Saw shop tech: choosing the right vintage axe for the job.

Vern Burke, SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

I carry a wide selection of restored vintage axes in my inventory at the shop and I get asked frequently how to match the axe to the customer’s job. In this post, I’ll provide a primer on matching the axe to the job.

1. Type of head.

Axes generally fall into 2 categories, poll or single bit axes, and double bit axes. This does ignore special purpose axes such as roofer’s hatchets but these special purpose ones are generally so optimized for a particular use that matching them to that specific job.

Simply put, poll axes are all around splitting and chopping axes with the capability to do some LIGHT pounding with the poll. Double bit axes, on the other hand, are intended for felling of trees. Not to say that one can’t be used for the other, but this is a general rule that it’s hard to go wrong with.

2. Axe head patterns.

There are literally dozens and dozens of vintage axe head patterns, many tied to the specific area of the country where they first originated. Up here, the Maine pattern poll and double bit axes are the most common and most popular with the old timers. On this pattern, the bits come straight out from the head, no curves.

I also have a Rockaway pattern poll axe in my inventory, as well as a Michigan pattern double bit. The Rockaway pattern has a bit that curves down deeply on the handle side. On the Michigan pattern, the bits curve both up and down slightly.

Axe patterns are usually a matter of personal preference for balance but avoid patterns with small heads and large bits, such as the Hudson Bay axe. If the head doesn’t have enough weight to make the amount of bit work, performance will be poor.

3. Bit shape.

Poll axes with thin, graceful bits (such as the Kelly Rockaway axe in my inventory) are great choppers but they make lousy splitters, since the thin bits tend to stick on the wood rather than splitting it. Poll axes with wedge profile heads and bits (such as the Maine made Snow and Neally I have on the shelf) make so so choppers but absolutely spectacular splitting axes.

4. Weight.

This is a simple one. Pick an axe heavy enough to do the job but not heavy enough to cause control problems or fatigue. If a 2 1/2 lb “boy’s axe” poll axe will do, there’s little point in getting a 4 lb full sized poll axe.

So, in summary, choose the right axe type for felling or general purpose use, pick a head profile for chopping or splitting, pick an axe with enough weight to do the job but can be swung comfortably and under control, and a pattern that’s well balanced and enough mass to the head for the size of the bit.


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