*Quality Axes on a Budget*
By: Trommler
26 November 2013

A few years ago a huge wind storm took down our huge oak tree. I have a pile of logs that need splitting. I went the cheap route and swung a Home Depot Axe about 3 times until I noticed the bit was missing a good chunk. Nice! New axe + oak log = new broken axe.

So, I made do with a heavy splitting maul. Worked well, but takes a lot to swing it more than a few times without some serious recovery time. I started looking into quality woodsman tools and found that unless I wanted to spend, literally, hundreds of dollars for a single axe, there wasn't much of an option. I did some research on older (antique) axes. Looked on good ol' eBay and I found a plethora of old axe heads at VERY affordable prices. As much as I would love a brand new Granfors Bruks small forest axe (model 420) to carry as my handy cutter (hatchet), I can't swing $120 for a hatchet at the moment. I do accept gifts, however. :-)

Anyway, I found several quality axe heads in decent condition for about $30 on eBay, plus about $15 for a good Tennessee Hickory Handle. The result is, for about $50 (give or take) I now have a fantastic, full size, splitting axe that doesn't even flinch at the oak logs. I'll separate this article into a couple different sections to make it easier to get something useful out of it.

First, what axe head are you looking for? For splitting, I prefer a head weighted around 5lbs; for felling, about 3-4 lbs and for a hand axe, about 2 pounds. Axes are really a lot like baseball bats in that they should be sized to the user. I'm 6'2" and a very svelte 275 lbs. HA! I like 36" handles and heavy axe heads. Someone else may need a shorter handle and a pound or so lighter. As long as the bit (axe head) is used for its purpose, it'll work just fine no matter the size or proportion.

Felling axe heads don't work well as splitters. They tend to have a narrow bit to cut deeply into standing timber. They won't jam using it this way because you are cutting across the grain of the tree. When you attempt to split with them, they tend to enter the end of the log easily and go a good way in, but (because of their narrow bit and shallow cutting edge angle), they don't push the 2 sides away from the axe head and so they end up LOCKED in the end of the log you're trying to split. Then you get to fight for ownership of the axe! The log has it, and you want it back. Break out the wedges and sledge hammer!

Splitting axes are a little heavier than felling axes and tend to have a thicker bit with a steeper angle to the cutting edge. This allows it to enter the end of the log and immediately start pushing outwards, resulting in a successful split. Some splitting heads have been 'improved' or 'over-engineered' over the years. Things such as wedge cams sitting in the middle of the axe head - so that when the bit goes in deep enough they start to rotate outward, thus increasing the spread of the cut. They may work but it's also more stuff to break over time. I'm a purest in some respects and don't think an axe head needs these types of 'improvements'. It's an axe head, a simple tool. It works well as it is as long as it's taken care of.

So, if one can find an old axe head that looks pretty rusty and dark but has a stamp such as Kelly Works, True Temper, Sager Chemical, Council Tools, or FSS (Federal Supply Service) these are all very good quality tools. The first one I picked up was a Kelly Works Flint Edge axe head. I think I paid $30 for it on eBay. I got it in a few days, took it to work, and used our sand blast cabinet to clean it up. Then I ran a Scotch Bright pad over it attached to my drill. It shined up nicely, even with some small pits still evident. These, in my opinion, add to its character and part of its history. To hold one of these axe heads in your hand is an awesome thing, at least for me. I LOVE history and tools. What better way to actually experience history than to revive an old axe head someone has discarded or sold off as junk and make it work again, thereby giving new life to its original purpose. Most of the axe heads from the companies I listed above are from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Just think about what that particular axe has cut, where, for whom, and for what purpose. Back then, a decent axe was a prize possession in the logging industry because it meant your living. It was by that axe that you fed your family. That's cool stuff to me.

Okay, so, axe head is purchased, cleaned up, and ready to be handled. It's worth it to get a good quality Hickory handle. Grade 1 for axes! They should be free of knots and have the grain running in the same direction as the axe head sits, or as close to it as possible. This process is an article in itself, which I'll write later.

For now, I just want to let you know how to get good quality, American made, woodsman tools that you can be proud of and will give years of service. In my opinion, a good splitting axe, a felling axe, and a Pickaroon are 3 essential tools for those who split firewood in any considerable amount. The small hand axe is great to have for homesteading and carrying in the woods while you're hunting, for a camping trip, or cutting kindling, but isn't necessarily an initial 'must have'.

These are my thoughts and what I'm doing to revive some quality American tools to help me get some firewood for the winter. This method can be applied to shovels as well. Nothing compares to American quality when it was quality.


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