Otherwise about Axes

Continuing the conversation from our previous article, there are some further notes on axes and hatchets that merit sharing. While entire books on working with and maintaining axes can be (and have been) written, that’s not something (at present) I seek to do. That said, there are a few seemingly random points I feel are important to bring up. Mostly these are all things I repeatedly see done, taught, written or illustrated wrong or with insufficient detail.

Specialization:

To begin with, as an immediate reference to the previous articles detail on sharpening, there is some allowance for specialization on geometry and sharpening if you’re running a double bit axe or hatchet in the Nessmuk tradition. In this case you can make one bevel slightly thicker for dealing with hard knots and rougher use (cutting on the ground), and keep the other thinner and keener for high performance cutting. I have never personally used a hatchet like this but I use a double bit axe for wood gathering all the time and make a practice of maintaining its edges this way.

I am of very mixed feelings about Nessmuk type and other double-bit hatchets/small axes. Double bits are a tool for the experienced woodsman, and they will punish you without remorse if you are careless with one. Putting yourself that much closer to the back edge of one with either a cruiser-axe or a hatchet size double bit is not something even I am particularly comfortable with. If you use an axe like this, I can see no reason not to sharpen each edge for different materials, but thats not necessarily an endorsement of the style either. I really recommend single bits for the inexperienced/occasional user, and think they are a must for a starter axe/hatchet. For a strictly survival practice, vs. being a woodscrafter, I’d stick to single bits.

Movement:

It is never wise to move any distance with an uncovered axe in the hand. From time to time, however, it is necessary to step from one place to another with the axe in hand when wood-gathering. There is one safe way to carry an axe in the hand, and that is hold the axe by the handle, directly below the head (hand on the shoulder) with the bit facing down (assuming a single bit). This way if you stumble, you know exactly where the head edge of the axe is and have some ability to control where it goes, as it will go where your hand does – Thus to not fall on it all you have to accomplish is to not fall on your hand. If you are carrying the axe by the mid-handle, or end of the handle, and stumble you have far less idea of where that head is, and little to no chance of keeping it out of the way of your intersection with the terra.

The Only Way to Grip an Axe for Hand Carry

Other movement with the axe should always employ a blade cover, and when hand carried it should be done in the same manner. There is no legitimate reason to casually let an axe hang, swing loose at arms end, or to rest it across ones shoulders.

Materials:

As mentioned in the previous piece, a great many of the axes and hatchets commonly available in hardware stores today are abominations for a variety of reasons. Already addressed is the poor geometry and edge characteristics of these wretched beasts, but another primary horror of these tools is the steel used.

A good axe or hatchet is made from forged steel or machined from a solid billet. A good axe is never cast. Many hardware store, ‘homeowner grade”, axes and hatchets are however just that: Cast. Cast steel does not have the strength of grain structure of forged steel, and it deals with shock and stress considerably worse, to include cracking and chipping with considerable ease. I have also never found a piece of cast steel, particularly in an axe, that would hold an edge like forged steel, although this could be attributed to the fact that the cast tools are generally made from a lower quality of steel to begin with. Either way, avoid cast tools at all costs – Forged all the way (or, as I said, machined from solid billets, which is rare in all but some tactical hatchets).

Handles:

Another great sin of many of todays hardware store axes and hatchets is the prevalence of fiberglass handles. Not only are these atrocities offered on many a new axe today, but they are commonly the only new handle you can find in many stores. Out of sheer desperation, and being unable to find any wooden handles anywhere one week, I put a fiberglass handle on one of my large single bit axes. It is awful.

The handle (as is common) is a fiberglass core with a plastic shell, and is set into the eye of the axe with epoxy rather than wedged in place. As such it is without a doubt tough and will probably last forever, which is truly unfortunate as I have no hope of wearing it out and replacing it with a wooden handle.

One common trait of fiberglass handles is that the grip area at the end is textured. This texturing, for “grip”, is just enough to speed up the blister-making process (even through gloves) about ten times that of normal. It also interferes with getting a proper swing, as a proper axe swing involves the off hand starting at the top of the handle and sliding down to meet the strong-hand through the swing.

Another problem with the fiberglass handles is they transfer a great deal of energy, more than any wooden handle I ever worked with. If you over-swing striking the material to be cut with the handle instead of the axe, you’ll get a certain shock with any handle. With a fiber fiberglass handle this is a bone-rattling, finger jolting, bastard. The general energy transfer up the shaft from cutting with an fiberglass handled axe is far more fatiguing over the long term, than with a wooden handled axe. There may be some justification for putting composite, fiberglass or synthetic handles on hatchets and tomahawks for the tactical environment, in which they serve utility roles such as breaching and extrication, but for a wilderness tool, I prefer wood handles all the way.

On the topic of handles, and mentioning texturing, Several sources advocate roughening up the gripping area of axe/hatchet handles, but I think this is a mistake. A properly shaped handle should retain the hand perfectly well, and any texturing only provides points to focus energy and wear, causing additional blisters (even when wearing gloves).

Another mistake in handle selection or shaping for the working tool is distinct angles/corners on the handle. I’ve seen this in some custom hatchets particularly, which have octagonal or hexagonal handles with hard angled transitions from plane to plane. This is a mistake just as much as texturing, in that any focused area (high points, hard corners) is going to wear blisters. A well shaped handle that is smooth, without being slick, will hold the hand without any need for additional traction.

Eventually you will need to rehandle your axes/hatchets. Do not burn the handle out of the head! As noted before, in regards to sharpening with power tools, heat ruins tempered tools. If you burn the handle out of an axe head, as is recommended in many books and by many individuals, you are also burning the temper out of the axe.

The proper way to remove a handle is to cut it off close to the head (if it has not broken off), secure the head to a work bench so it cannot move, and to then drill out what of the handle remains inside the eye. Focusing your drilling on freeing up the wedge, and removing material from the center of the haft, you will soon reach a point where you can use a drift to knock out what remains with ease. Always use care not to let the drill bit chew up the insides of the axes eye, not only is this ugly, but it can permanently alter the way a handle fits the eye for the worse, as well as weaken the eye of your tool.

A well made axe or hatchet can be a multi-generation tool with the proper care, use and respect. I have axes and hatchets that belonged to my father and grandfathers, which were used far harder (and far more regularly) than any modern axe I own, and all of them remain fine tools.



2 responses to “Otherwise about Axes”

  1. Jake says:

    Great Article. I own 3 hand axes and don’t know much about them, not a common tool in the military or Texas for that matter. Thanks for the insight.

    -Jake

    • BFE Labs says:

      Thanks – Glad to share what I know about this; I really enjoy tools and axes are among my favorites, I expect to have more to share about them in the future – If there’s anything specific you’d like to see addressed, just ask.
      I do think the axe may not be the perfect tool for everyone; There are going to be environments where saws or machetes are what works best. But there is a lot of evidence in support of axes, particularly of the size I’m mostly talking about here, for woodscraft/survival in many environs, and my experience leads me back to them repeatedly. I will say tho’, seeing a the success others are having with machetes, groups like Randalls Adventure Training/ESEE, I’m beginning to give them a lot more thought and working with my good machete a bit more (and will probably wade into those waters here at some point as well).

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