch - meaning you want to avoid a fast growing tree to use for your handle. Additionally, the orientation of the wood grain is important in the make of the axe handle. Be wary of stained wood as that can be from a manufacturer hiding imperfections in the handle. Pure hickory wood without stain or seal is the best bet to avoid a hardened handle.
To sharpen an axe head, first you'll need a file, clamps, work bench, and coarse stone.
First, clamp the axe to the work bench with the axe head over the edge of the station. You can use a piece of wood under the axe head to stabilize it.
Next, use your file about 1/2" from the edge at a 20-25 degree angle and work your way down the edge. Then, give yourself another 1/4" and do more strokes along the head, this time at a 15 degree angle. Your goal is to create a convex curve to the edge, so going in between these two will help with your cuts.
Repeat on the other side, then lubricate the stone with some water and begin running along the edge in a circular motion to remove any burs. After doing so on both sides, you can use leather to clean up the edge. This should be done between uses and axe head should be sharp enough to cut the hair off your arms.
Be sure to come by the shop and share with us some pictures of your axe! Axes are such an amazing tool but unfortunately are not nearly as thought of as before. Understanding their makeup and care will not only give you a better tool, but hopefully a legacy to pass along to generations after you.
Huge thanks to Back Country Horsemen of Montana and Hults Bruk for the references and helping us as we did our research on this post!