Vintage tools: picking the right axe.


Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works
Skowhegan, Maine

After my post on vintage tools for survival yesterday, I thought I’d talk a bit about how to choose the proper axe. Working with an axe that’s too light, too heavy, or the wrong type can be dangerous as well as inefficient.

1. Types

Hatchet- The hatchet is the lightest and smallest of the axes with a single bit and has a one hand only handle. Suitable for small limbs, saplings, splitting fine kindling wood.

Hand axe- The hand axe is a bit heavier than the hatchet with a handle that can be used either one or two handed. Suitable for a little larger kindling splitting.

Boy’s axe- The boy’s axe is a single bit axe a bit smaller than the poll axe at 2 1/2 lb head and 28″ handle. The boy’s axe is a good tradeoff between weight and all around chopping and splitting use.

Poll axe- The poll axe is the heaviest of the single bit axes with 3-4 lb heads and 28-36″ handles. The poll axe is suitable for heavy chopping and splitting of stove size firewood.

Double bit axe- The double bit axe ranges from 4-4 1/2lbs head weight and normally sports a 36″ handle. This axe is intended for felling and limbing trees.

2. Picking your axe.

Picking an axe is a combination of picking the right type for the work that needs to be done (see above) and picking the right combination of weight and handle length.

In general, pick an axe big enough to accomplish the job (heavier is better, to a point) but not too big to control. DO NOT pick an axe too heavy or with a handle too long to control safely! A sharp, out of control axe head is highly dangerous and short handles make the problem worse, since missing the target means that axe head is coming right back aimed for leg, ankle, or foot. If you weigh 98 lbs wringing wet, a 4 1/2 lb felling axe is almost certainly a bad choice :).

As always, make sure that any axe has an undamaged and solidly wedged handle before using it. Never use and axe with a loose handle until the handle is reseated and correctly rewedged (don’t just drive wedges in haphazardly).

3. Things to avoid.

Avoid oddball specialty axes. Hudson’s Bay axes have wide bits but little mass behind the bit, limiting their effectiveness. Plumb “Puget Sound” pattern axes have a lot of weight but extremely narrow bits that may make them harder to control safely.

Also, avoid axes with odd blades that require special tools or stones to sharpen. The best bet is to stick with the classic poll axe or double bit axe patterns.

Stay tuned for my next post on rewedging and repairing axe handles!

SwiftWater Edge Tool Works provides mobile sharpening services across Maine and mail in services around the world for handsaws, carbide blades, planer knives, hand planes, chain saws, knives, scissors, hair clippers, router bits, and almost any blade!

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One thought on “Vintage tools: picking the right axe.

  1. Pingback: Saw shop tech: The axe as a survival tool. « Tales from the Saw Sharpening Shop

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